Q&A with Chris Rowson: Team builder, maker, sponge

Photo of Chris RowsonThe Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity is a magnet for the world’s most inspiring people—professionals who took big creative risks to rise to the top of their fields. We were honored to chat with several of these individuals during a packed week at Cannes Lions. Join us as we learn what inspires them, who they work with, and how they create.

Chris Rowson is the head of design and group creative director at TBWA New York—one of the most storied and successful creative agencies in the world. The firm has a knack for surprising, disruptive work, and Rowson has played a big role in many of the agency’s campaigns. We sat down with Rowson to discuss where he finds creative inspiration, how he thinks about teamwork, and what advice he has for the next generation of creators.

On finding inspiration

When do you feel most creative?
I actually feel most creative at the end of the day. It’s after I’ve been briefed, I’ve been looking at references, I’ve been crafting, I’ve been making, I’ve been in a hundred meetings. Then as soon as I leave the office, a little routine I’ve got is I walk home. It’s about an hour walk, and then this is where I do most of my brainstorming and the ideas start coming to me. I feel really inspired, I feel creative. I walk past shop windows, I walk past murals, street art. And everything really, really inspires me. So I feel this may be not the conventional answer, but it really is my most creative time.

We have designers, illustrators, photographers, typographers, film makers, editors, motion designers, 3D modellers. We also work on animation, so actually when you put all of those skill sets together, you can create anything.

On creating with a team

You talked about a very solo creative process, but how do you create with others?
I’ve been building teams for the last seven years. It’s not a classic design studio where you see flat graphics and you do resizing. We’re more of a maker studio. It’s very collaborative. We have designers, illustrators, photographers, typographers, film makers, editors, motion designers, 3D modellers. We also work on animation, so actually when you put all of those skill sets together, you can create anything.

Every project I’ve worked on, I’ve collaborated. Sometimes the concepts come from me, sometimes the concepts come from a typographer, or photographer, and then we just surround them, and put the right skill set around them.

When you put those personalities together, none of them actually have an advertising background. They’re just people I’ve pulled from different areas, different disciplines. A lot of them are graduates as well. A very diverse group. I’ve got people from Korea in my team, I’ve got Brazilians, I’ve got a girl from up North in England in my team. It’s very much about pulling different personalities, different skill sets together, and then using who you need for the project.

What does it take to bring a big bright idea to life, then?
The cliché is hard work, but it is very much hard work, but it’s also about collaboration. You need the right people. I just finished up a project, actually, for New York Pride, and we, in memory of Gilbert Baker, the creator of the rainbow flag who passed away, we designed a font in memory of him. The font was derived and inspired from the actual rainbow flag, and to make that project happen we spoke to his family, and they loved the idea. It’s going to be at the memorial—it’s all around New York at the moment for Pride Month, which is great.

And the reason that happened is because there was [collaboration]. One of us comes up with the idea, another person executes and mood-boards the typography. Then we have the motion designer, which is super important because when you’re creating visuals, you’re not creating flat graphics any more. You’re creating things that move, and transforming the rainbow flag into a font [with motion graphics] is really integral. Then having a producer who’s almost like a business manager as well and who actually brings in other partners.

It’s just absorbing everything around you. I’ve been called ‘the sponge’ at work because apparently I just absorb everything that everyone says.

We brought in this company called Fontself, and they’re this French Kickstarter-funded company who created the first color font, or color font format. Instead of trying to write this out in our heads and get a developer on it, we just reached out to them—just a little message—and within two minutes, they were in ready to collaborate. It was a pro bono project, and they gave up a lot of weeks, a lot of nights and weekends, to help make this happen, to get it out there. And now it’s a great story because one of the world’s first colored fonts is available for free.

That’s a perfect example of a collaborative story. It’s never just one person. And then you all have crossover skills and you also learn from one another.

Advice for aspiring creatives

What does it take to fuel creative energy?
It’s just absorbing everything around you. I’ve been called ‘the sponge’ at work because apparently I just absorb everything that everyone says. If someone says something interesting, I’ll be Googling it on my phone under the table, trying to look like I’m still listening in the meeting.

Write these references down. Find new references. Follow people, like Refinery 29 (even though I’m a male), just because there’s something totally left field and inspiring there. Follow people you wouldn’t normally follow on Instagram. It’s really about just exposing yourself to as much as possible. Obviously, do go on all of the advertising sites, or the design blogs, but just try and break out from that.

Read a classic historical book. Different media is really important, not just visuals, not just articles, not just books. Watch films and Netflix shows. Go to plays. I’m lucky enough to live in New York, where I’ve seen some amazing Off-Broadway shows, which have actually inspired several projects through the art direction. Be a sponge.

For more insights from top creatives, see our Q&As with podcaster David Rheinstrom and DJ Hesta Prynn, or see how Goodby Silverstein partnered with Frito-Lay to redefine the agency-client relationship.