INTERVIEWED BY Michaela Stehr
VISI chats to Cape Town-based Si Maclennan, an independent designer, art director and illustrator, about his recent solo exhibition, being a freelancer, and the simplicity of geometry.
How did you get into design, art direction and illustration?
I’ve got a wonderfully artistic family – I guess it was inevitable that I’d end up in a creative field of some kind. The visual communication side of things kind of happened by mistake. I fell into a course in multimedia design and by the time I dropped out (with just a 2 year diploma to my name) I was hooked on design. I didn’t stop my studies because the subject was boring, but rather because I felt I wasn’t getting all I could out of that particular syllabus. I was excited by visual design and wanted to get my hands dirty, but felt I had learned all I could from that particular institution – and wanted to speed up the learning process by jumping in the deep end at an agency.
I joined a digital marketing agency as an intern and emerged almost four years later as a mid-to-senior level designer with a decent set of design production skills, a couple of Loeries and plenty of grey hairs. Working in advertising taught me how to handle pressure and put me in touch with some really fantastic people who helped kickstart my career as a freelancer. So that, I guess, explains why I dabble. I’ve always been an illustrator and that’s a major focus in my career at the moment, but creative problem solving, working in a team with other creatives and producing work outside of conventional design channels is important to me.
If I work in one field for any length of time, I get itchy. Having alternative skill sets is a great way to keep yourself sharp in a variety of creative fields, as well as make good money as a freelancer. I am a firm believer in marketing oneself as a specialist, but there’s a lot to be said for remaining flexible. It certainly keeps things interesting, at the very least.
What are some of the most memorable projects you’ve worked on so far?
As far as memorable projects go, one in particular comes to mind. I designed a set of safety icons for shebeen owners in Sweet Home Farm in Philippi – one of Cape Town’s poorest townships. The project involved a lot of work on the ground with the “shebeeners”. I created a set of icons and pictograms based on the research conducted by the Sustainable Livelihoods Foundation. We involved people in a series of workshops to find out what worked and what didn’t in terms of visual comprehension. It was a long and challenging process, and there were several surprises along the way.
The icons are still used in the shebeens in that area as a definitive set of rules for patrons. My involvement in the project and the response from the community was really rewarding, and working in the informal sector was a challenge that made the entire experience quite unforgettable.
I also had a lot of fun producing my first solo show, Geometcentricity earlier this year. That was a very different kind of experience, and perhaps a more personal journey. It was a big milestone in terms of defining my own signature style, and it was incredibly encouraging to see so much support from my peers and the public in general. The feedback I received from that show has really helped me understand my role as a visual artist – and has given me a lot to build on when it comes to my illustration work.
What do you seek to evoke through your work?
My art is quite uncomplicated. I engage heavily on a conceptual level when I’m working as a “graphic designer” or an “art director”, and so when it’s time to create my own stuff, I try to simplify things a bit. My work is about appreciating beautiful things at a surface level. It’s impressionistic too. Many of my works are inspired by cities that I visit – and I try to capture the feeling of those places in graphic interpretation. The series in Geometcentricity titled “New York” is a good example of this. I created these in the weeks following a trip to NYC and I feel like the impression that the city left on me is apparent in them.
Another objective in my art is to satisfy my own needs as a creative. It’s an outlet against a backdrop of work that’s restricted by briefs and objectives. Lastly, I try to make things that are as visually exciting to other people as the stuff that got me into design, and I try to inspire some of that feeling in the viewer. I want people to be excited by my work.
Do you have any South African designers and illustrators who inspire you or you think we should look out for?
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention my friend Ross Symons – his attitude towards pursuing creative aspirations is what motivated me to get Geometcentricity out in the open. Check out his Instagram account to see what I’m on about.
Describe your style in 4 words.
I suppose my art could be best defined as “vibrant abstract geometric minimalism“, but there’s a kind of spectrum in my work. It starts there, while the other end is very commercial stuff that’s easy to digest and works well for brands and marketing. I suppose the common thread is the understanding and exploration of geometry. That plays a role in almost everything I do.
Where can people get hold of your work and what are your plans for the near future?
I suppose this is great opportunity to talk about Bondage. It’s a small group show at Spasie, an underground restaurant and events space in the Bo-Kaap. I’ll be exhibiting a series of brand new screen-printed posters in a similar vein to the work I exhibited at Geometcentricity. The show will be open for viewing during First Thursdays on 1 September 2015.
I’ve also got a print hanging at Oh, Hello! – another group show at The Drawing Room Cafe in Observatory. There are some absolutely fantastic artists involved there, and the entire show is well worth a visit. The guys at Alexander’s Band (my illustration reps) organised the whole thing beautifully. The show comes down on the 5 September 2015, and some of the work will be up at the Sanlam HMC Fair in Jozi in October 2015.
Check out more of Si’s work at simaclennan.com.