Person of Marvel: Jack Sheppard and the Art of Conversation
How to define the work of Jack Sheppard. Perusing his online platforms, it is clear that he primarily seeks to position himself as an interaction designer, having worked for the likes of Universal, HarperCollins and Co-op. However, his work is defined and shaped by much more than designing solutions for companies and their customers.
Jack is quite the man about town, organising events focusing on design, creativity and tech across London and Manchester; to create experiences which cultivate community, conversation and change.
My first experience of the designer at work in an events capacity was his presentation on empathy in the digital age for the much-loved PechaKucha Mcr, followed by a visit to Craft, a series of design events curated by Jack, that seek to unravel the skills behind various design disciplines. The latter of the two being both inspiring and hard-hitting, as guests were brought to tears by the story of Dan Hett, the BAFTA winning creative technologist, whose brother Martyn, tragically died in the Manchester bombing last May, as he explained how his ability to code led him to create a series of micro video games, The Loss Levels, exploring the complexity of grief for those also trying to make sense of loss.
Having been a designer from a young age, and now a prolific speaker and events organiser, Jack brings with him years of knowledge, skills and intuition to event curation, which has given him the opportunity to rub shoulders with London and Manchester’s finest designers, writers, entrepreneurs, filmmakers, artists and photographers. Through his events, he skillfully connects the dots to bring together sporadic communities of creatives, while simultaneously demystifying the world of tech by creating a space for those who design for the web to interact and connect.
We recently spoke with Jack about how he was able to forge a career in design, what advice he has for those rising up the ranks and why Manchester’s creative community is still yet to be fully uncovered and explored.
A Head Start
Did you always want to be a designer, how did you get into this field of work?
Growing up I didn’t even know this was a thing I was allowed to do for a living. I spent a lot of my childhood building websites, then I started building websites for friends, then school, then local businesses. Before I knew it I was 15 with small book of clients.
I think I’m lucky enough to be on the tail end of a generation of people that grew up as the web did. We were all making terrible websites with shoddy HTML, CSS was brand new and the internet was a playground. For me it was like building things with lego. So it was surprising when I discovered I could do this as a job!
It was a similar story in university. I actually wanted to make films but I was designing things in my spare time eventually going on to set up a small partnership to manage the work. By the time I got my degree it was a no-brainer. I guess you could say I fell into it, but it feels more like I grew into design.
You call yourself an interaction designer, what does this mean in practice, what kind of work are you known for?
Good. Question. I think about this quite a lot! But I’ll be honest with you. Most job titles of professions are nonsense. I’m lucky that the kind of design I do spans multiple platforms or disciplines.
Sometimes I call myself a product designer. On occasion I’ve said service designer (sorry). But really how I describe myself is a combination of the work I’m doing, what I want to work on, and what's going on around me.
Basically I help organisations design products or services that solve a problem for them or their customers. What I like to do is help them figure out where there is an opportunity and then the best way to solve that problem. Right through to helping deliver a finished product or service. Extra points if that organisation wants to do some good in the world. That and events I run or speak at.
What do you enjoy most about your job?
There is no way to answer this question without sounding trite. But in all honesty I enjoy the weird and wonderful people I get to meet and work with. In the space of a year or two I once designed things for One Direction, Man City, TfGM and then Co-op not long after. Which is ridiculous really.
I also love getting to help people. The best thing about being at the stage I’m at with my career is helping people get into design or grow within their current position. Luckily I can do that through events as well as leading design teams.
Man About Town
How did you get into creating design and web focused events? Was it a passion or a natural progression from your own profession?
Now this is something I completely fell into.
I once left a job and set myself a personal challenge of speaking at a conference. I ended up speaking at Future of Web Design in Prague, and again in London. Through that I met a good friend of mine, Dan Donald, who at the time was looking to resurrect the event series Speak the Web.
We got to speaking and the two of us ended up touring 5 cities in a couple of weeks with a bunch of people talking about the web. I was hooked since then. That led to UpFront which is now in its 5th year and is going from strength to strength.
I worked at the Co-op with Lawrence Kitson and we got chatting in the car once, we were on the way to a chicken farm (ask me later), and conversation soon led to the idea of a design event where people talk about what design really means, not portfolios or sales pitches. This is how Craft came about.
Running events is a passion of mine, I love bringing people together, but it’s a lot of work. It’s definitely not for everyone. That said though I think everyone should speak at some kind of event at least once. Not only is it excellent in teaching you about articulating your thoughts, but it’s also great for your confidence. Plus it looks great in your portfolio.
If there's one skill you would love to master, what would it be?
Design, at least product or interaction design, is intangible. You don’t really make a thing that can be touched and held and felt. It’s an important job but I’m jealous of people that get to make physical things.
That’s a skill I’d like to have. I want to learn how to throw pottery. Make a physical thing someone can hold and look at.
You've worked with some major names, as a designer what advice would you give to those coming up the ranks trying to establish themselves and set themselves apart from the rest?
Here are 5 bits of advice I think everyone could benefit from, starting out or not:
Learn to accept criticism. Not all feedback will be good and sometimes the negative feedback can be tough to hear. You are not your design. Sometimes you will have to scrap good work in favour of a terrible idea and you’ll be expected to smile about it. Be honest, be kind, and be humble.
Your job is to solve problems, not make the problems pretty. Design is functional and for sure it can look great, but prioritising aesthetics is bad news. Clients will push for a ‘beautiful’ product and it will be hard to articulate why it has to work well first. But there is beauty in things just...working.
Listen to people. I’ve found that almost every time a client asks for something, they really need something else. They’re not wrong, obviously, but there’s maybe an easier, cheaper and more effective way to solve their problem. Listening to them and getting to the bottom of what they want is important. The same goes for your boss or colleagues. No-one wants you to do a bad job so learn from them.
Research people. User research and design go hand in hand. Understanding what the people using your thing need (not want) is the golden ticket.
Don’t be afraid to lead or manage. Management doesn’t just mean wearing a suit and signing off holidays. Learn to manage yourself, your time, projects, stakeholders, expectations and products. You don’t need to be an expert, obviously, but those skills are invaluable
Bonus advice: try not to be the smartest person in the room. I’ve worked with designers who have peaked, they joined an organisation and by 2012 they were the best at what they did, but time moved on. They didn’t. It’s impossible to progress when you stagnate. There is always something new to learn about something so surround yourself with intelligent people. Be unashamed about now knowing x or y.
Connecting The Dots
What outcome do you want to achieve from the events that you organize, such as Craft?
The design community can be super fragmented at times and those of us in the interaction business often get lumped with ‘tech’. It’s all nonsense. We’re in the people industry. I want to be able to bring people together and talk about what makes us similar. There is so much to learn from different disciplines that I feel like it’s an untapped gold mine. We can learn from cinematographers, sound designers, artists, politicians, the lot. I want to create a space where people can do that and see the value in it.
I also want to create a space where people are comfortable. The ‘tech’ (urgh) scene can be super toxic. I want to create events where anyone can come and talk about something, enjoy it, be respected for it and straight up own it.
From the events you have curated, do you have any speakers or talks that really stand out, that struck a chord with you?
A personal favourite was Prano Bailey-Bond at Craft, I was trying to get her to speak for about a year and we finally managed it. Hearing from a filmmaker was cool, let alone a genre filmmaker, and an amazing one at that.
The talks that strike the biggest chord with me are talks where I can step away and think “oh yeah there’s so much more to life than designing websites”. The kind of talk where you want to go home and make a difference. Dan Hett recently spoke at Craft and his talk was exactly that. He had people in tears too, which is a hard act to follow.
When you're invited to speak at events, such as PechaKucha, do you experience nerves or do you enjoy the experience?
I’m a nervous mess. I’ve spoken at events in front of 5 to 500 people and I feel nervous and anxious every time. It gets easier in the sense that you learn to love it but it’s still difficult. I enjoy it though.
Getting out of your comfort zone is one of the most important things to help you grow as a person as well as a professional. And as a self professed introvert that can be incredibly difficult and exhausting.
In terms of the format our the events you put on, is the format quite loose to encourage creativity, or does it need to be fairly strict?
It’s a balance. You want to invite people to talk about the thing they know best, but you need to make sure that it fits with the theme of the event or the thread of the narrative.
For example with UpFront we try to choose interesting and diverse subjects. Partly so it’s open to everyone but partly because we want to stay current. We might approach people and say “Hey, you did this thing, and that’s cool, want to come and talk about it?”. It works for us, it works for the speakers but most importantly it works for the attendees.
With Craft, however, because of the style of event we try to keep it laser focused. We decide a theme in advance (we planned this years themes last year) and then try to think of people that will have an interesting thing to say about that theme.
Manchester is a hub of creative talent, but is sometimes overlooked, what do you think could be done to promote this city and its talent further?
I’ll start by saying Manchester is one of my favourite cities on earth. Although I’m from the North East, Manchester is my home. I’ll always think of it that way. It also has an amazing creative community. But I sometimes think that it can be super insular.
The reason other creative hubs thrive is because they become national or international. There’s such a lot of pride in Manchester, which is amazing, but I sometimes wonder if that gets in the way of showing the rest of the country what we can do.
I also have this conspiracy theory that the creative industries are falling victim to ‘initiatives’ and ‘schemes’. It’s great that we are encouraging young people to get into the creative industries but when it’s council or government mandated, does it lose some of its magic? Maybe.
How do you find the experience of putting on events in Manchester as compared to London?
There is such a thirst in Manchester. A hunger. To connect and to meet people and to learn and to build a community. You cannot fuck with Manchester’s community. I think London has that too but just in a different way. There is a lot happening there in pockets all over the city, but when I speak to people they say the same thing: it’s too specific. If you’re a designer interested in different disciplines, you’ll find yourself going to three different events.
There are different expectations too. Lots of events in London are sponsored by well known organisations so not only do they end up being free they also have huge backing. That’s a little more difficult in Manchester. Not impossible. But difficult. The result is that you might need to part ways with a little cash to make it possible.
Do you have a dream event that you would like to put on or anyone you would love to come and do a talk?
I’ve been mulling over this grand idea of a design event filled with talks and workshops from a ton of different disciplines. Attendees can hear from people they might not really associate with or think about but ultimately come away inspired and pumped. An early line-up idea I had for this included a make-up special effects artist, a rapper, a designer and a journalist/writer. The budget would need to be pretty huge to make it work though.
Also I think it would be an impossible sell. Who knows though, watch this space.
What's on the agenda for you in the next few months?
Right now I’m working at a FinTech startup in London. It’s an industry that’s relatively new to me so that’s exciting. But it’s a tough challenge. Hopefully I’ll be able to talk about what I’m working on very soon.
I’m also at that point in the year where planning is ramping up for 2019. UpFront is just round the corner in March and we’re planning on bringing Craft and Open back. Maybe with some twists.
You’ll also be able to hear me talk about some stuff on the Tech For Good Live podcast later in the year as well as hopefully a few more speaking gigs.