It’s a gloriously cloudy Saturday afternoon and we’re back to Cardiff to meet with graphic designer Samuel Phipps. Fascinated by brands and letterforms from an early age, Sam has developed a graphic design language capable of translating complex messages into simple, linear and evocative forms, while continuing to explore the role of design in facilitating social change.
A member of Rabble Studio, we caught up with Sam at this creative co-working space located in a Victorian building at the Cardiff Bay end of Bute Street and had a chat about his journey into graphic design, the creative community around him and his life in the city, finishing our convivial get-together with a leisurely stroll around the Bay.
Who is Sam, the founder of I Am Sam Creative? What’s your story?
I’m the founder of this small business. I grew up in Cornwall and studied Graphic Design at Falmouth University. After finishing Uni I headed to Cardiff in search of a job. After literally knocking on doors and asking for one, I landed a role at a local agency as a junior designer. After 3 years, I moved on as a middleweight designer at another agency then broke away on my own after 5 years. I’ve been running my business for almost four years now. Moving from Cornwall to Wales was initially never really a long term plan for me, but I’m unsure I could have built a business as strong as I have anywhere else.
What is your most vivid childhood memory?
Taking our tiny family motorboat out to a secret cove one summer in Cornwall and all five of us sleeping out on it. Three in the small cabin and two on the deck. I remember fishing off the bow of the boat at dusk with my brother one evening catching Scad Mackerel. The next day we woke up to the movement of the sea; it was magic.
What was the most unusual thing about the place where you grew up?
The true Cornish accent is pretty unusual. I don’t think a lot of people really know how it sounds. It’s the best though!
What sparked your interest in graphic design? What was your journey like?
I think record artwork played a pretty huge part in my interest in Graphic Design. I also used to spend a lot of time collecting and drawing packaging. I was fascinated by brands and letterforms from an early age. I used to stick pieces of packaging that I liked, to my bedroom walls.
How would you describe the I Am Sam Creative style and aesthetic?
I try to solve design problems in the most linear and simplistic way I can without compromising the message. I’d like to think the house style is a balance of a simple visual and an obvious message, if that makes sense.
You started I Am Sam Creative over five years ago, long enough to notice the changes in the graphic design scene in Wales. What do you think about the direction it’s taking?
There are definitely more smaller studios than there used to be. The industry feels younger than it did when I was a junior, which is the way it should be. I think Cardiff is very welcoming to new creative businesses, there are so many co-working spaces it makes it really easy to get an agency off the ground, so these new studios seem to thrive here.
What is your definition of good design?
Transcribing a sometimes complicated message into a simple form.
How do you go about developing an idea for a new project?
I send out a questionnaire to all my new clients, in order to get a good idea of what their business is, what their story is and what needs solving.
Before visualising anything, normally I start by writing words down. I’ll fill a page with words related to the brief. Sometimes they will be really far fetched but I always manage to spark an idea from this stage of my process. From here, I’ll spend a good while flicking through design journals and my Pinterest boards to generate ideas. I find starting with colour helps me a lot, as it sets a mood and tone for the creative.
What was the most meaningful project that you have worked on?
One of my longest serving clients took it upon himself to run the entire perimeter of Wales in the name of his friend who passed away from motor neurone disease. The project wasn’t particularly creative from my part – I designed a website that enabled him to promote the run and gain fundraising, however being a part of his journey was really meaningful. It’s so important to me to use design for good. Design is often used for things that we might not agree with or have no control over, so I think using design for good is important.
What makes Cardiff the perfect hotbed for I Am Sam Creative? What do you love about living here?
Cardiff is perfect for my business; it’s a growing city that’s forward thinking, clean and has so much potential. The fact that I can jump on my bike and meet most of my clients without the need of my car, is invaluable to me. Time away from design also means a lot to me. It’s super important to take time away from work; this is where I find inspiration and always return to work with a different mindset. Cardiff is really good for this. I can be at the coast on my kayak within an hour, or in the hills in less time. The combination of city and rural environments really works for me.
In terms of design, where do you think Cardiff sits in relation to other capital cities?
Cardiff has some great architecture. I still find the WMC building very inspiring. The Welsh language text on the front is a real statement and I believe it demonstrates to visitors how passionate Cardiff is about its roots. Plus it’s a beautiful piece of typography. I’d say Cardiff ranks pretty high and will only get more influential as the city grows and progresses.
What do you do or where do you go to unwind and get inspired?
In the summer I’ll always head out on my kayak from one of the bays in Swansea. A few hours paddling and fishing really sorts me out. I also have a sort of seasonal pilgrimage to Fforest in Cardigan, such a beautiful part of Wales. In the winter I love heading north into the valley for hikes when I can.
What was the best piece of advice you have ever been given?
To get things you’ve never had, you have to do things you’ve never done.
If you could live anywhere in the world, where would that be and why?
I visited St Brides in West Wales last year. There’s a small isolated house there in the tiny bay. It has a boat mooring directly outside. I’d say living there would be my ideal.
What advice would you give to someone starting up a similar creative business?
Get an accountant from day one and make sure you love what you do.
What are you currently working on?
I’ve got a nice new branding project on the go at the moment for a wedding planner. I’m also working on some UI for a new app and a set of illustrations for GoCompare.com.
What are you dreams and ambitions for I Am Sam Creative?
I am really happy with how things are with my business currently. Having consistent clients that seek creative forward thinking work is always my goal, so building my business in order to attract this type of client is my ambition. Having a dedicated studio space that is eco friendly and sustainable would be a dream as well.
And now a Max Frisch question: Which person or persons, now dead, would you like to see again?
I’d like to have seen Johnny Cash play in his later years. He tells a great story.
Can you recommend us:
A book: Do Good Design by David Berman
A song: Not Everything That Counts Can Be Counted by Billy Bragg
A film: Wind River
Thank you, Sam for the great company and lovely insight into your creative and personal realms.