We spoke on 11th November 2020
Hey Luke, to start with I want to ask, how are you doing?
I'm doing well thanks! It's been a bit of a bonkers year for everyone – and a traumatic time for many – so I feel very thankful to be able to say I'm doing ok. Work has been steady for me this year, despite some pretty big adjustments with plans cancelled or postponed. Hope you're doing well? Dealing with all this chaos while studying isn't easy I know.
Secondly tell me, who is Luke Tonge?
Wow-what a great curveball, I've honestly never been asked that before! I'm pretty self-deprecating so I tend not to give that question much thought... My name is Luke Tonge, I'm a child of the '80s, a privileged white dude, a design cliche with beard and glasses, a lover of shorts and ice-cream, husband to my amazing wife Tash, the youngest of 3 siblings, co-director of various things, and I will have my vengeance, in this life or the next.
I noticed whilst looking at your LinkedIn you studied at the ‘Lincoln School of Art’. Funnily enough, I'm from Lincolnshire did you enjoy your time there?
No way! Small world. Yeah, I loved it. My best bud at the time and I used to take it in turns driving so it was a lot of fun – a group of us from my high school all decided to do Art Foundation there. It was a really important stepping stone between A-levels and University for me and helped steer me in the direction of graphic design as I was still a little unsure of what I should be doing. It also really improved my parallel parking! I met some lovely people (shout out to James 'the Cat' Harness) and I definitely sweated through a few hoodies marching up Steep Hill with A1 folders under my arms! My folks still live out that way so we're often back in the land of the yellow belly.
You’ve spent over 13 years working as a designer, what lessons do you think you’ve learned in this time?
Yikes, another toughie! It's fair to say I barely recognise the person I was who graduated in 2007 – life comes at you fast in your 20's and you learn too much in those first 10 or so years in the industry. You obviously learn a LOT about the process, strategy, society, technology, etc, but I think the most important lessons I've learned have been about people. Off the top of my head, a few important things would be... Be yourself (as the saying goes, 'everyone else is taken!') but we all have a unique role to play, and if we spend all our time trying to be or please other people we'll miss our most important role – being ourselves. I've also learned the importance of kindness, of being kind, and allowing others to be kind to you. It used to have a bit of an image problem, being perceived as wet or limp or naff, but kindness is a superpower and vital to enjoying life.
Seasons of adversity (working in toxic environments and dealing with loved one's health issues) taught me patience and resilience. More recently dealing with everyone from students to 'superstars' has reinforced to me the importance of not being a jerk (respecting everyone, being thankful, open, clear, true, etc). I'm still learning,
At Linney Design I noticed you ran a successful work experience scheme. Is something you’re passionate about?
YES! Hugely. I was fortunate enough to be trusted with this role in both agencies I spent long stints in (or maybe I was the only sucker willing and able) and it was one of my biggest joys. I'm still in touch with many of the people who did work ex with me, in fact, I had a Zoom this week catching up with Lily who I met as a 16yr old and is now in her mid 20's tearing up the South West design scene.
Formative experiences like work-ex, placements, internships all play crucial roles in helping us form ideas about where we want to work, what roles suit us, etc. It takes a bit of effort and a sacrifice of time to make a scheme work, but every agency should in my opinion be investing in them, connecting with local schools/colleges//Unis, and giving back to the pipeline of talent who will one day help keep them in business. That whole ecosystem of industry needs to include education much more than it sometimes does.
You mentioned that after a ‘first things first’ realisation you quit and went freelance. Tell me more about this.
I spent about a decade working on very commercial work, battling with my conscience, knowing I was doing work that at best was neutral, at worst was damaging – fast food packaging, advertising for booze, disposable FMCG, etc. I'd studied the 'First things First' manifesto while at Falmouth and it struck me as something to aspire to – and it never really left me. I spent my first decade in design trying to offset my daytime work through side gigs, personal projects, and work more rewarding for the soul. I finally figured out if I wanted to pursue this kind of work more fully I needed to take the big leap and strike out on my own, which is what I did towards the end of 2017. I now split my time between lecturing at BCU, mentoring, helping lead the Birmingham Design team, and taking on projects I believe in – usually branding for 'third sector' clients (education, health, churches & charities) – and my soul is much happier for it!
Are you able to go into more detail about the huge success that is Birmingham Design Festival and Glug Birmingham?
Sure – though Dan and I have both written extensively about why we set up BDF and how it operates. All I can add really is an encouragement that the design industry is one huge interconnected design community. Everyone jokes about how small it is, how everyone knows everyone, and I think that's what makes it special.
Of course, it's a huge industry and growing rapidly, but it is social and flat like few others – heroes are accessible, legends can be learned from directly. Design events serve many purposes – to be inspired, to share experiences with others, to support and be supported. BDF and Glug exist in the Midlands to serve these purposes, and are just a small part of the global movement of creative events.
For my final question, what is next for Luke Tonge?
Staying positive & testing negative, I hope! I'm juggling a few really interesting projects which should see me busy till Christmas, plus I have some talks/lectures to write, and some digital events to help plan (Glug Collectors Edition, Part 2, Dec 3rd!). More juggling of fun things. You can keep up to date with my shenanigans via @luketonge on Twitter & insta, and connect with me on LinkedIn. Thanks for some great questions, Morgan! Stay rad <3
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