luke tonge| Graphic design & art direction
interview and portrait photography: corina esquivel
all work photography by luke tonge
Luke Tonge is a graphic designer & magazine art director for LIFE AGENCY in Birmingham. When he's not at the office. you can find him working away on his freelance projects, and co-leading at gallery church. We talked about his influences, his favourite projects, and what success looks like to him.
Tell us a little about yourself.
Hey! I’m Luke Tonge, originally from a sleepy little village called Lound in Nottinghamshire. Schooled and 6th-formed in an unexceptional market town called Retford, did a foundation year at Lincoln School of Art, and then had the privilege of getting my (Graphic Design) degree in Falmouth, Cornwall. In the 8 years since graduating I’ve worked at two great agencies, one in Nottinghamshire and the other in Birmingham, where I currently live (with my wife Tash) and work.
How did you start your career?
The honest answer is I’ve always been on the path towards design – from childhood days spent tracing panels from Asterix and Obelix comics and painting injuries onto my Action Mans clothes. As a teenager (along with punk rock, BMX and skate culture) I was obsessed with magazines, music packaging and film posters. My folks always supported my vocation, and facilitated it, so I owe them a huge debt. Despite graduating with a first from one of the best Uni’s around I didn’t waltz into my first job, I had to take work in retail for a short while before someone pointed me towards a door that I squeezed through. I tell that story to students a lot because its often assumed good jobs fall at grads feet, and it doesn't always work out that way.
Which people in the creative industry have influenced you and how so?
In terms of influencing my thinking I’d have to say a what rather than a who – and that what is Falmouth University, or FCA as it was back when I was there. They placed an emphasis on ideas above execution, and that focus has stood me in good stead ever since. There was a real sense of equipping us, not just with technical or craft skills, but with critical thinking and conceptual confidence. Sharing work early and often with our ‘learning teams’ taught us not to be precious about our work, and to help tweak and improve each others – which it turns out is exactly what happens in agency life on a daily basis. I feel very fortunate to have had that grounding and input right at the start of my career, and I'm proud to now call many of my tutors friends. More recently both the Creative Directors I've worked under have inevitably had an influence on me, helping shape how I respond to challenges, approach briefs, and work with others.
Is there anything that influences your work that’s not directly tied to its practice?
Indirectly I think there’s probably heaps that influences my work, or my approach to work – from characters I observe in film and TV, to lyrics in songs, to friendships outside of work, to the projects I wish I’d done that fill my Pinterest boards, to my faith and worldview. Design is very often about repurposing ideas or remixing styles so I'm happy for influences and attitudes to seep in from anywhere – I subscribe to Paul Rands opinion on influence: “Don't try to be original. Just try to be good."
What is one of the things you love most about your line of work?
There’s 3 things I love about being a graphic designer. I love the feeling of delighting a client by solving a problem they’ve not been able to (or a colleague if they’re presenting that work on to the client). Increasingly I’m enjoying leading a team of designers and seeing them develop and grow in confidence, and lastly the satisfaction that comes when executing something well – whether thats mentoring a student or crafting a logotype.
What is one of the biggest challenges you’ve had to face?
My biggest professional challenge coincided with my biggest personal challenge (like Jose Chavez Y Chavez said in Young Guns “When troubles come, they come not single spies but in battalions”) Around two years ago my awesome wife Tash was seriously ill and in-and-out of hospital for several months with a collapsed lung & complications. This happened straight after I’d won the opportunity to work on my dream job – the relaunch and redesign of Monotype’s iconic type magazine ‘The Recorder’. Working on it in hospital waiting rooms wasn’t exactly what I’d pictured when pitching for it – but it turned out to be a welcome distraction from the emotional rollercoaster we were on at the time and provided a focus to my quiet evenings at home alone.
Is there anything that has surprised you about your industry since you started working?
There’s been a few surprises along the way, some good, some less so – but working with a big group of people is never dull and it teaches you a lot about humanity – its charms and foibles.
What has been one of your favourite projects so far?
I’m especially proud of each of the three magazines I’ve been fortunate enough to art-direct (Boat Magazine, The Recorder & Alpha Life). The most completely satisfying issue of the lot might have to be the Detroit issue of Boat Magazine – it was the second issue of the mag and I was still fumbling around letting my intuition guide me. Everything came together for it perfectly, the content was powerful, the city welcoming, the type (a layered font called Detroit) was an absolute gift, the experience memorable, and the outcome was thankfully very well received, ending up in the Creative Review Annual. It was a confidence boost realising I could put something together largely on my own that I was genuinely proud of.
Where do you find your inspiration?
Everywhere! All the usual places, and some of the less so.
What does success look like for you?
Success to me looks very different to the typical worldview of success. I’m not motivated by awards or rewards, or even the praise of my contemporaries and the confidence that can generate. Obviously all those things are enjoyable but I value less obvious characteristics – humility, integrity, honesty – not always the most celebrated traits in an ego-driven celebrity-obsessed manipulative culture. Leaving work regularly on time so I can spend the evening with my wife feels like a small success. Helping someone get their feet on the first rung of their career ladder feels like small success. Producing a logo for a charity or church that couldn't afford a professional rebrand feels like a small success. A lifestyle of helping others by doing justly, walking humbly and loving mercy is my definition of success.
How does the city you live in impact your work?
Birmingham is my adopted hometown. Its plucky and industrious spirit, more-so than its brutal and eclectic aesthetic, is starting to impact my work. Perseverance is a highly underrated tool for designers, and if a city can deposit some of that attitude in its creative community then I think that can only be a good thing – especially when we compete with other more self-confident cities. I find Brum a manageable yet exciting place to be – the sort of city in which you can make an impact and be a part of the scene.
What is one of the things you find particularly important for Christians to do/be today?
Real. Our generation is crying out for authenticity – in people, experiences, media etc. so the more authentic and honest we can be in our faith, about our failures and successes, the more seriously we’ll be taken and help we’ll potentially be. It’s human nature to question and doubt, even when firm in belief, and in my experience the more absolute we claim to be in our faith the less room there is for others to question and journey with us. Of course there’s plenty other attributes I could list – kindness, generosity, graciousness etc..
You started a group of Christian creatives on Facebook, what was the goal or motivation to do so?
CRTD was birthed out of a desire to see people with similar outlooks collaborate, encourage and support one other. Its steadily grown over the years to around 350 and has retained much of its community spirit (although its inevitably changed slightly since it was 20 or so of my friends in its infancy). My hope was also that it could equip Christian creatives in their workplaces, and also help churches utilise creativity a little better. I think its still finding its feet even after 8 years, and is a wealth of untapped potential – so I'm excited to see what it becomes.
What would you tell your younger self?
Probably just to be excellent to people – to put people ahead of personal progression. Sometimes in your early years in the rush to impress and produce good work its easy to forget we work in a people focused industry, making work with people (colleagues) for other people (clients and consumers). Doing right by people is always more important than making a name for yourself.