Tell us a bit about yourself!
Hello! I'm Steph and I work as a Creative Director at the Roald Dahl Story Company. I’m one of around 35 people whose job it is to bring Roald Dahl’s stories like Charlie and the
Chocolate Factory, The BFG and Matilda to life for new audiences through a whole range of outputs including theatre, film, TV, publishing, merchandise and partnerships. I manage our in-house design team of five people and we produce a whole range of work - anything from new brand artwork, guidelines, product concepts to visual identities for projects. The most important part of my job is motivating my teams and ensuring that they have the right resources, support and environment to produce their best work. I’ve been at RDSC for just over 7 years now and have been Creative Director for 3 of those. Previous to this role, my job title was Licensing and Design Director and within that, I looked after both the commercial and creative aspects of getting Roald Dahl merchandise from concept to shelf, as well as growing our design department – which was just me when I first started - to myself and four wonderful designers as it is today. I love the variation in the role, it’s rare to find a job that you can learn so much on a day-to- day basis. I am fascinated with the work that my colleagues do – they’re all experts in their area and truly inspiring to be around. RDSC was recently acquired by Netflix, so I’m now a part of a much bigger peer group and in an exciting new chapter of the business. In terms of where I work, I have two small children and so made the decision in late 2021 to move back to Leeds, after 11 years living in Hackney. Our office is in London though, so I commute down to be in the office for a couple of days a week. The rest of the time I work from home. My education and background is in design, but in my early twenties after leaving uni I took a bit of a career diversion into the Brand Licensing industry, working on the Mr Men Little Miss brand as a Brand Coordinator, then Brand Manager, where I managed everything from brand collabs with TFL and Evian to new publishing and the creation of new characters. Mr Men Little Miss is owned by Japanese company Sanrio, who also own brands like Hello Kitty, Gudetama and My Melody.
Aside from my job at RDSC, I am also on the advisory board for Lord Whitney, an innovative artist-led studio based in Leeds, who create immersive experiences and spaces that spark wonder and provide opportunity for people to connect with themselves. Working across both commercial and artistic commissions, their work spans theatre, film, TV, heritage, fashion and more. It’s a true privilege getting to see their incredible work up close and I’m looking forward to more in 2023!
What made you choose this career?
It feels slightly more like my career chose me. I fell into the Brand Licensing industry
accidentally when looking for my first ‘real’ job out of uni. Somehow, after looking for
months, I was offered two jobs in the licensing industry at the same time - one as a Junior
Graphic Designer for an apparel Licensee (someone who designs and makes product on
behalf of a brand) which was more the route I had in mind - and one as a Brand Coordinator for the Mr Men Little Miss brand. I had no idea what a Brand Coordinator was, but I loved the Mr Men characters and couldn’t quite believe that a job based around a fun, children’s brand like that existed, so figured it was the right decision. This diversion in my career lead me to learn, embrace and love both the creative and commercial aspects of the industry. I had no idea what I wanted my career to be during school, but ended up going to Art College in Leeds after sixth form. This was a pivotal time for me, I spent a year in an intensively creative environment experimenting with all sorts of artistic approaches and met friends for life. Living year to year – I decided from there that I wanted to go to University in Manchester – because that’s where the best parties were.
After uni, London seemed like the most fun next step. I never thought I would move South
of the UK, being a Northerner through and through, but the unknown adventure of living in London felt like a no-brainer. My best friend and I moved to Mile End in 2011 with a few
hundred pounds to our name, barely enough for one month’s rent and a deposit. I was on
I built my career from the bottom - interning in graphic design roles whilst freelancing,, which I just about managed. I built my career from the bottom - interning in graphic design roles whilst freelancing, waitressing and working in bars and fashion retail before eventually landing my first ‘real’ job which was my gateway to the Brand Licensing industry. I applied for so many jobs before that which, looking back, my heart just wasn’t in. I feel like the right job came along at the right time for me. Everything happens for a reason!
Did you go through formal education? If so, what did you study and where? If not please explain your journey.
Yes I went through formal education – I went to school up to sixth form near Leeds, then did a Foundation Diploma in Art and Design at Leeds College of Art, then went on to university to do a degree in Design and Art Direction at the Manchester School of Art (part of Manchester Met).
I was never a naturally academic student though. I received average grades throughout the whole of my education, which led me to believe that my career path would also be entirely average, but since being out of the educational system I’ve realised that grades (past a certain point) really don’t matter in the real world of employability, unless you want to go into further education such as a Masters degree or a PHD (I didn’t).
Ultimately, you will never get hired for your grades. Employers are interested in you. They
will hire you for your spark, your ideas, your work ethic, your experience, your personality,
your portfolio, your energy and ultimately, if you will bring something to a role that
somebody else won’t. The education system isn’t individualised, it can make you feel like a square peg in a round hole if you don’t respond to the offered approach to learning.
I really hope that adaptive teaching methods start to become embedded in the educational system, such as creative learning, which considers individual learning styles and figures out innovative ways to increase engagement. This would change the experience of so many kids that feel like they’re not academic enough to succeed. The sad truth is that the current educational system is not designed to encourage creativity, but to pass exams. Hopefully one day soon, creative thinking will be acknowledged and nurtured as a life skill for everyone as it can apply to all industries, jobs and careers.
Did this have a positive or negative impact on your chosen career?
In terms of how much my education has served my creativity and the ability to get and do
my job, I’d say it’s had neutral impact (I learnt so much more on the job, in an actual
workplace). On the other hand, the social side of my education has had a hugely positive
impact on myself and my career. I’ve learnt so much over the years from my peers. The
people I’ve met and friends I’ve made (particularly at art college) are a continued source of creative inspiration to me and many have supported me massively on my career path - be that whilst interning together, pretending like we knew what we were doing whilst secretly swapping basic Photoshop tips across the table, to living together in mouse-infested flats whilst we looked for work experience with whoever would take us. Over the years, these friendships have turned into a creative community that supports me, provides contacts and insights, and is massively inspirational.
Everything I experienced during and after my education has ultimately led to where I am
today – so I can’t say it’s had a negative impact on my career, but I’ve definitely wondered if I could have got here via a different route such as school, college, then apprenticing.
The reality of university today is that it’s hugely expensive and not for everyone – I’d
encourage anyone who’s unsure about going, to look at alternatives and not feel pressured to go. Experience in the workplace is the most important on a CV, so if you can focus on getting access to this instead (or as well as) it’s just as valuable.
Who inspires you?
Inspiration is hugely important to my job because the nature of providing creative solutions to problems (briefs) means that my inspiration tank needs to be constantly filled up. I get this from several places. One is through the work my friends do. Their creative practices range from sustainable ceramics to graphic design, embroidery, animated sculpture and illustration and it’s amazing to follow their work and success. Aside from that, I keep up with a combination of print and digital media to get a holistic view of what’s out there in the creative wild. I love reading print publications like Creative Review to get a curated, physical reading experience and Instagram is an undeniable source of inspiration, due to the algorithms and readiness of art, artists and brands on there.
We actively share inspirational content and news within our design team too, taking it in
turns to make monthly inspiration newsletters to curate spaces, exhibitions, packaging,
collaborations and art that might inspire our work. In terms of actual people or brands that inspire me, there’s a huge list and I get it from all sorts of mediums. It could be through creative directors like Chris Clarke, artists like Tadashi Kawamata, curated feeds like @Interiorandfilms or @packaging_of_the_world or dreamy 3D architecture imagery by Maison De Sable. Since moving back to Leeds, I’ve also rediscovered my love for documentary photography, particularly Peter Mitchell’s (strangelyfamiliar.co.uk) work from the 1970’s onwards. I have a huge interest in social history and could spend all day looking through visual cultural archives like his. Literally anything can top up the tank, you never know when you’ll need a very specific reference for a project!
What’s the scariest thing about your job and how have you overcome it?
Running out of ideas! It’s a huge part of my job role to provide ideas as solutions and so it’s scary when creative block strikes. Stepping away from my desk (can’t stress this enough) and going for a walk is like exercise for my brain too and I find that ideas pop up naturally when I’m out looking at things in charity shops, chatting to friends and listening to podcasts or music. My job isn’t really a 9-5, as I need to make sure that I’m culturally aware of what’s going on across multiple industries. This can be a little exhausting at times, but I wouldn’t have it any other way!
What do you want to change about your industry?
Something I am attempting to work on changing, alongside a group of industry peers is how hidden the brand licensing industry is from those coming out of education and looking for career opportunities. People that end up in Licensing seem to just ‘fall into it’ rather than choosing it as a career path. It just doesn’t seem to be widely known in the same way that careers such as marketing, business, finance, design and law are (but coincidentally, Brand Licensing harbours all of these industries within it). The Licensing industry as it’s often known, sounds generic (immediate thoughts tend to go to anything from a pub drinks license to a driving license) and esoteric, but it’s an incredibly large but close-knit community that’s highly relatable to most. If you’ve ever bought a child a present with their favourite character on it, had a poster on your bedroom wall with your favourite band or art on, played with an action figure from your favourite TV show or taken a Happy Meal toy home, you’ve interacted with Brand Licensing.If it was named accurately, it would be called the Fandom or Brand Extension industry, as it’s effectively built around extending a brand for fans to consume in different ways. A book, film, TV series, person, theatre show, nostalgic brand, fashion brand, artist or game can be extended to anything from a clothing range, toy, shoe, game, NFT or TV show. This provides a huge umbrella within it.
What advice would you give someone who is starting out in your field?
Don’t pressure yourself to make decisions on your career too early. You really don’t have to know what you want to do; some people never find out. Your career is a journey, it can
divert and change direction several times before you might find what feels right. Even then, it might only be right for a couple of years before you switch it up again.
In my experience, living on a year-to-year basis (rather than planning miles ahead into the
future) is really freeing – and means that you can respond to a spark that you feel as you
experience something new, whilst you’re young and (relatively) responsibility free.
For example, I had no idea what Design and Art Direction meant when I started my three
year university course (it turned out to be a combination of advertising, graphic design,
illustration and art direction) but that wasn’t really my priority, I knew it was in the right
arena of what I wanted to do next and it unlocked my move to Manchester which was
important thing to me at the time.
My advice would be to try and experience lots of workplace environments – internships,
apprenticeships, work experience, Saturday jobs etc. This will help guide you with what you do or definitely don’t want to be doing.
I built my career whilst interning, freelancing, making my own printed merchandise,
waitressing and working in bars and fashion retail. I applied and interviewed for a lot of jobs that looking back, my heart just wasn’t in - so I’m glad that I didn’t get those now.
If you’re interested in getting into a creative role, or the Licensing industry in general and
you have an inkling or idea of what you want to do within it, my advice would be to put
yourself out there, make contacts (Linked in is great for this) speak to people in brands or
companies you admire – see if there are any opportunities coming up for work experience
placements or internships, or offer to buy them a coffee. More often than not, people will
want to help you.
My final piece of advice would be to try not to compare yourself to other people. This is
tempting but a total waste of time. Your path is so individual, and it can be really
demoralizing if you focus on other peoples perceived successes. Instead, look at people thatinspire you and find out how they got to where they did. Try and locate your passion and when you find a spark – chase it and see where it takes you. Good luck!