We interview polymath Ian Wharton about his new book on how ‘thinking young’ can help you be more creative, featuring Nick Park, Lord Puttnam, AKQA’s Ajaz Ahmed – and an afterword from Jamie Oliver.
I first encountered Ian Wharton in 2007, when his co-created graduation film Solar (below) was brought to my attention as a work that seemed too mature for something created by a couple of students. The film saw him given an award by film producer Lord David Puttnam, and since then he's helped develop the bestselling 20 Minute Meals iOS app for Jamie Oliver, been an art director at Soho-based post house The Mill and is currently a creative director at leading digital agency AKQA – career moves that many creatives would happily aspire to doing just one of.
Underpinning Ian’s success has been an approach he calls ‘youthful thinking’ – being unafraid to try new things and understanding that the best way to learn is to do, fail, fix and learn from that. His latest ‘new thing’ is the publication of his first book – Spark for the Fire – where he details how and why you should ‘think young’, drawing on his own experiences and those of leading figures from advertising, film, TV, design and more. Ian has interviewed Lord Puttnam and Wallace & Gromit creator Nick Park – both Oscar winners – Michael Wolff (co-founder of Wolff Olins), Oglivy’s Rory Sutherland and other prominent names from the likes of AMV BBDO, the D&AD, IDEO, McKinsey, SheSays, ustwo and Virgin Unite. Ian’s ultimate boss – AKQA CEO Ajaz Ahmed – has written the introduction, with the afterword contributed by Jamie Oliver.
The book may appear to tie into wider creative industry trends – especially the iterative development strategy known as ‘fail fast’ that’s been growing in popularity over the past few years and expanding from purely being a process for web and application development to an overall approach to entire creative and design projects. However, at its core is an call-to-arms to experiment, to embrace new things, to look and learn beyond what you know – an approach that has driven great creativity throughout history.
Sitting in a pub in Somerstown, Ian’s a model of enthusiasm and passion, and also a genuine desire to help the rest of the creative community. I notice the word ‘care’ appears in his answers to my questions more than any other, and after being asked about this he freely admits "I really do give a damn”. Even his explanation of why he wanted to write the book is founded on wanting to provide something truly useful to attendees to a talk he gave in 2011, rather than following the traditional monograph approach.
"I gave [a talk] for the Art Director’s Club Young Guns 8 at the Apple Store. I was asked to talk about my work and that made me really uncomfortable – I don’t want to be that self-centred – so I tried to think about [how it could be useful for those attending],” he says. "While I was thinking about what tied all the work together, I started thinking about the idea of ‘youthful thinking’ – that all the best work I’ve done has been influenced by thinking young: ignoring the status quo and process and all the other things I talk about in the book.
"When I got home, there was an immediate and defined moment where I thought ‘I really want to try to pour all that stuff into a book’.”
Ian hasn’t ever formally studied writing. He wrote the intro to The Mobile App Case Study Book by Julius Wiedemann and Rob Ford (the founder of The FWA, not the allegedly crack-smoking Mayor of Toronto) but he says he learned how to write at The Mill, creating treatments as part of pitches to win ad campaigns – over 50 in the two-and-a-half years he was at the post house.
"The point of a treatment is brevity – and that’s the most difficult bit, to make it concise and without much fluff,” he says – an approach that’s true for much of non-fiction writing from books to journalism.
While the book does dispense practical advice based on what Ian’s learned from his career so far, most of the book is devoted to Ian and his interviewees telling stories about what’s had the most impact on their careers and creativity.
The stories range from the inspiring to the humorous – such as 16-year-old Ian filming an owl against a bluescreen for a photographer’s website despite having no VFX experience beyond watch the extras on a Lord of the Rings DVD. They also vary in scale from the grand – such as Nick Park describing the painstaking process behind spending years creating Wallace & Gromit films to – to those built with almost no resources (again the owl). But all have a common thread: that when you ‘think young’ you can find the inspiration and drive create something truly new.
"Lots of people like to show off with stories that are the most applauded or the most successful,” says Ian. "The ones I’m using are sometimes daft or embarrassing. The owl thing is a ridiculous story – but that’s the fascinating thing about the book. You have to retroactively think about the impact of what you’ve read."
One of the most important things to consider when writing non-fiction – whether books, journalism or other forms – is to have a clear idea in your head of who you’re writing for. An ‘ideal reader’ allows you to work to a consistent tone and level of expected knowledge and understanding. Ian says that Spark for the Fire was initially aimed "young creatives – but in any discipline. That was always in my head – just because I love speaking to youngsters so much and I get a lot of energy from them.”
It’s worth noting here that by ‘youngsters', Ian means students and new graduates. At 28 (and 10 years younger than me), I’d still consider Ian a youngster, but that’s by-the-by.
As he wrote the book, Ian realised that advice on ‘youthful thinking’ by successful talents in their 30s, 40s and 50s is just as relevant for more experienced creatives as it is for the young – as they were perhaps likely to have become detached from the casually arrogant drive to innovate that the book seeks to bring out in readers.
"My point for young people is ‘you have it, don’t lose it’. For everyone else, it is ‘we still have it, we just need reminders’."
Equally important for Ian was both what the book was about – and what it wasn’t.
"There are hundreds of books on creativity [in your average bookshop], but most of them focus on science, or psychology, and how creativity works in the mind,” he says. "I don’t think that’s necessarily the best way to connect to people. In my opinion, the things that resonate most with us are stories. Those stories influence us if they’re useful, and if not they just go past us (which is fine). I wanted to write something in the most accessible way possible – and to me that’s through stories.”
While most of the stories contained in the book take place with specific disciplines – such as advertising, filmmaking, product design and food – the messages than underpin them are designed to offer wisdom to creatives from any background and working in any medium. Working at AKQA, it would have been easy for Ian to have confined his research and interview approaches to the advertising industry – but he feels that would have made the book poorer.
"Advertising’s cool but it’s its own little bubble,” he says. "The mindsets of [advertising] do apply to every [form of creativity], but people won’t let it – because of the pedestal it’s on I guess.”
Despite his multidisciplinary background, Ian had a professional relationship with only two of his interviewees: his ultimate boss Ajaz Ahmed and Jamie Oliver – though he knew Ustwo’s Mills on a personal basis. The rest he wrote to asking them to contribute, including in Lord Puttnam’s case a picture of the two of them together at the Tate Modern when he presented Ian and Ed Shires with the student prize at the (one and only) Escape Awards – where coincidentally Ian met Ajaz for the first time.
“All I said was 'I just want to help people get the most of out their creativity by telling stories’,” says Ian. "I told them I thought they’re all fascinating people and they’ve all got something fascinating to share – and despite them not having a financial incentive [to contribute] they all did.”
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Of all the interviews, the one Ian appears to be most delighted with is Aardman’s Nick Park.
"The Nick Park interview was one of my favourites because he’s a hero of mine. Not just because he’s from Preston, where I’m from,” he laughs. "He's the most humble person I’ve ever met. He has no idea how good he is. He’s won four Academy Awards but he has the same doubt and fears about whether [his work is good enough] and whether he's doing the right thing as you or I.
"People look at people like Jamie and Nick and think ’they must not have any failings’. That’s not the case. We’re all in the same boat and no-one knows what they’re doing more than anyone else. You just have to do it, really."
The only person who Ian approached for an interview but wasn’t able to do it was Paul Smith – who Ian wanted to speak to for the chapter about mentoring as he was Jamie Oliver’s mentor. “One for the next book,” says Ian.
Looking to the future, Ian says he has another book idea but is waiting to see how this is received before starting on the project. He says he’s not concerned with making money from the book – after spending two years of his spare time on the book, he thinks he’s unlikely to break even – but whether it ‘finds its audience’.
Beyond this he’s looking to create animated films with his old Solar partner Ed. He says that "Ed and I have written two more scripts for animated films. I love writing for animation. If anything unleashes your inner child, it’s writing for animation – as you can be completely bonkers.”
Which in some ways neatly sums up the central message of his book.
Spark for the Fire is out now through Harriman House.