Talented, kind, enthusiastic and inspirational, Kieron Lewis is one of the most interested and interesting people I’ve ever met. Recently going freelance, and been featured by The Dots in their annual list of 100 Black Rising Stars making history, 2021 was a busy year for graphic designer Kieron. With the publication of Still Breathing, a collaboration between HarperCollins and 100 Black voices sharing their experiences of racism in Britain, Kieron also worked with the artist JR, launched studio Olga & Kay and was judge at the D&AD Awards. As an Adobe Live host, and speaking to students and graduates about working in design, Kieron regularly shares his design knowledge, as well as discusses race, inclusivity and empowerment. I caught up with Kieron to find out more about what drives him, his journey as a graphic designer and how collaborating over time has helped him create opportunities for himself.
“Having the confidence to feel bold in my approach and share ideas, regardless of how outlandish they may have seen, allowed me to produce my best work!”
How would you describe your aesthetic?
My work is predominately editorial focused. I have a strong interest in documenting my community, so as result when I create publications based on this, I usually like to experiment with typography to create an impactful message.
What was your journey into becoming a graphic designer? Did you always know you would have a career in design?
From school days I always had an interest in art, design and English. I remember when I was at school and we were looking at work experience, I was very close to going down the route of journalism. I enjoy meeting new people and discovering who they are as individuals. Despite going down a more ‘graphic design’ route, I’ve still managed to incorporate my interest in speaking to new creatives and designers through my current freelancing role as a host for Adobe Live. As well as being a freelance graphic designer working with publishers and embracing what I love – editorial design!
You were really busy last year! A judge at the D&AD Awards, speaking at numerous events — including Adobe Max — and featured in October by The Dots in their annual list of 100 Black Rising Stars. It’s so great to see you recognised for your talent, but you’ve also worked so hard to get this recognition. What’s your advice for anyone who is starting on their journey?
I feel like the key is to remain proactive! In today’s climate, it is very difficult for students, graduates or those just wanting an opportunity within our industry. Primarily because some agencies are so focused on budget that they don’t want to invest in new creative minds, which is just wrong, or they continue to work with senior designers who they already have a strong working relationship already. Yes, it’s nice to work with people you know but how do you build new bridges or have a different perspective on work if you’re not willing to be more diverse in your way of thinking? This really does frustrate me! My advice is to remain proactive within pursuing your career goals, regardless of the many setbacks which we all will come across. I honestly believe that those who continue to have the door closed on them, will eventually want to ‘kick it down’. Just to be clear I’m not advocating violence, ha! I am saying that rather than waiting for opportunities to arrive, you have to make your own! Don’t sit back and wait!
When I was at University, I worked on numerous self-directed projects and collaborated with a lot of other creatives. Mainly friends who I had a good vibe with and this allowed us to create some impactful work, which was influenced by our community. From a personal perspective, it’s only now, eight years since graduating, that I’m starting to see a lot of opportunities come my way. I genuinely put this down to years of wanting to collaborate and platforms, senior directors and brands are now starting to take notice! Yes, it’s an awesome feeling! However, despite all the well-known brands that I work with and opportunities that come my way, I will always do my best to remain humble and more importantly never get complacent!
“A project like this one really made me question my own thought process as a black creative.”
You were commissioned by HarperCollins to design Still Breathing. Described by Creative Boom as a “hard-hitting collaboration” it’s a powerful book about racism, with personal essays from 100 Black people from across Britain about their experiences. The design is amazing with each page having a different layout. This isn’t a usual approach by a publisher so the process must have been very collaborative. Can you tell me about how the commission came about and your experience working on it?
Still Breathing was one of those projects that I can’t stress how much of a learning curve it was for me as a designer. I feel this is the best work I’ve produced so far in my career. As designers, we can be guilty at times of focusing simply on the visual aspect of a project and slightly neglecting the content. A project like this one really made me question my own thought process as a Black creative. I wanted to do justice with the design, and that it was respectful of everyone who contributed, sharing very personal and thought-provoking experiences of racism that they’ve endured in Britain.
My collaboration with HarperCollins came about when a good friend of mine, Nancy Adimora who I’ve worked with on numerous community based projects such as AFREADA and TEDxEuston, reached out and said that someone in her team at HarperCollins was looking to work with a freelancer on a big publication project. I was very keen to hear more. I was introduced to Bengono Bessala and Rose Sandy who lead the project at HarperCollins and they were amazing. As this project was during lockdown, all our meetings were via zoom. Presenting visual research, cover and spread options on a camera can sometimes be a little tricky. It’s hard to have a real sense of the room at times.
Every freelance designer likes to have a sense of trust within new collaboration, and I completely got this vibe early on. I put this down to previous work I’ve done which gave me some credibility moving forward. I have good background in editorial design, working with a few agencies creating magazine before, but I’ve never worked on a publication this size before. Also, as I officially went freelance at the start of 2021, this was my first official freelance project! A 300 page plus hardback publication was a real mountain to climb. From the cover to the interior design, I created it all. I did have the mindset that if I can complete a project of this scope, it will give me the confidence to move forward and work on many more publications in the near future. Having the confidence to feel bold in my approach and share ideas, regardless of how outlandish they may have seen, allowed me to produce my best work!
At your recent Adobe Max you talked about Empowering Community Through Collaboration and Editorial Design. I loved this topic and think it’s really important to talk about more. What are some key actions we can all do through our work to make sure we’re inclusive and empowering?
Firstly, this was a great experience to share my work and things that I learnt to a wider audience and I’m very grateful to Adobe for the opportunity. I have three key actions which I feel encompass inclusivity and empowerment.
Educating ourselves on different cultures and having a deeper understanding of your and other communities through what you read or watch is one way to be very conscious when wanting to include these attributes within your work. Primarily, my work touches on the African community and its diaspora. Yes, I am a Black creative, however I still need to educate myself on those within my community in order to create impactful work which highlights their work and opinions.
Having a sense of humility is also key! When you are looking to empower especially if it is focused on race or culture, you need to understand that it’s NOT about you. Yes, you can have an opinion and feeling towards what you are creating, that’s natural, however it’s about stepping back and putting those in your community first. Understanding their thoughts and wanting to learn about their experiences. As designers we have the opportunity to channel these thoughts and emotions into something visual, which can hopefully have a positive impact on the reader, regardless of their class, gender and race.
Respect! Within the topics I discussed within my Adobe MAX talk, there were a lot of sensitive content that was discussed. I believe that, now more than ever, race is being discussed globally. When writing or creating any design work that touches on this topic, there needs to be a sense of respect and care for the content, so you are not reproducing any form of symbolic violence. Remember, there can be a fine line between being informative and potentially offending someone. If you’re unsure, never just put things out into world without having a true understanding of it. Take the time to speak with those in your community and educate yourself with literature. Within time, the more you have an understanding of others, the more respect that will be built and in return you can create impactful work that displays inclusivity and empowerment.
When did you decide to work as a freelancer?
Since graduating from university, I’ve always wanted to be a freelancer. Having the ability to be selective with those you work with and being in control of your working hours is something I’ve wanted for a very long time. However, something would always stop me from making that final leap into freelance. I like to plan ahead and I was always conscious if things go wrong such as I have a quiet few months and I can’t pay rent. It seems a little wild to go freelance in the midst of a pandemic and even more so that my fiancé, Iria and I, now have a mortgage and we’re getting married soon. However, we had a long serious chat and the pros certainly outweighed the cons to going freelance. Also, I perhaps needed that ‘little’ encouragement to go freelance, which Iria certainly provided.
“Remember, it’s okay to challenge the client in a respectful way. It’s healthy and freelancers should do it more. Only then, will both parties feel comfortable.”
What advice would you give to someone about the commissioning process?
I’ve found that the commissioning process differs depending on the client. Every client has their own way of working and a freelancer, regardless if you’re junior or senior, always need to be flexible. However, and I can’t stress this enough, be conscious of those who want to take the piss! Especially if you’re a junior freelancer. Yes, you need to be flexible as it shows a willingness to want to have a good working relationship and maintaining a relationships will always encourage clients to come back and want to work with you. However, if something doesn’t feel right, like three rounds of amends turning into seven and there is no end in sight, flag it! There’s nothing worse than being the yes woman or yes man and not feeling comfortable. Remember, it’s okay to challenge the client in a respectful way. It’s healthy and freelancers should do it more. Only then, will both parties feel comfortable. There will be a sense of transparency and you will both be able to produce something impactful.
Alongside your own work, you’re also a partner in the studio Olga & Kay with Olga Kotovska. You’ve done some amazing work together, including working with artist JR on a project in Catford, London. How do you balance your freelance work with your studio work?
My relationship with Olga is a working one but also a personal one too. She is one of my closest friends and as a result both of us feel very comfortable telling the other is something is good or rubbish! This is something I’ve always admired about how we function as partners! Both of us having our individual freelance works, but sometimes it doesn’t always touch on both our interests and curiosity for working with the community, which is why we go out of our way to work with local communities through projects such as JR’s Inside Out project in Catford or West Norwood Feast. Due to the pandemic, it has been difficult to do a lot of work involving the community, however as the world is starting to reopen, we’re looking for new projects so we can jump back into start sharing stories from the community again.
You’ve done a lot of public speaking. Was this always a passion or is it something that’s evolved over time, and how has it helped you grow your brand?
A mixture of the two I think! I do enjoy public speaking. Don’t get me wrong, sweaty palms and rapid heart beating is the norm, however I tend to enjoy the adrenaline of this and when I’m discussing a topic I feel passionate about, I almost ride that wave of being nervous and speak from the heart. Usually we might go off piste, ha! but for me, that all part of the discussion. If at least one or two people in the audience can take some influence for my experience, then I’ll be happy with that!
It’s a little surreal to think of myself as a brand, however as a freelancer I guess this is our how our industry will see us. From my side, when I give public talks and in particular at universities, I like to be very transparent. I always have the mentality that, there is no such thing as a stupid question, if you don’t know the answer! I feel that this mentality of ‘you know what you get’ is part of my brand and who I am as a human, and as result comes through my persona when working with clients.
“This is why I like speaking with students and graduates, as there seems to be much more of a ‘If they won’t help, I’ll do it myself’ kinda approach to work, which I find truly inspiring.”
Who or what inspires you?
Those who are very proactive and cut through the bull**** within industry and trust me from first-hand experience, there is a lot of that in our industry. This is why I like speaking with students and graduates, as there seems to be much more of a ‘If they won’t help, I’ll do it myself’ kinda approach to work, which I find truly inspiring. On a personal note, my grandpa is someone I find very inspiring! His approach to life and the way he overcomes challenges are ways that I try to incorporate within my own life. He is a very slow to anger and humble man. Plus, he is hilarious and enjoys making people laugh. A positive influence on my life indeed!
A huge part of starting and growing a business is having the right mindset. What are some of the things you do to stay motivated?
Having structure within my day-to-day schedule. From school days, I’ve always been a stickie note, to-do list kind of person. Nothing has changed really. I have begun to give more attention to mental wellbeing by doing yoga with Iria once a week, and I have Spanish classes twice a week. Doing these little things which despite are separate from design work, allows my brain to have another outlet. As a result, when it comes to ‘getting in the zone’ or growing my business, I am certainly in the right mindset and mood to dedicate all my attention and focus. I regularly give talks at universities and participate in student mentoring or workshops which allows me to share experiences but more importantly, it gives me a good idea of how students and young people think and keeps me brain active as I can see and hear first-hand how the new generation of creative designers and thinkers view our industry.
What’s next for you?
So moving forward, I would like to continue working on projects that can have a positive impact on my community and encourage creatives to collaborate more. One creative in particular who I’d love to collaborate with and his work certainly covers the above is Yinka Ilori. His work has such a beautiful connection between design, his heritage and the community. In May, I will be flying out to Washington D.C to give a talk at Creative Pro Week, which will touch on my editorial design work, race and my community. Then exactly a month later, I’m getting married! A busy 2022, but bring it on!