say hi to_ Ben Willett
What is an Art Director? We hear this word thrown around all the time these days and I have been wanting to talk to a successful and inspiring Art Director to get into the nitty gritty of their job, for awhile now. I discovered Ben's Art Direction and Spatial Design work through a friend, when she showed me a photo series he worked on with the talented furniture designers BOWER. I was not only thoroughly impressed and intrigued with his vision and taste, which seemed to have a finger very much planted the pulse of today's creative Zeitgeist, but even more so as I heard about his approach, very vast skill set and genuineness.
If you've been following say hi to_ for some time, you probably already know that to us - humility, genuineness and being easy to work with are as important to us as innovative and compelling work. There is nothing that I take pleasure in more, than finding an exceptional talent who also embodies these qualities. This is precisely why when I, little by little, discovered more about Ben, about the man behind this exceptional work and his impressive and diverse client list (Nike, UNIQLO, Stella +), I was so excited to feature him - as he is just that.
Come join me as I chat with the multi-talented visionnaire about transitioning from working in-house for a big company to going solo in a brand new city, balancing commercial and personal work, how he got clients with such a diverse skill set and the different types of projects he has worked on (Art Director fully explained!)!
| Kristen | Could you please introduce yourself and what you do?
| Ben | Hello, My name is Ben Willett and I design spaces/environments for myself, for brands and for products.
| Kristen | So if we HAD to label you (as much as we hate labels) we could say you are a multidisciplinary Art Director of sorts?
| Ben | I always like to add, “with an emphasis on spaces” since you can be an Art director in 5,000 different disciplines.
| Kristen | Can you explain exactly what it is an Art Director does, in your case? I think a lot of people hear this word thrown around and it would be cool to know exactly what kind of services you would offer or how that role can fit into different teams and projects.
| Ben | For me, it is being a liaison between the high ups, creative or not, and the designers I’m working with. I act like a middle man most of the time concepting, coming up with the big ideas but then also getting hands on and drawing, modeling, photographing with the larger creative team that I am “directing".
Sometimes that creative team is 8 people and sometimes it is one junior designer, who I have hired that I am directing. It all depends on the scope of the project and the client's needs.
| Kristen | So at what point of a project do you come in? I'm just curious to imagine when exactly you get in and start to get your hands dirty.
| Ben | I tend to come in early on in the process. I enjoy coming up with the 'off the wall' ideas that I know will have to really be sold. Then taking those ideas all the way through completion to the moment when the client walks though the space and finally understands what I was pitching months prior.
Each project is different though. Sometimes the brand has a pretty good idea what they want and they bring me in to flesh it out and add a layer of creativity they aren’t able to get on their own.
| Kristen | What did your parents do? How big of a role did that play in your life and did it influence you in one way or another?
| Ben | My dad builds custom homes for rich people in New England and my mom is a social worker. I think it did influence me being around these grand structures, seeing the cement get poured and then going back months later to see a beautiful home erected.
| Kristen | Wow, do they let him have some creative freedom with that? Is he the architect or the contractor?
| Ben | They were definitely not my style of home but the process was amazing. He was the general contractor… Maybe one could say that he was the “Art Director” of the project. He would hire the architect, the plumber, the carpenter etc etc.
I worked for him for a while, but was never good at swinging a hammer. Much better drawing and day dreaming...
| Kristen | Were you always the creative kid in the class?
| Ben | I was… I always cared about fashion, art, music a little more than my friends and knew from an early age that was going to be my life. And somehow it has worked out.
| Kristen | So did you end up going to college? or studying a creative field?
| Ben | I did. I went to two!
| Kristen | Me too..... but I dropped out (twice) oops.
| Ben | I have a degree in Environmental Design - Architecture, Landscape design, city planning. And another degree in Graphic Design. It wasn’t on purpose but it ended up being the perfect mix for the career path I’m on and really how I think spatially.
| Kristen | Wow!! Very ambitious.
| Ben | There aren't really degrees in the field that I’m in. Everyone has a different background. Which is so interesting since I’m always learning from my peers, even the 20 year old kids I hire.
| Kristen | Do you think it was necessary to get a degree to do what you do now? Or do you think it was more the connections you made in College that shaped your career more so?
| Ben | Ummmmmm for me it was. I needed the structure and direction but it is not for everyone… I don’t care if you haven’t finished high school, if you are good you are good bottom line. But don’t drop out of high school kids!
| Kristen | So you worked at Nike for awhile. How did that come about and how did your career evolve there?
| Ben | I did. I've worked with or for Nike in every capacity. I was at an agency for a while leading a team that did all Nike work. Then I went in house for them for a while and then I went out on my own and kept them as a client. It's been really interesting seeing all sides of the company.
| Kristen | When you say Nike work, what do you mean by that? Art Direction for photoshoots and campaigns, retail installations?
| Ben | I primary did retail design for them. We would design global campaigns that then got handed down to different territories… Again very much on the front end of a project.
| Ben | So the windows you see in your local Parisian Nike store were designed by me in Portland at some point, along with many other talented creatives.
| Kristen | Wow so you give the base idea and then it gets tailored for different places?
| Ben | Exactly.
| Kristen | When did you know it was time to go out on your own? What were some of the main contributing factors which persuaded you to quit the corporate grind to go solo and work for yourself? How did you feel you could do your job better by managing your own time in your own way?
| Ben | I realized it was time when I wasn’t happy in my day to day. Being freelance lets me have a closer relationship with the client, so that I can understand their needs and in turn, they can understand why I’m making the decisions I am.
| Kristen | Did you see a big different in your potential or productivity once you were able to manage the projects in your own way as a freelancer?
| Ben | Yes big time. Fortunately, I have gotten to a place where I can be a little bit more choosey about the projects I take on and the people I work with, which allows me to enjoy the work so much more and when I am enjoying the work, what I deliver is better and the client ends up happier and the consumer ends up with a better experience overall. Everyone wins.
| Kristen | It must be something kind of tricky as well for creatives to balance, which clients and projects to choose for creative interest and which ones to choose in order to sustain your studio financially etc
| Ben | This took a long time to get to though.
| Kristen | How do you balance that? Is it a work in progress?
| Ben | Yes I definitely have some projects so I can pay my bills… but I still enjoy them I might just not feature them on my website or tell my grandma about them.
| Kristen | haha My grandpa only wants to know about the big paying ones. Different work for portfolio and for grandparents.
| Ben | Seriously. My grandma only cares if I’m making money. She just worries I don’t eat enough…
"Being freelance lets me have a closer relationship with the client, so that I can understand their needs and in turn they can understand why I’m making the decisions I am."
| Kristen | So are there certain parameters for you at this point which would define like your ideal projects? You have such diverse clients so that is so interesting for me
| Ben | Yes there are definitely parameters… like I said before I want to enjoy the work and if it doesn’t seem like something I will enjoy or a client I believe in I generally pass. I believe in the ethos of most of my clients and we share similar values.
| Kristen | That's really important, I get the feeling that work for you is much more than hustling for money or notoriety and more for values and working with brands and creatives who do really great work.
| Ben | For a while when I was younger I cared a lot about notoriety. But as I’ve gotten older I realize it's more important to me to do quality work even if only 7 people see it. I’ve gotten to a place of balance in my professional and personal life. I think a lot of my clients can feel this balance when they meet me, and in turn end up awarding me projects for this reason.
| Kristen | We love that at say hi to_, we really believe the best creative work comes from people like you who leave their ego at the door and can collaborate on good projects for the right reasons.
| Kristen | So, you moved from the West Coast to New York and started immediately freelancing. How did you start to get your first clients in a New City on your own and how did you advertise or tell people what exactly what it was that you could do?
| Ben | Well I had some Nike work still which kept me afloat so that was nice… But I really wanted to challenge myself as a creative and realized that moving to NYC and being freelance was maybe the biggest risk/challenge I could put in front of myself so I went for it.
I didn’t do any traditional advertising… It was more meeting with people and just reaching out to agencies and brands and presenting my work. I still do that.
| Kristen | Honestly, I give you so much credit, that sounds terrifying (in an exciting way) to go to a city like New York, so hard, fast paced and full of SO many creatives, and starting fresh all on your own. I'm not just kissing your ass but being from New York, I have to say I am seriously impressed with that.
| Ben | hah thank you… This city is not for everyone and I don’t think I’ll be here forever.
| Kristen | I feel like you kind of have your own way of doing things and method to your creative process, doing a little bit of everything in a one man show. You carved out your own niche so to speak. You do retail design, set design, event design - a renaissance man!
Can you tell us a little bit about your creative process when you have a first meeting or a pre-production meeting with a client. How do you sell yourself or explain exactly what services you can provide them?
| Ben | Yeah I have created this interesting space in the creative industry that people most of the time don’t even realize they need or want. So when I go in for a meeting I sort of present my work and let their minds wander a bit on how I could fit into a project they have… I’m pretty elastic in that way where I am very specialized but the range of projects I can be incorporating into in endless.
| Kristen | That is so interesting. So you just go into a meeting and talk about different projects you've worked on (which may be different to things they've done) and different things you're capable of and see how they might interpret that? So they usually call you later once they have digested what you do and once they can imagine how you could add something new or fit into their projects?
| Ben | Exactly. Or they ask me that day if I can jump in on a project which has happened before.
| Kristen | So it is a bit indirect at the beginning?
| Ben | I just know that there are so many opportunities in the world that I don’t put too much pressure on one meeting… If it works out for them and for me that is amazing, but if not something else will present itself.
| Kristen | How many projects do you usually work on simultaneously at a time?
| Ben | Oh boyyyy
| Kristen | haha I know I am asking some toughies.
| Ben | Generally I'd say three active projects… and then some ancillary projects that I’m always working on and concepting that I fit in when I’m in between the paying jobs.
| Ben | Like a photoshoot in my studio.
| Kristen | Was there one thing you were doing most when you first went out on your own as a freelancer? How did you develop your portfolio into different directions and develop all of the aspects of what you now offer?
| Ben | I know a lot of incredible photographers, so I love creating sets with them and putting out beautiful images.
| Kristen | Yes I love what you did with the Bower furniture!
| Ben | Yeah and that was just something I presented them and the photographer with… concepted it, art directed, built the set etc.
| Ben | Those are the fun projects I get to do in between the big crazy ones.
| Kristen | Its really beautiful, the colors and shapes work great with the furniture. I love design furniture but honestly good styling is not THAT common and it is so cool to see both. It makes my life searching for furniture eye candy really pleasurable.
I'm still interested to delve deeper into your specific skills and approach, which seems quite different to a lot of other Art Directors.
| Kristen | Was there one thing you were doing most when you first went out on your own as a freelancer? How did you develop your portfolio into different directions and develop all of the aspects of what you now offer?
| Ben | When I went out on my own I was primarily doing retail design since that is what my portfolio consisted of. Since then I have introduced set design which I have done working with photographers and fashion designers who need someone with my skill set but might not have the budget just yet… those projects are a win for everyone because I can diversify my portfolio and offerings and they get someone with my talents who is eager to jump in and create.
Those projects have given way to some event design which also falls under the same umbrella as “Spatial Design”.
| Kristen | So here is the awkward question that no one likes to ask but everyone is dying to know! How did you know what to charge the first time that you had a client?
| Ben | Hah yeah it was really tough. I asked a few friends who were freelance how they generally charge for projects and then also account managers I had previously worked with what billing looked like for them. I also did a lot of research online… Each city is so different financially, so I wanted to make sure I was charging appropriately for where I was.
| Kristen | I guess you had some experience though when you worked in-house to see budgets etc so you had a ballpark idea.
| Ben | The prices I charged in Portland are so different from what I charge in NY.
| Kristen | Oh I can imagine. It is insane how much more money my friends earn for the same work in New York compared to Paris. In Berlin you earn like 1/4 of New York for the same job.
| Ben | So the first project I did some math and charged on a flat project fee. I sent it over and was so nervous...
| Kristen | The adrenaline rushing!
| Ben | I got an email two minutes later that just read “sounds good”
| Ben | I was like damnit I could have charged double!
| Kristen | ahaha - oh, true.
| Kristen | So do you usually work on a day rate or it is a flat rate for projects or each client is different? How long do your projects usually take? Or its really always so different.
| Ben | Sometimes its a monthly rate… sometimes its hourly. Each client is different and even within a client each project can differ.
| Kristen | I think its nice when people can help each other and collaborating more teaching younger people the way things are done.
| Kristen | I remember when I first started in photo production as an assistant and I just randomly charged 50 euros a day because I had NO idea and of course no one told me because everyone was earning money on me... When I finally found out the real rate to charge, I wish someone would have mentored me a little bit or threw me a bone telling me I was more or less an indentured servant.
| Kristen | What was the most difficult aspect of creating your own creative studio? What do you wish you knew before you started?
| Ben | Well I want to clarify that I’m not really a “studio”… I’ve intentionally not started one because I don’t want to be responsible for other people. Projects are so up and down that I don’t want people relying on me for a paycheck. I think the most difficult thing is dealing with the time when I am a bit slower.
| Kristen | So do you also build your sets? Are you the one who finds other creatives to help you execute your ideas or do your clients handle that? I'm interested to see how you build your team.
| Ben | I build the smaller sets when it is a personal project. When it is a bigger project for a large brand there is a whole team of experts putting it together with my direction. A lot of times I find the other creatives… I have a good network of people I like to work with.
| Kristen | That's so exciting when you can collaborate with really talented creatives to bring your vision to life exactly the way you envision it. Even better when it is with other peoples money hehe
| Ben | hah yeah seriously. The end goal to to have someone give me a chunk of change to do whatever I want.
| Kristen | Your clients are so diverse, from beer to shoes… I can't really imagine how to begin to attack such different projects. What is your approach for that? How do you apply your vision across so many different types of clients as well as different types of clients needs and demographics?
| Ben | Yeah it is actually what keeps me going. I love the diversity and being able to dive deep into a brand I knew nothing about before. Research is key. You can never do enough… Learn about the CEO, learn about the people that started the brand… Learn about their creative process… explore why they used certain materials in the 80’s compared to materials now. Once I have that groundwork and understanding of the brand I can start to create.
| Kristen | You do all of that research with the internet or do you have the liberty to pick everyones minds at the company?
| Ben | A lot of internet… But after I get briefed by a client I got back to them with a number of questions. There is no reason to work on a project if you don’t understand where the brand came from. After all the research, I start developing themes.
| Kristen | I imagine some domaines or types of products or brands would be easier or come more naturally to your creative taste... how do you deal with a brand that is totally different?
| Ben | Yes, I am working for a yogurt company right now and had to start at ground zero. But it has been amazing to learn about their process and why they are doing so well in the marketplace and where they want to continue to grow in the future.
| Ben | Yes after the research phase the initial creative process generally starts with me looking through my camera reel on my iphone.
| Kristen | Photos you've taken or screen shotted or?
| Ben | Taken.
| Kristen | I have like thousands of photos on my phone but none I have actually taken.
| Ben | Its all I do… This city is so insane and so vibrant in the ugliest and most beautiful way I always find myself stopping and capturing something
| Ben | I travel a lot as well which I think is super important to not get stagnant creatively… this helps me diversify the images I’m able to capture.
| Kristen | So how does that generally translate into inspiration afterwards? Moments in time or spaces give you an initial impression or idea and then you translate for projects?
| Ben | For the most part. The other day I was going for a run and these gigantic turkeys were just chilling on the sidewalk… I took so many videos and photos of them just being weird… who knows if it will ever translate into a project but in its own way it was beautiful and I needed to capture it.
| Kristen | Do you have a specific photo or some strange moment you captured that you concretely translated into a later project?
| Ben | Since I think Spatially all the images I take help me collects my thoughts. Once I start a project I go back through my camera reel and see what is relevant… I can always find something and I like sharing that with the client so they know I didn’t just pull something off of Pinterest.
| Kristen | What project that you’ve done do you feel like showcases the most aspects of what you can do creatively?
| Ben | I loved working on the Uniqlo project since we had complete creative freedom and the guys from sixnfive.com I worked with were so great and so talented. I was tasked with creating 3 images that represented Uniqlo’s new “Heat Tech” product line. Concepting the mood, materials, colors and energy of each image I think really showcased what I can do to represent a brands product while still keeping the creative integrity.
I think the Andrea Jiapei Li set design I did last year is a good example as well. Working with a super tight budget we were able to create an environment that highlighted the garments without detracting from them.
| Kristen | So it was using all of your skills with concepting, building and working with budget constraints.
| Ben | I think it shows people that I can work for a big corporate brand and create something beautiful with a big budget but then also work in a small space with no budget and achieve an equally compelling final product.
| Kristen | Yes that is super impressive it is very hard to materialize ideas without money. I guess as you know how to construct, as well as having insight from many different angles, you have the insight on how to be more creative or more industrious with the constraints.
| Ben | Yeah for sure… luckily there are resources all over NYC. I also work closely with the producer of the bigger projects to make sure my designs are within budget.
| Kristen | It's important to have good relationships and communication with the producers.
| Ben | Yeah and when you find a good one it's a God send for a creative. We are difficult people and if they understand us and make us feel like we are on the same team, the project runs much more smoothly.
| Kristen | Do the producers ever try to have some creative control as well, or it works well like you tell them your idea and they propose solutions based on what you want? I have to say I think there is nothing worse than when you need to do the creative and everyone is giving you input. It personally makes me crazy!
| Ben | Definitely… I think its a delicate partnership because they have a job to do as well. I feel like a am good at being democratic within a team but also standing up for my designs.
| Kristen | That is also something difficult to do.. it is really tricky to walk that thin line as a creative.
| Kristen | Do you have a dream project that you’d love to get the chance to tackle?
| Ben | Um im not exactly sure… I'm totally enamored by the Stage Design done by Es Devlin, especially for Kanye West’s Yeezus tour. I think working in that world would be incredible… the sheer scale of everything and the amount of people that are consuming the work would be truly remarkable.
Conceptual drawings during the development phases of the event
| Kristen | I guess you could be quite conceptual as well. It would be fun to create based around music rather than a consumer. I suppose it would be a different take on the creative process.
| Ben | Yes. Music is such a big part of my life and it is something I’ve never gotten the chance to work with. It would be very different but I still think I would use my same process.
| Kristen | So for me it's really fascinating to have picked your brain as you really have such a broad skill set... It's inspiring for me as an 'Art Director' as well, because I don't do all of the same types of things as you, although I have a vague idea about some of the different things what you do. It's been really interesting to learn more about it and see how you can tackle such diverse projects.
Best coffee in New York?
Best place to get a drink in New York?
Amor y Amargo - East Village, Amaro bar, Best negroni in NY
Hotel you would stay in if you weren’t from New York?
Hmm thats a tough one. The Standard Highline is fun. The Wythe in Brooklyn, very good restaurant. I don't really know the others!
Best unknown shop?
Sincerely Tommy, Bed Stuy
Best place to take clients in New York?
The library at the Nomad Hotel is a good spot