Sarah June Fox

Before Christmas, I vividly recall sitting on the steps of a shop in Drury Street talking to an incredible person about being a woman, the worlds of graphic design, fashion, music and the challenges of being a Canadian living in Ireland.

Since then, Sarah has gained citizenship and is quickly becoming one of the most incredible graphic designers Dublin has to offer – an unbelievable feat having spent the first half of her life touring the country as JJ72’s bass player.

This week’s Extraordinary Women interviewee is Sarah June Fox; an amazingly talented individual who will have you wanting to achieve and learn just as much as she does.

extraordinary-women-minnie-melange-sarah-june-fox

How would you describe yourself both personally and professionally?

Gosh, that’s so hard.

Even on a business card, what would your write about yourself?

Hmm. Well, my Twitter line – which you can only have a few characters in – says Sarah June Fox, designer, print-maker, dislodged Canuck and noise-maker.

From making noise to designing, your career seems to have been quite diverse. Where did it all begin?

Since I was four, I played music and that was all I did until I was about thirty. Back in Canada, I trained as a musician in a very specific music high-school, it was an arts school of sorts. I then pursued music in University and then played music for approximately ten years as my career. I didn’t know anything else, I didn’t do anything else and when that didn’t work out, it was devastating. In retrospect though, it was amazing – I went back to college when I was 31 or 32.

What was that like?

Scary! Being a student is grand when you’re 21 or 22 but being a broke student when you’re in your thirties is a different kind of thing. I took to it really well, though. Being in college as a mature student was amazing though, I really wanted to be there and it didn’t feel like a chore. I think when you move straight from secondary to school to college, it’s your first bit of freedom and perhaps you don’t go to class as much as you should. I was like that in my first degree, I scraped through – I loved it but I needed a little break after high school.

When I was in college, we had several mature students in our year. Some of them had families and studying primary school teaching, that was both an advantage and a disadvantage to them. Instantaneously, they knew what children would enjoy or appreciate but they also had a much bigger personal workload than any of us younger students. How did you find working with students of different ages, when you returned to college?

It’s an interesting balance. The course that I did was hugely demanding and if you didn’t work hard, you failed – regardless of your age. However, people brought such different experiences to the table and that was a real pleasure to see and work with. Graphic design is a technical skill but it’s also hugely creative and imaginative, you get to bring a lot of your personality and personal interests to your work and specific projects. I do think though, that both I and the other mature students really benefited from having a wider range of experience.

What made you choose graphic design after music?

My boyfriend at the time was doing design and it’s kind of as simple as that. I saw what he was doing and I think I had known about design for quite some time but didn’t really know what it was called and didn’t think of it as a ‘thing’. So, when I finally saw that this was something you could pursue and making posters wasn’t just for fun, I began to see it as a career for myself.

Sometimes, the creative individuals are often looked at as having this innate skillset. Beginning a career in graphic design in your thirties, was it something you took to easily or was it an initial challenge for you?

There were a lot of things that I had done previously that were similar to design but I just hadn’t tagged them as that because I really didn’t know what design was. Playing in bands my whole life, I always designed the posters but I didn’t know that I was designing – I was just making a poster for my band. I had an interest in layouts and I had quite good visual awareness but at the same time I was making prints and mono-prints which is similar to design but…

You hadn’t really linked them all to the career of design.

Yes, exactly. I almost fell upon this career that encompassed all of my interests.

You currently work in Atelier David Smith, did you gain that position straight after college?

From college, yes.

What was the job application process like?

In college, Dave was my tutor so it was great that I knew him already. I knew how to work with him and it still feels like a learning experience working with him because he’s so…

Ridiculously talented.

Ridiculously talented! In a way, it still feels like an extension of college but overall, ‘real-world design’ is very different to that of college. Now, I have clients, time-constraints…

Managing relationships is a huge part of your work too, I guess.

Yes, exactly and that was one of the great things about my course – we were constantly presenting our work, which at the time was terrible because I’m quite bad at public speaking and I’m quite shy but it really prepared me for talking about my work and explaining my creative processes – which is amazing.

I imagine that every day for you is different, but what would your average schedule look like?

At the minute, I’m essentially working two different jobs: I’m based in Atelier, three days a week and I work freelance four days a week. I’m often trying to juggle both of them. A day in Atelier, we will often have several projects on, some of them will be coming to a close and you’re dealing with printers and then other jobs are just beginning and they may require research or mock-ups.

How does that compare to working freelance?

I really enjoy the balance of the two. Atelier is amazing and I would definitely work there full-time if I could but the portfolio of work that I do for freelance is very different. However, I do think that I would find permanently working freelance extremely difficult.

Because of the constant demand to pitch ideas to new clients?

Yes, that and also because I’m not a very good time-manager – Work wise, I’m good at scheduling that but I find it very difficult to tell myself to stop working or knowing how much work to take on, that’s one of the things that I’m currently working on.

Whereas when you’re working in an office, when the lights are turned off – it’s a sign for you to go home.

Yes, it’s nice to go to a place of work and come home from work. When I’m freelancing, I could be replying to emails in bed when I wake up and before I go asleep – I find it difficult to just ‘turn off’.

Which is problematic for your mental health, almost?

You really need a different space for working, otherwise you just can’t decipher between work and home. Today, between email and mobiles phones, we’re all available twenty four hours a day, people expect you to be available at all-hours and it takes a really strong person to ‘turn off’.

Particularly with social media, we’re only every 140 characters away from a reply.

It’s a little scary.

You’ve worked on some incredible design projects but what ones are you particularly proud of?

One that I particularly love is the Lennon Courtney project, which are a client of Atelier but it’s my favourite website that I’ve worked on. They’re amazing clients and they always look for a beautiful aesthetic – it’s a dream job! You get to work with amazing clothes and images and our ambition is just to accent that. It was also our first time to work with e-commerce and ‘Shopify’ and that was hugely interesting as I got to learn a new form of code – that’s the nerd in me!

Professionally, you’ve accomplished an incredible amount. First, you had a hugely successful music career with JJ72 and now you’re dominating the domain of graphic design but what remains on your bucket-list for the next ten years?

I’m really not sure. I mean, I’m working my dream job at the minute so I’m happy career-wise but I want to learn more and that’s why I keep taking on new and interesting projects. For example, I’m currently working on a programme for TV3 at the moment and I’ve never worked in the medium of television before and whilst there are huge similarities with other projects, I’m really enjoying the challenge of it and the opportunity to learn from it. My aim for the next decade is really to continue to educate myself and to upgrade my skillset.

That’s really inspiring and something, as a teacher, I would be a huge advocate of. At ‘Offset’ a couple of months ago, I was quite surprised to see how many women were involved and hugely successful in the domain of graphic design. My assumption was that it was a dominantly-male career. Was it that way when you were training?

In colleges across the country, the number of females studying graphic design greatly trumps the number of male students and whether or not they continue on to careers in graphic design is different but in terms of the workplace, I’ve never met any misogyny or nobody has ever discriminated against me, in getting a job, because I am a woman. The only thing that I have ever seen is that clients are sometimes surprised that I’m interested in coding and the technology side of the career but it’s nice to surprise people sometimes!

When I was scribing a list of people who inspire me for this interview series – it was quite long, to say the least but who are the people who impact upon you?

Oran Day in Atelier is a brilliant designer and the way that he thinks and talks about his love for design is extraordinary. When I watch him interact with clients or other professionals, I always learn something new and I’m regularly inspired to do better in my own work.

Finally, earlier this year you took part in The Science Gallery’s ‘Fail Better’ exhibition, what was that experience like?

It was really nerve-wracking. We had to talk for five minutes about failure and when I said that I would do it, I explained my transition from music to graphic design and then I felt a bit like a chancer – I mean, I had quite an enviable music career, on paper but I wasn’t making any money from it and it just didn’t work out but I played some amazing shows and met some incredible people. Was it a failure because it wasn’t profitable? It was an amazing experience and the reaction from it was really lovely – I bared my soul and some may find that embarrassing but I’m really glad that I did it. 

Thank you so much to Sarah for participating in the Extraordinary Women series. Following Sarah on Twitter is something I would wholly recommend – tell her I sent you!

Written by

Sinéad Burke is an academic and a writer with an obsessive interest in fashion, education and 'Extraordinary Women'. She is an ambassador for the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and the National Women's Council of Ireland.