D&AD's Laura Jordan Bambach on moving the design industry forward

Bambach's career path is one that ambitious designers can learn from

If you're looking for a role model in the world of design, you could do far worse than Laura Jordan Bambach. She's recently moved from being creative director of Dare to become creative partner at Mr President. She's also co-founder and director of campaign organisation She Says. And this autumn she stepped up from vice-president to become president of D&AD, the veteran organisation that exists to promote excellence in design and advertising worldwide.

Starting to hate her already? Then be prepared for disappointment, for she's one of the most disarmingly approachable members of the design elite you're ever likely to meet. Genuinely keen to share the secrets of her success, the Australian speaks with a frankness that's refreshing in its honesty.

That frankness caused a few cultural misunderstandings, though, when she first came to work as a designer in London in 2001...

Cultural clashes and dotcom crashes

"I really struggled with the cultural difference between Australia and the UK at first," she says. "For example, a creative director would say: 'Yeah, that's almost right, maybe you could change one little thing'. But actually they meant: 'Your work is a bit shit, can you do it again?' Whereas in Australia, they just would have said: "Oh, that's a bit shit, can you do it again?" So I found myself fussing around the edges of work I'd done, when basically I needed to chuck it out."

To make matters worse, Bambach arrived at Simon Waterfall's agency deepend right at the time of dotcom crash. But then she lucked out, getting a job as a senior designer at Lateral a couple of weeks before deepend had to make its entire staff redundant.

"It was certainly a struggle for quite some time working in digital because the industry had been hit so badly," she recalls. "But I think that we at Lateral were saved because we were small. They had a rule that there would never be more than about 30-35 people working there, so it was a much more controllable atmosphere."

"I'm just passionate about making great things. That has always been the thing that's propelled me"

From there, the only way was up. After two years at Lateral, she became head of design at I-D Media (2003-4), then head of art at Glue London (2005-2008). Next came the big one: Bambach was appointed group creative director at LBI in 2008, and was shortly after promoted to executive creative director (2009-2012).

Then, in January last year she moved from LBi to Dare, where she was creative director until 31 October this year, when she joined EDC-backed digital agency Mr President as creative partner.

Finding the confidence

It's the sort of rapid-fire career progression that many dream of - so how did she pull it off? "You need to just have enough belief that you're going to do these things," she responds. "Or at least if you fuck them up then it's okay.

"When I took the job as LBi's group creative director, for example, it was a really big step for me. But Chris Clark (chief creative officer international) had faith in me that I could come in and change the agency. I remember being slightly terrified. But you go into these things and you just do them."

Confidence, of course, has to come from somewhere. For Bambach, it's the fact that: "I'm just passionate about making great things. That has always been the thing that's propelled me. I've been very focused in what I what out of my career. I want to make awesome things that contribute to people's lives. That's been my focus, and I'm lucky that that's taken me into interesting places, into interesting jobs."

Questioning the hierarchy

Passion is essential to career success, she believes - although she qualifies what she means by success. "I think there are people who are passionate about ideas and about shaping them for an audience, and there are people who are passionate about design, and that is an equally valid job," she says.

"I think the shame of the industry at the moment is that the creative director's really revered as being the best possible job. But there are lots of massively important jobs that kind of get overlooked. If you're, for example, a design director you should never feel you're losing out."

Another reason some designers lose out is to do with their gender, and this led Bambach to co-found She Says - an international volunteer organization encouraging women to take up digital creative careers.

SheSays supports women in the creative and marketing industries: "We thought rather than whinging, we should do something"

"I founded it in 2007 with a woman called Ellie Laria who's now in the States," she explains. "When I was at Glue she was at Agency Republic. We were in charge of hiring people for our agencies. We couldn't see any female CVs. And we thought rather than whinging, we should do something about it.

"So we organised an event, at Dare, to get women together to talk about the issues. And what we found is that the group itself was a powerful thing and lots of really interesting ideas came from it. So we started monthly events and have grown from there all over the world."

Gender imbalance

So what can the industry do to change things? "There's a range of different issues," Bambach replies cautiously. "There's an issue about the way women are still treated or perceived. Maybe not consciously, but it's something that's reflected in the kind of projects that you get put on, or in the fact that you have to be about five times better than a guy to get the same respect.

"Conversely, there's an issue around how women perceive themselves, around confidence, around the ability to sell yourself. When I was at Glue, I was interviewing for Flash designers and I had a guy and a girl come in for the same job. Both had the same amount of experience. And I asked: 'How much experience have you got?', and the guy said: 'Oh, I've got six months' experience so I could do the job.' And the girl said: 'Oh, I've only had six months' experience.'

"In reality their portfolios were the same and their experience was the same. But to take credit, to publicly praise yourself, those things can be much more uncomfortable for women."

Taking the helm at D&AD

As if all this activity wasn't enough, in October 2012 Bambach became vice president of the pioneering design charity and awards organisation D&AD, working alongside then-President Neville Brody and the Board of Trustees.

She'd been involved in D&AD since her time at Lateral. "But it was really when I was at Glue that started to do quite a lot of work, judging the student awards and mentoring the students," she recalls.

D&AD is best known for its awards - but that's by no means all it does

Judging a major design contest might sound glamorous but, Bambach reveals: "It can be quite exhausting. In the digital categories, for example, you have so many entrants and you spend every night for a week and a half doing prejudging, just to get down to a shortlist."

There's no way you can rush things, either: "You do want to give every single piece of work enough time so that you understand it properly. And that can be difficult, especially in an international context when you're trying to understand what it means for India, for Vietnam, for Japan or whatever.

"So that really takes time and you need to be really careful. With more complex work, the integrated stuff, the digital stuff, you need to understand the context in which it's being viewed. You need to understand the different branches of it. They're complicated pieces of work to get across."

New perspectives

Judging others' work "makes you appraise work in different ways, take on other points of view"

Of course, there are good parts to the job as well. "The actual coming together of judges is quite exciting," she smiles. "And it's really inspirational personally. You get to spend three days basically locked in a room with a whole bunch of really amazing people having really amazing conversations.

"It's a great thing for you as an industry professional because it really makes you appraise work in different ways, take on other points of view, and you come out of it really inspired to look at your own work in a different way."

Education, education, education

Now President of D&AD, Bambach is on a mission to, as she puts it "make the best industry body better". It's partly about "making sure we're pushing the educational aspect of D&AD as hard as we can. We've set up a foundation and we're doing lots of grass roots work".

"Although we've always been about standing for creative excellence and helping and supporting people through lifelong learning, we've not necessarily been as good at talking about it as we could," she admits.

"My focus this year is to make sure we're showing the great work we're doing a little bit more, so we don't just get seen as an awards organisation. Every single cent that we earn goes back into helping young people in their careers."

Bambach wants to strengthen D&AD's global links, this summer travelling to Kyoorius in India

She's also keen to strength D&AD's international ties, most recently meeting the Indian design community at the Kyoorius design conference. The experience was a positive one. "We're perceived around the world as being a really prestigious organisation," she reports. "The awards particularly are seen as the toughest in the world to win, the one's that have the most value.

Her plan is to build on this reputation and spread the word about all the educational stuff D&AD does beyond the awards. "I want to make some of the stuff we do a bit more open and, to appeal to a broader audience," she enthuses. "To make sure people who would like to get involved in D&AD have a way in which they can get involved. More approachable, fun, unconventional, all of those things."

You can find out more about the work of D&AD on their website.

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