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Phillip J. Clayton

We’re ending out the month of November with the second part of my conversation with the one and only Phillip J. Clayton. (If you missed the first part of this interview, check it out here.)

After sharing his thoughts on brand purpose, we started discussing our experiences with art and education, and he spoke about facing limitations in school due to dyslexia and feeling misunderstood by teachers and other authority figures. Phillip also talked about his experiences working with renowned brands (including PepsiCo), judging creative work, the evolving nature of packaging design, the need for a holistic view of design.

Big thanks to Phillip for such a wide-ranging conversation!

Interview Transcript

Maurice Cherry:

All right, so we’ve spent a lot of know time, you know, talking about the work that you do through your studio; a lot of your brand identity work and such. But I want to kind of shift the conversation so we can learn more about you. Like, what’s the Phillip J. Clayton origin story? So…you’re originally from Jamaica, is that right?

Phillip J. Clayton:

Yes. Born and grew here.

Maurice Cherry:

How would you describe growing up there?

Phillip J. Clayton:

I grew up on a high point of a mountain — like a cold area. A cold part of the country, in a parish. So I grew up in a small town where it was a lot of mostly religion. So for me, I grew up in religion, Christianity specifically. There’s this traditional kind of way of doing things, and I felt kind of trapped inside myself. That’s what it was like for me, artistically, creatively, it’s more traditional for me. It was very frustrating growing up, honestly.

Maurice Cherry:

Now, your father, from doing my research, your father was in advertising, and he was also sort of a fine artist. Was that kind of a bit of a dichotomy between this sort of difficult growing up?

Phillip J. Clayton:

Part of my childhood, I think, was spent trying to be this great artist like my father, then learning about his profession in advertising, trying to become that as well. A little pressure I guess, I placed on myself. That was an outlet, for sure. Spending time with him in his office and watching him do what he does and then mimicking him. It was an outlet where I could express everything.

Then he started teaching me how to do. My first lesson in art was drawing was a tonal scale. So he taught me how to use one pencil to create from dark to light. It’s a gray scale, basically. So that’s where I started. And, oh, music. He’s also a classical guitar player, so I learned that as well, each day with practice. So I had my outlets. My mother did embroidery, so I was surrounded by art books and design. And my sister, she also was a great writer. So I got all of this stuff around me. So they were in the house. It was great.

It’s when I left the house, that’s when I had my challenges. I wasn’t like most of the children I knew, my cousins included. So I guess I had this big dream of what my childhood should be. But I was still on a massive property. But at the same time, I wanted to maybe a lot more creatively. I wasn’t really into games and stuff like that. I just cared about being really good at art and design.

That’s the summary of my childhood, really. Everything I did was in art or design. Sports didn’t really work out for me.

Maurice Cherry:

So you had this, really, sounds like super creative home life. Did that kind of influence you once you went off to college?

Phillip J. Clayton:

Yes. When I got to college, that was interesting. I felt like I knew so much already. That might be ego, but when I got there, it was definitely because of my childhood. And at that time, I still didn’t know if I wanted to be an artist or not. I was just doing it. It was a question of whether I was conditioned to do…to be creative or am I really someone who likes creating? So college was that journey for me, but I was mostly bored there because it was like, again, I want more. And what I was doing is what I did at home.

I learned techniques. I won’t put it all down. I learned new techniques, but it was too academic for me. It didn’t feel like a creative environment. It felt more academic.

Maurice Cherry:

What all sort of things were you doing there?

Phillip J. Clayton:

After my first year? You do everything in the first year and then you choose second year. I went into painting, and then I moved from that to sculpting. And then…what do you call them? Not majors, like your secondaries. I don’t know what they’re called.

Maurice Cherry:

Your minors?

Phillip J. Clayton:

Yeah, like minors. So I did photography, printmaking. I did not get to do graphic design. I was not even allowed in the class because I guess the teacher didn’t see me as a graphic designer. But ironically, though…so it was all fine art. It was photography, sculpting, painting, and printmaking.

Maurice Cherry:

The teacher didn’t let you in the class? Like, you couldn’t even enroll?

Phillip J. Clayton:

Yeah, they give you this test, and to this day I hate that. And when I was…any job I went to and they said, “there’s a test”, I turned it down and said, “I’m not interested in that.” Because of that experience, most people saw my work that I did for this test, and they said, “but you’re really good at this!” But whatever the reason was…this lecturer there, he didn’t see me as a valid candidate or something. And the same thing happened with architecture. For me, in terms of high school, I’ve been experiencing these kind of things, so again, I’ve been forced into art.

So I had to really decide what I like, but I wasn’t allowed to do anything technical for some reason. I don’t know if it caused my dyslexia, or I don’t know if I was presenting myself the right way. So I can never be sure, but I was turned down essentially, so I just stuck to art. Design was something I was really in love with as well, but for some reason, I just couldn’t get into design. Architecture is something I love, but again, I wasn’t in high school, I wasn’t allowed to do the technical drawing class, whatever the reason was. I do not know to this day. Industrial design, all these things fascinated me. But the art school didn’t have that.

It was art and graphic design, and I found it quite mundane. I was like, where’s the intrigue?

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah.

Phillip J. Clayton:

So that was the experience for me. It didn’t work out well in the end. It’s a joke around my friends that I was asked to leave the art school. So, I think I can conform well — I think that was it, actually. Yes, I remember that statement. I think he asked me a question. He said that, the graphic design teacher. He said, “I don’t appear to be the student that will do what he asks.” So that was my experience constantly.

I don’t think they knew how to relate to me or relate or engage me. I was very dyslexic, and I have a lot of other cognitive stuff going on, and I guess I just didn’t fit into that mold that they wanted. So my entire college experience was me always feeling challenged to live up to some expectation, which I couldn’t because it’s not in my personality to do that. But I wasn’t being rude or anything. I just couldn’t fit into what they wanted. I was very expressive. My fine artwork was very dark as well, so there’s some personal stuff there. And I guess they couldn’t see beyond that.

But I did all my work. But if I may share this on here — when I was asked to leave, I don’t know why, but I found out some years later that it was for drug abuse and being a threat to the school. I was told all this is false, and I never did any of that there. There’s a lot of details to that whole process, so it was very insulting. I felt demotivated after that for a while, but today, it’s not true. Just want to make that record clear. I don’t know where it came from, but nobody asked my opinion on it. They just asked me to leave the school. So that was that college experience.

Maurice Cherry:

You know, as you describe that, that reminds me so much of my own high school and college experience in a different way, but I think in the same feelings of authority, not being able to know what to do with someone like you. And so because they don’t know how to handle — handle is probably not the right word — they don’t know what to do! That’s kind of just the best example that I can give.

I mean, when I was in high school, my teachers — especially my senior year — my teachers, my guidance counselor were like, actively not only trying to fail me because I was set up to be valedictorian, and they didn’t want that. This was a whole race thing in the South. There’s that. But then also my guidance counselor not allowing me to get certain applications to schools or to get application fee waivers, saying things like, “well, why don’t you…have you thought about learning a trade? Have you thought about going to the community college and learning HVAC or welding or something like that?”

And then in college, I mean, it wasn’t as similar as to what your experience is, but certainly…I started out in computer science, and didn’t like it because I wanted to be a web designer. My advisor literally telling me, “if you want to go into the Internet, that’s just a fad. So if you want to do that, you should probably change your major”…which I did. I changed it to Math, and I kind of sailed through on that. But it sounds like it’s just this textbook case of authority not knowing what to do with someone who doesn’t fit into their kind of rigid standards. And I feel like — and maybe I’m grossly generalizing here, please stop me if I am — but I wonder if part of it also was the fact that you said you grew up in this really religious environment, and that there’s sort of this kind of staid structure that comes with that. I mean, I grew up in a really religious town, too, so I know what that’s like.

Phillip J. Clayton:

Well, I mean, according to things I’ve heard in my own family, not my parents, like my relatives, I’m the only person like me in the entire generation. And we go way back. Chinese and European mix. Right? But everything you said is actually all my academic experiences. It’s everything you just said. And are you familiar with Frederick Nietzsche?

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah.

Phillip J. Clayton:

Right. So the will to power, which Hitler misused grossly, is what, in my adult age, that I discovered that, hey, this is the problem. And I love Jamaica, don’t get me wrong, but how I speak about [the] country professionally and academically, a lot of people don’t like it.

Well, I won’t say if you agree, but if you understand the concept of replacing managers with employees who want to be managers, was something I heard, that no employee hates the manager. They hate that the manager is doing what they’re doing to them. So basically they want to be the manager so they can do it to somebody else.

Jamaica for me, is very prudish, and that’s what I think leads to the academic experience we do have. High standards in terms of other courses or disciplines in the academic area. A lot of people do very well because we have this; I think we’re in Cambridge or something, I can’t remember. But at the same time, when you get into the professional space or the creative space, what my perception of it was, oh, you just replaced the Europeans with yourselves. So [you] use the same rules, same approach, same everything. Nothing’s changed.

The managers have changed. They’re now Black Jamaicans, and Jamaican is not even race. It’s an ethnicity. So you just replace the managers. It’s the same rules. So I’m supposed to not live up to my true potential by Frederick Nietzsche. I think it wasn’t even his originally. But anyway, the will to power, where the philosophy or the belief that society limits great thinkers from living up to their full potential. I was considered a rude child in my early school days, or not rude, or not paying attention, one of those two, because of my dyslexia and that knowledge of what dyslexia was, I guess, wasn’t that common back then.

So, yeah, the entire education experience was not great for me. I’ve helped put schools on the map regarding competitions I entered. I either won them or came second or something. I usually get one of three; first, secnd, or third, but the school was proud of that. And I’m not saying a lot of people…I’m not saying I was treated horribly by teachers or anything, but in terms of learning, they didn’t know how to teach me. And I’m probably one in the whole class that has this problem, or maybe more, or they didn’t know. So it was like, if you didn’t fit into this thing, you’re on the outside. And we know all the stories of successful people who have the same stories of teachers berating them, and they literally coming out in the exact opposite of what a teacher said they would be.

I’ve had that experience, and I guess that’s what my journey is on. But, yeah, everything you said about what you experienced is my entire education experience. And I had to leave to discover who I am and all that. Because sometimes these things come in disguise, right? So being kicked from college wasn’t…at first, it was demotivating, and I felt I didn’t feel valuable, which was a common problem with my childhood as well, not feeling smart, intelligent and valuable. I think all the experiences I’ve had forced me to discover myself and my strengths. So I guess there are blessings in disguise in spite of how horrible the experiences were.

Maurice Cherry:

I mean, as you tell me all of this. It starts to make perfect sense as to why you started your own studio back in 2001. If all of this is going on and you know in your mind that you can do this and you strike out on your own and do it, it makes perfect sense.

Phillip J. Clayton:

Yeah. And then keep in mind that I’m only starting with the little knowledge I knew then, right? I’m trying to sell a creative service or my talents. And without the business knowledge I have now, it wasn’t as great, but, yeah, I had to. I was like, “I can’t be these people. I can’t be that good student, that good employee, that anything. I need to show my value.” And that’s what I did. As you rightly said, I was forced to do that.

But it did help me get 9-to-5 jobs after, when I needed my sustainability sorted out. It was the freelance work that I did that got me the jobs, not my qualifications.

Maurice Cherry:

I didn’t go to design school. I got my degree in Math, and I worked jobs after I graduated, and I couldn’t get anything with a Math degree. I mean, one of my jobs –actually, I was still in school, but this was right after I graduated. I was working at the local symphony and art museum and stuff, like selling tickets. And I remember the day that I graduated. I had to go to work that evening. I still had an evening shift. And they had taken the calculator away from my station, because they have these little stations where people come in lanes and that’s where you sell tickets at. And they took my calculator away, and my manager was like, “well, you got a Math degree now, so you don’t need this.” And it’s like, just rub the salt deeper into the wound.

And the jobs I had after that were all, like, customer service type jobs. I did telemarketing for the opera. I was a customer service agent for AutoTrader, which is sort of like this used car marketplace kind of thing. And I was doing design stuff on the side. Like, I was going to the local Barnes and Noble bookstore and taking pictures because I couldn’t afford to buy the books because they were too expensive. I was, like, taking pictures in the books and then taking them back home and using my cracked version of Photoshop to try to teach myself how to make gradients. You know what I’m saying? How to do all this stuff. And my first design job was off of that. It wasn’t because I went to school for it or anything.

Yeah, it takes a lot of guts to strike out on your own like that. Especially that young. So my hat goes off to you for that.

Phillip J. Clayton:

I appreciate that. And just like you, I sort of learned design through jobs or freelancing because my father didn’t grow up in a time of…didn’t do work in a time of computers. So the first time I got a computer, I didn’t think Photoshop was even out yet. But when Photoshop came out, I dove right in. And this is the artistic knowledge that helped me with design. My knowledge of lighting and shadows and stuff like that. It helps me with design.

Some of the best designers actually studied art first. Whether they graduated or not is irrelevant, but they studied art first or they knew art first. But like you, it’s something I learned as well in my teen years, and said, put the best foot forward. I’m sure you’re familiar with that. So what you’re doing in terms of jobs, I consider that survival. But what you put up front when you get the opportunity is, I’m a designer, and that’s kind of what I did.

How I got into professionally doing design is like, yes, art, I’ll do whatever I need to do to survive. But when I’m really selling? I’ll never tell people I’m trying to work with that I’m an artist.

Maurice Cherry:

Now. You’ve worked with a ton of different clients, I’m sure, over the years. I mean, starting in 2001, you’ve worked with, I’m sure, dozens to hundreds of different clients. What are some of the projects that you’re the most proud of?

Phillip J. Clayton:

When I was in production entertainment, that was the first time I understood management, because the team left me in charge of an entire comedy tour for three days, meaning there’s no other management person there. They said they have to do another show, so they trusted me to do this one, and I did it. That was my first time, and I felt really proud of that because…I don’t know if you know Red Stripe Light, not the original red Stripe beer. They had created this light beer, and they were promoting it through this comedy tour. So I was literally traveling around with all the people that worked on the show, and I’m representing the creative side, the art team. So the set design, all of that, I had to ensure we had our plans and everything. I had to follow that three times, morning and evening. So set up, pull down for three days. I had to ensure that that show went on not just for live performance, but for television as well. So that was my first time.

My second one, which I think I’m most proud of, is how I got into brand design, was I helped to relaunch…I was one of the people that helped to relaunch the PepsiCo identity. 2008, Arnold Group Identity, here in Jamaica. I believe Guatemala had got the ownership at that time, so it was on their directive. But I left printing and went right into relaunching this new identity for PepsiCo America through PepsiCo Jamaica. And at first I was like, “can I actually do this? It’s intimidating.” But I was working with an agent, a small design house at a time, so the director there got a contract and we launched it off. But then I became the key person to maintain the brand standards, to make sure that everything went out. So now I’m learning about brand and understanding the value, financial value, and the value to the company, the importance of the brand. And we also rebranded a local Pepsi Jamaica water brand here. It was a full stack, like nine years. Whole nine years, we did it all. And that was the first time I really embraced this idea of brand design.

I was all around brands, but that’s when it moved from graphic design and, “oh, this thing is here, this is interesting” kind of thing. That was kind of the experience for me. So that’s my most proud career moment, I would say. It was a big responsibility and we did achieve the objectives. Yeah, to this day it still looks, when you look back at the work, it looks really good. And just to be part of that, I think just to say I worked on that, that’s something we’re proud of. Being in Kingston, Jamaica, that I actually worked on something, an international brand like that.

I’ll only mention one more. There are a few others. I can’t remember them all, there’s so many because I don’t have favorites. By the way, it’s very difficult to pick a favorite. My idea of favorites is that it’s too partial, I think, because every project I worked on, if I’m going to pick something that was really proud of, it had to be on the value and impact it had. So that’s why Pepsi is one of those. But every product I’ve worked on, when the solution comes together, that’s great for me. And I think they’re all great products, but in terms of magnitude, PepsiCo is one of those. The Guinness, I don’t know what year anniversary we had to wrap an entire entertainment location for the Guinness anniversary some years ago, so we wrapped it all in black with the gold logo, standing out and curated experience for the guest. From the dishes all the way up to the music. That’s another impactful project. But I guess more on the event side, less on the consumer experience side. But, yeah, PepsiCo is one that stands out to me this day. I think it was the launching pad for me.

Maurice Cherry:

Red Stripe. PepsiCo. I mean, those are two huge brands. It really sounds like those helped to…I think whenever you get a really big project or you get a really sort of visible project, it really cements personally that you’re on the right path. You know what I mean?

Phillip J. Clayton:

Yeah. It’s an acknowledgement that you are capable or you’re knowledgeable about this thing. And the fact that they even spoke to me or asked me, was something — was acknowledgment that I can actually help them. And I think that’s the most important part of any profession, is that you are not needed as much. So much so you’re wanted. I think wanted even in your personal relationships, when you’re wanted, is way better than being needed. And that’s what happened, is I was introduced. I’m often recommended for stuff. So that was a recommendation as well. I didn’t apply for it. I wasn’t looking for it. I didn’t know it even was happening. I was recommended for the project. So that was a great feeling for me.

Maurice Cherry:

Nice. Now, it’s funny you mentioned that about sort of how it’s this kind of validating thing, because now what you’re doing is probably a lot of validation for other creatives and creatives teams, which is you’re judging. You’re a brand and a marketing judge with PAc Global for their Leadership Awards. How did you first get involved with them?

Phillip J. Clayton:

I was invited; again, another form of acknowledgment. I was invited through LinkedIn by the CEO, actually, in 2018, I believe, which is also happening this year. Again, I think I mentioned that off. I’m currently judging designs right now, but I was invited. Interestingly, I wasn’t thinking about being a judge, but I used to give my own critiques. I didn’t want to share things on any social media platform alone. I wanted to actually give my view on it, and I started to do that so I’d write my review of the thing I shared. Whether it’s a package design or brand identity, I actually write my perspective on what was done, the goods, anywhere that fell short.

I think just because I did that consistently and still doing it today, is that it got his attention. And I think we connected before, sometime before. And he invited me to be part of the commission, which is a global commission, and PAC has been around since 1950. I’m the only Jamaican on there, by the way.

Maurice Cherry:

Nice.

Phillip J. Clayton:

I’m not sure if I’m the youngest. I’ll be 41 in December, so I don’t know if I’m the youngest, but I’m the only Jamaican on there. And I guess in many ways, everyone there is one person from their own countries as well. But because of the context of design and art in Jamaica, where it’s either traditional, there are some great people here, but you don’t really see it because everything dominates it. So being the only Jamaican in there, a small Caribbean island that’s really business-oriented, if I’m being honest with you, we’re known to be creative, but we’re mostly business. I think it’s a great stage for me to be on. Most Jamaicans don’t know that I have them on international stage just by being a member there. It’s a very proud moment.

I was invited on and I accepted, and it’s just been a great journey. But you learn from it. You have to be very objective. And I like to make sure that creative people understand that when you’re looking at design or art, you have to be. Critiques are supposed to be objective. Your subjective parts are there, but it’s really supposed to be an objective view. And that’s what the judging experience is, because you’d see something really amazing. And if you’re not careful, you end up giving that particular project really high marks, and then you realize “but then this other thing is here.”

So how do you judge these two things? They’re both great. So you have to really get into the objectivity of the design and the purpose behind it.

Maurice Cherry:

I was just about to ask this. It sounds like you’re kind of segueing into it. I’m also an awards judge, and I don’t think a lot of judges really talk about how they approach judging creative work. So I’m glad that you mentioned that objectivity. When you’re looking at work, especially now, since you’re in the middle of this judging process, how do you approach it? Do you have like a rubric, or are there certain things that you take into account as you’re judging creative work?

Phillip J. Clayton:

Yeah, generally as a professional courtesy, it also helps you with client work as well. There are criteria that you have in mind of what makes this project a great product or this design a great solution. The good thing is PAC, and I’m sure other judging commissions, they have their criteria listed out as well. And you’re really looking for these projects that meet. They’ve already narrowed down the entries anyway, so you’re judging what you’re given and you’re going to basically see if these projects meet these criteria. Outside of that, you also have to use your own judgment on how they meet the criteria. You’re allowed to write your review of the project so you can rationalize the decision in the context of maybe it met one criteria, it didn’t meet the other one, or maybe it did in a way that is not as upfront, but it actually meets the criteria. It’s actually achieving the objective it stated it was supposed to achieve.

So it’s always approaching it based on, for me personally, it’s about the design. For me, it’s function and then aesthetics is part of design, but it’s more on what I call emotional responses. The aesthetics is used to wrap up a design solution to make it appealing the human response, but the design has to function as intended. Or unlike art, where it’s subjective, design has to actually work. If it doesn’t work, then it just failed. So I use that as one of my criteria.

In terms of packaging design, I always look for shelf positioning. That’s the first point of contact a consumer has with the design is before they even touch it, what got their attention, what will get them to go and interact with this design. So I look for shelf positioning in terms of packaging design. And I guess you could translate that into other forms of design where…how do you get people to interact with this? I always look for the function. I understand things like simplicity is often misunderstood with minimalism, but it’s not. Minimalism is a philosophy, a way of thinking, and simplicity is the functional side. So my favorite types of designs are the ones that are the simplest. If they’re really simple and have great impact. I love that one. I actually use the word love, not in my critique, but I’m saying it here. The simpler design with a greater impact, that’s a great design for me. So I look for those things. But the commission has its own criteria that we use.

Maurice Cherry:

What do you gain from being an awards judge?

Phillip J. Clayton:

Professionally, the learning never ends, and I’m always looking to learn more, add more knowledge to what I have already. But there’s also a professional status with it. The fact that you’re judging designs mean that you’re somebody worth talking to. I think it’s a big responsibility that you should never take for granted. I mean, anybody that’s put in charge of judging anything should never take that for granted. But it should also mean that you are a worthy conversation regarding knowledge and teaching, passing on that knowledge.

The lessons in judging design is you have to separate yourself. Detachment is a great thing that you can learn from design, from judging. You have to detach yourself, your personal assumptions. It’s invaluable regarding your client work. The same experience of judging can be applied to client work, and that’s how it has helped me in a lot of ways. I can detach myself from my assumptions or what I like. I can also speak to the client differently. I can listen more, to listen and observe before and respond appropriately. I know this is the right way and this is how you should do this and do that. But when you’re judging things, none of that really comes into play.

Because now it’s not about you. And in your client work, it’s not about you. It’s about understanding what the intent of the client is regarding speaking to you. And they have to trust that you are somebody who can help them. You don’t have to know all the answers, but you should be able to, in a very short space of time, through a conversation, be viewed as an expert, a professional that can actually solve problems, that you learn that a lot from judging other people’s work. That comes from art school as well. Judging art, critiquing art is the same process. When you’re critiquing art, it’s not about what you like or don’t like.

It’s always about objectivity. And I think a lot of that’s missing from the client process. So that’s what I’ve definitely gained from know.

Maurice Cherry:

It’s interesting that you mentioned that about objectivity, because sometimes what will happen, and I don’t know if this is such the case with PAC Global, but sometimes awards are just sort of an extension of marketing for companies. Like they’ll just build it into their budget. Like whatever project they’ve got going on, they’ll just automatically submit them, not necessarily whether or not they fit within a particular category or they meet a certain standard level or things like that.

I often find that when I am — it depends on the competition I’m judging — but I’ll always see the same studios producing the same work, and then sometimes I’ll know the studio just from viewing the work. Like, I won’t even have to look at who it’s from. I’m like, “oh, this is from such and such because they use this exact same template with four different clients.” They just did a color swap and switched out typography or what have you. So, yeah, it helps to try to be objective about it, even when you can see what looks just like a lot of repetition, because for companies, they may not even be looking at the acclaim that they get from awards as something that has any other merit aside from just getting them more business.

Phillip J. Clayton:

Yeah. One of the reasons that I absolutely love packaging design is that it’s an extension of the brand, and it’s often one of the first point of contact for consumers. The unboxing experience for consumers is also a very tangible part of that whole design process. Technology, and I guess molds and stuff like that, can limit your packaging design capability, but creativity is found in the limitations, right? So if this is what you have to work with, then you find a creative way to leverage what you have. And that’s what packaging design. Well, great packaging design.

That’s what it does. It finds ways of making this mundane thing very interesting. It can be little changes, whether it’s the actual graphic design on it or is the type of cap, but it’s the same bottle. You can use the same container and do amazing things. And I know exactly what you’re talking about regarding templates because I’ve seen it outside of packaging. I don’t know all the judging. I’ve never been part of anyone. But in terms of designs that are shared on social media or case studies, there are some agencies that stand out, or some designers, because you cannot be so unique.

But it doesn’t look like anything you’ve seen before, or they’ve leveraged something you’ve seen before in a much more interesting way. Packaging design with PAC, the submissions are always unique in that context of being unique, and that’s one of the best parts about it for me. The agencies, the clients — even clients submit their own packaging designs, or the agency submits it on behalf of them. So you get a diverse group of people submitting designs. We do have the big brands, obviously, and they may improve on something they already have out there. And you judge that, and that’s also a very valuable thing. But in terms of…my favorite part is either improvements on existing packaging designs from established brands or new products being launched from smaller agencies. They are very experimental on that side because they’re not as known as the big brands, but they submit some really interesting designs and it’s just exciting to see what they’ve done. Like, “oh, I didn’t know you could do that with this thing.”

And then we’re in an age of technology now, right? Packaging design is changing. We have the brand extensions moving beyond the package itself. What’s the consumer shopping experience like? So the ultimate goal in the end is to have the consumer have a great experience. So packaging design, for me is a great place to understand a lot about design, a lot about art, a lot about craftsmanship.

I only say this because you’ve mentioned that some of these agencies, the templates, you can tell who they are. Because if you have a style in design, I think you have a problem, because every strategy is supposed to be different, right? So if you have a style, it kind of means that you haven’t really giving different clients the same thing, doesn’t it? So, yeah, I like packaging design because it’s very difficult to be the same there. It’s just more difficult to stand out, more challenging. I don’t like saying hard. Difficult is a better word because hard probably means it’s never going to happen, but difficult means there’s a challenge to overcome there.

Maurice Cherry:

Well, I think you also just have more opportunities for innovation with packaging design than you do for the web. For what it’s worth, it’s a kind of staid medium. That’s not to say that there isn’t innovation that exists, but I judge the PRINT Awards from PRINT Magazine. And I am amazed every year —

Phillip J. Clayton:

I love PRINT.

Maurice Cherry:

— at the new stuff that comes through. I mean, things that I never would have thought about in terms of how people have packaged certain things. And the good thing with PRINT is that it’s not just packaging design, but it’s also experiential design. So you can see how people have designed spaces like a gym or an office building.

And to me…I just really love it. I also judge podcasts, and if you want to talk about repetition and podcasting, I’m not going to say any names, but there’s a certain company that rhymes with “water bowl” that sweeps every year, and I’m just like, it’s the same stuff over and over. You got some celebrity to get behind the microphone and interview other celebrities. Like, where’s the innovation?

Phillip J. Clayton:

I’m hoping to get into podcasts at some point. Maybe I’ll do something innovative there. But I love PRINT Magazine, by the way. That’s such a great experience to have. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:

It’s an opportunity to just see what other people are doing outside of, I think, you know, what people…. It’s interesting because design in and of itself is such a broad field, but depending on who you talk to, they may have a very narrow view of it. Like, if I tell people I’m a designer, it depends, I could ask five different people. I could tell that I’m a designer. They’ll think five different things. For a long time, when I would tell people I’m a designer, they thought it meant, “oh, so you do UX?” “No, yeah, I don’t do UX. I’m not a UX designer.” Like, I have to sort of qualify that, what that means to me, because I’ve dabbled in so many different types of design, and it’s all design, but the viewpoint is skewed, I think sometimes.

Phillip J. Clayton:

I think you need, I think, I hope I have it because I support it or advocate for it. A holistic view on design is required. A wider perspective, and then you narrow it down based on the purpose that you need it for. That’s when you get graphic design and UX design all these things. A graphic designer, for example, should have the understanding of animation as much as they do stills. I guess what you’re hired for is completely different, but you pay a graphic designer well who understands those two things. They’ll do it.

But if you want somebody who does animation specifically, hire an animator. But for some reason, when you say design, you’re a graphic designer. Everything on the two-dimensional plane comes to you, and it’s unfathomable to say, “oh, I don’t know how to do that.” Right? And it’s okay to not to know how to do that. It would be nice if you did. But design is, it’s a plugin. Most people see it as a plugin.

It’s like, let’s get something and plug it in here. So let’s get the graphic designer to do these ten things, because they are a designer, and design is a process. What makes a difference is the purpose, the intended purpose of going to a design process. Evidently, if you’re doing print, you want a graphic designer. Or if you’re on the execution side, you might want a print technician, but that technician might not be a designer. But they may understand design, and they may do a lot of why I like print, by the way, which is why I’m such a big fan. I worked in printing as well, is that the things I used to do, because of my artistic knowledge and design knowledge, I didn’t print nothing amazing. That’s all over the top.

But there are little things that I learned about the machines and ink levels and the pigments that I was able to achieve when I’m printing. And then the experimental side of it is like, how about we just not do it the way it’s supposed to be done, for example? Well, you don’t damage a machine. But what if I could turn something off here? And I did that and I got different results. So, of course, my dream at the time was to have my own machine so I could go experiment at home, right? But it’s pricey. But it was like, yeah, printing machine is supposed to print this and print that, but how do we use it in a creative way? What if I wanted to do an entire exhibition and printing? How can I make it interesting? That’s how my brain works. So the machine, I was always trying to experiment with it. What happens if I…because some machines actually recognize the layers in Illustrator, for example. So you get a different result depending on how much percentage of ink you put on it.

Because the machine that I was using anyway, it automatically printed layers and layers of color depending on what I have on the artwork itself. And then if you print a rastered image, like a JPEG or a TIFF file, it would do something completely different because the colors are not layered anymore, which was amazing to me. I’m like, how does a machine know that difference? By understanding those things, it’s an advantage, I think, in design, and that helps me. And I’m sure with your knowledge as well, even your customer service experience, you can actually do marketing. A lot of people started in door-to-door sales, like David Ogilvy, and then now he has his own agency.

It’s three, four things I look for is business, authority, opportunity, and time value. Four things, right? Yeah, I said four. Those I learned from a business, from somebody who does business. And I apply to my creative development as well and processes. It has to be a business. You have to have authority of it, and there must be an opportunity, and then you don’t want to waste your time on something that doesn’t meet those three things. So for me, design is just a holistic thing of value, process and impact. That’s how I look at it anyway.

Maurice Cherry:

So on your website, you mentioned — and I thought this was really interesting, especially given how this conversation has went. You said that you’re not a self made man. Who are some of the people that have kind of helped you reach your current level of success?

Phillip J. Clayton:

Oh, wow. It’s a very long list, but I can think of some key people. My very first professional experience while freelancing was when I went into production entertainment. My friend, she worked in the entertainment. She’s an architect, but she started a production company, and she used her knowledge in architecture to execute some brilliant event projects, and she became popular for it. What I learned from her was work ethic. She’s very meticulous about process, and I fell in love with process because of her. And I think my work ethic to this day, I would always give to her by working with her.

I learned from her other people. My last agency boss — or he’s a CEO now. I know his father’s around. At the time, I don’t remember his position, but he was essentially my boss. I learned from him how agencies are managed and how to handle client conversations.

And then there are the people that I never worked with, but just being around them. Michael Beirut said something. I think that’s why I did what I did was he said “hijack your mentors.” Because honestly, if I’m being honest, I didn’t know who to go to to get mentorship from, because what I was seeing was not anything that I wanted to necessarily learn from people. But when I got into the older I got, I realized I need to understand a lot of things, a lot about business and how agencies work. And I started hanging around people. A lot of my friends are way older than me because I learned from them, whether they’re bosses or project managers, that I was a part of a project. I learned from people like that. I learned from clients. I learned from going to unknown territory with clients, learning about their industry, learning how they manage their employees, learning how to have the client conversations with their clients. So I observed them talking to their clients. You learn from different people. It’s just that we don’t often don’t pay attention to it. And everybody goes to this self-made thing. I just one day said, “well, that doesn’t make any sense.” You can’t really be self made. You may put a lot of effort in yourself. Yes, because nobody’s there. You’re doing the work.

But what happened to me was that I said I don’t think I would be anywhere I am and where I’m going without the people that I worked with or the relationships that I’ve made over the years. When I looked at the value that I’ve learned from all these people, I said, there’s no way I can be a self made man. And I started to detest that statement. I guess I can’t say for sure if there’s actually no one out there who’s self made. I don’t know. But I think even entrepreneurs get help along the way. And I guess that help isn’t acknowledged. But I believe that you cannot be self made.

And I guess I just applied it to myself. My website is a bit of satire in terms of narcissism. It’s not seriously narcissistic, but at the same time, I wanted to have people understand how I perceive the professional space and my knowledge. So I put it up there. But it was mostly people I’ve worked with. That’s why I said that.

And I obviously put my father in there. My mother, I learned from both of them. My mother was the one who really gave me that drive that I have now. I think she is a trooper. She’s not somebody who gives up easily. So she taught me as well about discipline. And she told me, any job I’m doing, I should always do my best, even if it’s a horrible job, because you never know who’s watching. So stuff like that stuck with me.

Maurice Cherry:

It’s funny, when I saw that on your site, it reminded me of…this was way back in high school. I had a…I guess it’s like a senior book. Like, there would be these organizations like Jostens or whatever, right? They try to sell you all this stuff leading up to graduation. Like, buy these invitations, buy this tassel. But I have a senior book, and I went back and looked through it recently, and I was…God, I was so angsty in high school. But there was a quote that I had in there that was like, “I’m a self-made man. Who else would help?” Or something like that. So when I saw that on your site, I was like, “you’re not a self made man. What’s that about?”

Phillip J. Clayton:

When we’re in the challenge, or the journey? It’s easy to say that because I deal with depression. And I’m only saying that to create and illustrate something. When you have an episode of any mental challenges, mental health issues that you may have when you’re in an episode, it’s not that you don’t know what to do. You just can’t seem to find that will or ability to get up and do what you need to do to get out of it. So no matter how somebody tells you to do something: “You need to start doing this. When you’re depressed, try these things.” All these things take practice. But no matter how much they tell you, you just can’t do it until you make the first move to do it and you start to do it. And what happens is that over a period of time of learning things and doing them and becoming proficient at them, you cheer yourself because it was difficult, right? And in your context, I’m assuming in high school, that being great, your great experience, you probably wrote that because you had to do a lot of stuff yourself.

I think that’s what happens. And we tend to block out the external forces, whether good or bad. Even some bad experiences contribute to your progressive movement. Right. It’s at least, at very best, it tells you, oh, I don’t want that experience. So you make different decisions, right? So I look at everything. I look at the good and bad. I don’t believe in trying to kill fair. I think that’s illogical. I think negative and positive energies are supposed to be balanced. You can’t really get rid of one or the other. When one is given more power or energy, it throws off the balance. So these things is what I think about. So I was like, there’s no way it’s after a maturity. Of course, this is something that you need as well. So I guess my maturity came into play here and I said, “what does it mean to be self made?” And you started to process that and you started to think and you’re like, “yeah, I got help with that thing.”

Should I be grateful for the jobs I had? Would I be here? I don’t know. I think about these things all the time. But I have to kind of…should contextualize it because you just said something that, yeah, when you’re in high school or along your journey, especially when you’re younger, you’re probably putting a lot of effort in trying to get what you want out of this world. So it does feel like you’re self made because sometimes people don’t see your vision and what you’re trying to do. But at the same time, I believe in being fair. And life isn’t fair, unfair: it’s indifferent, or it just is. But we can decide the fairness of that experience. And I think to be fair, we would have to start acknowledging all the people that has helped us along the way.

They may not have helped us build our companies or build our careers, but even my college experience, it was great. But I did learn some things from it. I have to be fair about that. I learned how to critique, for example, I never learned critiquing at home. I think it’s giving the chair to the things that help you to get where you are. And I’d go too extreme and say, on a bad day, if a store was open on a public holiday and I was able to buy something that cheered on my day, I’m going to thank that person.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah. So what keeps you motivated and inspired these days?

Phillip J. Clayton:

Reading philosophy. Gratitude. Each morning I wake up, I always make an effort to spend a few minutes with my mind, whether it’s meditating or a prayer of some kind. I think it’s just a tone for the day. My mind goes into a place where I can deal with any challenges that show up. And it’s always easy but it’s really starting each day with gratitude. I’m reading a lot of books on…I guess I could call them the schematics of living. So I found this balance where it’s setting a vision. That’s what drives me.

I have a vision of what I want to achieve each day and the months in the years and so forth. So I think setting three goals at least each day, is what I do, and that motivates me to get things done because it induces fulfillment, I think. Is it a Chinese philosophy somewhere there? I can’t remember the exact philosophy, but it’s something about not trying to do everything all at once and setting smaller objectives, not try to achieve the big ones unless you can.

So reading is part of my objective each day, to read at least a chapter of something, to review work, to have a conversation with somebody, just setting daily objectives, waking up gratitude, setting daily objectives. And the reading definitely helps. I’m motivated by my vision mostly though, that’s my biggest drive, is I would endure great pains to achieve it, I think.

Maurice Cherry:

What do you think you would be doing if you weren’t doing this kind of work?

Phillip J. Clayton:

Wow. I’d love to have been in the sciences because I did pretty well in it. I like developing theories and experimenting with things, understanding how they work. I would hope that if I was able to be in the sciences, particularly biology or neuroscience, I’m an explorer. Archaeology was on the list at one point too. Yeah, my first desired job was as a child was to work with a Red Cross actually, but I didn’t know how to even do that. And I think I found out that you had to fund yourself part of it. I don’t remember. But yeah, I would like to be doing something that has impact on our society, I guess. Or humans.

I’m hoping design is doing that in some way, but yeah, science in some way or some humanitarian thing, as long as I can sustain myself. I like to definitely be involved in something like that.

Maurice Cherry:

To that end, where do you see yourself in the next five years? Like, what do you want the next chapter of the Phillip J. Clayton story to look like?

Phillip J. Clayton:

I’d like to be recognized or acknowledged as an authority in my disciplines or the field that I’m in. I’d like to know that I’ve had great impact through that discipline, whether it’s our society, whether through technology or something I’ve written just being conversations that are larger, that are beyond my skill sets. I like my thinking to be beyond everything that I do because I think that’s the ultimate point of self awareness and enlightenment is to be someone that people recognize as some kind of philosopher. I guess I would say I just want to be an authority in my field. I don’t know if authority sounds very aggressive. I’m not trying to say like this egotistical authority. What I mean by authority is that I have contributed something as an expert to the industry that’s worth something to a lot of people, that they would also come to me as a source of voice, of knowledge or something. What that means, obviously, is not just, I’m not going to go sit on a chair and counsel people.

What I mean is being an authority means that even my work should be reflecting that in a different way in five years. The type of work I do, type of conversations I have, I think being an authority establishes your prowess, professional prowess, in any industry you’re in.

Maurice Cherry:

I hear that. I mean, I think it’s certainly something where…and it’s funny, I think you definitely are at that point already. Like I’m wondering because you’re judging and you’re doing all this work, what do you think it would take for you to reach that sort of level of authority that you’re talking about?

Phillip J. Clayton:

Definitely through the work. I’m trying to do different types of work now, work with different type of clients. You’re right. I’ve been told that I am in an authoritative position at the moment. My value is strong and high. I guess it’s what Bruce Lee said: “be happy, but don’t be satisfied”…or something like that. Meaning that you should always deserve to be greater than you are, but be happy with what you have. I guess that’s where I’m coming from. It’s not greed.

It’s like, as long as I’m alive even if…I have a question. You asked about what else would I be doing if I wasn’t doing this. I make statements like this, and I don’t mean to be extreme, but I do make statements like this to my friends. And anybody that asks, is that if I can’t get to do what I want to do, I’d rather be dead. And I don’t mean that from a…I hope I’m not putting the wrong words out there. It’s not that if I can’t do it, I’m going to go die. It’s just, what is the point? If I’m not doing this, if I’m not doing what I’m doing, then why live? So it’s kind of like, be useful.

I think every human being desires to be useful in some way. And then when they don’t have that use or purpose, it’s hard to live. You start figuring out how to survive and you just never leave that place of survival. It’s like you’re always trying to find a reason to live. And I think purpose gives you that reason to live. So that’s my purpose, is to achieve that kind of level of authority where I don’t even have to go look for clients anymore. I would like to be in innovation, some R&D kind of process. If NASA had a creative department, for example, I’d probably want to be there.

I guess I would say this professionally. I like to be in a place where there’s a seamless process of innovation, R&D and innovation that leads into the brand design process and ultimately contributing to advertising and marketing output, adding meaning to the consumer — the consumer experience; people — the experience people have shopping or engaging in government services or anything. I like to innovate those things because the end user for me is always something important in our process. That’s who we’re creating for. Design is supposed to be having positive impacts on the lives of people. No matter what form is in. The only reason you’re doing it is because you’re trying to change something for an end user somewhere. And I guess that’s the kind of authority I want, is where I can develop something that changes the industry also, I guess, in how we work with people, I’ve been told, actually I’m a thought leader.

I’m not really clear on that definition yet, because I hear it used a lot. I think of myself as a practicing philosopher more than a thought leader, but maybe it’s the same thing, I don’t know. But somebody once called me a thought leader.

Maurice Cherry:

I think the difference between that and this may be something that you’re already doing, but if you’re thinking of how to take the next steps to try to get there, it’s really all about — and this is, I mean, from a design standpoint, it sounds silly — but it’s all about writing and sharing your work.

Phillip J. Clayton:

That’s so…that’s well said.

Maurice Cherry:

Like people…I think of folks like Frank Chimero, Steven Heller, etc. I mean, they’re well known as designers, but they’re also well known as sort of just writing and talking about the craft. You know, Mike Montero is another one, for example. That sort of…I think to me, when I think of thought leader, and I think also just in terms of how your work spreads beyond the visual medium, how it spreads beyond, you know, a campaign or some sort of a visual project: writing is the way that I think that happens.

Phillip J. Clayton:

That is absolutely correct. I think even Blair Enns — not think, I know even Blair Enns shares that. He actually says in his book that the expert should write. And I started writing. I’m sure you think I probably shared that with you. You see them on my website. I’ve written articles and I’ve written other things, but writing, being somebody dyslexic, I didn’t see myself writing this much or reading this many books.

I used to detest both of those things growing up, but it was because I didn’t think I was smart enough to do it. But now I buy so many books and read them, and I don’t just read them, I actually put them into practice and I write. And you’re absolutely correct on that. We should write. That’s what professionals should be doing. That’s how you establish yourself. That’s absolutely correct. You have to write a thesis or theory or opinion we should be writing.

And that’s why I like to do case studies. I like to write out the experience. Everything else that follows that really is just the know, oh, we developed this philosophy, and here is the brand identity from that philosophy, that kind of thing. So you’re absolutely correct in that we should write.

Maurice Cherry:

Well, just to kind of wrap things up here, Phillip, where can our audience find out more information about you, your work, your writing? Like, where can they find all that online?

Phillip J. Clayton:

So the first place, I guess I’d say, because I have all the social media links I believe on there is pjclayton.com, my primary website. Outside of that, you can go directly to LinkedIn, Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. And it’s always Phillip J. Clayton. Phillip with two L’s. J. Clayton. And I think if you hashtag it too, somewhere there, I have hashtags for them too. PJClayton. Phillip J. Clayton. P-J-C.

Maurice Cherry:

All right, sounds good.

Phillip J. Clayton. Thank you for…I mean, such a wide-ranging and expansive interview. I feel like we went in like a dozen different places from your first interview, talking about branding, to this interview, which is certainly more just kind of personal about you and your upbringing and how you got to where you are now. I really do feel like that level of thought leader that you’re talking about. I think you’re already there, and I hope that this interview will help to elevate you to get further to that, because I really think that with everything that you’ve talked about, with everything that you’ve done, you’ve got all the components. Like, you put in the work. I think we’re right around the same age. You said you’re 41, right?

Phillip J. Clayton:

Yeah, I’ll be 41 in December.

Maurice Cherry:

I’m 42 now. So we’re right around the same age. So I know the work that goes into it to sustain yourself this long in this creative industry. And you said one thing before we started recording, that you have sort of these six rules for a quality life experience. You were like: disciplined, patient, kind, acceptance, forgiveness, and letting go. Look, that can be your philosophical bent to taking yourself to that thought leader status. But I’m really excited to see what else you come up with in the future, man. So thank you so much for coming on the podcast. I appreciate it.

Phillip J. Clayton:

Thank you so much. I enjoyed it. It was, I think, my deepest conversation on a podcast. Most of it’s really about work, so I really enjoyed it. I appreciate the compliments and the chair. I do look forward to what’s next. And likewise, same to you. This is a…I don’t know if a lot of people know it, but since you’ve shared it with me through the invitation, being part of the Smithsonian Archives is a brilliant position to be in from a content perspective. I never knew that was something that could happen, and I want to celebrate you for that.

Maurice Cherry:

Thank you. I appreciate that.

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