Leaders in the Spotlight – Xavier Unwin

Scratch Map

Paul Cordingley     Creative & Tech Creative recruitment Digital talent Leaders in the Spotlight Meet the Experts

The first in our series of conversations with some of the amazing people working within the creative, design and marketing world, we sat down with Xavier Unwin to discover more about his incredible career journey.

An award-winning Creative Director with proven experience taking new products and brands to market across e-commerce and retail platforms, Xavier is the inventor of the Scratch Map (5 million global sales), Beer Socks and other gifting products.

Recent long-term positions have been as Creative Director at Luckies of London and Firebox.

How did you get into the creative industry?

I suppose I always have been quite drawn to what you might classically consider ‘more creative things’. I know definitely as a kid, I was really into drawing, building things, undoing things and seeing how they work.

Certainly, during education, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do or that design could be a career. I enjoyed art and design technology so, with that in mind, I did an Art Foundation course at Wimbledon School of Art and that’s where I first got sold on the idea that there might be a career in design. I then went on to undertake a Product Design degree at Nottingham Trent University.

From there, the intention was to do a Master’s degree and I had a three or four month gap between finishing my current course and doing my postgrad, so I thought it might be good to do an internship.

After reaching out to a number of creative leaders and companies I was fortunate to secure an internship at Luckies of London and after it being extended a few times, I decided to postpone my post-grad, and I was then offered a full-time position there – It was an easy decision for me.

Is there a particular piece of work that you’re most proud of?

One of the first projects I worked on, and one I’m really proud of, was the Scratch Map, which was really successful from a commercial point of view. I think there’s been over 5 million units sold, so it was a big, big deal commercially.

From a design creative perspective, winning a Dieline Packaging Award for a product called Beer Socks was amazing. We were up against competition from the likes of Nike and Twinnings in our category, and we came away with a win.

I there anybody or anything that’s particularly inspired you?

Oh, too many to mention, but there’s one that definitely stands out. At Uni I remember reading The Design of Everyday Objects by Don Norman which was really eye opening in the fact that most things that we interact with have been considered and have been designed.

When something is well considered and well designed you don’t even realise it, it just works, and you expect it to. I think understanding that made me fall even more in love with product design and what it was all about.

Fast forward to now, what’s been happening for you more recently?

Since moving on from Firebox mid-last year, I have been freelancing at Joseph Joseph.

There are some benefits when you move from a creative leadership role to freelance, such as the flexibility it offers and less responsibility and pressure, which has its advantages, but there’s also some tricky things you’re expected to adapt to. For instance; you don’t have long to adapt to a company’s ethos and how they do things.

At Joseph Joseph, it’s been super busy, so I’ve been glad to be part of it and it’s been really interesting to see how a company of this size does things.

Any other passions outside of being a designer?

In my twenties I was fully focused on design and that was kind of my passion. Once I got a little more comfortable in my career, I was able to then find out what my other passions were.

A big one is going to the gym, and I started boxing about ten years ago and kind of fell in love with that. I don’t think I’d ever want to be a professional boxer, but certainly if I wasn’t doing design, maybe I’d do something more sporty. I like the fact you can set yourself a challenge and work towards it.

I’ve also always found architecture really fascinating. I suppose for me it’s like what I do is on a much smaller scale; architecture feel so much bigger. So, that’s certainly something that maybe I might have done in a different life.

What’s your leadership style and how do you get the best out of your teams?

I think when I first started out, I was a little too fixated on driving things in my way. Of course, you should always have a strong vision of what you’re trying to achieve, but you can only lead designers in your vision so far.

I think it’s like the difference between a dictator and a seasoned statesman. The statement knows how to treat someone and how to interact to get the best results.

I learned that certain things will motivate and work for some people and not for others, so you need to play to the strengths of the individual and you need to sell the vision to them in a way that will excite them.

I would definitely say I’ve taken a bit more of a step back in recent years, giving my team a creative framework, saying this is roughly what we want to achieve, and this is a direction, however I want you guys to explore it and see how we can get there.

When hiring, is there anything in particular you look for?

What you hope is that everyone can pull their weight in different areas because small teams need to rely on each other.

In a sense you don’t necessarily want a specialist, and what I certainly look for in more junior and midweight positions is adaptability. Someone who’s adaptable is gold dust because really what you have there is someone who can help shape the business as it grows.

What most frustrates you about the industry and is there anything we can do to improve it?

It certainly feels to me that there’s a lack of appreciation for how transferable skills can be within the creative industry. So, if you have someone, for example, who has come from a pure physical product design background, it’s the idea that they can’t transfer their skills to something like UX or to Graphic Design.

I found this in my own career as I navigated a shift from product design to graphics and branding. I met my share of challenges along the way, but found the skills and framework I had honed as a product designer turned out to be an advantage when applied to a new area.

I think it would be a mistake to assume that someone who thinks in one way cannot do well in other areas of design. And in a way, they likely bring a different view to design than of someone who’s been in a specialised role for ten years, which I think would be really refreshing.

I understand that if you’re recruiting for a branding position, you need to consider whether you’re going to risk it on someone who’s spent the last ten years in product design. However, I think doing so would make the creative industry stronger overall.

What’s your thoughts on AI within the creative industry today?

Firstly, the speed at which it’s taken off is incredible. I think it’s nuanced and I don’t think it is clear cut as it’s good or it’s bad.

In general, I’d probably lean towards the good, and I think as designers we should cultivate it and harness it to use it to our advantage. I don’t think it’s beneficial to shy away from it or say no, I’m not going to use that.

The issue for me is where you hear of stories of AI copywriting and essentially plagiarising other people’s work. That’s obviously something we want to avoid because someone’s worked really hard to create that original piece.

But in terms of being a designer and using AI tools to make your life easier or undertake tasks faster, I think it’s super exciting and it opens up a whole new world.

What advice could you offer to creatives looking for a new design role?

I’m sure they would have heard this 100 times before because it’s nothing new, but it does work… I think the number one thing is to network. Even if it’s someone you’ve never met on LinkedIn, just give it a go and reach out to them and if you can go to actual events, I think the difference between contacting someone online and speaking to them in person is massive.

You’ll find that most people want to help and if anyone is in a situation where they’re looking to employ or know someone who is, I’m sure they’ll be more than willing to pass on your information if you fit the bill.

I appreciate it’s really tricky and that if you’re starting out your career, you might have imposter syndrome. Do you feel like you can contact someone who’s a Creative Director on LinkedIn or at one of these events. I’d say just go up and talk to them.

It probably doesn’t feel easy, but my advice would be just do it and you’ll come away probably feeling better about yourself because I’m sure everyone’s been in that same situation.

And the other thing, don’t give up. It’s so tempting, and after the 100th rejection, you probably think, well, what’s the point? But if you love what you’re doing and you believe it’s something you’re good at, hang in there.

Xavier Unwin
Freelance Creative Director & Designer
LinkedIn Profile