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An Interview with Aron Leah (Fried Cactus), Graphic Designer

Oct 30, 2020

You might recall our unveiling of Urban Industry Depot back in August, when we overhauled the look and feel of our bricks-and-mortar store.

Urban Industry Depot Blog

Graphic design played a huge part in pulling that off, and we have Aron from Fried Cactus Design Studio to thank for that. He designed the Depot lettering, as well as the lighthouse logo (which, for those of you who don't know, is a nod to our seaside location in Eastbourne, East Sussex.

Urban Industry Depot 'Lighthouse' design by Fried Cactus

As well as being a talented and distinctive designer, Aron is just an all-round great guy, so we caught up with him for a chat about how he started out, what inspires him and what he does to stay motivated.

Here's the interview in full:

You’re entirely self-taught. When and how did you decide to get serious about graphic design?

Ha ha, it depends how you define ‘get serious’. 

When I was working as a graphic artist for a lifestyle clothing brand, I would freelance on the side for extra cash. I enjoyed this work so much more, as I was able to take more risks and have authorship on the work I was producing. 

Gradually I was being approached more and more for all kinds of projects. I think being self-taught made that feeling all the more exciting, because I was doing it in my own way. 

The final outcome still needs to be a functioning piece of design, but I’m putting more of myself into the work. That, and the feeling someone gets from looking at my work, is important to me. 

What was your very first design gig, and how did you land it?

Probably some shitty logo that I had to pay someone to let me do for them! 

What have you worked on most recently?

I’ve just finished up a project with Good Hemp, where we worked on developing a series of illustrations that told their brand story. Finding a way to do this with my illustration was difficult, but a lot of fun.

Good Hemp design by Fried Cactus

 (Good Hemp design by Fried Cactus)

You should start seeing the work on socials, in store and on product soon. 

I’ve also wrapped up a rebrand for the local coffee roaster in Bournemouth, Bad Hand Coffee Roasters. I used to work for them back in the day, so this was a really special project for me. I was able to develop brand elements that could be flexible over time and that had more personality.

Bad Hand Coffee Roasters design by Fried Cactus

(Bad Hand Coffee Roasters design by Fried Cactus)

You’ve also done some work for us quite recently, which we’re very excited about…

Yeah it’s great seeing it being used! The Depot wordmark was influenced by custom typography from old workwear and denim labels, so it fits with the new direction of the brand. 

Dan [King, Urban Industry founder and director] always likes to be involved in part of the design process, as he has a clear vision for Urban Industry. I totally respect that and it worked really well as a collaboration. 

You’re a positive guy. Has this bonkers year taught you anything new about yourself, or about life?

For sure! As we’ve all seen, anything can happen, so you have to be adaptable.

Pre-lockdown, my eldest son, who was diagnosed with Autism last October, was struggling with a few things. A couple of weeks into lockdown, we noticed he was showing huge signs of improvement in his development. Being in his own environment, free from expectation, allowed him to go at his own pace and do what he enjoys. 

Seeing such a huge positive impact that lockdown had on him made me realise that, without knowing it, I’d stopped making time for the things that motivate and inspire me.  

So I started saying no to things I didn’t want in my life and work. It was a risk for sure, but it has redefined what I do for a living as well as free me up for family and personal time. 

I like to take risks and push myself out of my comfort zone. The last time I did that was when I made the jump from 9-5 to freelance full-time. So lockdown challenged me to make some hard decisions. 

Aesthetically speaking, where do you draw your inspiration from? 

Honestly, it changes all the time depending on the project. It’s always drenched in nostalgia, though!

I grew up in that whole BMX/surf/skate culture. The music, art and brands within those cultures gives me huge inspiration. I feel it changing, though…

Walking Sunshine design by Fried Cactus

(Walking Sunshine design by Fried Cactus)

I’m really drawn to abstract and minimalism. When I first started illustrating for commercial purposes, my style was very detailed, but graphic design helped mould my work into something more simple and functional. I’m always on the pursuit to communicate as much as possible with as little as possible. 

As much as I have my sources of influence, I can only use them if I’m in the right mental state. I need to feel like I’ve had the perfect lead-up to sitting down and creating something.

What’s the most unlikely source of inspiration you’ve mined (so far)?

If I’m ever stuck for inspiration or having a creative block, it’s usually because I have to break my routine. I generally like to be in a place free of distractions, which is why I have a studio. But sometimes I’ll go hang out in a coffee shop; being in a different and hectic environment helps me to look at things from a different perspective. 

Do you listen to music while you’re working? If so, what?

Yeah, I have to listen to something, otherwise I’ll procrastinate and drift off somewhere! 

I’ll pick a particular album or genre during a proiect and it just keeps me in the right vibe. It’s been all over the place recently, but here’s five songs that run my life right now:

  1. “Time to Live” by Ariel Pink
  2. “Ladies” by Lee Fields & The Expressions
  3. “I Don’t Know” by Beastie Boys
  4. “Heart-Shaped Box” by Nirvana 
  5. “Emerge” by Fischerspooner

You mastered the whole working-from-home thing before it was cool. What tips would you give to any WFH novices out there?

Ha! It has its ups and down for sure… 

If you have a place tucked away where you can work, you're ahead of the game! 

I leaned into it best I could. Have zero expectations for a routine. Sometimes I would take mornings off to spend time with the family and take pressure off my wife, so I’d start work a little later and finish in the evenings. 

Just communicate with the people you work with. People can be pretty understanding if you’re just honest with them. 

Do you have a routine, or any positive habits to keep your productivity high?

100%! I’ve tried it all! Last year, my wife and I took the kids away for a couple weeks and my world fell apart! 

I didn’t realise how much of a slave I was to the routines and habits I had built on the advice of other people – which, if I’m honest, were conducive to running a business, but not so much creativity or happiness. 

Lockdown gave me an opportunity to switch things up. 

We have an outside shower, which I use every morning before anything. Such a  great way to start the day. Also, I’ve been making time to do some basic kettlebell flow and foam-rolling... Feeling healthy keeps me focused and able to work long hours.

It’s taken me a really long time to figure out what works for me, but essentially I’m just patient with myself. Nowadays I don’t confine myself to a rigid schedule or force anything too hard.  Whatever I take from my time, I give back. If I spend the morning with my family, I’ll work the evening. If I take a day off in the week, I’ll work a day at the weekend. 

Having that flexibility and control takes a lot of trust in yourself, and discipline. Providing for my family keeps me motivated; it sounds like a cliche but it’s true. 

You enjoy a cup of coffee or two each day… What’s your coffee-making method of choice?

I’ve been using AeroPress for a few years now... I only drink filter coffee but occasionally I’ll drink espresso. 

Black or with milk?

Black filter.

You’ve travelled quite a bit. Where is your favourite (non-home/non-Dorset) place on Earth?

Taghazout, Morocco. About eight years ago, my wife and I lived in our van right by a surf break. No internet; just good food, good people and I surfed most days. 

It’s changed a lot now due to tourism, but when we were there it was still pretty quiet and you’d always find like-minded people to hang out with. 

What do you do to unwind?

Walk or ride my bike. The commute to and from my studio is always where I’m able to grab that time to process my thoughts. 

And finally, what’s your favourite outdoor brand?

I’ve always respected Patagonia’s ethos. Their product is on-point. 

Oh, and what’s your favourite footwear brand?

Straye footwear.

Check out the Fried Cactus Design Studio website here

Follow Fried Cactus on Instagram here

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