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Matthew Clark, principal and creative director of Subplot Design took a circuitous route to design. Prepping for a medical career, but sitting on the fence, he enrolled in both advanced biology and studio art at University of British Columbia; he eventually switched to a fine art major with concentrations in psychology and literature and graduated in 1992 with a BFA. Matthew started a one-man design firm in 1989 but joined DDB Canada's design division, karacters, in 1994, eventually moving up the ranks to associate creative director.

His passion and commitment to breakthrough creative has been recognized locally, nationally and internationally—by Graphis, New York Festivals, ID, Graphic Designers of Canada, Advertising and Design Club of Canada, ARCHIVE and the London International Advertising Awards—and his work is part of the permanent collections of the Chicago Athenaeum Museum and the Design Exchange.

05.15.12

Balance Is Good

If you have a degree in what field is it? I have a BFA from University of British Columbia.

Which designer (or design studio), other than yours, do you most admire? Gosh... so many. I tend to recognize projects rather than specific designers or firms, but hat-trick design, Turner Duckworth and Williams Murray Hamm (who really does win for smart and conceptual packaging design) in the UK always impress.

What’s the strangest request you've received from a client? In my early twenties, as a junior designer, I designed a tombstone and funeral program, for a client who passed away, an award to honor his memory and commissioned a commemorative portrait. That was weird.

If you weren’t working as a designer what would you be doing? I have a dream of being a bearded, cold-coffee-in-hand, absent-minded professor; I wouldn’t teach design or art but would follow my other passions for comparative mythology and literature. My wife is a high-school English and literature teacher, so I get to live somewhat vicariously through her, but I’d love to do it myself one day.

From where do your best ideas originate? They come from two places equally: from diligent, roll-up-your-sleeves, logic, deduction and reason; and from that magical, muse-inspired “starseed” place.

How do you overcome a creative block? I brood. I pace. I sequester myself. I know I should take a break, go for a walk or work on something else to free up my mind, but I never do. I grit my teeth, furrow my brow and hunker down. It somehow helps me to be in this kind of existential angst and despair, wondering if I will ever come up with another good idea again in my life. Somehow, this weeping and gnashing-of-teeth and breaking down of my ego frees me up to create.

What’s your dream project (not client, but project)? I have two: large, complete identity programs and large-scale packaging projects. I love projects that are out there in the public domain and are part of the public’s daily experience, so the idea of a complete rebrand of a public institution or entertainment complex, or a packaging project in the luxury or spirits category, is very alluring. The dichotomy is always creative opportunity vs. project size. We all want projects that are big enough to give us the scope (and fees) to support a massive effort, but small and entrepreneurial enough to allow us to take risks and create pattern-breaking solutions. It’s a tough mix to find.

Do you have creative outlets other than graphic design? I play the guitar (badly) and sing (OK), but my home time creativity totally centers around my family: sword-fighting, painting, dress-up and general silliness and hijinks. Best. Outlet. Ever.

What’s your approach to balancing work and life? Prior to having kids, I had no balance. My wife and I worked all the time. Between my obsessive design ambitions and running a firm and her teaching career, we worked every night and every weekend. Whenever we took a very infrequent break, we wondered aloud where all these people came from and how they seemed to have so much time off. That all changed when we had kids: It gave us intrinsic permission to take the weekend off, to play, to go home on time. We always had that permission, but hadn’t realized it. Balance is good.

What product/gadget can you not live without? My notebook and pencil. Still where everything starts.

What’s your favorite quote? “That’s what she said.”

Do you have any advice for people just entering the profession? Ideas trump decoration. Solutions trump ideas. Carry a notebook and pencil. Be ambitious but be humble and inclusive.

What’“”s one thing you wish you knew when you started your career? Collaboration will get you farther than solitude.