The Design Atlas community is on Discord!

Join Now!

The Design Atlas community is on Discord!

Join Now!

The Design Atlas community is on Discord!

Join Now!

Episode #

4

Al Luke: Starting a Design Studio Isn't Easy (But Never Impossible)

Al Luke

May 27, 2021

Episode Show Notes

May 27, 2021

In today’s episode we’ll visit Cape Town and meet up with Al Luke, a brand identity designer and owner of Black Sheep design studio. With over 19 years experience in the design industry, Al has worked with numerous clients in the local region. Our interview with Al is jam-packed with valuable tips for all design enthusiasts and also for those interested in starting a design agency on their own. 


Featured in this episode

Jens Bringsjord

Co-Host

Megan Luedke

Co-Host

Episode Transcript

Jens Bringsjord

You're listening to Design Atlas Season two.



Jens Bringsjord

Cape Town, South Africa.



Jens Bringsjord

Is a city known for its historic wonder, natural scenery and busy port. With hundreds of boats arriving and departing like clockwork.



Megan Luedke

In today's episode, we'll visit Cape Town and meet up with Al Luke, a graphic designer and owner of Black Sheep Design Studio. With over 19 years experience in the design industry, Al has worked with numerous clients in the local region.



Jens Bringsjord

Our interview with Al is jam packed with valuable tips for anyone interested in design.



Megan Luedke

And we're so excited to share his story. So without further ado, let's navigate using our design atlas and head over to ALU in Cape Town, South Africa.



Al Luke

Every situation that you are in, good or bad, teaches you something. Hi, I'm Outlook and I'm a brand identity designer and owner of Black Sheep Design Studio in Cape Town, South Africa. In my spare time, I like to spend time with family and friends, paint tall and stay active doing jiu jitsu. I think like a lot of creative people, you know, you grow up and you're drawing and you're painting and you're doing all things creative.



Al Luke

A lot of people grow out of that as they get older, but for some people it sticks and we find ways of still remaining creative, but then trying to find a way of adding commerce to that so that we can make a living. We don't want to be that stereotype of the starving artist.



Megan Luedke

Setting stereotypes aside. Designers have a lot of power when it comes to the visual elements we create. Being able to influence audiences, persuade political agendas and market products, and realise that design was more than just a concoction of colours, textures and shapes. From an early age, he sought after an art school and got some help getting into his course along the way.



Al Luke

When I was in high school, I was told, Look, there's no space for the art class next year. You know, they've had to kind of cut down the size of the class. Not ideal. But then my dad found an art school outside of where I went to high school, and it just so happened that the art school there was starting a graphic design course for high school students.



Al Luke

One of my early mentors, who also became a lecturer of mine when I studied at Cape Tech, was the teacher of that course. So I had an early introduction into basics of typography, logo design, basic branding, how you put all of that together to tell a story. I thought, Wow, like I had this idea of becoming a fine artist my whole life.



Al Luke

And after I'd done this course in high school, I was, you know, hooked.



Megan Luedke

And Al certainly was hooked. Shortly after completing high school, he applied and was accepted into the graphic design program at Cape Tech in Cape Town, South Africa. From the start of his university studies, he began to realise how much having an initial background in design during his high school years had allowed him to progress more quickly and really perfect his craft.



Al Luke

I then applied at Cape Tech to study graphic design already with a little bit of an understanding of what I was getting myself into. Yeah, that definitely helped. There were a lot of kids who got there expecting one thing. And then finding out that design is not just about sitting there enjoying all day. There's a technical side to it, you know, there's a theoretical side to it as well, which is really important.



Al Luke

It just really benefited me because I knew I needed to do this, you know, and I wasn't the best student as Cape, you know, there were days where I would be playing pool or yeah, I was. I was pretty good at the pool. We would just go down to the beach, you know, like Cape Town in summer if it gets hot.



Al Luke

And I'm not the guy walking around in shorts all day, but, you know, in the way there is like 30 to 34 degrees Celsius and you stick indoors. You've got all these kids who are just like, now we're going down to the beach with the children.



Al Luke

I was an average student, but I just had this passion to do this and pursue this further. So I started studying in 2000 and I finished in 2003 because I was bragging about playing pool when I should be studying. So I felt one of my business subjects and ended up taking an extra year to graduate. So I graduated officially in 2003.



Al Luke

I think when I was done with studying, I was like, okay, look, you need to take this seriously now. You need to actually push your craft.



Jens Bringsjord

After finishing university, I'll try a variety of jobs to test out his new skills and gather better direction for his career.



Al Luke

I had a couple of terrible jobs of that and studying, and I think that happens to a lot of people. Like your first job is not always like the greatest job in the world. You have to start at the bottom.



Jens Bringsjord

And push his craft out. Did getting a mentor was a valuable asset to his progression in his career?



Al Luke

With my third job I made my second mentor, who was an old school ad man. And, you know, he literally saved me because at that point I was ready to say, I'm trying something else. He saved me and showed me just how amazing this industry was. My biography was just like a new world opened up to me when he explained it to me, you know, he was like, you only know one way of doing this.



Al Luke

Like, let me show you how to do this. Schooled me on photo photographic direction and you know how to run shoots and how to set up campaigns.



Jens Bringsjord

And while there are very few designers out there who land their dream design jobs from the beginning, I learned early on that to get great clients and work with great designers, you have to work hard and perfect your craft, working yourself up the ladder, as they say.



Al Luke

You do what you have to do. You have to stay current. You have to adapt and learn. And just especially when you're trying to freelance and run something, figure, figure this stuff out.



Megan Luedke

After trying a few jobs to test out his skills in the real world. Al landed his first full time junior design role.



Al Luke

See this job? They're looking for junior designers. See what this is about? I go there and they say to me, Listen, you are going to be bored. I'm like, I know what it is. I can do it. School, I found out that we were building courseware packages so that we could teach people how to use Microsoft Office products.



Al Luke

We would get these modules and they would say, okay, so these are the steps that you have to replicate on screen. So you have to take the cursor and then you have to put a prompt there. So click here to open the menu. It was terrible, but the people were nice and I didn't have to work retail hours, which is like, you know, you're working till 9 p.m. every day.



Al Luke

That was my first job. And it wasn't that. It was a horrible place to work. It's just that the work is not very inspiring.



Megan Luedke

After hours spent working on creating Microsoft Office onboarding modules, he decided to look for something a bit more inspiring, and that's when he landed his next job as an in-house designer at a food delivery company.



Al Luke

I was basically designing menus for the food delivery company, so we would get all of these companies. They would then come to me and say, okay, you need to adapt the artwork for the format of the book. It also opened my eyes to how bad businesses are and because the guy who ran the place was just a terrible, terrible human being.



Al Luke

I was forced to be quite self-sufficient in getting things done. And I learned how to ride motorbikes using the delivery guys' motorbikes because I had to run into town, collect prints and come back and go to a friend's house to do things and back and forth. So a proper stinker, I had to start somewhere and the next one was the one that, like, pushed me to get better and do more.



Jens Bringsjord

Next stop in his evolving design career moved him to an agency known as Dial Up nine. There he worked on numerous brand identity projects with a great variety of concepts.



Al Luke

Because we were a small team, I had freedom to just do whatever I wanted. If I could justify why we needed to do something, my boss was always super happy for me to explore and create something new and something fresh for his clients. I did some high level logo design projects, corporate identities, and some illustration in May. I did a lot of illustration, then also got to direct a few photo shoots here and there.



Al Luke

So for a junior designer, I mean, when I saw the stuff that my friends were working on at big agencies, they were getting excited about not minimising what they were doing, but they were getting excited about small things and they were like, Oh, what are you working on? I was like, So we just rolled out this 12 billboard campaign and it's going live now and it's these places, and we've done all the in-store signage and installations for this, and it's like, that was just like, what?



Al Luke

Like you are getting. Do they need another designer where you go like what's the deal? I was definitely quite a broad selection of things that we got to work on. I mean, obviously back then a lot more of the things were, you know, printed projects. Now everything's digital.



Jens Bringsjord

Over the years, Al has noticed large changes in the design industry. Just as he said, print was the most important medium back then. Today, things look a little bit different. Digitalization is everywhere, and if it wasn't for our screens, I don't think many of us would have had the luxury during the pandemic to easily order groceries, buy products, and watch Netflix, all from the comfort of our couches.



Jens Bringsjord

And while the medium has certainly changed from print over to digital in today's day and age, Al continues to apply a similar method of thinking to his work with his clients.



Al Luke

They hired one more agency gig after that, kind of a mid-size agency, and I just felt like my time at the agency that I was at was coming to an end as much as I wanted to stay. I also felt like I'm not going to grow anymore in this position. I felt like I still needed to see and do more.



Al Luke

I ended up working at another agency in Cape Town and it was great. I stayed there for almost two years, working on a lot of direct mail stuff, also for corporate entities, some retail work for a chain of shoe stores that used to be in Cape Town and then also some clothing retail stuff that I was working on.



Al Luke

It was a good experience and they didn't want me to leave. Like when I walked up to the office, to the end office with the letter in my hand, with my indignation, I knocked on the door and I was like, Hey, can I talk to you? And he was like, Don't give me that letter. If I open it, there's a process that needs to be initiated.



Al Luke

So wait, don't give me that letter. And, you know, 10 minutes later, I got an offer of more money and I was like, Do I want to do this? At that point, I had already gotten this opportunity to work on this. It was a local restaurant chain. It was just a small part of the account. We would have only been working on all the stuff that they needed at a head office level and maybe like smaller things that they needed in store that the big agency was turning their nose up at.



Megan Luedke

The year was 2008 and Al had decided it was time to stop working for agencies or other in-house design jobs. So instead he turned his focus on building his own agency from the ground up. That's how Black Sheep Design Studio was born.



Al Luke

Black Sheep was just something that we both identified with and we felt like at that point we couldn't kind of break into these, like, elite circles in the advertising scene in Cape Town, Cape Town is a very competitive city. To be creative and like people will undercut you to get that job so that they know that the next job is going to pay better.



Al Luke

You have to be strong and you have to fight and have the mentality of, I'm going to outwork everyone, you know? And there's times where I've been up at like four or five in the morning and I know that some of the guys that I have to compete against in a pitch are sleeping. And I'm like, That just gave me motivation.



Al Luke

I mean, I can't do it now because when it gets to like 11:30, I'm just like, Whoa! So late at night, I need some sleep. I mean, myself and my ex business partner, who was somebody that I knew that studied with me, we were just gunslingers, just taking it all. You know, we had no idea what we were doing in terms of running a business, but we were just ready and taking on all comers.



Al Luke

We ended up getting a small retainer from them. So having this monthly amount coming in, we were like, okay, cool. So this covers our salaries. Now we just need to find maybe two or three other smaller accounts to work on so that we can then build like a little bit of a nest egg, you know, and like to eat so that we can, you know, not work in his garage and find an office.



Al Luke

And that evolved. And the more we worked on that client, the more responsibility they gave us. And also picked up a few other clients that brought in, you know, regular work. Yeah, the rest is, as they say, this is history.



Megan Luedke

Al has seen a big shift in the South African design scene over the past ten years.



Al Luke

South Africa's creativity is, you know, it's coming into its own and typography and textures and lettering and illustration and all of these things that I'm seeing or uniquely South African style people are becoming a lot more self aware and proud of their heritage and their backgrounds. A lot of that is then coming to influence the work. My history that you know I'm proud of, how do I show that in my work and I think that's great.



Al Luke

For a long time, the same way South Africans were looking at Europe and America for inspiration like a lot of and I mean it always for some reason, it always comes out on the runway somewhere. You know, some fashion designers have found inspiration from the South African thing. And then you like you guys stole that from us, you know?



Al Luke

But then, you know, at the same time, I'm also like, okay, guys, calm down. But everyone's using all rhetoric. Like, just calm down.



Jens Bringsjord

To this day, I'll continue to work at his own design studio, Black Sheep. And while the world has changed since 2008, Al continues to work and adapt with clients' needs to meet the demands of today's fast paced digital economy.



Al Luke

I enjoy working on new brands or brands that are starting new projects or launching new products. What's great is that there isn't an expectation of what needs to be done. The expectation is we need to create something great. So I like to be involved in projects from the beginning, if possible, of being involved in some of the projects over the years that I don't really mind.



Al Luke

We had to start. So there's so much possibility when you start a new project, you know, there's nothing for you to start with. You have to build everything starting from square one and you have all these things and there's so much research that goes into it. Like also working with the right people, you know. So you have to go and say, Hey, okay, this is my strategy guy.



Al Luke

He's going to sit with you guys. Any kind of workshop. We're going to figure out what his plans are about this kind of stuff that you want to talk about, who it is that he's selling to, what it is that he's selling, all of these things. And he comes in and does all this research for you. And then he says to you, you know, you go and then you go off, need time to store all of that and you figure out what this thing's going to look like.



Al Luke

Then you come back and it's a lot of back and forth and it takes months. And then eventually you launch this thing and I could be on to the next one.



Megan Luedke

During our interview, Al shared some really great advice that all designers, young and old.



Al Luke

Can learn from the way brands have shifted in the way brands spend money now in the last, say, five or six years, I mean, the rise of influencers and you have brands building cultural movements around their brands, you know, like they're spending more money on community building than they are now on, you know, taking out ads in magazines or like shooting ads for TV.



Al Luke

And the brands who are doing well are seeing the value in their consumers and how they consumers interact with the brands. There was this awakening, and people have become very proud of who they are and where they come from. They've said, We're not coming here to change your story. We're coming here to tell your story in the best way possible.



Al Luke

And they've created these amazing stories. And then also like an offshoot of that is that all these amazing visuals that are being created that are uniquely South African, you know, which is great.



Jens Bringsjord

Al is perfect in his craft when it comes to working with clients and developing brand identities from the ground up.



Al Luke

I like to have meetings beforehand and sit and discuss with clients, what are you trying to achieve? Tell me a bit about the product. What do you like about this product? Beyond that, what do you love about this product? Like why should I take money out of my bank account to buy this thing? Like why tell me, you know, and figure those things out with people and then go and do my own research, see who the competitors are.



Al Luke

See what the competitors are doing, how they are doing it. Like, what is it that they're doing? Well, you know, where are they? Where they're falling short and just finding all that research will add value in the long run. If you don't do the research like it's a pointless exercise because then you are like, we had a phrase in the studio when something looked good, but it had no motivation behind it or it had no actual thought behind it.



Al Luke

We would say it's just a polished turd. So we were like, That thing's great, but it's a polished head. And every now and then we would do that in Syria and we're like, You keep polishing that. But I can tell you there's no thought that's been put into that and that's why it's not working. And then once I'm done with the research, I'll go back to the client and say, this is what I found out and put a small part of it together.



Al Luke

And then based on that, I'll show some process sketches of what I'm thinking in terms of the design that needs to be done. And then, you know, show them rough visuals, not things that are too polished, especially not in your first draft, because you show them things that are too polished and they're like, This is not going to work.



Al Luke

You need to change this. And it's like, Hey, man, calm down. Like, this is the first draft. We have a lot of work to do. So in that first round, you give them a good idea of what you are trying to achieve. And then with every iteration after that, you refine the design and all the design elements that you need to create.



Al Luke

Just keep going until you launch whatever it is that you need to do.



Megan Luedke

For all of us. COVID has really impacted our lives both in positive and negative ways. On the positive side, we've been able to connect more with loved ones from facetime, with family to group calls, with friends. And on the other side, the pandemic has caused negative effects from extended isolation and deep stress.



Al Luke

It was difficult in the beginning. I'm somebody who is used to leaving home and working in an office. I can kind of change my mindset and go, okay, it's work time, you know, let's go. Where's my coffee? On the hatch. It's game time now. You walk across the aisle and you are in the office. You know, it's this weird thing.



Al Luke

And my wife laughs because, you know, I try to maintain as much of my routine as possible. You know, every morning I would get a shower, get dressed like I'm going to work, eat breakfast and be like, I have to get going, you know, and then walk into this little office where I'm sitting now. And she was like, you actually, you're doing this again.



Al Luke

Like you're getting this like, yeah, every day. Every day. So every day I get is like, I'm going to work, you know? I know. I mean, I don't just like formally for work, it's now like test code. It's usually like jeans, a t -shirt, or a jacket. But I've sold like till now and then that goes like my bit of normal in this situation.



Al Luke

So I felt really blessed that, you know, I was able to be home with my family. There were a lot of people in various industries who didn't have that luxury. They were out there like putting themselves that's just for, you know, the people who were seen as essential services. I'm grateful that we have those people, but also really grateful that I got to be home with my family and we got to kind of take care of each other and just stay safe.



Jens Bringsjord

During the pandemic, there's a lot of time where you sit and have time to just think because all this caused him to worry about a lot of things, yet he was able to deal with his stressors and cope with his feelings. He had felt it.



Al Luke

I think it was something that may have been there, but I didn't really pay too much attention. And then, you know, during the pandemic, there's a lot of time where you sit and you don't have anything to do. So you start thinking about things and you overthink things, which I am prone to do sometimes. And, you know, I just started becoming somebody who's worried about everything and, you know, worrying about, you know, financial stability.



Al Luke

I'm worried about, you know, am I going to catch COVID, going to do the weekly shopping? You know, am I? So it's all of these things that kind of piled up and I started becoming very anxious over the last year. I think it's also something that I've learned to deal with. You know, I have my wife with me and we talk all the time and she's like she sat me down and said, like, listen, like this.



Al Luke

Things are as messed up as they've ever been. You are allowed to feel this way. Give yourself time to breathe, but also allow yourself to go through this feeling that you are feeling right now. This is like in God of worrying, feeling that everybody is feeling right now. And once your mind and your body is adjusted, you'll figure out a new way of dealing with things and moving forward.



Al Luke

For me, I know, I got stuck at work. I also, you know, spent a lot of time at home. So, you know, like spending time with my family. And then something that really helped me a lot was like all the painting that I was doing at home. And yeah, it just gave me a release. You know, the other thing is I never I never noticed because I'm so active.



Jens Bringsjord

Three times a week, I'll attend Brazilian jiu jitsu classes. And for those who don't know, it is a ground based martial art that exercises both the body and the mind. The Brazilian style of jiu jitsu resulted from the import of Japanese jiu jitsu and judo to the South American continent. In the early 1900s.



Al Luke

It's a very physical, very demanding thing. You know, it takes it out of you. So when you come home, you are exhausted, you know? But you're also in a state of calm. Yeah, it helps me a lot, you know, like it's very full on, very physical activity. It's rough sometimes. Some of the guys go, but I go, you know, you're like, Hey, man, chill out.



Al Luke

Just a fun class. Like, let's not count out the girls either. Like some of those girls, like, put knees in my head and, you know, get. WOODRUFF Yeah. I don't know. It's just one of these things that I was drawn to and I started and I enjoyed the learning aspect of it. There's always something new to learn.



Al Luke

It's like design in a way, you know, it's a beautiful thing when you see it. But there's a lot of technique behind it that goes into it. So once you know the technique, you can make things look really beautiful. And I think I enjoyed just that learning aspect of it. But then there's also the physical side and it's like your coach shouting at you more push ups and you're just like, I'm giving you all I have, coach.



Al Luke

You come home and my wife is just like, Why do you have so many bruises?



Jens Bringsjord

Outlook has lived and learned so many things throughout his years, perfecting his craft and striving to be the best he can be. This is what makes an excellent designer, someone who is willing to adapt to changing situations and who's fighting the fight each day to get the next design project in a competitive market.



Al Luke

When your body and mind both feel good, it can only kind of lead to better things that help me to think more plainly at work. You know, it just helps me to be a nicer person. I'm a lot calmer. Not that I'm, you know, super energetic. I go home, man, everywhere, but I'm a lot calmer just in dealing with, you know, everyday situations.



Megan Luedke

And while none of us are perfect, we all can learn something from our sense of passion that drives his everyday actions, constantly pushing his designs to the next level. Design is an art form and will never keep us from doing the same thing. We adapt, we learn, and that's the beauty.



Al Luke

This is design, I guess.



Megan Luedke

We'll be doing this next Thursday as we travel to Krakow, Poland, to meet up with good alternative times. The creative producer at Studio Pigeon, an internationally acclaimed animation studio, wanted to remind you of when the next episode comes out. Simply subscribe to our email updates by visiting design atlas pod dot com.



Jens Bringsjord

To find out more about Al Luke, we've included his Instagram and website links in the show notes. We definitely recommend you check them out.



Megan Luedke

Also, don't forget to join us for our next episode by subscribing to the show and leaving a positive review. We really appreciate it.



Jens Bringsjord

To learn more about Design Atlas and to sign up for updates, visit our website at Design Atlas podcast. If you want to get in touch with us or have a topic idea for our next episode, feel free to send us an email at Hello Design Atlas Podcast or DM us on Instagram at Design Notes. Thanks for listening. I'm Megan Liedtke.



Megan Luedke

And I'm Jens Bringsjord.



Have a show topic in mind?

We’re always on the look for new and exciting ideas.

What will you bring to the show?

Have a show topic in mind?

We’re always on the look for new and exciting ideas. What will you bring to the show?

Have a show topic in mind?

We’re always on the look for new and exciting ideas.

What will you bring to the show?

Sign up for our newsletter.

Join the Design Atlas newsletter for additional design resources and to stay in the loop. Don't miss out. If you don’t subscribe, you’ll never know.

Sign up for our newsletter.

Join the Design Atlas newsletter for additional design resources and to stay in the loop. Don't miss out. If you don’t subscribe, you’ll never know.

Sign up for our newsletter.

Join the Design Atlas newsletter for additional design resources and to stay in the loop. Don't miss out. If you don’t subscribe, you’ll never know.

©2021-2024 Design Atlas Podcast. All Rights Reserved.

Created with love in Barcelona, Spain and Los Angeles, CA.

©2021-2024 Design Atlas Podcast. All Rights Reserved.

Created with love in Barcelona, Spain and Los Angeles, CA.

©2021-2024 Design Atlas Podcast. All Rights Reserved.

Created with love in Barcelona, Spain and Los Angeles, CA.