Artist Series: Jon Hannan, OWT Creative (Manchester)
by Asia Harvey
OWT Creative is a design collective from Manchester, UK that operates as studio, zine publisher and sometimes event producer. The collective is comprised of members Ste Beed, Jon Hannan, Ben Kither and Sarah Stapleton, all graduates from the Manchester School of Art.
Hannan and Stapleton will present From Z(ine) to A(gency) at the Vancouver Art/Book Fair on Saturday, October 5th at 3pm. Their talk will explore OWT’s journey from its roots as a small, self-funded zine made between five friends to a multidisciplinary design collective working with high-end clients, as well as on their own large-scale collaborative projects. Don’t worry, though—they promise they don’t take themselves too seriously.
Project Space: Can you tell me a little about OWT Creative?
Jon Hannan: OWT started as five graduates from Manchester School of Art’s Design and Art Direction course who were searching for a way to stay creative after leaving university. Initially the zine was going to be a fun, collaborative project that we would do in between more restrictive commercial briefs we would be taking on to pay the bills. The first issue received such a significant response from people wanting to contribute that we decided to create an open call for submissions to creatives in the North West of England.
As five designers who love print, zines were an easy choice. It was also something that was very attainable for us as unemployed graduates. Zines make a fantastic, affordable platform for creative people to promote themselves. Although we only made 100 copies of the zine, we found that its scope wasn’t restricted to North West England. Having guys like Alex Zamora publicizing the zine through social media meant that we were receiving emails from New York, Tokyo and Sao Paulo, to list a few, asking if people could submit work or stock the project.
This kind of response was unexpected, but it meant that we were presented with opportunities to expand in terms of the kinds of projects we undertook, though they all shared an emphasis on collaboration. The more of these projects we did, the more commercial opportunities began to present themselves. Eventually we reached a point where we could afford a studio, and everything really went from there.
PS: What made you decide to expand OWT Creative from experimental zine publishing to the “multidisciplinary design collective” format you currently operate?
JH: Our expansion has been a completely organic process. There was never a grand plan for how OWT would evolve. We just worked hard and made the most of the opportunities that presented themselves to us. For instance, the zine in its original form was only ever supposed to run for twelve issues. We could have continued making it, but we wanted to bring it to an end while people still enjoyed reading it and we still enjoyed making it. Everything we do continues to embrace the zine approach, though; it’s just the output that has changed. Of course we all love print and we’ve got plans for new print projects coming soon.
PS: Your OWT Discourse project celebrates local talent through organized talks by creatives from the North West. Can you talk a bit about OWT Discourse and the publication that is currently in the works? What made you decide to expand to producing public events, and how does this fit into OWT’s broader mission?
JH: Our OWT Discourse project is a collaboration with Manchester School of Art. They approached us with the offer to stage an alternative to a traditional design symposium, which can disseminate information between both students and professionals.
Instead we proposed a publication project in which the readership can be directly involved in the production process. The content is constructed through an evening of talks and discourse. The publication’s readership contributes to the content via participation with the “articles” we have provided, which is to say the three speakers. Materials that are generated on the evening along with submissions inspired by the talks provide the framework, determine the format and influence the art direction of the new OWT publication, which we’re in the process of making. We think the reason people respond to our projects and events is because they can become involved: everything we do is defined by participation and collaboration.
PS: OWT Creative has held student internships that help young people through the process of setting up their own collective, can you tell me a little about that? What made you decide to get involved with this kind of project?
JH: We are very grateful to those young creatives who took the time to send in their submissions and spend their money on our zine. They have helped us to keep producing our publication and do what we love. We wanted to give back to the creative community, so we invited groups to come to us with ideas for collective projects, which would result in a publication or an event.
Groups approached our studio with project pitches and we helped them realize those ideas, working in the studio with us and avoiding many of the mistakes that we made. By no means do we claim to be perfect, but we have learnt a lot over the last couple of years. We always say we made progress through naivety.
PS: What kinds of obstacles have you encountered operating as a collective in the UK?
JH: Our biggest obstacle was establishing a business right at the worst point of the recession here in the UK. There were limited jobs available and we had no money, so we had to work with what was at hand and create our own opportunities.
Our studio was based in my kitchen for a long time, and we had to work on jobs that weren’t the most attractive in a creative sense. When finances are tight, clients don’t always want to take the risk of hiring untested graduates. It takes time to build that level of trust with clients, but thankfully the hard work that we put in paid off, and better opportunities began to present themselves.
PS: What are some of your favourite independent publishers in Manchester (or the UK more broadly) right now?
OWT: Oh, where do we start? We aspired to produce work like the guys from Nous Vous when we started, and have since had the opportunity to work with them. We’re inspired by other collectives where people are producing beautiful publications and working on interesting projects. We’ve always loved NoBrow, Lé Gun and WAFA. In Manchester specifically we are really excited to be part of the inaugural issue of Intern Magazine, which is set for big things.
Photo credit: Intern Magazine