“I don’t think we've finished with Waghorn yet”
What Steven asked Esther Johnson, the Medway illustrator behind 'Designed by Esther'
For today’s Sunday interview, Steven continues his series of interviews with Medway creatives. Esther has been designing gifts since she was 14, and has produced excellent tourist souvenirs for venues and museums under her Designed by Esther brand as well as our new tote bags! They met at Esther’s office/studio/home in Rainham to discuss Waghorn, mental health, and the importance of a good mentor.
Where were you born?
All Saints Hospital. That's no longer there.
What jobs did your parents do growing up?
My mum worked in a school office and then my dad worked for the council in engineering of some kind. Traffic management of Gillingham and Medway.
So, it’s his fault?
(laughs) I never thought that way, but yes. This was a few years ago.
How did you find school and university?
Primary school was much better. Secondary school I just wanted to get out, I wasn't a massive fan of being constricted. I had to get the bus every single day and I hated getting the bus. I was always late. University was hard. When I was at secondary school, I wanted to just leave and do my own thing and be able to so sort myself out and choose what I was doing on a daily basis, but in my head, you had to go to university. That was the next thing you did you did. So I did that, applied for university in Scotland, which is where I'd dreamt of living as a kid. My family are Scottish and they kind of inspired me to live that dream. So I studied Textile Design, but I found it really hard. Mental health issues came and I struggled, so I was there for a year and a half and then came home. It was kind of back to square one. Didn't have a degree, didn't have a qualification, and the last arts qualification I had was a D A-Level. I thought I won't be able to pursue this kind of drawing career because the last thing I got was a D. University was tough and the repercussions of that time is still evident today, even though it was 6 years ago.
What was it? Was it the distance? Was it the course?
I think it was probably a mixture of both. It was 400 miles away, it was a nine-hour journey, but I found the social aspect quite hard. I was sort of bullied a bit with the group that I was in, which was quite tough. The pub I was working in was a challenge. Working 12 hours without a break. It just seemed really unliveable and it was horrible. I came back, got diagnosed with depression and anxiety and was put on medication and then started self-harming, so it was pretty grim. It was ‘Do I stay up here and get the degree and continue on this downward spiral, or do I come back home and sort of recover?’ It was a really hard decision because for so long, since I was seven or eight, I'd dreamt of moving up to Scotland and living there and then because of outside factors that came into play it wasn't feasible. I came home just really lost, but family and friends were crucial in sorting it out and being there, and saying ‘You've got to make sure you do what's right for you and make sure your happiness is key’, which is a tough one to swallow because you think that you're stronger than outside factors.
How did you make that leap between feeling the wall of the D A-Level and going ‘No, this is what I'm going to do now’?
That is still a daily struggle I reckon. It was when I got the job with Chatham Dockyard, I remember thinking, ‘He’s not going to give me the job because I don't have a qualification.’ That was a really big stumbling block for me for ages. That I'm not working for an agency, I haven't got some kind of backing. I'm doing this for myself, But it was that combination, plus the Prince’s Trust charity, who I got on board with in 2016, and being paired with a mentor who kind of was like, ‘Well why not? Why wouldn't they give you the job? Why wouldn't they want to work with you just because you haven't got a degree? It doesn't matter.’ It was that constant reassurance, of thinking that you can do it that means that you can't move forward. Peter from the Prince's Trust, my mentor, was crucial in giving me that confidence because he was outside. He wasn't family, he wasn't a friend. I met him through the Prince's Trust and we're still good friends. I still text him and say what I’m doing, and he's still good at advice.
What was your first full-time job?
I don't think I've ever had a full-time job. My first job was at Matalan in Strood. I’d do 2/3 days a week after school, and then I worked for Francis Iles in Rochester. Again, it wasn't full-time. It was a Sunday job.
So, this is your first full-time job?
Yeah! It's probably the fullest of full-times you can have. It's like the longest hours, as anyone else who is running a business would know. It's the longest I've ever had a job. I've always had like two or three years and then I would move on, but this has been five and a half years, so clearly I like it.
What is your official occupation?
Illustrator I think. I feel like you get to call yourself what you want and it’s sort of changed. Do I say business owner? I'd say illustrator.
What additional roles, paid or unpaid, do you do?
Prince’s Trust voluntarily. I do speaking there. They do the enterprise course which is the one I went on to learn about running your own business. At the end, they have a speaker that comes and says ‘This is the journey that I went on for the Prince's Trust and this is what I'm doing now.’ I've done that in about 42 sessions. I look after my nephew, and I will soon be looking after my niece which I really enjoy. I looked after him from when he was seven months until he went to school at 4. I’ll be looking after my niece in October which I'm looking forward to. It’s nice because it's one day of the week and it's all dedicated to that child and it's not thinking about work and then you get more focused. It is quite hard to stay motivated, so having that time apart is really good and also spending time with that kid is very good.
What does the average day entail?
I'm not an early morning person, so I probably start work about 10, maybe 11 depending on how I am feeling. But on an average day, the adminy part of answering emails, and doing any jobs that I'm doing. So I'll be doing some drawing and then if there's any products that come, I will check them and then say yes to the supplier, then go and get them printed. A lot of coffee. Coffee is how the day goes.
What was it about creating designs for tourist venues that interested you?
It’s the storytelling element I really enjoy. I like finding out the hidden elements that are part of these buildings that we see, and then finding out what they used to be generations before. I just find that so interesting. I've always been interested in World War 2 and British war history. My grandparents would talk about it, so it was them telling their stories that really interested me and sparked that element. I'd go into cathedrals and think I really want to draw that. For souvenirs, that's kind of what the imagery that goes in souvenirs and to try to make it commercially viable. It was pretty much Peter, my mentor’s, idea to start off with. Here we are forty museums later, still doing it and loving it and people seem to get the concept.
How do you avoid making a product too niche?
Working with the client quite closely helps. They know their tourist attraction, or they know their place and they know their visitor. I'm coming in as an outsider, so I’ll visit the place and get an idea of what the visitor is looking at to then draw. I'll be sending them drafts to see what they like and if they want things added or taken away that fits within their visitor would connect with.
What designers inspire you?
Loads. Cath Kidston especially to start with. I loved her work. I loved her floral prints. I love a designer called Katie Cardew. I started looking at her work when I started the business and she's one of those that she is just incredible in her field. I've got a couple of her bits, but I love her social media and she is just an incredible artist. I would like to meet her one day. Some of the suppliers that I work with work with her as well, so there are kind of a few similar circles that we are in. I think she's just fantastic.
How did you find running a business during lockdown?
Definitely tough, but not a massive change because I was already working from home. It wasn't much of a change, it was more of a ‘There are people in the house’ rather than ‘I am in the house on my own.’ The museums were shut so that was a big stop. I felt like I was going backwards and then also I didn't have any work to do because no one was open. They couldn’t pay for their staff so they weren't going to pay for products. I started making greetings cards and prints and birthday presents. I bought a printer, which is kind of expensive. The greetings cards and the prints are something I never would have done unless there was a pandemic. I had to find another way of getting income, and it's been really good. I like the sort of designs that I have been able to create for my website on Etsy. I sent something to New Zealand and it was amazing that my work's gone into different countries. I would never have got that opportunity before.
Tell us about the Medway Activity Book
This is a project that I've been working on for a couple of years inspired by looking after my nephew. We would always go out and find places to visit on a Monday, and then when he got a bit older I would always be trying to bring in the drawing elements and colouring in and painting. I'd always be trying to do something crafty with him, and then we got this book and he just loved colouring in and I think it's probably a Spider-Man thing and I thought I want to do something that he can play with and use that I designed, and then I was like why don't we do something about Medway? There's so much there, and I was already working with a few Medway people anyway, so the connection was quite a nice one. The idea is to showcase Medway's history through fun illustrations and puzzles. It'll be a 20-page book, but it's for children probably about 7+. I've got about 30 organisations on board, from Restoration House in Rochester to Saint Margaret's Church in Rainham. It's covering all the towns, from Rainham all the way through to the peninsula and it's been one of those passion projects. I really enjoyed doing it. Normally my work is for adults, like tea towels, and this is a different demographic. It's been something that I've been able to control, start to finish, and it will be launched next year.
What tropes do you advise designers avoid if trying to design products about Medway?
I think designs work best when they are coming from people that you really have a relationship with and areas that you know the back story to. So Thomas Waghorn with a cone on his head is synonymous with Medway and people are drawing it, which I think is fantastic because they've obviously lived in the area, and they know the area to make that a piece of art.
Can we have too much Waghorn with a cone on his head?
Can we have too much Waghorn? Maybe. Not yet. I don’t think we’ve finished with Waghorn yet.