I’ll level with you, when I think of Sydney, a design powerhouse is not the first thing that pops into my head. Even Aussie designers have confirmed the creative culture in the Antipodes is still playing catch-up with cities like London and New York. But an increasing number of British designers are packing up and heading out there to pursue a career in warmer climes.
Michael Willis is one of them. Formerly a major player in London’s illustration scene thanks to his anachronistic style and formidable contribution to representing the graphic arts online—through websites like Panther Club (now defunct) and worldwide-x.net—Willis has since relocated to Sydney. You’d be forgiven for thinking that spending more time in the sun and living closer to the beach would have slowed his output to a crawl, but he’s been prolific as ever, creating work for established Australian record and fashion labels while still maintaining a lengthy roster of international clients.
What’s his secret, I wonder?
London to Australia; what’s that about then?
To be honest, growing up, Australia never really appealed to me. But over the past few years I definitely noticed a boom in Australian culture—mainly in fashion and music, from people and labels like P.A.M [a lifestyle brand] and [record label/radio show] Noise in My Head. These interests, twinned with a close friend getting hitched down under, really tweaked something in me. I knew I needed a change but didn’t see it coming until I made it to this part of the world.
Creatively speaking it’s behind London and NYC, but there are lots of interesting people here doing great things. I really like the grass-roots approach; everything is attainable here. The combination of city living, the ocean, incredible natural beauty, and emerging culture means that lifestyle is very high on the list. Who knows, in a couple of years it may wear off, but right now I love it here.
You started out as a graphic artist, and have segued into more of a designer/art director role. How much of that was intentional and how much just a natural development?
I’ve got a degree in illustration, so editorial and graphic arts was the obvious place to start, but after time I found it to be pretty limiting in terms of context, application, and the scope of projects I could realize. I’ve always used type and image in my practice and just felt like I needed more space to create the images and concepts that were buzzing around my head. It was definitely a conscious shift to pursue a more design-led approach.
This evolution has been happening over a number of years I guess, so it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what’s been lost or what remains. I definitely do much less drawing these days and spend more time finding the right typefaces. My clients have shifted from magazines to music and fashion labels. At the heart of it all though, my work remains concept-based—learning from the past but taking it somewhere new and making visuals for our time.
In that time you’ve also maintained two publishing outfits that have been through a similar change. Panther Club was more graphic art-focused, whereas worldwide-x.net positions itself at the forefront of experimental design. Have those platforms come and gone because of a change in the tastes of your audience or your own?
Absolutely, both Panther Club (P/C) and worldwide-x.net are reflections of my current interests. I started P/C straight off the back of my degree. I had a bunch of energy to produce prints, put on shows, and connect with people. The graphic art scene was just picking up around 2009 when I graduated, along with the Risograph printing presses that blew up. I still love that stuff, but for me I think it’s actually a very narrow audience, so I was keen to expand what these networks and platforms could be. In short I guess I was still finding my voice, developing my own creative direction, becoming a better editor, and pushing my vision.
In terms of demographic I still think we have a core following that has been there since P/C days, people growing with us, but also a new demographic reflecting the content shift. The music and fashion aspect means a wider, more diverse audience including more industry people which is interesting, and a healthy evolution I think. Looking back I feel that P/C was more about the past—maybe even a little nostalgic—but worldwide-x.net is very much about making the future and proudly cross-pollinating ideas and culture, supporting what’s happening here and now.
Fashion has become an increasingly important part of the work you make, but you never seemed too excited by it previously. What’s made it more appealing to you?
I think when I was looking at more graphic arts, fashion never really caught my attention. Again, that’s a reflection of my tastes at the time. If you’re a designer it’s a really exciting place to explore—concept-driven, amazing cuts and styling, look books and promo videos, print applications—it’s a real playground if you can get into it.
How much are the aesthetics of the work you make of importance to you?
Aesthetics are really important to my practice. I’ve been obsessed with movies since I was a kid and love the concept of genre. Style, typography, color, it’s all mise en scène. I think in the past 50-100 years people have been creating boxes, symbols, and signifiers (horror films being an obvious example), then there was post-modernism, now post-post-modernism where anything is truly up for grabs.
The future is about mixing genre, cultures, and people. Aesthetics are a way to do this in the visual arts, music, and fashion industries, especially now that the internet has given a space and enabled emerging global cultures to truly exist.
Do you ever apply aesthetics in design simply for the sake of fashion?
That’s a good question. I guess there is a little bit of that but not in a negative way. Trend is a really interesting way to look at design—or any other culture—because it takes into account time and the cultural shift of that time. I think when you’re a young designer you tend to push a certain aesthetic because you imitate your favorite designer or you want to become part of a scene. It’s especially prevalent now with the endless Tumblr feeds, lots of people taking influence and also straight up ripping people off. It’s important for designers to be ahead of fashion or trends, and I try and do it that way.
How easy is it to maintain a career when you’re split between locations? Do you think you’d be making the same kind of work if you’d just stayed in London?
It’s been super easy for me to continue the work I was doing in London. I’m based in Sydney right now, working with people from all around the world, the same as I was back in the UK—I just look out a different window now, and there’s more sun, and the ocean. More people should do it! The change was really important for me; great for the mind, a little nudge to remind you you’re still kickin’ it.
Regarding work, that’s a good question, but to be truthful I don’t think I can answer that. Of course environment influences your life. For me, maybe not so much on the visual side directly, but as a person I’m much happier to be alive.