Artist, Designer, Activist – I sit down to chat to Ed about his part in Useless, Malta, Art and the future (among many other things). I wanted to tell his story, but he does it so much better. So here it is.
Malta, where do I even begin.
It’s always been an amazing place to visit with loads of history, where you can go exploring without any worry in the world, eat cheap local food and drink local beer, where you can sit on a bench and chat to anyone, find hidden swimming spots and watch amazing sunsets from pretty much anywhere on the island. That’s the Malta I love.
But I fear that’s changing way too fast. Since independence we’ve seen bad planning and no foresight, and that’s all catching up with us now.
Whenever friends in London tell me they are planning a visit, I always respond with mixed reactions. Go quick, for it is changing for the worse, and with all the new unsightly construction and traffic gridlock, I fear we might have ruined it beyond the point of no return. That’s the Malta I hate.
Like anyone else I suppose, I’ve got a love / hate relationship with the place.
When I was younger and first studying design, there wasn’t really any sense of pride in anything local. Inspiration mostly seemed to come from overseas. So my friends Matt and Kat and I started a blog called Maltatype, the purpose of which was to create an online resource of typography inspiration, taking photos of beautiful signage found around the island from the times gone by.
I’d like to think that it inspired people to appreciate their surroundings in Malta a tiny bit more. People would get in touch and send us photos of things they hadn’t really payed any previous attention to. Since then, we’ve seen the birth of a few brilliant Malta-inspired creative ventures, such as Maltadoors and Te fit-Tazza. I feel it’s important to instil a sense of pride in our heritage and surroundings, in order to combat the daily destruction going on around us.
2. CHILDHOOD ED
I’ve loved drawing for as long as I can remember. My nannu had a cosy desk under the stairs with a huge pile of rough paper, and I remember spending hours drawing away, much to his content.
My essays at school were always accompanied by an illustration, and later on when I went to Junior College, I’d spend more time drawing on my file and books than actually paying attention. I never considered it to be anything I could pursue professionally. I don’t think I had ever heard of graphic design, and art was just something I did on the side. I used to love drawing buildings and planning imaginary cities, so I always thought I’d become an architect.
I remember being in a physics A-level class, and we had to draw a diagram that showed the trajectory of a canon being shot from a ship and calculate the projectile motion (or something like that!). Everyone in class drew a simple box and made their calculations, but I spent the whole lesson drawing a really detailed pirate ship, complete with sails and canons and ropes and wooden planks. The teacher told me “I think you’re in the wrong course”, and she was right. Around the same time, I had started hanging out with a group who were students at the art & design institute in Mosta, so I enrolled onto a course there.
It was probably the best decision I’ve ever made.
3. FROM MALTA TO NICE AND SERIOUS
We’re a nation obsessed with churning out lawyers and accountants. It meant that art wasn’t something I ever considered as a profession until later on. Going to the Mcast Art & Design institute changed all that, of course, and was a massive breath of fresh air. From being just a number at JC, I was suddenly thrown into this artistic community of students, with workshops of ceramics, stone carving, metalwork, jewellery, drawing and painting and lessons in history of art & design. We were encouraged to use our hands and to experiment as much as we could. We were also tasked with keeping a sketchbook and a visual journal, and made to go to local exhibitions and write up reports about them.
I specialised in graphic design, and after completing my courses at Mcast, I took out a massive loan and moved to the UK to continue my studies at the University for the Creative Arts (UCA).
Moving to the UK was an important move for me. Malta is an amazing place to grow up, and I love going ‘home’ on holiday, but I always felt quite cut off from the rest of the world, and wanted to move to somewhere more diverse where I could push my creative boundaries.
Suddenly, I was meeting people from all walks of life and was surrounded by a whole new world of inspiration. I lived with other creatives and we had amazing ‘work sessions’ together, sitting around in the same room with loud music playing and all of us drawing away or working on our own stuff, going for walks in the countryside or to the pub to break it up, and visiting London as often as my wallet would allow me to, with its endless amount of exhibitions, gigs and inspiration.
Whilst at UCA, I did an internship at a small design studio in Shoreditch, called The Creative Arms (now Rhapsody Media). They were quite a small team but were working on projects for companies like Spotify and Nike. They encouraged me to walk around the area with my sketchbook, take notes, come up with ideas and present everything to them at the end of the day. The internship went so well that it ended up landing me a job in London a few years later.
Before that, however, I started working at Brnd Wgn in Malta right after graduating.. I worked there for the first three years of my career, which ended up being a really good move as I feel like I really grew as a designer during that time. I worked on several cool campaigns, branding and packaging projects, and even got into video editing for a while.
Malta is obviously a much smaller market, so you’re given a lot more responsibility, and sometimes thrown in at the deep end, so you have to learn and adapt much quicker. After a while, I found myself directing ads for our big clients (Air Malta, Cisk etc), whilst also drawing the storyboards, editing the final cut and designing all the assets… something that wouldn’t really happen abroad, where jobs are more specialised and work is divided among a larger team.
I was always more interested in designing for purpose over profit. Back at UCA, I had come to the realisation that I didn’t want to dedicate my life to making brands richer, and therefore contributing to the unsustainable and damaging consumer society that we live in. I had ended up writing my dissertation about social responsibility and ethical design, and had always dreamed about working in that field. Milton Glaser said ‘The idea that design has an impact on society is much more significant to me than design as a selling tool’, and this resonated with me.
So I freelanced for a few months in London, all the time looking for jobs with a more ethical / environmental focus, until I came across Nice and Serious. They were the perfect fit, an ethically focused creative company that actually produced really good work. Their website said ‘We make nice things, but only to solve the serious stuff.’ I got in touch with the founders and a few weeks later I was helping out on a campaign about sustainable fishing for MSC. They offered me a permanent role a couple of months later, which I was obviously delighted to accept.
I’ve actually now just resigned from my role at Nice and Serious. It was a really difficult decision, as I really loved the company and the team, but I feel like I’m done with having a 9-5 job and want to focus on developing myself artistically. I’d really like to develop my illustration, and the only way I can do this is by giving it my all and making it my primary focus, rather than just something I do in the evenings.
Useless is a Nice and Serious project and I definitely wouldn’t want to claim ownership of it. Like many others, I had grown frustrated at the amount of plastic we’re forced to consume on a daily basis.
Most of us at N&S would shop at the little Sainsbury’s across the road, and it was really depressing that almost every fruit and veg item would come wrapped in unnecessary plastic packaging. So I approached Pete, our creative director, and said I’d like to work on something to do with the plastics issue. The design team and I got together for a brainstorming session, and after a while, we came up with the idea of designing a zero-waste map.
Tom, our co-founder, got on board and we ended up presenting the project to the Mayor of London’s office. I then left for my travels and the guys really put a lot of effort into getting it across the line and published on World Environment Day. They’ve got more releases planned so stay tuned!
6. THE FUTURE AND THE ENVIRONMENT
I can’t say I’m too optimistic about the future, to be honest. With the current political situation and the way things are going, can anyone be optimistic? If we want real change, we need to change our relationship with nature from one of domination to one of harmony.
Our whole economic system needs a rethink and people’s behaviour needs to change drastically. It’s a big ask and I don’t see enough concern from the average Joe.
Everyone’s too obsessed with filling their own pockets and buying new BMW’s to care.
Having said that, the rise in groups like Extinction Rebellion and the school protests spurred by the amazing Greta Thunberg have given me a new sense of hope, but I’d really like to see more people around me take responsibility and adjust their way of living.
Of course, we can’t put all the blame on the person in the street… we need serious action from the higher institutions and big corporations, but they won’t change unless the public demands it.
8. What is the greatest accomplishment of your life?
This is a hard one. I don’t feel like I’ve made any big accomplishments, I’m definitely still on my way to feeling like I’ve achieved anything, and probably will always feel like that! Obviously there are milestones I’m proud of, such as working successfully as a designer in London, and others such as cycling the entire length of the UK last year (Lands’ End to John O’Groats).
But I’m still young and have big dreams, so I’d like to come back to this in the future. What I would say, though, is that I’m definitely more interested in the impact I can have rather than on achieving anything personal. So I’d rather have worked on a campaign that made real change rather than win any personal awards.
9. What is your most treasured memory?
These personal questions are really tough! I’ve got so many memories that I’d like to chose, such as my grandfather teaching me to ride a bike or my dad taking me to my first football game, walks in Buskett with my mum, or endless Maltese summers spent jumping from high places, building floats and catching crabs.
But I think there’s one which is a turning point or a milestone, as much as a treasured memory. I was in Turkey on an EU exchange programme for a few weeks when I was 17, and had to spend a night in Istanbul in a hostel. It was my first time meeting solo travellers, and seeing them planning their routes and next steps on laid out maps was really exciting.
I ended up having a few drinks with an older traveller who had a crazy story which I won’t go into, but anyway, he told me:
“the most important thing at the end of your life is that you have a story worth telling”. That’s always stuck with me.
10. Is there something that you’ve dreamed of doing for a long time? Why haven’t you done it?
I’m not a person who holds onto dreams for too long, I tend to make sure I go out and achieve them. I had always dreamed of travelling the Trans-Siberian railway route, for example, so I went off and did that a few years ago.
Actually, saying that, I’ve always dreamed of being a photojournalist and providing a platform to those who need it most, especially in the form of short documentaries.
I take photos and make short videos as a hobby for now, but it’s something I’d really like to pursue eventually.
I’ve got a few ideas for short docs to do with Malta, which I’d love to find the time to work on some day. I guess I haven’t done it yet because there aren’t enough hours in the day, and I’m choosing to focus on developing my illustration first.
11. For what in your life do you feel most grateful?
I’ve just come back from two months of travelling in Mozambique and Malawi, a stark reminder to never take things for granted.
I feel grateful for being able to be in a position where I can pursue anything I’d like to, pretty much. I feel grateful for having had an education and for being born into a strong support system. I feel grateful for the opportunities that have come my way, for having been able to travel and live and work abroad, but also for being able to return to a little Mediterranean island whenever I like.
14. Given the choice of anyone in the world, whom would you want as a dinner guest?
God, so many.
I’ve just finished reading a book by Sylvain Tesson called ‘Consolations of the Forest’, a journal of his time living alone in a cabin in Siberia for six months. I’d love to be able to discuss it in detail with him.
Can it be a dinner party?
I’d have him alongside Attenborough for his stories, Malala for her courage, Milton Glaser and Stefan Sagmeister for their design influence, JR the street artist for his ability to use art to transform the world, Roald Dahl and Quentin Blake for their imagination, Roberto Benigni for his comedic genius, Lubezki for some cinematography tips, Sebastiao Salgado as a photojournalist hero, George Monbiot for environmental debate, and Alan de Botton for discussions on just about everything. Yottam Ottolenghi would prepare dinner, Ebo Taylor would play background music and Foals would host the after party.
Or maybe I’d have the opposite of a dream dinner party and invite members of the government and opposition and try my best to convince them that the island is crying out for a change in direction, that we don’t want to be the next Dubai, that widening roads and building flyovers isn’t the right solution and that we’d rather have some open spaces, clean air and cycling infrastructure instead.