Words by Anthony Thomas

“I remember I got out of school thinking the world was my oyster, I wasn’t bitter or jaded by time. The delusion that design could change the world was still strong. Everything seemed so exciting. There were no boundaries. Things change.” 

That was over five years ago and a lot has changed for Barnéy Baker. After dropping his formal design training to jump straight into agency work, the Canadian designer is redefining what design means to him. “I’ve been slowly discovering I usually dislike the agency rat race, it becomes so uninspiring. I’ve been focusing more and more on the stuff that makes me happy.” Baker tells me the transition from the stability of agency work to the tumultuous freelance environment was ultimately a decision made due to creative bankruptcy. 

“There’s always that initial excitement at the beginning of every commercial project, but as it progresses the client’s say became more valued over the creatives. Things you were attached to are slowly wiped away. A lot of what you create doesn’t see the light of day. I find it increasingly hard to pour my heart and soul into something that either doesn’t get seen or is altered so much you can’t even see what you did in the end. This is something that took me time to learn, most seasoned agency creatives are well aware of this process and have accepted it as a reality. But, suppressing creative passion is something that slowly eats away at me – I guess that’s what I get for mixing business with pleasure.”

A point as valid as it is contentious within the commercial arts industry. The client-creative relationship is hinged on the joint understanding of its mutual benefits. The client pays the creative money for skills that are utilised in the hope of making future profits. Sounds great, right? The reality is that business values opportunity optimisation over creative process and lacks the willingness to better understand it.

“I’ve seen project managers who hover over your shoulder and are just like, “Yeah! Just press that button to do that.” Because it’s a job done entirely on the computer there’s a perception that it’s easier. A lot of people on the outside or those unaware of the process involved don’t really have any idea of how long something can take to make digitally. It’s a pattern of, “Do this as fast as you can. Make it look good. Ok, cool. Now here’s the next project.”

But is that an indication that clients are willing to compromise quality for first mover advantage over their competition on a new campaign? “Everyone wants quality. It’s just no one comprehends how much time things can take. Everything needs to be done yesterday. That’s just the way the world is. When I want to be able to focus more on the process or the craft of something there’s not a lot of room to do that. That’s the turn off for me.”

You’d be forgiven for assuming that Baker, real name Mark Bulford, is filled with bitterness given the situation but I’m yet to detect the slightest tone of annoyance in voice over Skype. When I ask him about why he chooses to use a pseudonym, his carefree nature is further affirmed.

Barney Baker is the little kid fromThe Master of Disguise, the Conductor of the Potty Train. I grew up loving that movie, so I thought it would be funny to bring that into it. Then I added the accent de gue after spending quite a bit of time working in MontréalBarney Baker is the most English name you could have and now it’s ”French”. Graphic design is such a serious industry, with all its egos. So Barnéy is me trying to infuse a little fun back into the things I was working on.”

Though it’s the aesthetic variance between his body of work under Barnéy Baker and his previous identity,Brand Nouveau, that gives an interesting insight into how he operates as an artist. “It’s interesting looking back because that was still at the stage where I was taking design much more seriously. They’re essentially different stages of life and each portfolio definitely changes based on where I’m at. That growth and feeling of progress is a big thing for me.” So where does he see Barnéy heading next?

“For me now, a big part of it is the process, the craft and learning new techniques in programs. It’s that learning that keeps me coming back. I’m at a bit of a crossroads where I don’t know if I want to keep doing graphic design so specifically. I’m getting tired of spending so much time in the digital world. I’m beginning to feel constrained by it. I want to see it applied to different mediums. You see the digital work on a computer and that’s it. I’m really getting into the idea of textiles and fabric based stuff.”

The appeal of working in tangible media for Bulford lies in the physicality of the end result as opposed to a file that is inevitably lost in an ocean of data and files. Doing things by hand is appealing because at least there’s the tangible result at the end. Opposed to the past decade of things I’ve been doing are just stacked in hardrives. 

“I’ve been playing around with running paint over glass lately. It’s quite tedious, literally watching paint dry, but enjoyable. I find after working for so long at a computer, my patience has deteriorated. I’ll be doing things by hand and automatically try to undo something. But that doesn’t exist in real life. Yet…”

While we chat, it’s hard to ignore the charisma that pulsates from every word. Not the kind of manufactured charm you would expect from the advertising sales people who enslaved him for so long. Rather the kind that breathes authenticity. And it’s his ability to translate that realness into his work that elicits the connection the brand’s who employ him are after. But now the ball is in his court.

“I’m at a point with design where I just want to do it personally for a bit. It’s kind of like quitting but because it is such a creative occupation I think it can be healthy to put that barrier up between your personal work and what’s paying the bills.” Before I hang up the call he adds, “I’m simply trying to figure it out as I go along.”

Just like the rest of us.

Published online in issue 25 of PITCH.