Sail Creative’s Danni Gilbert on passion, design activism and the importance of “finding your tribe”

New press feature on Creative Lives in Progress; our very own Danni Gilbert

For creative designer Danni Gilbert, the biggest trick to success is to find the right people that share your drive. Luckily for Danni, she’d met Mandy Barker around six years ago while they were both working at a creative agency. Bonding over a shared outlook on the role of design, the two left their full-time roles to go freelance, before Mandy set up Sail Creative and they were reunited once more – alongside newest member of the ‘tribe’, Kat. With a varied role that spans design, workshops, branding and community-based work, Danni also moonlights as an illustrator under the guise of iAMi. A common thread through it all, however, is activism. Below, we chat to Danni to hear more about her journey, and what gets the fire in her belly going.

Day-to-Day

How would you describe your job?
I would describe my job as extremely varied, with a strong sense of purpose running through everything that I do. Before I worked with Sail, I would have happily referred to myself as a graphic designer, but that title doesn’t seem to quite fit anymore; my role diversifies so much and has evolved organically over time. This evolution in my role is something that I am very privileged to have.

One day I could be leading a workshop, the next crafting a brand, to then immersing myself into a community of people to understand their experiences – which might then become an animation or a campaign. Yesterday I was illustrating bugs and tomorrow I am talking to a group of inspiring activists who create real change in our society. In terms of variety, it doesn’t get much better than that.

I am passionate about people and place, so any work that is inspired by people who have lived experience or community is something that gets the fire in my belly going. And of course there’s always the other side to being a designer, and the reality of the job is that you might be artworking images for hours or working through a list of amends which is less glamorous. But when you have the luxury of such a creative and varied job, you don’t mind that bit so much.

How I Got Here

How did you land your current job?
I met Mandy six years ago as we were both working for another big creative agency at the time. We hit it off right away, realising that we shared a very similar outlook on the role of design and how it can be used as a tool to make positive changes – both in society as a whole and locally on our doorstep. Mandy and I both left our jobs to work as freelance designers at different times, but kept in touch as friends and ended up working together on projects. Mandy set up Sail and I joined her soon after, so I have been a part of Sail throughout really.

This proves that it is important to surround yourself with people who share your passion and drive. So, I guess the way I landed my current job is due to the fact that I have been willing to walk away from projects or jobs that don’t sit right, or feed my soul in some way; my job now feels very bespoke, and it’s been carved out by a shared vision, passion, purpose and plenty of late nights.

Do you run any side projects alongside your job?
I feel lucky that I am also an illustrator where I go under the name of iAMi. I get to work on side projects when time allows, and often link up to the issues or subjects I am passionate about. I recently worked with a cabaret maker and performer on a project called Stay Home Stay Queer, which was a resource pack and online zine to help the wellbeing of the LGBTQIA+ community, who may be self-isolating in unaccepting homes during lockdown.

I have also run creative workshops with the inmates of Northumberland Prison creating flags for Pride, and I exhibited and sold work in an exhibition for Pride in London at We Built this City in Carnaby Street in London. I’m currently working on a large illustration as a paste-up for a local grass roots brewery, which is lots of fun.

Mandy and I were also extras in a Sesame Street-themed music video with a drag queen called Chorizo May recently – we had to dance and everything. I get roped into all kinds. I like saying yes to the unexpected sometimes, it gets you out of your comfort zone. Even if I did want to implode with embarrassment.

What do you enjoy most about working on the Sail Creative team?
What is particularly special is that there is this magic Sail glue that connects the three of us together – and that glue is our shared passion for progressive change. We all deeply care about the societal issues that affect the people around us both globally and in our communities.

We are all very aware of this privilege that we have, so our daily conversations are often centred around how we can use our skills to create change for good. Far too many organisations and agencies say that they do this, but often it’s a bandwagon. Within the Sail team, I can see and feel a real tangible desire for action. We are design activists, and this is something that goes beyond enjoyment; it feels essential to everything that we do and every decision that we make.

What skills do you use most for your work?
My skillset has expanded vastly since leaving university. It’s funny; I don’t think you truly learn how to be a graphic designer until you are working in industry. At university, you have the luxury of time to work on projects where you can really explore your creative freedom and find your own voice. But when you are in the industry working for clients with tighter deadlines, that’s when your skills really start to form, as you have to learn to work faster and smarter. So you quickly become more efficient with software and learn to work under pressure too.

My skills are in brand strategy and detective-style research, and brand analysis is something that I have learned through time and experience. Storytelling is also a skill I use in my job, whether that’s crafting a story from time spent with young people to share their experiences for a campaign, or connecting the dots to create a concept that is backed up with an emotive narrative. Or it can even be storytelling through illustration and messaging, it all feeds into my daily role.

Words of Wisdom

What advice would you give to a young creative wanting to do the same kind of work?
Whatever it is that makes you tick, whatever you are passionate about and gets that fire in your belly burning, go after it. Put yourself out there and show people what you truly care about. Self-initiated projects are a good way to do this – they also help to expand your network. Don’t be afraid to be bloody minded about it. It can be a tough and competitive industry, but people love passion and drive and that can get you far. Also, find your tribe; find people who share your passion, because collective mindset is a powerful thing.

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