Remembering Jon Daniel: 1966-2017

We look back on the life and work of the Design Week columnist, independent creative director and social activist “who helped put black participation on the political map”.

Independent creative director, designer and Design Week columnist Jon Daniel has died aged 51, following a short illness.

Through his Four Corners column, Jon set out to spotlight the work of designers from the African diaspora, bringing Design Week readers stories of emerging, established and pioneering designers.

And this is exactly what he did, for more than four years. It was Jonny’s gregarious nature, persistence and persuasiveness, which got him so many great interviews. He really believed in what he was doing and that certainly rubbed off on people.

He reached Emory Douglas, the art director of US revolutionary organisation The Black Panthers, which sprang up during the civil rights movement in the 1960s, as well as Fela Kuti record sleeve designer Lemi Ghariokwu and people that we might never have discovered, like Trinidadian designer Melanie Archer.

We shouldn’t underestimate the importance of Jon’s column

Jon was a perennial networker and a dogged hard worker, with an enviable contact book. He knew so many people. His appetite was driven by a genuine desire to share people’s stories, as well as his broad love of design and creativity.

We shouldn’t underestimate the importance of Jon’s column. It stood alone as a showcase of work by great designers who happened to be from the African diaspora. But of course it was so much more than that. It celebrated heritage and background, recognising how unique creative perspectives have been forged from very particular experiences. It also recognised personal struggles, prejudice, and in some cases, racism.

The backdrop to this is that the design industry struggles with representation and diversity, and while there was no need for Jon’s column to be explicit about this, it underscores its importance.

Starting out

Jon was born on 31 May 1966 in East Sheen, South West London. His late father Horace was from Barbados and his mother Sheila is from Granada. Horace came to the UK as part of London Transport’s recruitment drive and Sheila came to train as a nurse. They met and married in London.

It was quite early in Jon’s life that he realised what he wanted to do, according to his wife, Jane Daniel: “He always wanted to do something with art and when he was still quite young, one of his teachers told him about ‘commercial artists’ and he decided that’s what he wanted to be.”

This desire was fulfilled at Richmond upon Thames Tertiary College, where he graduated in graphic design in 1987 before founding his own consultancy, the Headland Creative Company in 1988. He then took a series of art director roles with London ad agencies including Collett Dickenson Pearce and latterly Leo Burnett where he left as board art director in 2004.

He was executive creative director of Ebb&flow until 2012, ending an agency career that saw him work with clients including IBM, NHS Careers, The Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) and Virgin Direct.

Then he struck out as an independent, which gave rise to a hugely prolific period including many social projects.

One of these was Afro Supa Hero, an exhibition at the V&A Museum of Childhood built around Jon’s personal comic collection. He branded the exhibition, created the merchandise and a book soon followed. Meanwhile workshops with school kids and lectures took place.

Another notable show was a celebration of postcolonial stamps, which was held at the headquarters of stamp aficionado Stanley Gibbons.

Jane Daniel remembers that “one of his proudest moments was designing the box-set for Parliament’s Chocolate City: London – P-Funk Live album, where he got to meet his hero, George Clinton.”

Away from his commercial work, Jon was highly politicised. He worked with the director and founder of Operation Black Vote, Simon Woolley a number of times. Woolley, who is also commissioner for race on the Equality and Human Rights Commission, remembers that Jon often worked pro bono and convinced others to do the same.

“Jon Daniel’s creativity helped tackle race inequality. Knowing we never had money, 95% of the time he never charged for his brilliant work,” says Woolley.

In the run up to the 1997 UK general election, Jon, working with collaborative partner Trevor Robinson “helped put black participation on the political map,” according to Woolley.

Together with Robinson, Daniel created the campaign, which featured images of each of the main party candidates next to the strapline: “Imagine the impact if one million black people call…”, which was devised to help drive engagement by encouraging black and ethnic minority (BME) groups to vote.

“Jon was acutely aware that so many black people had not engaged. What if, he argued, their first act was to call the prime minister and tell him – John Major – what they thought?

“They also shot a film ad shown in cinemas, depicting a politician having a nightmare due to tens of thousands of black people voting and being able to decide his fate.”

It was the first of many collaborations with Operation Black Vote (OBV). In 2000, in the run up to first London mayoral election, Jon created a campaign featuring fashion designer Ozwald Boateng, actress and writer Meera Syal and singer Des’ree. He took a photographic approach and added the message “One third and rising”, indicating that one third of Londoners were from a minority background.

In 2005, the right wing British National Party (BNP) was gaining political ground in the UK. Jon created an awareness campaign pitched at BME groups and the wider population. All over the UK 30-metre billboard posters were plastered with the message: “Racists are more dangerous than ever. They’re voting.”

Two years later he worked with American civil rights pioneer Reverend Jesse Jackson on his tour of the UK. Woolley remembers that Jon designed the graphics on the outside of the bus, which featured an illustration of Jackson.

“When Reverend Jackson first took site of the bus he said, ‘Oh my God, this is so brilliant. Who was the genius who designed this?’”

In 2010, Jon worked on an OBV campaign for the general election. “It was about using the vote to challenge institutions and raise our own aspirations,” says Woolley. The campaign, featuring a giant voting X, simply read: “Expect the best from yourself and from society.”

“He loved his family, friends and his work”

I last saw Jon at the Design Week Awards in June and a month prior to this, when he judged for us. One way or another, the best designers bring about change. I’ll remember him as a loved and highly respected professional who brought about real change with unwavering levels of enthusiasm.

Jane Daniel says: “He was endlessly enthusiastic about everything – he loved his family, friends and his work – and that’s how he lived his life. One of the saddest aspects of his death is that he wasn’t finished – he had so much more that he wanted to achieve and I have no doubt whatsoever that he would have got there.”

Jon is survived by his wife Jane and two sons Noah and Gil. You can find out about and donate to the Jon Daniel Legacy Fund here.

Read Jon’s Four Corners column series here

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