Profile: Simon ‘Sanky’ Sankarayya

With a CV that includes Geordie school drop-out and teenage graffiti artist, this digital pioneer has gone on to reach the top of the design establishment, and he still hasn’t turned 40. Lynda Relph-Knight talks to the new D&AD president

’I’m a PR nightmare [for D&AD],’ says Simon ’Sanky’ Sankarayya as he describes his unconventional education. ’I was asked to leave school at 16 [for truancy]. I had an issue with authority.’

You could argue though that this unpromising start makes the 38-year-old Geordie an ideal role model for the young, creative people who pass through the metaphorical doors of D&AD, the educational charity and creative excellence champion of which he became president this week. His rebellious nature didn’t stop him pioneering interaction design: he joined Digit as art director virtually at its inception after graduating from Nottingham Trent University where he studied information design, and went on to co-found All of Us eight years later, in 2002.

Sankarayya’s work is often ground-breaking, always intelligent and beautifully executed. Award wins include Best of Show in the Design Week Awards in 2001 for MTV2 On Air idents while at Digit and in 2009 for the Microsoft Interactive Canvas project with All of Us. His focus now is on installations for the likes of the Science Museum and The Public, and collaborations such as those with branding group Someone and Simon Waterfall’s group Fray on projects in Russia and elsewhere.

Collaboration is vital to Sankarayya, who sees interaction design as the ’glue’ between more traditional design and advertising – helpful for a D&AD president. He also advocates experimentation, doing work aside from client projects. It helps, he says, to be ahead of clients, creating tools for the future of their businesses.

’We are still seeing people inventing stuff,’ he says enthusiastically of the digital arena. He also enjoys ’a bit of permanence based around content’ on projects such as the Energy Gallery at the Science Museum, and engaging with the high street through brands like Habitat.

’I like to challenge myself,’ he says, but wants his work to be of general benefit rather than about making a personal statement – a sentiment that will underpin his D&AD presidency.

Back to his journey, though. After a couple of years of ’doing the wrong things’, Sankarayya elected to go to his local Newcastle College to study graphic design, talking his way into the college a few weeks into the first term, and then on to Nottingham Trent.

The ’wrong things’ included graffiti, which, he reckons, informed his career. He was working in a team, in public spaces and under pressure, incorporating words and images. He was good at it, too, winning commissions from the BBC and ITV, as well as the inevitable flyers for friends.

At Newcastle, he studied everything from bookbinding to letterpress printing. ’It was hardcore, old-school graphic design,’ he says. Then in 1991 Photoshop 2.5 came out, with its blurring capability, and like others in his generation, he was enthralled.

His heroes at that time included 8VO, Peter Saville, Malcolm Garrett and Neville Brody – design giants he now counts as friends. He was influenced by the Manchester scene, he says, as well as the Germans and the Swiss, but didn’t fancy London. Indeed, Daljit Singh founded Digit in Nottingham.

’The CD-rom was a reference for my age,’ Sankarayya says of those early days of digital design. At Nottingham Trent he translated the Bible into digital form and worked with tutor Mike Hope on a CD-rom about seminal identity designer FHK Henrion.

’I found it fascinating, translating something structural [the site map] into something visual,’ he says.

The dotcom boom of the late 1990s propelled designers in their early 20s, untutored in business, to set up consultancies. They learned fast through failure. Digit survived the subsequent crash that took out the likes of Razorfish and Deepend, but Sankarayya formed the breakaway that became All of Us as Digit signed a deal with WPP Group.

’I am aware that I’ve been lucky and that keeps me grounded,’ says Sankarayya. ’I’ve learned so much from talking to amazing folk. I briefly thought that maybe I should have been a fine artist, but I am a designer.’

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