Senior designer at R/GA New York on not being pigeonholed, “multidisciplinary music listening” and the importance of creative side hustles
Meet Gabriel Towles, a senior designer at R/GA. He’s an absolute jack of all trades. He was featured in GQ for lending his creative juices to everything from product photography to running, creating, and managing the social ads for a hat company. His first foray into creative writing was as a poet in his childhood - “I thought I was Mos Def,” he muses.
Upon joining R/GA, Gabriel was afraid of pigeonholing himself into a box after being asked by his creative director if he wanted to be an art director, designer or experience designer. He chose design but has since come up with the creative for numerous campaigns and is even today adding music production and sound design into his client work. Outside of work he’s creating an app and designing album art for a musician in Toronto.
We picked his brains on all things creative.
LBB> How do you express yourself creatively at work?
GT> I actually started my ad journey in school with copywriting in my first portfolio class. I wrote an insightful and dramatic Veteran’s Day campaign and my professor, Dev Gupta, told me he saw my potential. Looking back, it’s wild because as a kid I wrote poetry (I thought I was Mos Def) and it’s fascinating to think about how poetry kick started my creative journey.
My curiosities kind of snowballed into my wanting to learn and become skilled in every aspect of the ad process, so I pursued design. Wearing multiple hats proved to pay off as I took care of everything from product photography to running, creating, and managing the social ads for a hat company that I ran with a few friends in college. Shameless flex: the company garnered over 130,000 likes on Facebook and was featured in GQ magazine.
When I started working at R/GA, I was pressured to put myself into a box. I’ll never forget the day of my interview, after looking at my portfolio, my CD asked me if I wanted to be an art director, designer or experience designer. With design being my core, I chose design. After a year or so, opportunities to expand creatively arose and I came up with some campaigns and concepts that were sold into clients. Since then, I’ve tried not to let categories define me. I’ve even started incorporating beat making and sound design into client work, always trying to use the breadth of my creative skillset as much as possible.
LBB> How about outside of work?
GT> Outside of work, there are no titles. I can just put out stuff that I think is wavy. Right now I’m working on an app with a few people that allows you to barter your skillsets helping people who don’t necessarily have access to funds but do have access to skills and ideas. In order to promote it, we’re creating a content series and I’ve been able to do strategy, design, branding, and use my music production skills. I’m also working with an artist in Toronto, named City Fidelia, who has asked me to design his last three album art singles. I just completed another cover for him and it’s growing into a deeper partnership. If I wasn’t trying to chase my multidisciplinary creative passions, I probably wouldn’t be doing any of this.
LBB> What do you do to nurture your creativity?
GT> I consume a diverse array of things - video, music, film, books as well as surrounding myself with creative people. I try to have the outlook that you can find value anywhere, you just have to slow down and look. I try to live by the mantra that everything has its own place. For instance, I have a lot of playlists that I correlate to different vibes during the day. In the morning as I get dressed I listen to Memphis rap to get myself ready to take on the day. On the way to the train I move to something bouncier that has a strong beat. On the train, I don’t want my snares and high hats to make people look at me crazy, so I switch to more mellow waves like Kiefer or Madlib, and then once I get to work, it’s straight up old school feel good stuff like the Ohio Players to keep me Zen. Kind of like multidisciplinary music listening.
LBB> What advice do you have for others in this position?
GT> Start small in one lane, prove yourself and keep moving on. Barack Obama didn’t start out as the president; he was an attorney, a grassroots organiser and so on. After a while, he probably said, “cool, I have multiple sectors on lock, now I can really flex with the full package”. Even in basketball, you start off with your crossover, next you perfect your three-point shot, then you move to other areas of your game until people are like, “YO, he’s nice!”, and then you can navigate and show people what you can do. I try to just look at things as levels on a videogame, beat each boss and take one level at a time.
LBB> Any last words?
GT> If you think about a multidisciplinary creative, it’s about finding the right place for yourself. I was asking one of my mentors, David Decheser about next steps in my career. He said, “It’s simple – ask yourself what makes you happy, and ask yourself what you like to do?” They can be the same thing, but they can also be different. What do you like to do for work, and what brings you joy? Stop overthinking. Just find the best way, place and context to use all of your skills and you’ll end up doing what you’re supposed to be doing.