Creative visionary – Javier Steel

She’s the creative visionary behind the Brand CBR design, and she’s been using her skills as a graphic designer to lift the profile of other unique organisations since, including designing the new brand for HerCanberra. I chatted to Javier Steel about her work in the industry, her life growing up, and why she’s passionate about design.

Tell me a bit about yourself!

I grew up on a cattle farm 30kms out of Narrabri, North-West NSW. It was isolated, but I loved my childhood. I was very close to my two older sisters. We spent most of our time outdoors, often riding our motorbikes around exploring the farm and the National Park that bordered our property. We lived in each other’s pockets – so we fought all the time, but were quick to reconcile. We’re still very close; they’re my best friends and have always supported, encouraged and inspired me.

We were close to our parents, but sadly my father was killed in a motorbike accident when I was 7. Now as an adult, I have endless appreciation for my mother, she’s such a strong, brave person. Despite becoming a 35 year old widow, with three young girls, she somehow managed to give us so much love and beautiful memories. More than that, she taught us ‘old fashioned’ values, honesty and to be good people, and I’m forever grateful for that.

Mum always encouraged our creative side, she was an amazing florist and had a good eye for photography, interior design and gardening – basically everything she tried her hand at. She never doubted her ability to do anything, which has really shaped my view and attitude towards work. I also recognise that my mum worked hard, she put everything into the project of the moment, both mentally and physically.

Growing up in the country was bittersweet. There’s so much that you just don’t have access to, especially in regards to education and employment options. But I do miss the open spaces, silence and nature. Being in a synthetic environment for too long gets to me. I can’t see the sun set from where I live now, or look out over a field, watch a storm or turn my music up to max volume. It’s funny little things that I miss the most about life on the land.

I met my partner when I was a teenager. In 2007 we decided to start our own life in a new place. He wanted to go to the coast, I could think of nothing worse… He liked the heat I liked the cold – we landed in Canberra and after all of these years, it feels like home to us.

When did you decide to become a graphic designer? What drew you to the industry?

When I was in year 11 – about to start my HSC year, my Career Advisor told me that I should think of what I was good at and then I could get a job in that industry. I was good at art but couldn’t imagine myself having a career as an artist – I didn’t even know any artists. So, I decided (at 17) that I would be an art teacher. My mind was set; I completed my HSC, received good marks and got accepted into a decent university. As soon as I read the acceptance letter I felt sick to the core. It wasn’t right, but I didn’t have a plan B. I was determined to go to university; I would be the first in my family to do so and it was my ticket and reason for moving away.

The day after my acceptance letter, I got a phone call from an educational facility in Canberra, where I had apparently listed my details for a graphic design course. I agreed to visit Canberra and find out more – at this point I didn’t even know what a graphic designer was. I read somewhere that it was like being an artist, but that you got paid a wage. I hated desks and computers but it sounded like something that I’d grow to love and I have. It was the best decision that I have ever made.

What’s your favourite project to date, and why?

Whenever I start a new project, it’s my favourite! I become obsessed, it’s like I have tunnel vision for that one thing and that’s how it is until completion. I know a lot of designers like to take breaks from certain jobs because they get fatigued but I like meaty projects that I can become immersed in – I’m super passionate about my work, sometimes to my detriment. I get ideas at home, in the car – I even dream about my work. I talk through my ideas with anyone who will listen; lucky I have a supportive partner and network of friends who are likeminded and who hardly ever have to tell me to shut up.

There are two projects that come to mind in terms of being crazy difficult, but also completely exciting and rewarding: Brand Canberra (CBR) and HerCanberra (HC).

Designing a city brand is something most designers only ever dream of – seriously, it’s THE dream job. When my workplace, Coordinate, was given the task of branding our city, I was quietly hoping that I might get the chance to be involved, never imagining that I’d eventually become the brand’s Creative Director. All of the Coordinate team spent time on brand concepts. Eventually, I created the geometric CBR symbol – built on a grid of triangles and circles – just like our great city. Jamie (Coordinate Founder and Director) created the line ‘Confident. Bold. Ready.’ and summed up the entire sentiment of the brand in three words, it was perfect.

There has been and will continue to be negativity and skepticism around the brand, but I see it as a win – a project I have loved being a part of for a city that I love. I genuinely see CBR as a city of brilliant possibilities; I have witnessed it first hand. Having come from a place where opportunities are scarce for young creatives, to being given the task of designing the brand of our nation’s capital – tell me that’s not brilliance!

HerCanberra is another pro-Canberra brand that I’ve been working closely with. I really back these amazing women and what they do for the city – they are such a joy to work with. After collaborating on the HC rebrand, site and Magazine design, I’ve happily taken on the role of Creative Director. I believe in the brand and what it stands for, to me that really helps with job satisfaction. I also enjoy being involved in different aspects of business, not just design so I’m learning and developing a whole new set of skills.

Do you think that graphic design is a tough industry for women to be in? Or do you think it’s pretty gender neutral? 

I don’t necessarily think that the industry is tough for women, but I do believe that agency culture can play a huge role in a woman’s experience within the industry. In my experience, equal ratios of men to women make for a much better culture.

What’s something you would love to do in your career (like a career bucket list)? 

I’m lucky enough to be able to say that I’ve already ticked off a few. From here, I’d love work on more publications, because you get the chance to work with a team and to produce a printed piece for people to enjoy and that adds value to their lives.

I’d also love the opportunity to design the brand for an independent art gallery and a fashion house.

Other than that, I’d just love to work with brilliant people that are doing amazing things – I have found that working alongside your clients and forming a real relationship with them is the best way to work.

What do you like to do for fun?

I love exploring new places without a single idea of what I’m doing.

My sister Fauve (two years older than me) and I have been going on adventures since we were children. It used to be on the farm or on our holidays at May Aunty’s home in the Blue Mountains. When we grew up, it became Sydney, where my sister now lives. Each time I visit, we pick a suburb (no research allowed), rock up and simply see what we see. We’re never let down, because we don’t have any expectations.

Last year, we took it to a whole new level and decided to explore France. My job was to learn French (FAIL) and Fauve’s job was the itinerary. She wrote it on a piece of paper and we totally scrapped it about three days in. We booked most of our accommodation a day or two in advance and still managed to have a ball. We hired a little convertible and drove all over the country for three and a half weeks and stayed in 16 motels! We went to big cities, tiny towns, all over the place really. It was the most fun that I’ve ever had. I had no idea where we were going or what to expect and it made it all the more exciting. I wouldn’t change a thing.

What would be your advice to someone wanting to get started in the graphic design industry?

My advice is to follow your heart instead of swallowing the advice of others. Choose your own path.

If I had listened to what people told me about graphic design, I wouldn’t have even tried. I was told that I wouldn’t be able to get a job and that it paid really badly, that the industry was extremely tough to get into – all sorts of nonsense. Other people’s experiences do not dictate our own.

If you love it, do it.

Photograph by Matt Tindale.

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