Above image: ©Charles Coates/LAT Photographic
In March 2013 my mum was diagnosed with stage four ovarian cancer. On a scale of one to four, stage four indicates that the cancer has spread and developed into other parts of the body. This was the second time my mum had been diagnosed, having battled with breast cancer some years earlier.
With surgery and regular chemotherapy her cell count was thankfully curbed to a relatively controllable level, but the reality of her never being totally cured soon became apparent. Anybody who’s had a loved one affected by cancer knows the false dawn of getting an ‘all clear’. The truth is, if you’ve had the disease once, the threat of it re-surfacing never really goes away. We began to accept that she would face this struggle for the rest of her life.
Even for the most strong-willed and pragmatic person I’ve known – both the rock and the glue to our family – it would be as much of an emotional and mental test for her as a physical one. Some days she’d win. Some days she wouldn’t.
The shock of losing a parent was the single biggest kick up the arse I’d ever experienced. Being hit by a bus tomorrow suddenly became a very real prospect. It was a total wake-up call.
My Mum’s diagnosis came at a time when I’d been feeling adrift and led me to question what I was doing with my own life. What had I achieved? Had things turned out they way I’d wanted? Was I happy even?
Over the previous decade I’d been forging a relatively successful career in graphic design. At the time, I was working as a senior designer at a very well-renowned studio; earning good money in a fantastically creative environment.
But I was also disillusioned to be in an industry that could be incredibly inward-facing. I desperately wanted to make things that people outside of my profession gave a damn about. Things that would grab the attention of the wider public and be appreciated as better than the usual. Things that would affect the World, or at the very least someone’s world.
With no plan, little money and a heightened sense of carpe diem, I decided to quit my job to try and realise a genuine boyhood dream:
I wanted to brand a Formula One team.
A life-long love
I was eleven years old when I first took an interest in Formula One motor racing, becoming a devoted fan for some long-forgotten reason over the winter of 1996.
In the days before the Internet was the norm in most households – certainly ours anyway – my grandfather would save clippings of newspapers for me with any news of the team’s pre-season launches. He clearly wanted to be involved in whatever latest thing was making his grandson go so bananas. Even in black and white newsprint, the reveal of new cars and driver suits was simply intoxicating.
I’d spend hours concocting my own car livery designs in the back of schoolbooks and my dad’s old accounting ledgers; giving myself specific briefs of team colours, engine supplier and sponsor logos to coordinate as best I could. My future profession would clearly be no accident. And as I grew older, so did my love of the sport.
At the point where I’d started to earn decent money for the first time, I blew every penny of it to fly to Barcelona to drive one of these utterly ridiculous cars. As bucket list items go, this was as close to the sport as I thought I’d ever get.
Taking the leap
So in early 2014, with my boyhood dream front of mind, I began to try and set up meetings with whomever in the motorsport world would see me. Sadly, that wasn’t many people. I had no links in this industry whatsoever and had gone in cold.
Two months of knocking on doors had resulted in the beginnings of a never-to-be-realised project with a small racing privateer from Luxembourg, and a meeting with the marketing department of an F1 team that amounted to “So, how good at Photoshop are you?”
I vaguely knew what I wanted to do, but had no real clue as how to get there. And what did I expect? People to just invite me in off the street and into a senior creative role from nothing? OK, I had a decade’s worth of experience doing what I did, but my work seemingly had no relevance. Most of the time I was talking to the person who’s job I was ultimately vying for. It was hardly a captive audience.
Frustrated, aimless and living off credit cards, I was close to giving up before I’d even really started. But it was on a friend’s stag weekend in Manchester that a series of Twitter messages would unexpectedly set in course the next two years of my life.
Ex-colleague, friend and then Executive Creative Director at DesignStudio, James Greenfield asked if I was able to come and do a stint of freelance work with him. Dragging my feet somewhat, I told him that I couldn’t and that I had to have at least one last crack at the dream – however futile. He suggested, in his words, that I “do a Pieratt” and create a brand for a fictional team to show what I was capable of.
It was a defining, if somewhat half-cut moment.
That day, news had broken that Californian industrialist Gene Haas – founder of billion-dollar company Haas Automation Inc., the western world’s largest CNC machine tool manufacturer, and co-owner of successful NASCAR team Stewart-Haas Racing – had been granted a rare entry for a new team in Formula One. If it came off, it would be the first American team to make the grid since 1986.
I didn’t need to invent an F1 team to brand; I had a real one starting from scratch, with a huge organisation and an entire nation potentially behind it. This new team was my opportunity.
Hungover and back in London, I began to think about how a proposal for the team’s brand could take shape and, more importantly, who I could get it in front of.
I figured that I had two options: to somehow present directly to the team and win the opportunity to work on it, or more likely, cash-in on the speculation surrounding a new entry and use the project as a springboard for something else. Knowing that Plan A was a longshot, I began to gather contacts in the motorsport media.
My knowledge of the F1 world led me to get in touch with motorsport marketing agency JMI. The founder and CEO of which was Zak Brown; an American racing driver-turned successful businessman and a man regularly touted as the next Bernie Ecclestone. His agency are increasingly behind many of the commercial deals made in top-level motorsport, particularly F1.
I had a hunch – but nothing more – that a conversation between Brown and a new American team may have taken place, so I set up a meeting with JMI to chat and go through my existing portfolio.
I casually mentioned in our meeting that I was prospectively looking at the brand of the new Haas team and asked if they’d be interested in seeing the results. I‘d peaked their interest, so we agreed to talk again once I had something to share.
Unbeknown to me, the agency had just a few days earlier secured the account to help Haas into the sport.
Through some shrewd joining-of-the-dots and good timing, I’d managed to land myself in the exact meeting I needed to be in.
After so many dead ends and unreturned phone calls however, I was just happy to finally have an interested party, so set to work.
Long days, longer nights
I began what would be just over three months of unpaid work from my kitchen table. Cat on lap and kettle on repeat, I bought a cheap inkjet printer and absorbed anything Haas-related that I could lay my hands on; auditing their brand as best I could from 4000 miles away and with zero contact.
As someone who thrives in a busy studio environment, solitary work was a struggle. For all the days when I was invigorated and thought I’d hit on something brilliant, there were others where I felt like a fraud and an idiot for walking away from a solid job. My partner Mika was an amazing source of support. She’d come home from a long, hard day running her own business and still have time to pick me up off the floor when I needed it.
I knew that if I was going to convince anyone to give me a chance then my proposal had to be big enough in scale for the details not to matter, but thorough enough that it felt viable. I didn’t want to put in all of this time and effort, only to be denied by an error in judgment or lazy thinking.
I sought to position the team as being to human spirit and endeavour what Ferrari are to passion and Mercedes are to excellence. It didn’t matter if Haas began life at the back of the grid, because they’d get there in the end if their people believed it’d happen and worked hard enough to achieve it. A uniquely American desire to give them ‘Everything we got’.
The use of the 30˚ angle, lifted from the graphic H of Haas Automation’s existing logo, was an early basis for the brand. It was a simple, graphic way to symbolise the determined and optimistic spirit of the American character, while retaining a visible link to the founding company.
I made the case that an iconic racing car livery should be something simple enough for a child to recreate from memory in the back of their schoolbook – just as I had done as a boy.
I created concepts for driver suits, team wear, equipment, trailers, environments, digital, social media campaigns and even a motorsport programme to inspire the next generation of engineers. The proposal was comprehensive and not limited to the race track.
I organised a follow-up with JMI in their London offices to present the culmination of three months work. I consoled myself that if I stumbled now, I still had other options available, but deep down I knew that this was probably my best and last shot.
I feared, but half-expected, a gracious “Thanks but no thanks”.
Weeks later, my plane would land for the first time in the low, red sun over the still lakes and boats of North Carolina.
“Had this all really worked out as planned?” I asked myself.
Yes, unbelievably it had.
My follow up meeting with JMI had gone well. So well in fact that I returned home that Friday afternoon to find an email waiting for me, the gist of which read: “Can you start on Monday?”.
The following week I was presenting to Adam Jacobs, CMO of Haas F1 Team in North Carolina, introducing myself and nervously, but successfully, talking through my proposal for real.
From nowhere, absolutely nowhere, I’d managed to make it happen.
Now all I had to do was make sure I made a good job of it.
Turning dream into reality
Haas would enter into the 2016 season, so it gave us 18 months to develop and mature the concept together before a wheel had turned.
A lot of what I’d initially proposed lived right through to the final brand. Now with vital client input however, a few things naturally developed or fell by the wayside.
The most significant development from the initial proposal was that the team’s colouring would better reflect Haas Automation’s CNC machines; linking them with the founder’s product more clearly. Selling machines was, after all, the sole marketing reason for entering the sport.
I would work closely with Team Manager Dave O’Neill and Race Team Coordinator Pete Crolla to work through huge spreadsheets of items that needed to be designed, painted and vinyled. I’d make sure to glean as much info from these guys as possible and would regularly lean on their advice. I used my experience as a designer and my knowledge as a fan to fill in any gaps. They would often ask for my opinion in light of all my years experience of designing for motorsport. I never sought to correct them.
But my inexperience in this field meant that I was freer to introduce new ideas into the F1 world.
Using Jock Kinneir and Margaret Calvert’s work for the British road signage system as an example, I made the case that mixed-case type pit boards (that tell a driver vital information as he passes the start/finish straight) would prove much more legible to drivers as they shot past at 180mph.
In Formula One no man, and no driver, is an island. A strong race is the result of an entire team working in unison than just down to one individual. We felt that the pit crew became unfairly anonymous when suited up in overalls and full-face helmets, so borrowed a trait from NASCAR where team member’s names are printed across the shoulders. The crew apparently felt an extra level of pride and loyalty to have their name so clearly emblazoned when their kit was delivered.
Both ideas are small, but firsts in the sport I believe.
Despite being the focal point of the team, the car livery itself was one of the last, and toughest, items to be finalised.
Every stakeholder had an opinion of how an F1 car should look, particularly one representing the United States. For some time, a real danger hung over me that I wouldn’t get the opportunity to design it; that it’d be taken in-house, or that a self-interested advisor would push for ‘one of his guys’ to complete it. I just had to have faith that my strong work and guidance up to that point would count for something.
Thankfully it did.
The base colour of the car was still up in the air only weeks before pre-season testing would start. An incredibly open brief meant that an unbelievable 777 concept sketches for the car were created in total. It was an exhaustive, and at times frankly exhausting, process.
The direction of the final livery came directly from Gene Haas. Not only does it follow the machine colours and red flash of the team brand, but also takes inspiration from an iconic WW2 American fighter plane: the P51 Redtail, with its red nose and tail fin.
The first car was built in Italy and, unable to attend due to stress of the team getting it ready in time, I was forced to art direct paint lines and sticker positioning from London over the phone. It made an already difficult job even more so. It was painful at times to not be in control of what was undoubtedly the most personally important job of my career, but I just had to adapt and make the most of what was available to me.
Seeing it come to life
The first time I saw the car in the flesh was at its launch at pre-season testing in Barcelona – coincidentally the very same circuit that I’d driven an F1 car around four years earlier.
As a fan, to just be standing looking over the mechanic’s shoulders in a race garage was exciting enough. To be in a garage filled with equipment, teamwear and a car livery designed by myself was just off-the-scale. My professional exterior betrayed the inner eleven-year-old self doing backflips.
I’d have several ‘pinch me’ moments over those two days of testing, and then again a few weeks later as I flew out to the opening race of the season in Melbourne. I had been determined not to miss my team’s first ever race, and the feeling of accomplishment from seeing the cars on track will be a memory that will never leave me. The fact that the team has gone onto being the most successful new entrant into Formula One is just a bonus.
When I recount this story to people, I’m often told of how lucky I’ve been.
I’m very quick to say that it took personal heartache, professional risk and a a lot of hard work for me to be able to take this chance. If any luck had come my way then I’d simply put myself in the right position to benefit from it.
But it’s a sad truth that despite us all having great dreams in life, very few of us really do much toward achieving them.
We can give long lists of reasons to delay or never fulfil our ambitions – whether it’s mortgages, money, comfortable jobs or kids – but if now isn’t a good time to make that life-long goal happen, then when exactly is?
I’d worked myself into a rut and had fooled myself into thinking that all of the tireless work, late nights and stress stood for something. Like many others, I’d let other people and factors determine my life story for me.
It took the shock of potentially losing a parent for me to realise that if I wanted an interesting epitaph, then I had to start make interesting choices for myself and not let opportunity pass me by – beginning today.
As basketball legend Michael Jordan once said: “I missed 100% of the shots I didn’t take”.
My advice? Take a shot. You might just score.
Jon Rowlandson has recently been appointed Design Director of DesignStudio. This post originally appeared on medium.com and is republished with permission. All images used with permission of Haas F1 Team