Women Making Waves: Mandy Barker, Sail Creative

In our Women Making Waves series, we talk to women that are doing things a little bit differently; stick around for a whole host of amazing, inspirational women at the top of their game. This month, we speak to Mandy Barker, founder of Sail Creative. Here, Mandy talks about design that strives for positive, social impact…

“I was always into art growing up; I was quite happy sat in a corner making things on my own.” Mandy Barker is painting a picture of when she first wanted to be a graphic designer. As a child, the Scarborough-born founder of design studio, Sail Creative was “a bit of an introvert,” preferring to colour-code Lego bricks, draw or make newspapers than to join her classmates. “It was the layout and the typography that I would love,” Mandy recalls. “I would make them by hand using a ruler; I must have been around nine years old,” she smiles. 

A lover of “anything creative” at school, Mandy wasn’t particularly academic and, as a result, chose to go straight into employment, working in admin and business roles from the age of 16 up until she was 24. “I would always have a creative outlet,” she explains. “I was very much into photography, but I didn’t think it would be sustainable enough as a career.” Instead, Mandy applied to get onto a Graphic Design course, thinking, ‘I’m not going to get in; I have no A Levels and my GCSEs are really poor.’ She did get in. And she completely excelled.

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The thing about Mandy is that she is fiercely determined. “I don’t know how I came to be where I am now, in that I never had an end goal in mind,” she says. “What I do know, is that I’ve got here through really hard work, sheer determination, and a bit of stubbornness.” 

‘Here’ is heading up Sail Creative – an independent creative agency focusing on meaningful communications for brands that have authentic purpose and ambition. The arts, cultural and non-profit sectors are what Mandy loves, they are her passion – both personally and professionally. “I love the environment and the people. It’s very collaborative, and people are open to some really bold ideas,” she says, continuing, “I’m a huge believer that [the arts] has impact on things that are important to me, like equality.”

Reaching communities that are often harder to engage with plays a significant part in the work that Mandy does at Sail Creative. “A lot of people from some communities would never step foot in a museum,” she explains. “So, we need to consider how we engage with them, and how we make them feel like it’s their space. Museums were once very elitist, but we’re trying to change that.” 

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I get the impression that Mandy feels a certain sense of responsibility to communicate important messages, and to focus on movements that affect social change. An example of one of Sail Creative’s recent campaigns is for Newcastle Carers, with the view to raising awareness of young adult carers that are under the radar, and that don’t necessarily see themselves as carers. “I like working with minority groups that need a platform, or support to raise awareness,” Mandy smiles. “Using my skills to be able to help those organisations express messages, and show people that they’re there, is really important to me.” 

Being able to work on campaigns that resonate so closely with her values and beliefs is part of the reason why Mandy loves being self-employed. “I guess I’m anti-authoritarian in that I don’t want to be under someone else’s control,” she laughs. “I never wanted to be stuck behind a desk in a studio; I wanted to get out there and create my own opportunities.”

What advice would she give to those looking to take the first steps into self-employment, I wonder? “Firstly, if you’ve got the niggle, it’s never going to go away,” she says, continuing, “It’s never going to feel like the right time but, if you prepare yourself as much as possible, you will succeed. Surround yourself with creative people within your industry; pick up the phone and ask people if they’ll meet you for a coffee, you never know where those conversations might lead. Look at what you enjoy, and what’s going to be sustainable, by conducting research on those who are already doing it. Collaborate.”

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Collaboration, and building relationships with other like-minded individuals, is the key to Mandy’s success, and also to her future. “I’m at that critical point of start-up life where I need to make a decision about whether I’m going to build a small team or whether I’m going to continue with the flexible, collective model of working that I love. I’m trying to look at it from a business point of view,” she says, continuing, “If I were to build a core team around me, it would always be under five; I want everyone to feel involved, invested and valued.”

As well as the possibility of growing her team, Mandy is looking to grow herself. “I’m still learning, and I will be learning every day,” she confesses. “I read a lot of books; I go to a lot of talks, and I’m always looking for ways to develop myself.” Whether it’s building her reputation organically, collaborating with other creatives or fuelling her curious nature with books or events, Mandy is a firm believer that, if you’re interested in the work that you do, you will be much happier and healthier. 

But what is it about design that she loves so much? “Design is everywhere,” she concludes. “It has the power to influence, and to evoke behaviours and, as designers, we have the skill to be able to communicate positive messages. I feel lucky to have built a career, which allows me to create movements, and spread social change, for the better…”

OpinionCrystlsd Team