Breaking graphic art out of traditional advertising: A Q&A with Si Maclennan

Here at 10and5, we’re no strangers to the work of Si Maclennan. When it comes to the nature of graphic design, including the business side of things, Si’s done it all. Based in Cape Town, he first started out as a graphic designer and illustrator, working his way through a few companies before branching out into his own freelance identity, all the while building up his skills.

Now Si boasts the titles of graphic designer, illustrator and creative director with a versatile and ever changing style. First making use of simple line work and contrasting colour, much of his work is now characterised by strong, geometric shapes and soft pastels. Last year also saw Si hosting his first solo exhibition, translating his work into the live gallery space through 10 striking still-lifes and abstract minimalism pieces. 

As part of our Graphic Art Month, we got in touch with Si for some more insight into the world of local design, the freelance life, and a bit about his first collaborative show.

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Last time we caught up with you, you had just had your debut solo exhibition. What have you been up to in the interim?

It’s been almost a year! Blink and you miss it I guess.

The last year has been a rollercoaster. A lot of travel and some serious hard work. Since Geometcentricity, I’ve had the privilege of joining a few group shows, and I’ve been focusing on pushing my style a bit. I’m still really enjoying experimenting with geometric minimalism, and I feel like I’m slowly refining what I do in that space. I’ve been lucky enough to find a home for this style in a few commercial commissions too.

Of course paying the bills is always a freelancer’s number one priority. On the client side, a lot of my time has gone into several large branding projects. I also had the pleasure of working on the cover of W Magazine’s Xmas issue back in December. That was a really fun gig.

I’ve also been working intimately with Made Agency since the beginning of the year. They’re a great group of people who take creativity seriously and I’m excited to see where that takes me.

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We hear you’ve got another exhibition coming up soon. Tell us more?

I’m glad you asked! I’ve been very secretive about the show up until now. It’s great to finally be able to divulge some details.

I’ve been hard at work with Ross Symons (aka White On Rice) to develop a new series of artworks exploring our respective disciplines, and trying to understand the ways that they can intersect. He’s incredibly creative and it’s been a really fun process learning about origami, and experimenting with the art form in my designs.

The show is called PARALLEL, and runs from the First Thursday on the 7th of April at Red Bull Studios. We’ve enjoyed a lot of support from the guys at Red Bull getting this show off the ground, and they deserve a big nod for supporting creatives in both music and design.

You can check out the Facebook event here.


For many, graphic design and illustration is seen to be relegated to advertising or branding specifically. How do the mediums translate to gallery spaces?

That’s a great question with a rather convoluted answer. I could write a short book on the intricacies of this subject, but I’ll try to summarise my feelings. 

I think that people are open to it. There’s an established tradition of “design” work forming the basis of gallery exhibitions – especially in Cape Town where we have a thriving creative community. People understand illustration and design as part of popular culture, and there’s space for these disciplines to bleed into the art world.

Graphic art – so to speak – is easy for people to consume provided they don’t analyse it with the same traditional mindset you would fine art. I’ve seen a lot of people struggle to understand graphic art because they expect it to be produced with a brush and a palette of oils – and that’s just not the right approach. 

From a professional standpoint, making something that pleases you and calling it “art” is sometimes a vehicle to express ideas or techniques in design that would otherwise be hard for people to grasp. For example, once I had released Geometcentricity, I had quite a few clients approach me for commercial work in that style. Before that, it was really hard getting people to open up to the techniques I used in that show.

I like to think that my work blurs these lines a bit. Abstraction and emotive colour is an important part of the work I produce, but most of my art is light hearted, and I’m comfortable with people consuming it at face value.

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When did you first get into illustration, graphic design, and later, art direction? Was it a field you always thought you’d pursue?

Illustration was something I did as a junior designer at a digital marketing agency to distract from banner rollouts and Facebook apps. It wasn’t an intentional decision – rather a case of picking up a skill that excited me. Illustration was a convenient way to contribute value to the agency while staying an arm’s length from the less fun stuff.

I’ve been able to gradually turn this into a bigger part of my job, and over the years it’s changed from procrastination to a necessity – an income stream. Now that the income side of it is less important I find myself looking to create illustration or graphic art purely for the enjoyment of the process.

I don’t design banner ads any more. No matter what the price.

You worked in the industry for a good while before taking the leap to a full-time freelance position. What did you learn during your time with graphic design companies that helped you kick start your freelance career?

Hard work pays off, I can’t emphasise this enough. A few exceptions aside, your level of commitment to your chosen path is reflected directly in your success.

I consider it invaluable for young designers to spend time grafting at a company to learn new skills and understand the values of working fast, being organised, communicating like a pro, and solving problems analytically.

Sometimes the company you work for sucks, but it’s part of the process. Sometimes you get lucky and you can learn these things without hating your boss. Either way, the rate you learn comes down to how hard you are willing to work. Don’t be afraid to change things up if you’re unhappy, but also remember it’s never going to be easy.

The skills you learn in your first few years in the industry will get you ahead at any company as much as they’ll save your butt in a freelance career.

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Lastly, what’s your view on local design? Where can South Africa’s design and illustration scene go and where would you like to see it go?

I’ve always been an advocate of proudly South African design, and I’m really lucky to be a part of this scene. There are fantastic things happening all over the country and you’d be silly to feel anything other than optimism about the way things are headed.

I think it would be great to see more collaboration amongst local designers – creatively and professionally. Is a design worker’s union a bit far-fetched? Maybe.

Keep up to date with Si’s work on his website, Behance and Twitter, and find out more about his upcoming exhibition on Facebook.

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See more of Graphic Art Month on 10and5.

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