Close-Up: Sanky - From graffiti artist to the new president of D&AD

D&AD's latest president does not want to be pigeonholed as a 'digital' or 'design' leader, and his background, John Tylee writes, spans both fields.

Simon Sankarayya's surname doesn't trip easily off the tongue. But that's not why the newly installed D&AD president has never been widely talked about within agencies' creative departments.

Sankarayya - known to everyone who knows him as Sanky - is the latest manifestation of D&AD's rigid system of rotating the presidency annually between a designer and an agency creative to reflect what hasn't always been a comfortable alliance between its two constituencies.

But whether or not the organisation needs to stick steadfastly to the principle of "Buggins' turn", at a time when marketing communications is rendering the distinctions irrelevant, is very much an open question.

Simon Waterfall, the Poke co-founder, was the first of what might be termed a "digital president", as well as being a familiar figure to D&AD members whatever their background.

Even though he lacks Waterfall's profile, Sankarayya, the co-founder of the interactive agency AllofUs, is keen to continue what Waterfall started and believes his presidency is timely.

"There's a real crossover and respect between the disciplines," he declares. "And it's digital that's bringing them together."

Sankarayya's apparent arrival out of nowhere to become the D&AD "ambassador" partly explains the low awareness of him. He has been an executive committee member for just two years and says he only got to know the true scale and scope of D&AD's work when invited to help judge its awards. "There's nothing quite like that vast room at Olympia with 20,000 pieces of work up for judgment. It's absolutely incredible," he says.

Sankarayya's agency is itself a testament to the coalescing of communication, having forged relationships not only with branding and interior design shops but also with agencies such as Wieden & Kennedy and DDB London, which use AllofUs regularly for project work.

It is a far cry from his childhood, when Sankarayya literally put his life on the line for his art as a graffiti artist, adding some unofficial style and colour to Newcastle's trains and walls.

Free Expression

Born to a Geordie mother and an Indian father, Sankarayya was brought up by adoptive parents from whom he believes he inherited his passion for self-expression and free thinking. His adopted mother's talent as a concert pianist ensured that music was always heard around the house, while both she and her husband were staunch Labour and CND supporters.

His skill with spray paints was eventually harnessed by his local council as well as the BBC and ITV, which got him to work on set painting. He had left school at 16 with no clear idea of what he wanted to do, eventually enrolling on a YTS graphic design scheme. "They sat me in a room with a piece of paper. I stayed for just one day," he says.

He fared better at Newcastle College and later at Nottingham Trent University, where he studied information design. His first attempt at getting to grips with what was then called new media was a CD-Rom version of the Bible. "I'm not religious, but I liked the idea of entering a world I didn't understand," he says.

Convinced that new media was the way of the future, Sankarayya joined forces with another Nottingham graduate, Daljit Singh, the founder of the digital design agency Dijit. The dotcom boom was beginning and although the agency's work pushed the boundaries, technology very much limited what could be done.

It was at Dijit where Sankarayya first got to know Tim O'Kennedy, then a partner at Circus, a Dijit client, and now the D&AD chief executive. He says Sankarayya combines high talent with a total lack of pretension. "He doesn't need decoding," O'Kennedy adds. "And although he's a digital guy who is also a brilliant designer, he understands the broad spectrum of communication."

Indeed, Sankarayya believes that only now has digital's time truly come., one of the dotcom boom's biggest casualties - and a one-time Dijit client - was five years ahead of its time, he claims. And he thinks that Dick Powell, the D&AD president, was almost a decade too early when he gave a presentation in which he declared that digital should be at the heart of everything the organisation did.

"I wanted somebody who could take D&-AD and everything it stands for into the digital landscape, and Sanky is that person," O'Kennedy says.

Sankarayya helped establish AllofUs in 2004, initially with the idea of exploiting the interactive opportunities presented by museums and art galleries as they morphed from publicly funded entities to commercial operations. It continues to work regularly for the Science Museum, where it has been using new technologies to help visitors understand more of what they see.

This work is emblematic of an eclectic range of output by the agency. This includes an interactive project promoting the Nike CTR 360 football boot at the brand's stores in London and Paris; a travelling exhibit for Microsoft showcasing the creative potential of the software company's Expression and WPF technologies; and an NHS-funded assignment to create a special installation at Middlesex's Harefield Hospital aimed at reducing anxiety among patients about to undergo major surgery.

It is clear that Sankarayya's background and experiences will shape his presidential style, although he stops short of setting out a personal agenda. Some of his predecessors have done that only to find they have set themselves too many windmills at which to tilt during their year of office, he believes.

Small Steps

"The question is: how can I be of most use given that there's no way I would be allowed to change D&AD's strategy?" Sankarayya says. "It's a bit like tackling a design brief - you deal with the issues that need fixing. I only like disruption when it's needed - and it isn't really needed here."

Hence his emphasis is likely to be on small initiatives, rather than meaningless grand gestures.

One of his ideas is to boost the number of mini events aimed at helping small agencies like his own through their growing pains and getting the best young talent into internships.

Moreover, his design and digital background probably explains his eagerness to have content from the D&AD Annuals - he dubs them "our crown jewels" - disseminated to more people in more places via the internet.

Meanwhile, there is the ongoing challenge of building D&AD's membership by engaging more with it.

Sankarayya believes that the organisation's revamped website, which he has helped evolve and which will be launched at the end of this month, should improve matters. "The site will be a lot more interactive and conversational," he says.

He is also floating the idea of a new D&AD award category, to be judged not by a jury but by a vote of the organisation's members. "I'd just like them to feel they're getting a voice," he says.

And what would he like his presidential legacy to be - despite having only a year to build it? "I don't want to be regarded as the 'design president' or the 'digital president'," Sankarayya insists. "And I'm not going to tell D&AD that we should just do digital, because that would be ridiculous."


Age: 38

Family: Partner, Clare

Lives: Peckham

Rides: A bike. "I cycle everywhere"

Most treasured possession: A rare recording by Willie Pickett of On The Stage Of Life. "Only 100 were pressed. It cost me £830"

Favourite TV programmes: Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm

Favourite ad: "A canny bag of Tudor", a 1980 TV spot for old Tudor Crisps

Describe yourself in three words: Passionate, loyal, silly

Personal mantra: Make the most of every day