I met Jo at a Yeah Yeah Yeahs-curated festival, since we both happen to love them. Since that day, I’ve seen him try and control our feelings, spritzing custom-made scents at our friends’ bands concerts. For the longest time, his job was very mysterious to me but he explains it all.
What is your job exactly? This is a question I don’t know how to answer. I’m a multi-sensory brand specialist. I work for myself. I mostly think about the sense of smell and how that affects people’s experience of a brand or a space to make a complete experience.
People tend to hear about me because I work with smell. Today they want a deeper, all-encompassing experience. I think about ways to connect the various different senses together, for example adding smell to a shop experience.
Is it like multi-sensory art direction? Yes, but what I do is quite subtle. I like to work at a level that’s just below people’s conscious awareness.
How long have you done it for? For about a year and a half, and for about four months as my only source of income.
What were you doing before? I worked as a project manager in graphic design. And I’ve worked as a broadcast journalist. Both really feed into what I do now. Graphic design is 90% of what people know as branding. The radio work I’ve done helps me for sound design, to make sounds evoke real space.
Are you doing what you do now as a reaction to that “shallow” aspect of graphic design? That sort of flatness coming from the internet? Yes, I longed for meaning and depth. A lot of graphic design is self-referencing. I remember arguing with designers about why something should be a different colour or a different shape, and them not understanding what the client wants from them, from a business point of view. As a human being I know what looks good, and looking at this white poster with Helvetica in the corner can make me feel grey and I want to die. I feel like I’m retiring in the suburbs with someone I’m not in love with and my kids hate me. This not about graphic designers, but about the industry.
I’ve worked in magazines and I’ve seen really niche magazines with a very particular design that would only appeal to people who were graphic designers. A lot of graphic designers will study Swiss design and typography, they’ll have this very established canon of taste. It’s important to know how to lay things out but you can also have fun and feel something which is more than clean and correct!
What was your first job? Did you learn anything from it that you’re using now? My first job was as a postman. Now I know how to send letters! My first job out of university was as a studio manager in a small design agency. It was a lot of admin, putting things in spreadsheets. I don’t mind doing that, it’s still a big part of what I have to do in order to do all the rest.
A lot of people don’t realize that when you go freelance you’re not just doing creative stuff. You’re the whole company. All of the directors who I respect still have that kind of attitude, and won’t completely rely on other people. I do a lot of boring admin stuff, but it’s important to do that before you can feel comfortable making creative decisions. I’ve got really good grounding in these jobs I’ve done before. Smaller jobs are important, like making tea for people.
We don’t do that in France. Really? It’s not about hierarchy. When I had to be a receptionist I put in the effort in saying hello and remembering people, answering the phone and passing on messages because I understood why it was important for a business. I think just understanding what your job is and doing it well is important.
What did you study? I have a degree in modern history, I specialized in history of memory. It’s how individuals or groups of people think about themselves in terms of history and the type of cognitive processes of how memories happened, how we absorb the idea of who we are. It really feeds into what I do now, like how you relate to what’s around you, how that places you in the moment. I also have a degree in broadcast, in radio.
What did you want to be when you were a kid? I wanted to be an architect. Completely designing a space… that’s still really what I want to do. It’s what I do without the commitment or the talent to learn how to be an architect. My advice would be to just follow things up in what you’re interested in and stuff tends to fall all together. I specialise in radio and smell, so if anyone in the world wants a smell and radio specialist they’ll find me quite easily. That’s a cool thing.
Is there a piece of advice you would give your younger self? Work a bit harder.
Were you lazy? Some people go on about how busy and stressed they are but no one knows how hard they work related to other people. They don’t know themselves. I think I’m quite lazy, but then I achieve quite a lot. I feel that if I had worked a bit harder I would have done even more.
Is there someone in particular whose career you admire? There’s a woman called Sissel Tolaas. She’s a multi-disciplinary artist: she’s a visual artist, trained as a biochemist. She’s also very economic savvy, she’s making money and now she’s the go-to person for smell. She’s also a terrifying, impressive, hard woman. I really relate to the way that she thinks about the world and smell.
Where can I see her work? It’s in museums, but she’s also working for biochemical companies, making a library of smells. She works for big brands. She made some cheese out of David Beckham’s feet’s smell.
Do you know what you want to do later? Do you have a specific goal you have in mind? I think I want to earn enough money to have all the things I want.
Don’t we all? I don’t know. I don’t want that much but I’ve finally got enough of a thing that I’m happy enough with. In a year, maybe I’ll be able to know where I am. My career doesn’t have a set path, so I don’t see milestones stretching out before me. I’m into thinking of the long term as an idea, because I’ve been thinking of newness as a thing. That’s what smelling is all about. It’s all about the immediacy of something.
Isn’t it also the most powerful memory tool? Yes, but that feeling of nostalgia exists in a moment. If you try and think of smell in the future… it might hurt.
Are you good friends with your co-workers? I do work on my own but I also work with other people on projects, often with my friends. Some people who I know professionally then become my friends. There’s a quite interesting overlap between my friends and my colleagues.
Have you ever had an ethical problem between having to make a decision whether to keep the friendly relationship or privilege the project you’re working on? It’s always fine because it’s either my project which they’re working on or vice versa. There’s a mutual understanding on who gets the final say in the dynamics of the relationship.
What is your work schedule? Before, my job was work you could sit down and do, it was all definite, quantifiable stuff. Now it involves thinking. I’ll just wander around or lie upside down on a tree or go running.
Can I have your job? That now constitutes part of it. I enjoy having a completely flexible schedule. I work very well very early in the morning and late evenings, or sometimes all through the night or all day, drinking coffee and just going. Coffee makes me incredibly productive.
Do you have another pick-me-up thing that you do? Sometimes I smell a lemon. When you’re doing that, you can’t concentrate on anything other than the experience of smelling it. It’s fresh, it’s invigorating. It’s proven that it zings you up a bit. In some factories in Japan they pump lemon-scented air and it increases the productivity something crazy like 70%. Don’t buy waxed lemons though.
What do you wear to work? Do you think it matters? I work in my bed or anywhere so I don’t think about that at all. Sometimes if I go to meetings I dress in a certain way to project a certain image but I haven’t really worked out what that is yet. It depends on what the meeting is. I could do with more clothes (Ed. Note: Jo is wearing a casual plaid shirt, washed jeans and trainers). At least I get to decide what clothes I’ll buy because when you work for a company you have to fit in with what they want you to look like.
Do you know what direction your style is going to lean towards to? I would like to wear proper shoes a bit more. I’m doing quite a big show at the Roundhouse in a few weeks. It involves having a team of people and I want them dressed in a certain way, in tailored Raf Simons glossy silver tracksuit bottoms, cotton shirts and Doc Martens. I don’t have that kind of budget but that’s how I’d dress smell-technician people.
Do you have any side projects? My whole career is a side project. There are things I do that don’t involve money, like my radio show. Even if it’s related to everything I do, I’m into this blur between doing things for fun and doing things for money.
Who would should I to talk to next? Mark, a bag designer.
Visit Jo’s website here.
Follow Jo on Twitter here.
Buy tickets for his Roundhouse show here.