Steve Vranakis is from Greece, born in Canada and based in the UK. Today he is the Executive CD of Google Creative Lab, London, but his approach to creativity began as a kid of Greek descent in multicultural Vancouver, shaping his passion for helping diverse talent enter the creative industries. As D&AD President in 2017 and 2018, Steve made it his mission that all great creative minds get to create, with impactful new initiatives like D&AD 'Shift' to help diverse talent explore creative careers. We spoke to Steve on his experience of creative life in London and his hopes for the creative industry in 2025.
ON WHERE YOU’RE FROM
My parents immigrated to Canada from Greece about 50 years ago when there was a huge migration of Greek people from all over the world. My mother is from the mainland and my father is from Crete, many Greeks went off to places like Australia (which has a huge Greek population), Germany, America and Canada in search of a better life. I grew up in Vancouver on the west coast and I spent the first 20 years of my life there. I ended up going to many different places around the world like Hong kong and San Francisco for work. This is my third stint in London and I’ve been here for about 20 years.
ON YOUR EARLY CAREER IN TECH AND ADVERTISING
I was involved in the tech scene quite early. On the west coast it was then years ahead in terms of technology than in most parts of the world. In terms of the design and the advertising industry that I ended up going into, the UK was way ahead in the thinking and creativity. I’d never worked with brand strategists and planners and people who honed in on an insight and turned that into something really compelling that would form a creative idea. That was an integral part of my career where I took a lot of the forward thinking tech approach to digital and interaction design combining it with what I was learning about people – how they operate and what motivates them and creating a connection through empathy.
ON ARRIVING IN LONDON
Culturally I felt comfortable in London. It’s such an incredible place in that it very much embraces different people from different places around the world.
ON WINDOW SEAT OR AISLE
I have loads of issues! I’m claustrophobic amongst many other things, so I have to sit in an aisle seat. I am the one peering over the person next to me to see out the window, but I am an aisle person through and through.
ON HOW NEW CULTURES HAVE SHAPED YOUR APPROACH TO CREATIVITY
Canada prides itself on being one big cultural mosaic. I remember when I was growing up, individuals representing different aspects of culture from different parts of the world. It’s very much about retaining that and celebrating it, not becoming all the same. So I grew up that way. Hardly anyone spoke English as their first language in my kindergarten class when I was growing up, it was kids from all over the world – from all over Europe, Asia and Africa. I grew up in that world so it was the only world I really knew, and the values that were instilled in me were about celebrating people who come from different places and offer different perspectives. It’s formed a lot of what I think about today and the approach that I take to creativity. When you bring a bunch of people from different backgrounds and cultures together, you get very very different things, and these differences will make things better and lead to less homogenised thinking.
ON YOUR RELATIONSHIP WITH LONDON
It is the classic love, hate relationship. People are always complaining about London but there is nowhere in the world like it for everything that it offers. It’s funny I was reading an article about Greeks who went to Utah to help build the railroads a hundred years ago or something like that, and it talked about how they would take their wages and send money back home, and then the villagers would get wealthier, well not necessarily wealthier, but out of poverty. I had a similar initial approach which was to come to London to learn, to earn some money – the pound was over two Canadian dollars at the time so anything you earned was double. But I never had any intention of staying here. It then went beyond earning, I started making friends and London was drawing a lot of the most interesting talented people from around the world. I remember when I started at a digital agency here there were a lot of South Africans, a lot of Australians, a lot of really interesting people with very different views on creativity, from different cultural reference points, which made it a really exciting place to be.
I grew up in that world so it was the only world I really knew, and the values that were instilled in me were about celebrating people who come from different places and offer different perspectives.
ON SOMETHING UNIQUE TO LONDON’S CREATIVE CULTURE
I think there’s probably a few things. There’s our geographic position in the world which allows us to draw from Europe, Middle East, Africa. Everybody talks about London being so big, but if you look at London compared to some other places, there is such a high concentration of creativity across all aspects, in such a small area really. This is very unique because it’s just so concentrated here. I also think that the market dynamics like the fact that London is a difficult place to live because of the infrastructure, transport, the cost of living, it creates a lot of friction and tension which is the perfect breeding ground for people to bring these really interesting, scrappy approaches to their thinking and their work. When things are tough, you see really big thinking and ideas from people.
ON CREATIVE INSPIRATION
I stay in east London during the week but I live in Brighton with my family. What I love about Brighton is that it reminds me of Santa Cruz or one of these places. I grew up skating and into that sort of scene, and it’s got a cool street art culture, you’ll still see a lot of goths and punks and everyone seems to have a tattoo! There’s just a certain vibe. I think London always has something interesting on offer in terms of art, design, exhibitions, theatre and I still do all that and there are some incredible things that I go and see, but I feel that you need to get out of the place that you live in literally and geographically, but also metaphorically. I don’t really look at design books, I read stuff online but I look well outside the space that we’re operating in.
We live in a culture of scanning everything around us, I think that’s what the brain does, and I think the real power within that is making the relevant connections between those things.
ON SOMETHING THAT INSPIRED YOU RECENTLY
I saw Thomas Heatherwick a while ago and he showed me this piece of work called ‘Vessel’ – it’s a series of staircases that he’s put in the docks just off the Highline in New York. He was showing me some of his inspiration, I think it was from India, and it was this sort of well with Escher like staircases. He had seen some interesting things while he was travelling, and you could see how they had inspired his thinking – taking a staircase which is deemed to be a very functional piece of architecture and make a virtue of it, turning it into a viewing platform for the surrounding buildings. I talk a lot about collisions. I think when you bring those disparate things together, you end up seeing things in a completely different way.
I travel a lot with work. In the last few years I’ve been everywhere from Nigeria, Kenya, India, China, UAE, Indonesia, all over Europe and America. Africa is amazing. Nigeria was just incredible. The place I haven’t been that I would love to go to is South America.
I look at London as a stage. It’s this place that was and hopefully will continue to say to people, come here and we will prop you up. Come here with your thinking, come here with your ideas, and come here with your traditions and your culture.
ON YOUR WORK TO HELP BUILD A DIVERSE CREATIVE INDUSTRY
I come from a background where I didn’t go to the best schools or come from a wealthy family, I didn’t finish university, I don’t have a degree, but I had some raw ability, and I managed to build a career on the back of that. An organisation like Google is very open to accepting people from different educational backgrounds and was very embracing of me. We need to continue to welcome more people with different backgrounds into the creative industries, but I also think of the people who are not in the system yet who will never be in the system, because of who they are and where they come from. I see these deprived areas where crime is high and I think that if you could harness some of that energy and get people using it for creativity and show people that you can make a living off it, work everyday and love what you do, what effect would that have on that part of society? I’ve talked a lot about this at D&AD and I do talks when I can at schools, especially inner city schools in disadvantaged parts of London.
ON WHAT YOU HOPE THE CREATIVE INDUSTRY LOOKS LIKE IN 2025
I’d like the creative industry to be much more representative of the make-up of society at large. I think of being able to walk from the street and into a work space where it’s reflective of that, irrespective of what country you’re in or what neighbourhood you’ve just come out of, where it doesn’t matter where you’re gone to school or what kind of background you’ve come from socio-economically, the idea that people are being engaged for their skills and raw talent. A lot more democratisation going on, equality and equal opportunity. I think I’m explaining stuff that isn’t just for the creative industry, but for the world. In the short term we have to fix things and make them right. In the long term it’s a huge investment because you have to go to the kids who will be coming into the industry in twenty years or so. I have a presentation I do whenever I go to the schools, and it’s called ‘Stuff I wish I knew when I was growing up’, and I show a lot of the work that we do explaining the different disciplines and roles people play, and then I break it down by saying, ‘so in this installation we did at the United Nations, there was a person who built this figure, and there was a person who designed it, and there was a person who connected it to the internet’. There’s a producer who pulls people together for films, and there are people who write a narrative. They have no idea what you’re talking about.
ON SOMETHING FROM CANADA YOU NEED A FIX OF IN THE UK
I would say on a subconscious level one of the reasons that I moved to Brighton was because I grew up in Vancouver, and I’m someone who needs to feel like they’re near the water. It’s funny because people think ‘oh you must go down to the beach every weekend’ and you don’t actually, it’s just that proximity to the edge I think is somehow important.
ON LONDON IN ONE WORD
I look at London as a stage. It’s this place that was and hopefully will continue to say to people, come here and we will prop you up. Come here with your thinking, come here with your ideas, and come here with your traditions and your culture, the environment to help you deliver against what you believe in is here. That is what happened to me when I arrived here, I worked at different creative agencies and other places around the world but I made my name and career in London and I’m grateful to it. So as I said I’ve always had a love, hate relationship with this town and when I eventually leave I want to leave on a high and be grateful and thankful to this place that made me, and also that I learned so much from, because London has always been this place that allowed anyone to do that.