When Luke and I bought into Headjam, we were 22. I wore ripped stockings and sported a mohawk. Luke had a sensible haircut and a beard that made him look close to 30, so we sent him to all the client meetings. 

Headjam turns 20 this year. And as we take a moment to pause and celebrate the milestone, I’ve been surprised by the number of people who have been curious to know the personal story of Headjam and me.

This year my job title changed from Senior Designer to Chief Creative Officer. In such a small company, things like job titles feel a bit strange and superfluous. We all know what each person does beyond any written job description or title on an email signature. But to the wider world, job titles become an important indicator of what you do and how you are to be held accountable.  

My title change to CCO communicates the work I do championing creative at Headjam, both within the agency and with clients and the community. It also communicates the importance we place on creativity as our ‘reason for being.’ In our structure, my new role as CCO is right at the top.  

And that’s a big change for me. Up until now, Luke has been the sole leader and the ‘face’ of the business. I’m now stepping up. 

Truth be told, leadership hasn’t always been something I’ve felt comfy with. I was drawn to be a designer in part because I enjoy the anonymity. Unlike an artist who creates a work as personal expression, a graphic designer communicates an organisation’s message to an intended audience, and that audience is generally unaware of the designer who made it happen. Well-known Pentagram partner and designer Paula Scher said that designers make things so that they can get paid so that they can make more things. I can relate, I’m addicted to quietly creating great things to delight people I will never meet. 

Sarah-Cook_Melbourne-studioDesigning in the early days, in the studio I shared with Luke in Melbourne.


Part of being a good designer is saying ‘yes and…’, being open to possibilities, cultivating a certain fluidity, being unsatisfied, and constantly seeking out change. These are qualities that I associate with my success as a creative person – but, honestly, I’ve always thought those qualities were incongruous with the mentality needed to run an agency. Decisive, direct, unwavering…These are the traits I saw valued as a leader. I had assumed that what made me a great designer would also make me an ineffective leader. 

On top of this, I battle an ingrained people-pleasing mentality and conflict avoidance, both of which I know are common for women of my generation. I have anxiety, I’m often socially awkward, I find it hard to read other people’s emotions, and I freeze up when I’m the centre of attention. I have embraced some of these tendencies, and I’ve put a lot of effort into workarounds and unlearning others. 

I've also spent way too much brain power wondering whether I'll be taken less seriously if people see my hairy armpits.

I guess you could say I’m somewhat of an unexpected leader. 

And yet I am driven to take the plunge and lead the business. As we pause to reflect on 20 years of Headjam, I’m motivated to define what I want the next ten years to look like, and I know that what matters most to me is that we focus on progressing our commitment to world class work. 

For that to happen the fundamental challenge is creating a space where people feel comfortable, accepted and valued. Belonging is an innate need. Humans flourish and thrive when we feel safe and encouraged to express ourselves. Inevitably the work created is more adventurous, honest, inspiring and new. I am resolute in my dedication to break down stereotypes and inequity, to challenge oppressive systems, to continue learning and building awareness of my short comings, to create a culture of caring for others, to craft experiences that are not only welcoming and inclusive but that actively honour differences, and for this to be ingrained in our creative practice. I have sleepless nights dreaming up the ultimate workplace where people feel empowered to do great work. I see running the business as my biggest design project yet.

My journey with Headjam began as a graphic design intern. I was introduced to the Founding Director and incredible creative force, Nicola Xavier, at a design exhibition. After a barrage of persistent phone calls from me, I started an internship at Headjam, which morphed into a three-day-a-week position as Junior Designer. At the time, I was also working at a café, but I dreamed of a full-time career in design. I was impatient. I was restless. I asked if there was full-time work at Headjam, and when Nicola said no, I packed up and left for Melbourne. Impatient indeed, because in hindsight, three days a week at a prominent Newcastle studio was quite a good gig.
In Melbourne, I pursued another internship where I assisted with the layouts of a book. I then when on to design the branding and marketing for an underground arts festival, worked on a friend’s film promotion, and met Luke when he asked me to design a photography book he was shooting. It was stupidly obvious that Luke and I were going to be glued together from that moment. I guess you could say intensity has been a defining feature of our relationship. Through love, support, enormous care and honesty, we have been each other’s ‘person’ now for 15 years. 

Sarah-Cook_Luke-Kellett_MelbourneLuke and I in our Melbourne studio.


We lived with a group of artists and lived the ‘starving artist’ lifestyle, complete with outrageous warehouse parties and grocery store dumpster-diving for sustenance. It was a time like no other in my life, where I met some incredible people who I will never forget. It felt like souls were connected. We were young and silly; we made art and praised anarchy. Luke and I worked with the artists around us to create sometimes beautiful – sometimes terrible – things. 

All the while, in my back pocket, I was lucky enough to have Headjam keep in touch and send me freelance jobs from time to time, which paid the rent. 

In Luke I found someone equally impatient, equally restless, and equally keen and driven to do bigger and better work. We were hungry to create. We wanted to collaborate with other creative people who were experts at what they did. I was lured to the bright lights of Sydney, and the high-paying, high-prestige agency work that it promised, and I convinced Luke to come with me. 

So we said goodbye to our bohemian friends who lived for the art and refused to work for the man and moved to Sydney. 

Luke and I rented a studio in Darlinghurst. We couldn’t afford rent for both a studio and a home, so the studio was our home. We slept on a pull-out IKEA sofa bed next to the photography cyc. Working from ‘home’ wasn’t great for my mental health. I couldn’t seem to switch off, and each day I would wake up and sit at my computer and then realise at 10pm that I hadn’t left my seat. I felt depressed. 

I also didn’t get the ‘big time’ agency job I wanted – or any studio job for that matter. I applied and applied and applied; I got a few interviews; I met some rude Creative Directors in studios where they all wore black jeans and expensive plain black t-shirts. I didn’t look the part with my hefty black boots, thrifted stripey purple pants and fake-pearl encrusted polyester blouse. I looked more like a flamboyant pirate than a typical inner-city designer. (This was a real outfit I wore to a real interview for a job I didn’t get.)

We were impatient and restless here, too. We set up our own studio, with Luke as photographer and me as graphic designer. But we didn’t have reliable work and we didn’t have any friends in Sydney. We were miserable, and I found my anxiety spiraling. I got to the point where I thought it impossible to get a design job. I remember showing a retail job ad to Luke for an opening at Country Road on Oxford St that I wanted to apply for. He said to me, “If you do that you’ll get comfy and never come back to design. You need to starve to be hungry enough to make this work.” I thought that was harsh, but I also thought it was true. 

I started getting more and more freelance work from Headjam, so I began commuting to Newcastle to work at the studio two or three days a week. One day when I showed up, Nicola told me that after much consideration and eight years of running the business, she was planning to close. I was shocked. From my point of view, she had it all sorted. She had a successful business, a fantastic reputation in Newcastle and was doing consistent work for the Council, the Art Gallery and the Museum, all dream clients in my eyes. 

I wrote her a letter to convince her to stay open. To my surprise, she proposed the option to buy into the business, and in January of 2010 Luke and I moved from Sydney to Newcastle to begin running Headjam as a trio with Nicola. 

A few years later, we met Mike Preston, and the similarities in our ethos, values and work were uncanny. It made sense to collaborate, and we proved ourselves inseparable. At this point, Mike had over 40 years of experience working in the design and advertising industry and multiple international awards to his name. He was (and still is) an incredibly humble human. Nicola moved out of the business and Mike came on board as Creative Director in 2016. He became my mentor and was incredibly supportive and influential in my work – then and now. We talk daily, mostly about projects but sometimes about how we will change the world for good using the power of critical thinking and great design. Luke, Mike and I have owned the business together for the last six years. 

Headjam has changed a lot over the years, and it continues to evolve. We’re constantly progressing, adapting, learning new things, absorbing new ideas and opinions. But what hasn’t changed is this ridiculous inner desire to do good. It's the reason I was drawn to the business in the first place. It’s unique that the values of Headjam so clearly exist beyond the people who run the agency. It started with Nicola, the baton was handed to us – and we intend to eventually hand it on again. Headjam stands for more than the opinions of a few personalities; it stands for the idea that creative thinking is a powerful tool, and collectively we are driven by the idea that our work can have a positive impact on the world.

I’m proud to be part of such a driven, talented and courageous team. I step into my new role, eager to lead in my ‘own’ way and without giving up on past ideals – rules are to be questioned and challenging norms is necessary. I know I won’t be satisfied until my dream of creating the ultimate workplace becomes reality. “Impossible” you say? Most likely. But designers and anarchists alike live on the promise of their concocted utopian visions.



In the spirit of exploration, I invite you, dear reader, to ask questions. Anything that tickles your fancy. I’m curious to find out what you want to know next. Fill out the form below and I'll write back to you. 

If you have a project in mind or would like to work with us, send us a message.