Jim Stephenson has made a little film. It’s me talking about why I think soul is important in design. Hope you like it.
My agency recently won a credentials pitch to rebrand an established tech company. There were a few puzzled faces around the table when I started to use simple terms such as ‘brand language’ etc.
To help the client understand some of the language we were likely to use more of as the project progressed, I put together a simple glossary of words and terms used during a typical rebrand process. The list is incomplete and only written from my own experience and point of view. These definitions aren’t meant to be definitive, as I believe there are no right or wrong ways to ‘do branding’.
Brand awareness – the level of clarity and memorability that your audience associates with your brand, logo, company, product or service.
Brand guidelines – a functional toolkit of assets and guidance that will be used to implement the brand in visual and written marketing communications, both on and off-line.
Brand personality – the feelings that your audience attribute to your brand, be it friendly, authoritative, inclusive, intelligent, sexy, powerful, dynamic, thoughtful etc.
Brand strategy – aligning the business plan for the company/product/service with the visual/written/verbal expression of the brand. This is where the company’s aspirations meet the visible face of the business.
Brand values – shared beliefs that are understood in and around the company by everyone. Brand values are the words that a company uses to guide their activities. More than just words, the values should be used as guiding principles for the decisions it makes. These are not to be confused with a list of marketing words. They’re more important than that.
Core essence – the brand in a nutshell. Summing up the essence of the brand in a very short sentence. The words should be compelling, valid, relevant and accurately express the brand in a very simple, yet emotive way. Consensus and agreement on the core essence is an essential stage in the rebrand process. These words will be used to guide the whole project.
Discovery workshop – a half-day workshop between the client team and the agency. During this workshop we will invite everyone to take part in several exercises designed to bring forth ideas and information relevant to the brand/product/service that can be used to inform and create the all-important core essence and the brand language/tone of voice.
Message map – a clear indication of the types and tone of marketing message(s) that an audience needs to hear at each stage of the sales/awareness building process.
Messaging workshop – a half-day workshop to discuss the audience and the types of marketing message they will need to hear at key stages of the sales/awareness building process.
Tone of voice (TOV) – the distinct way in which a brand expresses itself through words. Think of the simple and cute TOV used by Innocent Smoothies, versus the brash, no nonsense TOV used by Ryan Air, for example. Both distinct and memorable in their own way.
Verbal brand language – the style of writing that makes up the verbal tone of the brand.
Visual brand language – the distinct graphical elements that make up the visual face of the brand.
The final set of Q&As that Bill Beachy asked me to contribute for his forthcoming book, Drawn to Business.
This set of questions are mainly around winning and keeping clients, with a little bit of my own views on what is and isn’t important at the end. Sign-up here to receive updates on Drawn To Business prior to its publication. Hope you’ve enjoyed reading these Q&As – email me with any thoughts, I’d be interested to hear from you.
What are your keys to landing projects?
– Getting back to a client in good time – no one likes to be kept waiting.
– Not being too pushy – if a client wants to place work with you, they will.
– Meeting the client half-way. It can be a big risk for a client to buy design, so I’ll walk them through some of the process before they decide to go with us. It puts their minds at rest.
Sometimes I’ve offered a ‘risk-reversal guarantee’ – whereby they can back out at a certain point and I’ll refund their deposit. You’ve got to be pretty confident you’ll deliver on a project to do this, but I’ve never had anyone ask for their money back. I think it also demonstrates how you understand their position, and it removes any risk for them.
Do you have any words of wisdom on writing a successful proposal?
Do your research. Don’t boilerplate – one size definitely does not fit all. Show that you’ve started to do some low-level thinking on their behalf. It shouldn’t be ideas but considerations about their product, potential pitfalls, trends in their sector, etc.
Do you have any thoughts on effective negotiating?
Rarely do we get asked to lower our fee. If we do, something has to give, and I make a point of saying it cannot be the process. If something has to be shaved off, it will be time or number of people on the project. Don’t lower your fee without something in return, it sends out the wrong message and sets a precedent. Try and understand where the client is coming from first. It could be that the project could be broken down into phases, enabling you to take on a smaller chunk of work now and pave the way for a larger piece later on. Try and work with them, they have a job to do and a project to deliver – they need you to work with them and be flexible – but don’t give too much away if you can avoid it. The best clients will appreciate that you’re going to add value to their product or service. If they’ve done their job properly, they’ll already have an idea of what their percentage of investment will translate into in terms of increased sales. The clients who don’t have a grasp of that are usually the ones who will see your service as a cost, and try to barter you down.
What was the biggest difficulty you had to deal with in building your company? How did you overcome it?
Self-belief, by far. From the word go I had some doubts about my ability to run a design business. The fact that I had 13 years’ prior experience, with some of the world’s biggest agencies went out of the window.
You’re going to make mistakes, you’re going to have some failures, and that’s all good. I spent way too long trying to never put a foot wrong. That was a bad idea. It made me question my self-belief – was I going to mess up? What will the client say? Will they take their business elsewhere? When you make a mistake, learn from it and move on.
For some reason, when it’s your own business the stakes seem so much higher. You no longer have the boss behind you to pass the buck to – you’re the one everyone will be looking at when the shit hits the fan. You have to just deal with it and keep going.
Be confident in your own abilities. Don’t try to be an expert on everything – use your team, delegate, and find the help you need. Don’t rush, take it one step at a time and the confidence will grow.
Can you think of any keys to good customer retention?
Let them know you’re on their side and that your number one aim is to do great work for them. Deliver on time. Stick to your agreed fees and project schedule. Send them information from time to time that you know will be of interest to them. Say thank you for their business and let them know how much you mean it. Flag bad news early and own up quickly if you’ve made a mistake – they’re usually very forgiving because they’re human, and they make mistakes too. Ask them every year if they’re happy with the work and service you provide. Ask them if you’ve earned the right to keep them as a client – if you do all of the above, you should get a positive response.
Do you have any final thoughts or stories you’d like to share with the readers of this book?
Being a designer is a huge privilege. You get to go and be creative in a nice environment and work with and for great people. I like to regularly remind myself and my team of two things:
1. Graphic design isn’t the real world…
Being a graphic designer is a strange and mysterious job to 99% of people. You exist in a small and often very insular bubble – even to the clients we work with. Be grateful for this, because it’s very cool and stimulating, but also remember that there’s a very big world beyond your shiny iMac – a world that we ultimately design for. The world of graphic design is not what appears on the most popular design blogs – it’s in supermarkets, doctor’s waiting rooms, newsagents, shops, museums, websites, train stations… everywhere. Have a grasp of the real world, because that’s where our work gets seen and that’s where our clients are paying for it to be seen: in the real world.
2. It is not a matter of life and death…
I’ve never heard of anyone who died from a graphic design-related incident. Graphic design is important to the client (because they need it to solve a problem) and to me (it’s how I feed my kids) but it’s never a matter of life and death. An idea is not worth killing yourself over, it’s not worth working through the night on, and it’s not worth arguing with the client over. A mistake in graphic design will not physically harm anyone. Chill out. In the grand scheme of life, love and death, graphic design does not register. Have fun with it, enjoy the creativity, but don’t make yourself ill over it. As my mother-in-law sometimes says to me, “Don’t work too hard Chris, it’s not worth it!” And she’s right.
What kind of advice do you give to graduates?
I know someone, who used to be a client, who has recently retrained to be a graphic designer. She emailed me to ask for some advice – here is what I recommended.
Keep up the enthusiasm and experimentation. Don’t feel the need to make each project look commercial, I’m more interested in a point of view than a jam jar label. Try not to look too much at other people’s work, there’s so much about and it’s in overload on the blogs. Ignore all that stuff and do your own thing. My only criticism with a lot of student work is that their portfolios can look very current – which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it’ll get you a job – but I think a good question to ask is, “What do I want to contribute to the world of design?” That isn’t something you can answer overnight, it takes some people years to start to work it out. I’ve been designing for over 22 years, and I still only have a vague idea of my point of view. Other than that, be yourself, be confident and have fun.
The penultimate set of Q&As that Bill Beachy asked me to contribute for his forthcoming book, Drawn to Business.
These questions are mainly related to building a team and employing designers. Sign-up here to receive updates on Drawn To Business prior to its publication. There will be lots of other designers contributing, so it should be a great resource for anyone who is thinking of striking out alone or building a team.
Do you have any words of advice on hiring employees?
I’ve employed several designers on a full-time basis over the last 10 years – and I’ve never regretted a hire. I would always check out their references, make sure you actually like them and want to spend seven hours a day with them. I would talk at length about design in the interview, set them a project to do as part of the interview process, and invite them into your studio for two days’ trial when it’s down to the last couple of candidates. After that, schedule regular appraisals and give them all the support they need.
How do you know when you need to hire a new employee?
I think when the use of freelancers becomes financially questionable – or if a new client commits to a more regular stream of work, then it’s good to have someone embedded more permanently.
Do you have any good stories or advice that relates to employees or hiring?
I had a mentor for a few years. He’d been at the top of the design business for two decades, having founded a great design company that had well over 200 employees, won countless awards and had offices in four countries. His agency never dropped out of the top ten agencies in the Design Week Top 100. He once said to me, “You’ll never get any major headaches from your clients that can’t be fixed – the real problems will be with the people you employ.” At the time I thought this sounded a bit off. I was new to employing people and everything was going well. Even though I’ve never experienced major problems with anyone I employed, I could see what he was getting at after a year or two. Employing people is a big responsibility. You have to invest in them and make sure they’re developing. But at the end of the day, to most of them it’s just a job. I found this hard to understand at first. No one will be as committed to the company’s success as you, the owner. Your employees will work hard, do great work and be a joy to spend time with. But it can be hard not to take it personally when things inevitably go wrong from time to time. You need to be open and honest with your team, you need to lay down clear boundaries and expectations, and then you need to get out of the way and let them get on with it – knowing they’ve got your support when they need it. It’s tough – much harder than managing a client relationship, but it’s so very rewarding too. I get a big kick out of seeing my designers do something better than I could have done it. But at times you have to have difficult conversations – and that never gets any easier.
What’s your management style/philosophy?
I’m very laid back on the whole. I’ve become better at setting really clear expectations for the team, and I’ve learnt to then back off and leave them to it, although I’m there if they need me. As a team we have Monday morning status meetings, which take an hour or so. We run through the week’s projects, check the status on each project and divvy up tasks. I encourage the team to take an interest in each other’s work – we often pass jobs backwards and forwards depending on the tasks. It’s easy to do that as a small team.
Do you have any bonus/incentive programs? How do those work?
We have a saying: “No input, no output.” That means we make sure we invest in ourselves as creative individuals. This manifests in our studio as having approximately 3-7 hours a week to dedicate to personal projects or career development. There’s no set day of the week when we use this recharge time – the designers decide when best to use it depending on their workload. It can be taken as a whole day, two half days, four quarters days, etc. It can be used at home, in the park, at a museum, in a café or in the studio. We only have one rule, and that is that the recharge time is spent recharging the creative batteries – and that it isn’t used for freelance work. I believe that giving our team this time away from their desk is so important to the development of creativity. The team member feels trusted, they do better work and the clients get a sharp creative mind on their projects. On top of that we offer paid leave between Christmas and New Year that is additional to the 25 days’ holiday the team gets. Annual bonuses are performance-based. 5% of the yearly profits are put into a pot and divided equally between everyone. We aim to run a progressive and democratic studio, where the emphasis is investing in the welfare of the team.
Do you have any stories or words of wisdom on management?
You simply cannot avoid it if you’re going to go beyond being a one-man band. I would say it’s by far the most nerve-wracking thing to do, taking on your first employee. It gets easier. And it’s by far the most rewarding thing to do, too. Seeing great work produced by someone you picked from dozens of CVs, and hearing how happy a client is to work with that person is one of the biggest kicks in the business for me. People like feedback – they like to know when they’re doing good work and they like to be recognised for it. A bottle of wine, an unexpected day off or a team lunch every now and then can really bond a team together, and it is a great way to say ‘thanks for the hard work’. And it feels good to do those things. Gives you a reminder about why some of the, inevitable, challenging times are worth it.
Here are a few more Q&As that Bill Beachy asked me to contribute for his forthcoming book, Drawn to Business.
The next set of questions that Bill asked are mainly related to the early years of starting a studio. Sign-up here to receive updates on Drawn To Business prior to its publication.
Were there any key moments or strategies to your survival in the early years?
I had a few, not all of them I’d recommend trying though. With the benefit of experience, I wouldn’t repeat some of them.
– From the outset, provide a trustworthy and personal approach.
– Keeping the client up-to-date on the progress of a project, so that they never have to actually request an update. There’s nothing worse than a client feeling in the dark of a projects progress.
– I pitched a lot in the early days, some paid, some free. I would put heart and soul into every pitch, sometimes spending weeks on a pitch. I wouldn’t recommend this any longer, especially free pitching, but it enabled me to win some clients that we still work with over ten years later.
– I kept a very keen eye on cash flow. Probably the hardest and scariest thing for a designer to do, but I got some good advice early on – “cash is king” – meaning that you need to keep a healthy reserve in the bank, and don’t spend more than you earn. Simple as that.
– I pretty much said yes to everything. Again, I wouldn’t recommend that as a strategy now, but it kept me going when my first child was born and my wife was on maternity leave.
Do you have any advice on how to best start a design firm?
– Start out with a clear idea of who you are, what you offer and try to firm up on some core values. I didn’t do this at all. Although I had a vague idea, I just jumped straight in without having anything written down and no anchor points. I have those now though.
– Be mindful about what type of work you say yes to, it’s likely you’ll get more of the same.
– Keep an eye on cash flow, it’s the lifeblood of your business.
– Get a good accountant and farm out admin as soon as you can (but remember to keep a hawk eye on the financial performance yourself). Farm it out but don’t abdicate responsibility.
– Work your networks. For me, over 75% of new business is from a referral source, the people you already know are likely to be the connection between you and your next new client.
– Keep your costs really low at first, work from home, make your kit last as long as possible, think twice before you splash out on fixed overheads – rent, wages, etc.
– I set up a studio on my own, but had huge support from my wife. I don’t regret setting up without the support of a business partner, but I do sometimes think it may have been wise to have one. There are benefits to being the sole owner, but I also believe there are many benefits to having an equal partner. Is there anyone you know whose skills complement yours?
– Take some creative risks. It’s why you set up on your own, isn’t it? You don’t have that Creative Director looking over your shoulder now, so give those ideas you always wanted to try a run for their money. You might be surprised at how willing some clients are to go with adventurous ideas that your old Creative Director wouldn’t have had the courage to present.
– Use your independence to explore new working processes – it’s your gig now. Take clients on a journey with you, they love that.
– Remember the people who helped you to get started, and the people who helped you along the way when you were fresh from college. Try to make time to say thanks to them every now and then, and let them know what you’re up to – spread the love.
Have you grown your business organically, or inorganically? Do you use loans much to push growth?
I have never borrowed money to fund growth – I’ve never borrowed money for anything related to my business. The business growth has been mainly organic, I’ve calculated that over 75% of our new business is from referral, 15% google search, 10% is from advertising, mailshots, email news etc. We had a very good year once, where profits were much higher than average. I decided to invest in attracting new business, so I engaged a new business agency to try some direct sales for us. It was another learning curve. This is a very expensive route to go down, with little to no guarantee that you’ll see any new business. Fortunately for me the new business we won covered the new business agency fees. I tried that for a year, but it was a year of having lots of pointless meetings with companies that had no real intention of hiring, lots of time away from my studio, and lots of frustrating dead ends. I wouldn’t recommend this unless you have deep pockets and a dedicated person or team in the agency who can follow up on leads. I found my time was too divided to do the following up properly.
Were there any particular moments, lessons or decisions that had a profound impact on the growth of your business?
I’ve never really experienced ‘a profound impact on growth’ – it’s been very gradual over the years. I’d say that employing a team and moving from being a one-man-band obviously increases the capacity of work you can handle, but be careful not to say yes to everything just because you’ve increased your resources.
How do you handle projects that go over budget?
It depends… Sometimes I’m very aware that we’re going to overshoot, and if that’s because we’ve spent longer on some parts of the project than we estimated, and I have a good reason for doing so, then I’m ok with that. If a project has the opportunity for us to really exercise our creativity, I’m ok for the team to spend longer on, say, the ideas stage. I encourage that, because I think it’s good for the team (they want to be creative), it’s good for the client (they’re getting a good return) and we’re left with a very nice piece for our portfolio. And I can balance that at the end of the day with the feeling that work should, for me, be more than rigidly sticking to rules and process – it needs to be fun and rewarding. Time sheets are a useful way to keep an eye on how much time/money has been spent, and that’s useful for estimating future projects when you need to know the REAL costs. But I don’t believe they should become a set of handcuffs that can stifle creativity. However, you have to ask yourself about the creative potential of the project, the tasks involved, the benefit to the client, the project deadline etc. Only a small percentage of projects each year should be set free from the shackles of a timesheet – the rest are how you make profits and keep the lights on. If a regular project starts to shoot over budget, then it’s likely that the client has added work to the agreed project spec, changed the brief, given some misleading information or hasn’t stuck to the project schedule. All of which leave you with a very good case for reviewing and amending the project fee.
When you started were you charging less than you are today? If so, how did you know when to raise your rates?
I didn’t really set any rates until a few years had passed. In the early days I’d estimate a project based on a vague figure that I thought was ‘about right’. I didn’t keep timesheets, so I had no way of knowing if that was right or not. I then started to keep timesheets and began working from a day rate, which is based on the position of the person. This has been a good way to be more accurate. Although timesheets and daily rates can be a good start-point for estimating on projects, I think it’s important to estimate on the value you can add rather than the length of time a project will take. That’s the difference between positioning yourself as someone who can be hired on a time basis, and someone who can be hired because of the value and return they will provide.
Over the last ten years I’ve (literally) read my own body weight* in business books. A handful were good, some average, most cr*p. Recently I’ve read some very good books that have focused on the business side of graphic design.
One of those was Thread’s Not Dead by Jeff Finley. Jeff, along with Bill Beachy is one of the founders of Go Media in Cleveland, Ohio. To cut a long story short, Bill and I connected on LinkedIn and had a bit of an email exchange about the rewards and challenges of running a graphic design studio. Bill revealed to me that he was in the middle of writing a new book called Drawn To Business, and kindly asked me if I’d like to contribute to the book. Of course, I said yes.
I’m going to blog a few of my answers to the questions that will become some of the content for Drawn To Business. Here are the first few questions Bill asked me Expect to see more posted over the next few weeks. As they go along, some of my answers become quite revealing, which took me by surprise.
Why did you get into design?
From an early age I knew I wanted an artistic career, and I was lucky enough to have a secondary school teacher who introduced me to the art of graphic design – it was my ticket out of the sleepy village I’d grown up in. Towards the end of my school years some people who had ‘real jobs’ came in to do talks to our year group – one of them was from a printing company. I had a chat with him after the talk and asked if I could come and be an apprentice in their company. He turned me down on the spot, but he gave me some good advice: “Go to college and study design instead.” I then had a goal to work towards. I worked hard, got the right qualifications and was offered a place at the well respected Lincoln School of Art & Design. I left my village, studied graphic design for four years and landed my first job at Saatchi & Saatchi. I never expected to even get an interview there, let alone a job, so it felt pretty surreal – especially for someone who’d originally set their sights on being a printer’s apprentice (not that there’s anything wrong with being a printers apprentice, of course).
Why did you decide to start a design firm?
I thought I could do it much better than any other boss I’d ever worked for, and I wanted to be more in control of my creativity. I also wanted to see if I was up to it. And my wife made me do it so that I’d stop moaning about commuting to London from Brighton!
Is there anything dramatically different about owning your own company to what you’d expected?
I quickly learned that my previous bosses hadn’t been doing such a bad job after all. There’s the initially alarming fluctuation of your monthly income coupled with relentless bills that don’t let up just because you don’t have a regular salary anymore. And it was much harder to win new clients than I’d ever expected – they really don’t just fall into your lap. I also had to adjust to how much longer things take to come to fruition, whether it be intended growth, a new portfolio website, or an office move.
How did your company get started?
I’d been taking a break, backpacking around the world after 10 years in continuous employment in London. To break up my travels, in 2000, I worked in Sydney for a year and was really taken by their work/life balance. I worked for a great company there called Horniack & Canny. They did great work and they went home on time, usually straight to the beach for a beer. I decided early on that I wanted to start an agency that had a good balance between what I call work/life and life/life. Because as a designer, I don’t think you ever really switch off – there’s no clear boundary between work and life, they’re pretty much one. So I wanted to create an environment that fostered and championed creativity, nurtured people, and allowed us to go home on time to be with family. It’s a work in progress, but that’s still the vision.
Did you work for a design firm before you started your own? How long were you there and how did that experience help you build your firm?
I started at Saatchi & Saatchi in 1991 – an amazing company of great creativity, bold thinking and brutal simplicity in its thinking and output. I stayed there for six years and worked on some great brands with some great people. Then, seeking a pay rise, I took another job. I worked at another agency for two years, learned some good stuff on the design side, but learned a much more important lesson about not chasing money. After that, I freelanced for a while for companies like Landor (big, impersonal, cog-in-the-machine type freelancing). After my travels down under, I returned to London and became Creative Director at a mid-size agency called Kino Design. The two partners at Kino are great guys, I respected them as bosses and they knew how to treat the team well. After two happy years there, I decided it was time to set up on my own and opened Harrison & Co in Brighton in 2003. Along the way I’d learned to respect creativity, people and going home on time.
Keep an eye on the blog, I’ll be posting some more questions and answers soon.
*Currently about 78kg in case you are interested.
This project is old. This was the first job I ever did. In July 1991, and straight out of art college, I landed myself a job as a junior designer at Saatchi & Saatchi. Right place, right time.
The design departments Creative Director had just left, everyone was moving up a notch, leaving room for a new junior at the bottom (me). At that time Saatchi & Saatchi were celebrating their 21st Anniversary (and I’d just turned 21 too). Saatchi & Saatchi never did things by halves. To celebrate we decided to design a commemorative bottle of champagne. The job of designing the label came my way. On the actual day of the anniversary everyone came in to find a bottle of champagne on their desk… everyone. At the time that was over 800 people in Charlotte St alone.
I’ve still got mine, as you can see. Maurice and Charles Saatchi were famously reclusive, especially Charles. Very few photos existed of them together, apart from this one which was actually taken at the height of their game in the 80s. I decided to do a little pop art, Andy Warhol pastiche, which was also a nod to Charles growing art collection. The illustration style I used was quite unusual 21 years ago, really getting down and dirty with bitmaps and vectors in an early version of CorelDraw. It looks beautifully dated now.
I’m certain that not many of these have lasted this long. I think most were consumed and discarded on the actual day. Mine has remained unopened for over 22 years. A little memento of my first real job, in the very unreal world of Saatchi & Saatchi. Maybe It’ll fetch a future grandchild a few quid at the 2120 Antiques Roadshow one day? Who knows?
Question: How do you engage delegates at a busy trade show to take an interest in your brand? Answer: Frame your sales tactic in a way where ‘the rules of engagement’ are already understood.
VisitBrighton asked us to “turn their stand on its head” for ConFex 2013 (a trade show for events organisers). The challenge: engaging delegates in conversation. Our solution was simple – we created the ‘Brighton Conference Supplies Store’.
We stocked the shelves with a range of humorous spoof products, designed to get conversations started. Everyone knows the rules of shopping. 1. You browse. 2. You show an interest in a product. 3. The shop assistant now has permission to talk to you. Products ‘on sale’ included Regency Regency Sauce, Chunky Keynote Chutney, Gloriously Nutty Networking Cookies, Extra Virgin Conference Oil and a whole range of fun spoof products.
The ‘shop assistants’ were from VisitBrighton. Our solution made it easy for them to start conversations.
To create buzz, we mailed out empty Pick ‘n’ Mix bags to delegates and invited them to come and fill the bag on the stand. Judging by the speed the Pick ‘n’ Mix was disappeared, the idea was a success.
And here is a very nice email from the client saying how happy she is with the project…
Dear Chris, Simon and Miles
Just a quick note to thank you all for all your creativity, commitment, flexibility and artistic-ness (is that a word??) in working together to create the VisitBrighton stand at Confex – we couldn’t have worked with a more delightful team!
The stand was super-busy; the concept certainly drew a huge amount of interest, stimulating some great conversations. For once the fabric of the stand really reflected the identity of the City! Thank you so much for grasping our brief so well and really delivering a fabulous end product. Thank you again for all your help – it’s a real pleasure working with you all.
You’ve probably heard about Google’s 20% time (it almost seems like old news now). Well, my studio has its own humble version of ‘20% time’, we call it ‘A-level projects time’ Bit of a weird name, especially as none of us at Harrison & Co are 17 or sitting A-levels.
The name was inspired by the artists Jake and Dinos Chapman, who famously completed an art A-level a few years ago. This was long after they were nominated for the Turner Prize in 2003 and already very established artists in their own right. I love that kind of backwards thinking. I can’t find any links to this story on the interwebs, so you’re just going to have to trust me.
Our ‘A-level projects’ aren’t meant to be perfect, or good-looking, or trendy, or cool, or ground-breaking, or award-winning, or hipster-blog-friendly. We do them for fun. There are no rules about style, medium or what subject we choose – the only (very loose) rule is that you have at least one A-level project on the go, and if it’s a bit quiet in the studio, it’s something you can turn to for a bit of fun. A bit of no-strings-attached creativity.
Thought I’d share a few of our A-level projects that are on the boil in the studio at the moment. This first one is all about found typography, usually spotted in the street. This is the progress so far. Shaping up nicely, might use it in a project soon. Again, not meant to be stylish, hip, cool and certainly not done to impress anyone – just the pure pleasure of finding and looking.
This next one is a bit weird. If you live in Brighton you’re almost certainly familiar with Iydea, the veggie cafe on Kensington Gardens. Last year I decided it was time to start getting fit and eating better. I discovered Idyea and started to go pretty much every lunchtime. Their food is amazing – wholesome and colourful. I kept looking down at the empty tray after I’d finished and would see these amazing colours and textures. Then the inevitable happened: I started to photograph them on my iPhone. I bought some coloured paper and started religiously shooting each empty tray after I’d finished. The owner of Idyea found the images I’d been making on Facebook and asked if he could frame one for the cafe.
Next is a lovely little illustration project that one of my designers, Scott, has been tinkering with: kind of illuminated letters intricately illustrated with quirky motifs. The lovely thing about this is the hidden message that lies within each piece, if you are eagle-eyed enough to spot it.
Scott’s little dalliance with illuminated letters went on to become our Christmas gift to our clients in 2012. Scott illustrated a globe with the words ‘Peace on Earth’ intertwined into the image. We made a short run of 50 signed giclée prints and sent them out to our clients. The response was great, with several clients framing the prints for their homes and offices.
My next A-level project is all about gaffer tape. I love the stuff and it’s a return to something that I’ve already played with before. The possibilities are endless. For me this next piece of work will lead up to an Open House exhibition in May which is part of Brighton Festival. Pop down and say hello if you are free.
I’m drawn to design with ‘soul’, and for me, hand drawn lettering = soul. Two designers I admire who work, almost exclusively, with hand lettering in different ways are James Victore and Marian Bantjes. Victore uses it to provoke, Bantjes to illuminate. I used my own hand lettering to rebrand VisitBrighton and the writers charity English PEN. They both took a few hundred attempts and lots of cutting, pasting and matching the right letterforms to reach the final solution. The end result, a sense of freedom and independence that a font can never really achieve, in my opinion.
My photography mates will not thank me for saying this… but graphic designers can often make pretty good photographers – so try shooting your own project photography. It will improve your thinking, rationale and the originality of your final solution. I often set up simple shoots for small budget projects – sometimes using available light or portable studio lights. If you know you’ll need to commission a full-on shoot, involve the photographer early on – they’ll take your ideas and really make them sing if they are involved and part of the process.
I encourage designers to start with a blank sheet of paper and turn off the Mac. Free from the distractions of the internet, Photoshop or fonts, sketch out your ideas unedited and raw. Artistic ability is irrelevant. If your client is an Orchestra, go and listen to them in concert. As Bob Gill says, “Don’t sit at your computer, waiting for lightening to strike”. It won’t.
Inky trousers courtesy of Anand.
Back in December, Laura Snoad asked me to write a piece for Digital Arts magazine on ‘failure’. Here it is…
Failure. How to fail better. It’s always confused me to be honest, this statement. I’m sure Samuel Beckett meant well when he had this flash of inspiration, but I bet quite a few people (me included) have scratched their heads and thought… “eh?! why would anyone want to fail, let along ‘fail better’?” So, have I ever failed before? Yes. Have I ‘failed better’ since? Not consciously.
For me, failure is less about the end result and more about the very beginnings of a project. Sometimes, I’ll try and set myself up for failure at the start of a project. What do I mean by that? For me it means being OK with following an idea, even though I can’t really see the end result in my minds eye. Potentially an idea that might meet with failure, after days of work. When you have a paying client waiting for a result, that’s quite a hard thing to stick to. No one wants to fail on a paying job – so sometimes we ease back into the comfort of ideas that we know will work in the end – rather than indulging in ideas that might end up in the long grass.
How do I navigate away from the comfort of an idea that I know will succeed and pursue an idea that could fail? I just keep scratching. When I think about creativity I think of it as an itch that always needs a scratch. I think you have to keep moving towards the ideas that might not work, and keep scratching unlit they start to yield something interesting. So, you could also look at that another way – taking the long road. The comfort of ideas that we know will work don’t take that long to come to fruition. The other approach takes time, and that isn’t a luxury we can all enjoy.
So, to sum up – failure is about:
– setting yourself up for failure at first in order to succeed in the end
– resisting the comfort of an idea that ‘you know will work’ and getting cosy with ‘an idea that might come to naught’
– creating the time and space that it takes to ‘fail’, which means buckling in and knowing that this might be a long ride
– knowing the difference between a project that ‘deserves a bit of failure’ and one that ‘just needs to succeed’
Harrison & Co celebrated its 10th anniversary a few weeks ago. Neil Bennett, editor of Digital Arts magazine, saw a tweet about our 10th birthday and asked me if I would like to write a piece for his magazine on what I’ve learned over the last decade. Here it is…
Ten years ago, Chris Harrison left the safe confines of a London firm to set up his own design agency in Brighton. Here’s what he’s learned over the past decade.
Working with talented designers
Over the last 10 years, the highest highs have always been linked to producing a great piece of work as a team. It sounds corny, but I get a much bigger kick out of seeing another designer at Harrison & Co hitting the mark with an idea, than if I had done it myself. Not everyone who sets up their own studio goes on to employ a team – but if you do it can be, by far, one of the most rewarding things you do.
I’m lucky Harrison & Co have attracted some really good clients. One of those is William Norris, Communications Director at Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. It didn’t happen overnight, but after several years of working together, we now do our most compelling work for Will and the OAE. He trusts creativity and he understands the value it brings to a brand. Our best work of the last 10 years has been a collaboration between us, the OAE and the arts photographer Eric Richmond. You can’t do good design without good clients.
An opportunity came up to rebrand VisitBrighton (the council operated tourism arm). I put forward some credentials for the tender – our bid was rejected, point blank. The feedback – our work wasn’t ‘bold enough’. I knew the project was right for Harrison & Co, so I put together a second proposal, which the client hadn’t asked for and wasn’t expecting. I ditched the ‘proposal speak’ and made an impassioned, and personal, 10 point pitch about why we were right for the project. We won the tender. It’s one of my favourite rebrands that we have done to date. If you really want something, don’t be shy about going after it.
I was having some wobbles 10 years ago about leaving behind the security of a Creative Directors salary at a good London agency (with posh sofas), to set up Harrison & Co (from a dusty sofa) in Brighton. My wife gave me the nudge (shove) I needed to take the leap. She has played a really important role in the last 10 years. She’s honest about the ideas we produce. She is my common sense mentor for business decisions. She also writes some mean copy. The last 10 years wouldn’t have happened without her. Thanks Tash.
About 7 years ago I was waiting for a train at Farringdon. On the platform I spotted Rod Petrie, one of the original founders of Design Bridge, (the London based branding agency) and I went over and said hello. Rod had interviewed me for a job in 1991 (although he didn’t remember it!). To cut a long story short, Rod, now an independent coach, agreed to mentor me in those early years of Harrison & Co. It made an enormous difference to me and the business. Serendipity has played a huge part of the last 10 years. You can make plans until the cows come home, but you can’t top lady luck showing up.
One of the most rewarding parts of my job is working with the interns that come through our doors. I love their optimism and their open mindedness about what is and isn’t possible.
About a year ago I decided to do my best to make a half decent portrait of all the interns that come and work with us – usually shot on their last day of working with us. Sometimes I’ll try and reflect a part of their personality, sometimes I just shoot without thinking too much, sometimes we’ll work on an idea together and sometimes we (kind of) go to greater lengths with props to make the shot more interesting (time permitting). I get to indulge my passion for photography, our facebook page gets a bit of new content and the intern gets a nice portrait to show for it. Below are all the interns we had at Harrison & Co in 2012, including the text I write to accompany each portrait which summarises their stay in our studio.
Qian – January 2012
Our first intern of 2012, this is Qian. She is from France and Qian studied Graphic Design at Lycée Le Corbusier in Strasbourg, graduating in 2011. It’s great when we have a foreign intern with us, they have a different way of looking at things which is always refreshing. Qian has been working on some mood boards for an up-coming project with one of our arts clients. The mood boards are looking great, so good in fact they could almost be presented as initial ideas.
Megan – March 2012
This months intern has been the lovely Megan Young who is studying graphic design in Manchester. Megan has been working on several projects with us, a few artworking jobs as well as taking a project from the initial brief to first stage ideas. She’s good! We like interns who aren’t afraid to jump straight in, it’s a great way to learn. Megan was born and brought up a Brightonian, she’s even considering looking for a job in Brighton. We meet so many students who don’t feel the lure of the big city lights in London any more. Maybe agencies in Brighton are seen as more creative, maybe it’s the quality of life Brighton can offer, or maybe London is no longer the centre of the design universe it once was? We know Brighton is a great place to work, and Harrison & Co have clients down the road, in London and as far afield as Portugal. So, two out of three isn’t bad? ; )
Natalie – April 2012
We’ve had the pleasure of welcoming Natalie into the studio this week. Natalie has just finished her A Levels and she chose Harrison & Co to try her hand at a bit of graphic design. Scott wrote her a tasty little brief to design a brand for a vintage clothes company. We’re all really impressed by the way she has approached the project and she has rolled out some seriously creative ideas. She definitely has a real gift for design. Watch out design grads, Natalie has some serious skills. Well done Natalie!
Sammy – June 2012
Sammy, this weeks intern has given us a very fine departing gift. I did my old boss at Kino Design a favour, Sammy is his son and I, quite happily, agreed to have him in our studio for a week to give hime a taste of design and a career choice. Good work Sammy!
Chris – July 2012
We’ve had the pleasure of Chris working with us as an intern for the last two weeks. Nice chap and good designer who is learning the design trade at art college in Cardiff. It’s been so wet over the last two weeks, Chris hasn’t flinched at running errands, even in the rain…! (not that we’ve sent him out that often). Anyway, we wish him well as he goes into his final year in September – I’m sure we’ll be seeing him again at some point – we might even let him use the studio brolly next time. : )
Shaun – July 2012
We’ve had a great intern with us this month, meet Mr Shaun Pimley. Destined to be a great designer, Shaun is mega enthusiastic and keen to get involved in everything. This guy has got some wacky ideas going on (wish we could show you them). We’ve been doing some initial ideas for a project, Shaun is yet to reach for the Mac. Instead, he’s been painting, stitching, gluing and pinning things down. We love his energy, and we wanted to show that in our portrait of him. This is pretty much the contents of his art box. The inspiration was Peter Gabriel’s ‘Sledgehammer’ video. Good luck Shaun, come back again, anytime!
Emily – August 2012
This is Emily who has interned with us for the last two weeks. Emily is going into her final year at Falmouth. Her time at Harrison & Co has coincided with a rather unusual project brief. One of those jobs that comes around every now and then where you get complete carte blanche to do whatever you want. She’s taken it in her stride and put together some really great work. This led on to a long chat this morning about what was expected of a final year design student. Our feeling is that the final year should be all about creative exploration, taking a project and passionately applying yourself without any expectation of where it will lead. It’s the only way to do work that is different. Students have the rest of their working lives to produce commercial work. College should be about taking creative risks… if you can’t do it at college, when can you? So, good luck Emily, pop back and see us next year.
Will – August 2012
We’ve been really lucky with our interns this year. We’ve had some really capable and promising young designers come in and work with us. The next generation of designers is looking good! Here’s our latest fresh faced intern, Will Suckling. Will is from Hastings, he did a two year design course and is about to go to LCC (LCP in old money) to do a top up year to get his BA. Really nice chap, very capable and he has been tearing through some really nice ideas for a branding project. Good luck at LCC Will.
Chris – September 2012
This is Chris Bounds, our intern for the last two weeks. He likes his music, does Chris. He’s furnished us with some lovely little design ideas for various projects, and also contributed to the studio playlists with aplomb – most interns are petrified about choosing music – not Chris, he was straight in there. We noticed that he’s also the owner of a range of fine band t-shirts. Thought it would be fun to shoot him wearing (nearly) all of them. Nothing like a bit of Friday air guitar to get the creative juices flowing. Show some appreciation for Mr Chris Bounds! Good luck mate.
Lisle – October 2012
Saying goodbye to Lisle today who has been with us for the last two weeks. A really nice guy with lots of potential to set the world of design alight. He’s recently moved to Brighton after graduating from Bournemouth Art College this summer. Good luck Lisle and welcome to Brighton!
Callum – November 2012
We’ve had Callum with us this week. He’s in Year 11 an will be taking his GCSEs next year. We set Callum a brief to design a brand identity for a Barber shop. He has come up with some really, really good work that is, frankly, way beyond what you’d expect someone at his stage to create. Very well thought through ideas and well executed showing a keen eye for typographic detail. He has his eye on a career in graphic design, and we think he’ll do really well. Well done Callum, come back anytime!
I’ve always been very keen on photography. While I was at Art College I came very close to ditching graphic design in favour of becoming a photographer. I also left my last job in the belief that a future as a photographer was for me. As you can see, I’m not a photographer, I’m still a designer.
A few years ago my passion for photography was rekindled. I got involved with Brighton’s lively photography community. Through the Brighton Flickr group I met lots of new people and got interested in shooting more of my own stuff again. I didn’t have any real focus on what I was doing with photography, until I decided to try my hand at a 365 project (a self-portrait, every day, for a whole year).
I’d met Adam Bronkhorst at one of the Brighton Flickr meetups. His 365 project has become folklore in the Brighton photography community for its range, energy, creativity and humour. If you haven’t seen it, it’s well worth a browse. Adam’s work inspired me to also give it a try.
I made it to 100 self-portraits during my 365. Not bad, but not the whole 365. It became an enormous chore to make a new portrait everyday. On the upside, it tested my creativity and pushed me to try new things outside of design. The part of the project I’m most happy with is a series of portraits I made using gaffer tape and empty walls. I wanted to try something graphic with the portraits, and gaffer tape allowed me to sketch and make marks, and then interact with the shapes on the wall.
Around the same time, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment [OAE] invited me to pitch for their 2010/11 season campaign. It was an unpaid pitch. Generally, I have a rule for our studio… NO FREE PITCHES. We’ve pitched for work in the past, won some, lost some. It gets to a point, that I believe every studio owner has to arrive at in their own time, when you just can’t justify the time, the drain on resources and the giving away of free ideas anymore. Eventually, you leave behind the desperation to win new clients and you adopt the moral high ground. But on this occasion, I made an exception (every rule has an exception). I’d been working with William Norris, Marketing Director at OAE, for several years. I’d also worked with him when he was a Marketing Officer at London Philharmonic Orchestra.
So, we pitched and we won the OAE season campaign. There were no late nights working up multiple creative routes to wow the client. I knew I was onto something with the gaffer tape shots and I knew I wanted to turn it into a commercial project. The OAE brief seemed like a good opportunity to take the gaffer tape idea for a spin.
On a cold January morning, I enlisted the help of my friend Kate Benjamin to model for a couple of test photos. I took these, along with my self-portraits to the pitch and showed them to Will. Luckily, Will loved the idea. It was the only only one I showed him. He got it straight away.
A two-day shoot was planned with the brilliant arts photographer Eric Richmond. Eric and I had never worked together before, although we had come close on two occasions. Once at Saatchi & Saatchi when I rebranded Rambert Dance Company, and a second time in 2002 for an investment bank annual report.
Eric really knows his stuff. He’s been working with the OAE for years, he knows their brand well and he also knows the players. Eric and I worked together to plan the shoot. We decided to recreate the weathered turquoise wall that I’d been shooting against in Brighton for my 365 project. Eric commissioned a theatre set builder to make the wall, 15ft wide and 10ft tall. Plenty of room to shoot in front of and also meant we could fit more than two people in the frame if we needed to. The set builder also painted and artificially weathered the wall to match the one I’d been using as a backdrop in Brighton. It looked great. We did a half day test shoot to get the lighting right, trying to match an overcast daytime light as closely as we could with minimal shadows.
I art-directed the shoot with the help of my junior designer at the time, Rob Sollom. We sketched out ideas of what we could do with the players and how we could use the gaffer tape in a creative way. In some shots we decided to use the gaffer tape to emphasise the sound of an instrument. In other shots we decided to use the tape to emphasise the personality or movement of a player.
The final shots exceeded all of our expectations. You know when a project has legs. The ideas seem to materialise on their own, people chip in and improve on ideas and the whole thing just builds and builds. It’s one of the most thrilling parts of being a designer. A project that unfolds into something special and allows for collaboration and a bit of serendipity. Nothing beats it. The campaign was rolled out onto season brochures, ad campaigns including tube posters and banners at London’s Southbank Centre.
The unexpected part was how the project went viral. Isn’t that the holy grail for any marketer? Viral advertising. Followers and fans sharing a brand’s message or campaign of their own free will. Oodles of free publicity. Of course, you can’t plan for an idea to go viral – it just happens. The creative has to be strong, but after that it relies, I believe, on a set of very tenuous circumstances. I’ve only ever experienced one other campaign going truly viral. It was fascinating to literally sit there and watch the clicks accumulating as the campaign was shared around the globe in real time.
In the case of the gaffer tape campaign, classical music lovers from Italy to Iowa blogged about the campaign. One of my favourite quotes was from an Opera blogger in Italy who commented, “…outsider art meets home depot”. Couldn’t have put it better myself. William Norris also goes into more detail in this video on the impact of the project and our working partnership.
Since 2010, we’ve worked with the OAE on two further campaigns. The 2011/12 campaign was elegant and visually pleasing, but didn’t quite have the oomph that the gaffer tape campaign had. Our most recent work, dubbed ‘Not all audiences are the same’, for the 2012/13 season has been a big hit, resulting in tens of thousands of pounds of free advertising in the form of journalistic column inches. Myself and Eric Richmond provide a bit more insight on how the idea was born in this short video.
As I write, we’re about to start work on the 2013/14 season campaign. Who knows what’s next? I’ve genuinely no idea at the moment. Whatever we come up with, it’s our goal to turn heads and put bums on seats for the OAE.