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Bill Beachy (left) and Jeff Finley (right) of Go Media

Bill Beachy (left) and Jeff Finley (right) of Go Media

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.

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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.

A small selection of self portraits from my 365 project

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.

A selection of the gaffer tape series of self portraits I made

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.

Kate Benjamin modelling for the test shots I presented to William Norris at the OAE pitch

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.

Photographer Eric Richmond (right) and his assistant

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.

Sketched ideas that we used to plan the shoot

Rob Sollom applies gaffer tape to our artificial wall during the shoot

Eric Richmond behind the camera in his studio at the OAE shoot

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.

A sample spread from the OAE 2010/11 season brochure

Poster displayed on the London Underground network

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.

‘Not all audiences are the same’ image for the 2012/13 OAE season campaign

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.