Asking Tank Design to describe themselves elicits an unusual response in these days of corporate design speak: “Just say we are both very good looking.”
Well, they’re no oil paintings. But they do exude a sort of in-yer-face Glaswegian charm and look the part of born-again northern and hungry graphic designers. “They” being Tank Design founders, principals and staff – Paul Gray and Stuart Gilmour.
Tank launched in November last year and the two directors come with impressive, if short, CVs. Gray and Gilmour were graphic designers at Graven Images for seven and eight years respectively.
It may seem like a long time to work in one company. But if that company is Graven Images and you were in it virtually from the start – Gilmour was one of Graven Images’ first employees – then it hardly smacks of stagnation. But the self-imposed pressure for Gray and Gilmour to break out had been building for some time.
Gray says: “It was something we had talked about for four years. We began to feel that the graphic design end of Graven Images was not really going the way we wanted it to. The focus of the company was too broad and Graven Images wanted to concentrate on wider design such as product and interiors. The main focus has never been graphic design.
“We felt we really wanted to take control of the work we were doing, find our own clients of a specific kind and be more free about the way we produce design.”
Both joined Graven Images at the end of the Eighties, an exciting and stimulating period in which to be a graphic designer in Glasgow. The 1990 European City of Culture loomed and helped generate a flow of, as Gray puts it, “good arts work” and property projects for the two to cut their design teeth on.
Despite being unequivocal about the sense of ennui which precipitated their departure,
neither are keen to denigrate Graven Images or its founders Janice Kirkpatrick and Ross Hunter. “It was always a great place to work and was very exciting when it was set up in 1988,” says Gilmour. It is a measure of the mutual respect that Graven Images has passed on tips about graphic jobs to Tank.
Tank makes all the noises any new set-up makes when describing the kind of client it wants to attract. Gilmour puts it thus: “The clients we are trying to get are less corporate; ones that allow us to be more creative and push our own barriers.”
If that sounds like a lonely hearts ad which could have been penned by any new design
consultancy, and a few middle-aged ones, then the list of clients Tank has secured so far sounds, on the surface at least, to be badly matched.
Can we expect ground-breaking graphics work to be commissioned by the Scottish Red Cross, the Royal Bank of Scotland, opticians chain Opto and Reebok?
Probably not ground-breaking, but hopefully a little out of the ordinary. The early months of running a consultancy have taught Gray and Gilmour that cashflow demands compromise. The two admit to working flat out since they started Tank, getting through the “jobbing” work but looking forward to the more creative projects. “We are going to make a concerted effort to contact companies we really want to work for. We have been busy and had our heads down,” says Gray.
“At the end of the day, we want to make money, or rather make a living, but also be happy with what we are doing. The whole process of working for ourselves has been really good. We mess around with the scanner, take our own photographs and so on, we’re much freer and less pressurised. At Graven Images we might have lacked confidence.”
Confidence has come partly from the way Tank has been engineered. It sits in offices immediately next to those of PR and direct
marketing firm Biggart Donald. Biggart and Donald themselves are, along with Gilmour and Gray, directors of Tank Design.
The plan for Tank was hatched over a pint in a pub, according to Gray: “We used to do work for Biggart Donald clients anyway and the chemistry between us was, and is, good.” So far, so good. Biggart Donald clients get to use Tank and Tank gets to work independently for its
Both Gray and Gilmour are happy they chose to launch Tank. “The next few years should be good for design. We hope to see a high degree of design focus on Glasgow,” says Gilmour.
Neither is hugely optimistic about the city’s current International Festival of Design or its reign as 1999 City of Architecture and Design, but both appreciate the opportunities the latter may throw their way.
“As graphic designers, we would like to see a situation similar to 1990 where design
companies in Glasgow can really get their teeth into good projects, both as individual companies and in collaborative efforts. The idea of working with a wide range of design companies and other people is great,” says Gray.
The notion of collaboration springs up repeatedly with Tank. One of its first collaborations is a T-shirt with London graphics assortment Tomato. Tank is hungry for cross-fertilisation of ideas and modes of working.
Gilmour says: “We care a lot about what we do and we will push things forward. We don’t necessarily want to be different, but to produce work that is visually arresting. We want to
collaborate with other creative people such as typographers to keep it loose and interesting. And we want to work with photographers we’ve always meant to work with but never have.”
While the ears of Glaswegian designers are beginning to pick up the (rather premature) mumblings from jealous souls in Edinburgh about Glasgow’s inactivity regarding 1999, Tank is markedly not bullish about the Glasgow/ Edinburgh rivalry. “Historically, there probably has been a gulf,” says Gray. “Companies in
Glasgow have always been smaller and the work from large corporate clients has always gone to Edinburgh. Now it seems to be more even. There have been so many off-shoots from Tayburn which have broken away and set up to do something completely different and in a less conservative, dull, centred, italic, unchallenging Edinburgh style. I’m talking about people like Pure, and to a certain extent EH6. There are so many new companies, it’s pretty encouraging. The idea of having more equal pan-Scotland competition is definitely a good thing.
“But what has to be remembered is that Scotland is a small country of around six million people. There’s a limit to what can come out of that and there’s a lot of competition for what work there is.”
As Tank Design is finding out, when you set up a consultancy, its formative months are all about limits. But according to Gilmour and Gray, boundaries imposed by designers on themselves and by clients are there to be broken down.
As Gray succinctly puts it: “Designers should be pushing themselves more. If only everybody pushed it a little bit more…”
Glasgow design consultancies recognise the desirability of working for clients beyond their city and Scotland. But most will admit that
getting work south of the border and outside of the UK is a struggle.
So a Glasgow graphics group which gets 80 per cent of its 2m turnover from clients based beyond Scotland is intriguing. What’s the secret?
The design consultancy in question is 999 Design, the 14-year-old group run by Richard Bissland and Bill Gaughan. Its “export” clients are in Moscow, the US, the Channel Islands, London and Europe. The directors of 999 claim working with clients out of Scotland is of manifold help to the 19-strong group.
One of the most obvious advantages is that it lessens the need for 999 Design to be on the pitching treadmill fuelled by Scotland’s large number of small consultancies chasing the finite home-based work.
Gaughan says: “There is a feeling that there is not much beyond Glasgow and Edinburgh. Everyone gets caught up chasing the same sorts of business which will stay with you for a few months before moving on to someone else and along the merry-go-round of Scottish groups.”
It’s a phenomenon which Gaughan says has worsened over 999 Design’s lifetime: “When 999 launched there were 10 or 12 groups in Scotland. You are now faced with more than 300. That’s a lot of competition for business. We decided to raise the stakes a bit and look further afield.”
Gaughan is probably the first to admit that 999 Design’s international pedigree has a foundation in luck as well as looking. Securing work for Reebok eight years ago – when the sportswear brand was a fraction of its size today – has had many benefits. “A lot of our international success boils down to the Reebok business. It started with odds and sods but we now do all their main catalogues for northern Europe.”
For 999, doing international work is partly down to confidence and not feeling daunted. Gaughan says: “When we first dealt with Reebok we were a bit over-awed. But at that time their turnover was dramatically smaller than it is now. We were dealing with director level people from the start. “The experience of working with a large brand like that and with its international marketing teams means we have grown a bit with them.” And working for clients based abroad has generated new business beyond Scotland.
Indeed, 999’s international work appears to have mainly come through personal contacts. And the absence of any orchestrated “sell 999 abroad” campaign seems not to have held back progress.
Current work by 999 for US company Goldwin Golf is a case in point. Gaughan was in the US on a photoshoot for Reebok when he met some people from Goldwin. “They were interested in seeing our work and although I gave them samples I don’t think they expected us to contact them,” says Gaughan. “I chased them up. We won the work against competition from 12 West Coast US firms. Goldwin thought there was something sexy about getting a European group in, particularly from Scotland, the home of golf.
“Our approach was a total Scottish package with concepts, copy, photography, origination and print all being sourced in the west of Scotland.” A 130 000 export contract resulted.
The Reebok work has helped in other ways. “I’ve been over to the US about ten times over the past year and have got to know photographers and design groups out there. It’s really stimulating and exciting,” says Gaughan.
Working for so much of the time with clients outside of Glasgow and Scotland has benefits for the office. “It’s great for the people in the
studio. And it helps us attract the right level of designer to the company,” says Gaughan.
And working for the variety of clients that international work brings helps cement confidence in the consultancy’s competence. Gaughan says: “It definitely helps to have previously worked internationally” when it comes to persuading international clients that you are capable of handling the extra demands of such work. “The Reebok work helped us win the Goldwin work,” is Gaughan’s simple testimony.
The consultancy hopes to win more Goldwin work. And already this year 999 Design has won business in Russia to produce corporate sales brochures for the Stolnygrad Group of property agents in Moscow. 999 is also confident of securing a golf book based around the
Moroccan Open tournament.
It’s interesting that, bar Scotland’s golfing heritage, 999 makes no play out of being Glaswegian, Scottish or even British. Pitching to Goldwin’s US and Japanese directors, Gaughan found that what appealed to them was the notion of buying in European design. “They seemed to think that – as far as design goes – Scotland, England, France and Italy are all one place.”
999 Design is now considering opening a satellite office in Manchester. “But we have really got to look carefully at this. I’ve seen too many other Scottish consultancies try and fail miserably,” says Gaughan.
Whether the Manchester office happens or not, 999 Design is set to continue doing more work out of Scotland than in. Gaughan describes such a situation as highly unusual: “I just can’t believe all this is happening from