Design team broadens horizons

Lynda Relph-Knight finds out why design team Miller Sutherland decided to swim against the tide and test unknown waters

Miller Sutherland’s bid to quit the mainstream, even resigning a place on the exemplary Superdrug packaging roster set up with help from Nucleus, will come as no surprise to the people who know its founders.

When they set up in 1991, Kathy Miller and Siân Sutherland were keen to do things differently. They wanted to stay small and consider the full-time team of three, including designer Clare Smith, with regular freelance input from Lucy Drew, to be big enough. They wanted to preserve a lifestyle that suited them, with bases in London and at Miller’s home in Northamptonshire. They were keen to work closely together and be hands-on with their projects, and they wanted to do great work.

They have managed to achieve all this, working with brand clients such as Elida Faberge, notably on Lynx men’s toiletries, and country coats company John Partridge, as well as on own-brand lines for Superdrug, Marks & Spencer and Waitrose. Now they want to move into the broader creative sphere.

“We’ve never been purists who only do design,” says Sutherland. She started out in advertising, at Saatchi subsidiary CME KHBB, before setting up Sutherlands restaurant in London’s Soho and acting as adviser to a commercials post-production company.

Miller has stronger design ties. She studied typography at Reading University, but has built a reputation in packaging and branding. In the mid-Eighties she worked at Lewis Moberly on branded and own-brand designs for the likes of Johnson & Johnson, Asda and Safeway. She moved to the then Michael Peters & Partners, where she handled pan-European and global projects. Then came a move to Blackburn’s as design director, adding packs for luxury goods such as toiletries to the consultancy’s drinks-dominated portfolio.

Both partners stress that the shift of emphasis is not to do with their lack of passion for the work to date – Miller Sutherland has won awards for its packaging, notably for Waitrose nuts and snacks and Orchard Drinks Company’s herbal drink Amé. It stems from wanting to do more varied things and to “put something back”, as Miller says.

Both say they won’t know what the future holds until September, when they have shed most of their design work and considered the options. Education projects and film are two possibilities, and they are likely to take a proactive stance in these and other areas.

The tough decision to drop clients – other than Waitrose and Taylor’s Port – hasn’t been taken lightly. But Waitrose is special, they maintain. The John Lewis Partnership supermarket brand was their first client, and they have a good relationship with design co-ordinator Douglas Cooper.

“There’s an established structure we can work with,” says Miller. “They know how involved we like to get.”

The Taylor’s Port rebranding programme, meanwhile, involves a two-year relationship with the family-owned company, which started when Miller Sutherland was asked to write a design brief. There are three strands to the work: developing a corporate image, building on the 4XX symbol; redesigning Taylor’s Vintage Port; and creating new designs for Quinta de Vargellas and Quinta de Terra Feita brands.

Miller Sutherland is taking a courageous step, but it is the venture into the unknown that excites the partners. “In a year’s time we might be something in particular,” says Sutherland. For now, who knows.

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