“I once worked on the identity for a string of lap-dancing clubs”

After ten years at B&W Studio, which included a Design Week Awards Best of Show win for its St George’s Crypt work, co-founder Steven Wills has set up new studio Substance. We talk to him about applying craft in a digital world, impressing as a young designer and the clients he doesn’t tell his mum about…


When did you realise you wanted to be a designer?

I was always interested in art from a young age (drawing fruit and my dad’s shoes and the like) but knew I didn’t want to be a fine artist. Having taken a Foundation Course in Art at college I was introduced to graphic design and everything just clicked into place from there. Very lucky really.

What was your first job?

My first actual job was with ATTIK at a point when they were really making some noise. It was quite a daunting experience straight out of university. I enjoyed some great years there and worked my way up from junior designer to creative director before leaving for a new challenge after eight years.

How would you describe what you currently do?

Satisfy egos. Challenge preconceptions. Change behaviours. Motivate people. Impart knowledge. Daydream (a lot). Act spontaneously (sometimes). Trust my instincts (all the time).

What has been the biggest change in design since you started?

There is much less reliance on offline communications (print especially – although this appears to be making a resurgence of late). The proliferation of digital media, which clients are placing much greater emphasis on, has really been a huge change. Understanding how to apply the craft and skills learned in offline communications to the digital world has been a challenge, but one which I have thoroughly embraced.

What is your favourite project, that you’ve worked on?

I did actually once work on the identity for a string of lap-dancing clubs and was invited to the opening launch party (don’t tell my mum!) 

What is your favourite project, that you haven’t worked on?

The Comedy Carpet, designed by Why Not Associates would be pretty high on the list, as would the recent GF Smith identity refresh created by Made Thought. Both beautifully simple and extremely well-executed pieces of work.

What was your biggest mistake?

Ahem… not going to the opening launch party of the lap-dancing club.

What is your greatest ambition?

Work less, play more.

Who is the most inspirational person you have worked with?

It’s not necessarily work but I once judged alongside John Rushworth from Pentagram and found him to be very inspiring (does this count?)

What piece of advice would you give to people starting out in design?

Gain a thorough understanding of who’s doing what in the industry and be clear about the kind of design company/agency/studio you see yourself working for. Competition for jobs is extremely high but don’t just settle for the first job that comes along. If it’s not the right one it will damage your portfolio and make it even more difficult to find the right job afterwards. Also be prepared to do a period of unpaid placement to gain some vital experience

But top of the list: find out who you need to contact and address whatever you have to them! The number of CVs I’ve seen addressed to “The manager” or “To whom it may concern” is unbelievable. Bin!

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  • Craig Sanderson July 24, 2015 at 4:33 pm

    Funny, I used to design flyers and airbrush pictures for a small chain of London lapdancing clubs. It was actually quite challenging work, the owner HATED tattoos and insisted that every visible tattoo was removed digitally.

    Still… not something I put in my portfolio.

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