Branching out

Like old rock bands, big consultancies have long-established family trees. Designers aspiring to be anything more than a twig should up roots and start a splinter group now, says Jim Davies

Those of a certain vintage may recall Pete Frame’s wonderful Rock Family Trees. These intricately hand-written, sprawling creations appeared in all the music weeklies as well as Rolling Stone in the US. They charted the connection between different bands in different incarnations, as splinter groups formed, bass players came and went, egos went solo, and hangers-on fell off. They were painstakingly drawn and researched, with Frame’s wry, pithy commentary under each entry. Some of the more seminal examples, like Flowers of Romance – the ’76 Rebellion, which covered the lineage of the first wave of Punk bands, have become highly collectable pieces of graphic art.

It struck me that it would be an interesting exercise to create a similar graphic family tree featuring some of the more influential British design groups. In the past month or so, there’s been a flurry of comings and goings that would nicely populate the next row down: at NB Studio, founder Ben Stott and senior designer Daniel Lock have left to do their own respective things; Mark Wheatcroft has waved goodbye to Hat-Trick Design and opened the door of Wheatcroft & Co; and Richard Scholey, creative director of Elmwood, has returned to The Chase after a nine-year absence.

This downwards and sideways movement is exactly what you’d expect, but it’s interesting to follow this kind of invisible thread running through the design industry – a common cultural currency, if you like, born of inter-relationships and previous incarnations. But the question is, how strong is this thread, and how many generations can it sustain before it breaks? For example, if NB Studio spun out of Pentagram, and then Lock spun out of NB Studio, how much ’Pentagramness’ is there left at the end of the line? Or to return to the rock analogy – can you still hear the echoes of the earlier bands, or does there inevitably come a time when the songs, the haircuts and the attitude are entirely different?

The Partners’ influence certainly seems to carry far and wide, with alumni – from Mark Studio and GBH, to 300 Million and Hat-Trick Design, to talented soloists like Gillian Thomas and Marita Lashko – carrying the torch for the kind of intelligent and beautifully executed design you’d expect from the mothership. Each brings their own individual twist, but, ultimately, you can tell they’ve come from Planet Partners.

Of course, like the contrary child, it can also work the other way. If you find yourself in a studio with a strong house style and hardened agenda, it might well make you question what’s going on around you and consider how, given the chance, you’d do things differently. Taking intellectual issue with the status quo arguably tells you more about yourself and your ambitions than quietly going with the flow and absorbing what’s going on around you.

As in any profession, the real trick is to know when the time is right to move on. Contentment may be sold to us as a holy grail, but it can easily spill over into complacency. We may have all the money and respect and companionship we need, but sometimes it comes too cheaply. When we’ve learned as much as we can from our surroundings, we need to strike out for pastures new. This goes against the grain and takes guts, but without risk there are no rewards.

After all, the best songs are about heartbreak and yearning, not putting your feet up and watching the telly. So maybe you should ask yourself if it’s your time to become the next entry on the Design Family Tree.

Jim Davies is founder of copywriting studio Total Content

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