The designer – an ideal client?

Most designers would relish the chance to be a
client too, but how easy would it be? Tim Ashton took on both roles for a TV show and developed a taste for it

Having spent the past 20 years designing branding and advertising for other people, I have finally turned from poacher to gamekeeper and created my own product.

Actually, my publishing and fashion ventures – ‘Change the world for a fiver’ and the ‘I’m not a plastic bag’ shopping bag – came close, but I’ve never had sole control of a project. Until now.

Morrissey Fox ales is a range of beers I have launched with actor Neil Morrissey and chef Richard Fox, initially as part of a TV documentary series (Men Brewing Badly, which started this week on Channel 4).

The programme created an intense six months of activity that saw us buying a dilapidated pub in north Yorkshire, renovating it, converting it and constructing a micro-brewery in the garden, selling our product into Tesco nationally, as well as creating a brand, packaging and website for a new range of beers for cask on-trade and bottled off-trade.

This all had to be done for real, with our own, very real, money. In addition, Ofcom’s insistence that the camera is merely recording the exact events as they happen – since the ‘Queen storming out of the photo shoot’ moment last year – and time constraints, which meant we were forced to squeeze two years’ work into six months, put extra pressure on the project.

So, while I was under time and financial pressure to produce a viable business, at least I had, for the first time, the thrill of producing designs for my very own product. What could possibly go wrong?

It reminds me of the occasion I placed a small ad to sell a car and found myself making the price bigger and bigger, and adding exclamation marks to an already huge ‘For Sale’ headline. My point is that when we are given the chance to take commercial responsibility for our own piece of communication, our perspective changes – we sound and behave like some of the clients we can find so frustrating.

It was no different with beer. I can think of few briefs more lip-smacking than designing pump clips and bottle labels for a range of beers where you can do anything you want. The brief really is that open, because you wrote it. The design restrictions are pretty much non-existent, because you control them and the client has no preconceptions or constraints. You are the client and can buy whatever you want.

Or so I thought. First, give me the freedom of a tight brief any day. I hate having a blank sheet and a world of possibility. I want dos and don’ts, I need cost constraints and client logos and colourways that need to be adhered to. They make me better.

The most restrictive conditions in advertising I can remember came in the period of cigarette promotions in the 1980s under the restrictions imposed by the Committee of Advertising Practice, which forbade you to do almost anything, and look what happened. It gave us the most creative, inventive work ever for Hamlet, Benson & Hedges Special Filter and Silk Cut.

Creative people thrive on conditions and restrictions. This time round, I had none.

Second, being consultant and client is a schizophrenic experience where neither side wins. It’s like seeing only your own handwriting – a project suffers from not having the coalescing of influences that can create a one-plus-one-equals-three kind of solution.

Third, it’s amazing how much harder it is to defend your creative work when you are also the client.

Focus group feedback was treated initially with disdain, only to be grudgingly received later on, but with nobody acting as referee in the process, this freedom can actually be chaotic to manage.

Finally, running a creative consultancy and a brewery sounds like fun, and it sure hasn’t been dull, but it takes up a lot of time and pulls you in opposite directions.

The one doesn’t complement the other in ways I would have imagined they might have done before embarking on this venture. There is the added complication of putting work through your own consultancy with a fee attached that, as a client, you’d rather not pay. Fortunately, this was dealt with by my fellow directors.

With bread-and-butter, revenue-generating work also requiring the attention of my designers, projects like this can be unwanted distractions. Just imagine your company Christmas card brief lasting for six months, and taking up three designers full-time – you get the idea.

There’s no question that seeing the finished product in Tesco is a buzz, especially when both your businesses are at stake.

I’ve noticed that I’m as keen to know what people think of the design as I am to know how sales are doing – but isn’t that the perfect match of design sensibility and commercial integrity?

Maybe I’ve got the bug now. Expect another home-grown project along shortly…

Tim Ashton is founder and creative director of Antidote

The Downsides

• Having the freedom to set your own brief is onerous – restrictions can aid creativity

• Being consultant and client is a schizophrenic experience where ‘neither side wins’

• It’s difficult to defend your creative work as the client

• Setting tight budgets will hinder your creativity, pulling you in different directions

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