The design industry in the Nineties has been conspicuous in its dullness. In graphics we have followed a path of moderation in all we do; creatively it has been a disappointing time and managerially most businesses have had their heads down and concentrated on profit.
It doesn’t have to be that way. Great work and a healthy balance sheet are not irreconcilable, indeed they should go hand in hand.
Fortunately, there is a new breed of business out there, which is clear that creativity is the most important issue on the agenda – and that it can’t survive without equally great client service.
Top clients are flocking to these businesses because they are fresh in their approach and the top people are readily accessible. None of them has adopted the traditional rafts of account management and assistant minders that the bigger businesses have fallen into. Instead, they generally intend to stay small, but this does not mean that they will be without influence. They may be the leaders of the industry through the millennium, and over these pages we look at five groups who are already leading the way.
Michael Johnson is worth listening to because he has strong, clear views about what is going on in design at the moment. He’s also not afraid to express them and he does great work.
Witness the yellow “pencil case” book jacket for the British Design and Art Direction Annual and his simple and clever William Morris poster for the Victoria and Albert Museum.
His training at Lancaster University, where he studied design and marketing, left him with a “half portfolio” and uncertainty about whether he was a “suit” or a designer. He went on to work for Wolff Olins, Smith and Milton and Sedley Place, where he says he got fired for being “lippy”. Having experienced how the larger businesses work, he is a very happy designer, working in his reductionist environment with just four designers and one “suit”.
Johnson Banks’ design work is ideas rather than style-based design. “I’m very happy that so much dreadful work is being done, it means it’s easy for us to differentiate ourselves. We spend a lot of time thinking of very simple ideas, then we work out whether we want them to look ugly or beautiful and how many words we want to have. There seem to be very few people applying that basic logic to design,” says Johnson.
He is deeply unimpressed with the state of British design at the moment and has made it his business to know what is going on in the rest of the world. “There is a baton in graphic design that has been passed back across the Atlantic. There are currently four or five great design businesses working in the US. VSA in Chicago is doing the most astonishing work for big corporate clients, Pentagram in New York is extraordinary, and Drenttel Doyle, also in New York, does some very considered, classic work – always with a fantastic twist to it.”
Johnson Banks has no sales force, instead the business sells itself, coming in either through word of mouth or by people seeing its work in the design press. To Johnson, the work the company does is paramount, since “respect starts with good work”. Its portfolio encapsulates all kinds and sizes of projects. “The climate has changed. Ten years ago, as a small company, no one would have looked at us to do the things that we do. We are currently on project 38 for BT, which includes the annual report, and we have handled all sorts of scary brand architecture analysis. The enlightened clients don’t care how big your company is,” he explains.
“The only area we haven’t cracked yet is the big corporate arena. There’s no doubt about it, clients like to walk in and see rows of designers all working on their logo. That’s a very powerful selling tool. I know of clients whose only reason for choosing a large consultancy was that it had done it before and could do a job of that size. This is pretty common, the last criterion is often creativity.”
There’s something funny about The Attik’s London office being in “the Harrovian Business Village”. I can’t imagine a less Harrovian bunch of people. “They’re an arrogant lot,” someone warned me before I met Simon Needham, the self-styled “boss”. “Ask them why their work looks like The Designers Republic,” said another. Clearly the knives are out and to some extent you can see why.
“We got a lot of stick about our stand at the Design Show,” says Needham. “I bought a 2,000 stereo to create as much noise as I could, because I wanted to ensure that people who might not have heard of us had done so by the end of the show. The people who complained were the design groups who wear suits and ties, probably because we often walk into their clients and take projects from them. It’s happened at Barclays, Wickes, Warners, MTV and Kodak. We get our heads down and give them a good job, not loads of documentation explaining why it will take us weeks instead of days. It’s probably a bit of a northern attitude.”
Well, there’s no denying the northern influence. Needham and his partner James Sommerville met at college in Barnsley and set up shop, aged 19, in Sommerville’s grandmother’s attic doing paste-up for small local businesses. They worked round the clock, turning work around at a miraculous pace.
Working on paper samples for Wiggins Teape and McNaughton led them to set up an office in London which now houses 19 staff. With 20 in Yorkshire and four moving to its start-up New York arm, the business looks set to continue a phenomenal growth which has seen turnover double every year since it was founded. These people do not fit the mould because they want to grow and grow.
From the early paste-up years, their goals have, according to Needham, changed dramatically. “We’re producing design work for the most dynamic and innovative companies across the globe. It’s as cutting edge as anywhere and, whether you like it or not, it’s doing very well for us. Most often we don’t get briefs, clients just tell us to get on with what we think is right. They trust us and we want clients to be thrilled to work with us because they know they’ll get something outrageous.”
The group has produced its own books, entitled Noise. These shiny, often laddish productions are too busy for Minimalists like me, but I just can’t put them down. They have an infectious joy and truly wonderful spreads.
The problem Attik faces now is that the kind of work it’s doing takes time, and this is deeply at odds with its culture, which has always been one of fast turnaround. You sense that this is where gears will grind, but the group’s sheer optimism and determination will get it through any difficult patch, although Needham may well add another stomach ulcer to his existing two.
I like Attik’s drive and bravery. Its members are clearly in love with what they do and all the criticism fires them up even more. Of all the businesses I have seen, Attik’s growth frightens me because it might overstretch itself and I want it to carry on being successful because it’s pushy, iconoclastic and exciting.
In just four years, Pearlfisher has grown into one of the most successful brand identity businesses in Europe, yet it remains largely unknown in the design industry itself, in spite of a healthy crop of international awards and some of the biggest names in marketing on its client list.
“We had all spent time working in large multinational consultancies, and setting Pearlfisher up was a reaction against that. Our motivation was to establish something small, compact, manageable, and personable,” says Mike Branson, who, with Jonathan Ford and his partner Karen Welman, founded the business, having met at Michael Peters Group in the late Eighties.
“Big companies were getting to a size where design became a secondary issue and finance was the main interest,” Welman says. “Our management style here is very democratic and if we decide we want to do something we just do it.” The group’s members are unanimous in their determination not to exceed 20 staff, but imagine divisions and joint ventures to allow staff to expand beyond the bounds of the core business.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Pearlfisher is the all-pervading sense that the business is an extension of the lives of the people there rather than just work. The Holland Park premises are warm, comfortable, beautifully detailed and wittily conceived. There are few more welcoming offices to be in; indeed, the top floor is given over to large, accommodating leather sofas and a low-level table where you can chat about work, flick through a book or work away from intrusive telephones.
The group’s work too has an interesting twist to it. While the client work – no matter whether it’s for Wall’s ice cream or Florsheim shoes in the US – is beautifully crafted; there is a strong leaning towards new-product development rather than the usual brand tweaks found in most of the big brand identity consultants. Recently, Pearlfisher has taken the risk of producing and manufacturing its own gift products which it has put into the retail trade. Its commitment to this part of the business prevented it from taking a stand at the Design Show this year. Instead, the group exhibited twice at the gift show Top Drawer, where it walked away with an award for best stand of the exhibition.
This concept of developing new products has been extended to the creation of a bottle and fragrance called Pearlfisher Blue, which is in the final stages of preparation for the market.
Jonathan Ford sees distinct advantages in this approach: “We probably haven’t made a profit out of these things, but what you gain in respect, profile and sheer learning far outweighs all that – our profit was elsewhere. Clients like the fact that we put our money where our mouth is.”
Tui is a small multimedia business which works for BT, Reuters and the News Corporation, as well as being the force behind Header, one of the most highly acclaimed hybrid CD-ROMs. Tui’s creative values reach deep into the culture of the company, spanning its approach to the handling of client business, creating its own products and ways to manage its future.
Neil Aberdeen set the business up three and a half years ago, having trained as a fine artist at Leeds University. “I thought that the Deconstructionist theory I was schooled in had absolutely no practical, vocational application. That was until I became involved in multimedia, where that kind of non-linear, shifting awareness is really important. Now I’m less damning about my education. It taught me to value errors and to look at the minutiae as well as the broader picture. This is a forever broken, evolving, spawning kind of business and we are happy with that.”
Unlike other businesses in the design field, neither Tui nor its clients know what the limits are because the potential of multimedia grows by the day. For clients with finite businesses to run this can be confusing and frightening. For consultants it can be a huge opportunity to take hold of a project and control it from the start.
“Without trying to sound arrogant,” says Aberdeen, “we always get repeat business. Clients keep coming here because we do what no other company can and we take delivery very seriously. We are only interested in producing work that is the best in its class. The Reuters work is significantly better than any other product in that market. Header is a considerable step forward in interactive music CDs, and our work for The Fashion Information Service is beautifully conceived and elegant – really a very good piece of work. We inform product development with everything that is going on in Tui.”
Aberdeen’s views on the future of the business are typically fluid and likely to remain so: “We will keep it deft and highly innovative.” Neil Churcher, Tui’s manager of the Reuters business, insists that he does not want the group “to be like some of our other colleagues in the industry, hiring rows of ‘grunts’ (people who sit at their desks and get told what to do).
“We want to be a diverse practice, always moving on to new things, looking for emerging platforms and staffed by self-starters. As projects get bigger we’ll need to make alliances with other companies (they worked with Tutssels on Touchpoint) without making the compromises that being bought brings.”
The group plans to “chunk off” parts of the business into self-administered, independent operations, retaining their own essential creativity and perhaps sharing critical activities such as the software core. “In effect, we have already done this with Header,” says Aberdeen. “While Tui is a service-oriented consultancy, Header is a business which creates products.” Having had rave reviews from The Daily Telegraph, The Guardian, Wired and the music press, Tui is currently working on Header 2. “We’ve got Courtney Pine, Neneh Cherry – true world superstars alongside poets and musicians who have been barely heard of,” says Aberdeen.
Turner Duckworth represents a refreshing business style and approach. It believes that creativity comes first and that enjoyment means better results. The company is masterminded by David Turner in San Francisco and Bruce Duckworth in London, each of whom run offices of five and six people respectively. It is a sort of “mid-Atlantic virtual office” which has the perspective of looking out across the vibrant markets of two of the most important continents. In spite of the differing time zones, they speak on the phone everyday and share most projects over the Internet.
Working predominantly in packaging, the group has built an enviable blue chip client list, and if you talk to clients Elida FabergÃ©, Scottish Courage or Levi’s, you realise that behind the relaxed charm is a business that takes its success very seriously. “There’s never been any doubt in my mind that you can work on the world’s biggest brands in a five-person design company because whatever company you are in, it’s only that amount of people who ever work on a job anyway. There is no reason to be a vast company if you want to work for the best. The day we can’t be hands-on designers, that’s when we will stop growing,” says Duckworth.
“We both love design with an intellectual edge, something that is witty and clever, lodging its message in your brain so that when you close your eyes you remember not only a visual thought, but an intellectual idea. This adds a lightness of touch making things less pretentious and more accessible for consumers,” he adds.
This is best seen on Sun Devil, where the manic devil is staring at a lemon with evil intent and gently whispering “trust me”. For its launch the group devised Sun Devil tattoos for barmen to wear. They were, of course, a storming success. These are the creative touches where, in Turner’s words, “great ideas make great design”.
The Bruce Oldfield Ready To Wear identity has some wonderfully clever touches to it too. What do you do with the initials BO? They were made into a female shape so elegant that Oldfield has used them as buttons on his dresses – a tribute indeed. The soft drink Oasis boasts sales of 66 million bottles and a gigantic 60 per cent of its market sector. The legally registered design, which includes the bottle shape and “shimmering O” logo, won the group a Marketing Design Effectiveness Award to go alongside four Clios, yet the British design establishment has yet to clasp Duckworth to its bosom.
“I don’t know anything about the Design Business Association and I should. Either it’s not talking enough or there is no clear message. Everyone is focused on profit and nobody seems to be saying ‘we are here to do great design and that’s our selling point’,” says Duckworth.