‘It has been a quick growth’, says DesignStudio co-founder Paul Stafford, ‘It was just the two of us when we set up in 2009. Then we really quickly grew to eight people for a few projects that came in – I remember paying the guys who had the desks opposite us not to come in that week so we could use their space…’
Five years (and five office moves) on and Stafford and DesignStudio co-founder Ben Wright have built a 40-strong independent consultancy with offices in London and San Francisco. Last year DesignStudio had a turnover of just under £6 million and worked for clients including Nokia and Microsoft. And last month it was responsible for surely the year’s most-discussed identity design project – the Airbnb rebrand.
It has been, as Stafford says, a rapid rise. And he admits, at times a painful one. But at all times Stafford and Wright have kept their eye on what they say is DesignStudio’s key principle and the secret to its success – an unwavering commitment to being a ‘design-led’ design consultancy.
To some people, the concept of a ‘design-led’ design studio might seem tautologous – surely that’s what all design companies should be? Not so, according to Stafford and Wright.
The two childhood friends both came to London in 2000 and subsequently worked and freelanced for a variety of consultancies in the capital. Stafford says, ‘There were two different types of consultancy – you either found the small boutique graphics studios doing beautiful work but for a private view event, or the big agencies doing work for the big brands – but there the set-up of the business was so strong that you’d be pushed by an account handler and it was all about the time and the budget and less about the craft of the work.
‘It had even got to the stage where design became the last 20 per cent of the job and the rest was all strategy. We didn’t understand why design wasn’t at the forefront; why designers weren’t in the initial meetings.’
So in early 2009, shortly after the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the birth of Wright’s first child (‘possibly the worst time to have done it’, he notes), DesignStudio was set up.
Wright says, ‘One of our founding principles was that design and designers were always in the project from start to finish. Design thinking is a bit of a buzzword but we didn’t set up on that, it just kind of made sense for us.’
It was this principle, Stafford and Wright say, that made them stand out in a ‘standardised’ agency world and subsequently appeal to clients – particularly during the recession.
Wright says, ‘We found a lot of clients getting very sick of turning up to a creative brief and being met by a handful of planners and account directors and receiving a bill for a Powerpoint that just regurgitated their brief back at them.
‘As budgets got pulled in during the economic downturn that exposed the excess some agencies may put on billings – and bore our thinking out well.’
When it comes to working with clients, Stafford says, ‘There is a definite process – it’s just not a set process. What we did for Airbnb for example and the huge immersion session might not work for the next client, but there will be a process there.’
Stafford describes the consultancy as seeking ‘relationships’ rather than ‘projects’. ‘We were working with Nokia right back as our first client and we’re still working with them today. Retainers may have gone slightly, but you can almost replace them with the fact that you have a relationship with the client.’
The challenge, Stafford says, was not so much in finding clients to work with, but in building a studio that could keep up with the work.
He says, ‘I was once told that you either have a resource issue or a revenues issue and for us it’s always been a resource issue. For the first three years we were always maybe five people short of where we needed to be.’
Stafford adds, ‘At the beginning it was easier to maintain levels of craft because Ben and I were always there and we could keep our eyes on everything, but as it grew it became more painful.
‘We knew we needed more people but we didn’t want to run to the nearest recruitment agency and say “we need ten more people on Monday” – we wanted exactly the right people.’
Last year Design Studio created two executive creative director positions, promoting creative director James Greenfield and appointing Ian Styles from Interbrand.
Wright says, ‘We didn’t want the level below us to be a level of account directors – we wanted designers. They have support around them in client services and project managers, but the role of design is at the forefront of everything.’
Airbnb, Wright says, is an example of this. He says, ‘Paul and I were involved in the project on a certain level but James Greenfield was there all along – this was his project and he owned it. I think for designers that’s a huge motivation, stripping away account directors and allowing designers that ownership.’
The hectic reaction to – and social media furore sparked by – the Airbnb rebrand was a ‘surprise’ admits Stafford – though he claims the client tracked media metrics and found that the reaction was 80 per cent positive. He also points out that such a reaction isn’t uncommon for brands that people have ‘an emotional connection with’, citing Apple’s iPad, which was initially mocked for its name, as an example.
For DesignStudio though, the attention has brought benefits. Stafford says, ‘We’ve had a lot of follow-up calls and meetings – we’ve been waiting for six months for this project to launch so that we could talk about it.’
As for the future, Wright says, ‘The company remains 100 per cent independent – we’ve never had a backer. A few people will question how we can continue to grow and keep our model as there are people who can’t understand how a big consultancy can operate without all these account directors, but we firmly believe we can.’
He adds, ‘We never had a business plan – we didn’t start in 2009 with a sheet of A4 that said in five year’s time we’d be in San Francisco and just have rebranded one of the world’s most innovative companies. If we had done that the business plan would have been ripped up every month on the way…’