Just under a year later, the studio behind rebrands for Airbnb and Deliveroo have opened up office no. 3 in Sydney (joining London and San Francisco) under the creative direction of DS alumni James Gilmore. We spoke with all three to understand the future of their business and Sydney's place within it.
Who are the people you think benefit most from DesignStudio? Who are the clients you want, and if they were to read this, what would be the qualities that they can identify with?
Ben Wright: We don't work in a specific sector nor have we ever wanted to. But there is a thread of clients with ambition. That could be a company like Airbnb on the verge of becoming a unicorn, or it could be five people in a room with this incredible idea and a belief that what they're working on can influence the world or the way that we act or do things. That's like nectar for us, we feed off it. And that ambition gets reflected into our designs.
James Gilmore: It's amazing that we get to do this for a living. We get to work with and hang out with some of the best and brightest minds in so many industries, upending and reinventing things which affect our daily lives. You want to work with those who are thinking about the problems that we all have in a very lateral way, because on an ultimately selfish level that is the attitude drives a more powerful use of creativity in design, communities, organisations and the world.
DesignStudio is known for this process of complete immersion amongst clients. What happens when a client rejects that process?
Paul Stafford: It's meaningless. The whole point when we’re talking about meaningful difference is that unless we understand fundamentally what we're trying to do or what we're trying to shift, it's pointless and in all honesty we don't know what to do.
What we want is to make movement, make change to behaviours and affect people's lives at scale. We love working with people to understand fundamentally how you use design thinking to affect change at scale. And that's why if someone says 'just make it look nicer', it's pointless, it's not the right business. And there are plenty of people that are more graphic design-focused that would love that job.
How does the process differ for smaller clients that aren't multi-national sports associations or silicon valley unicorns?
Paul Stafford: It doesn't, besides the volume of work. We get asked this often because people say they’re not Airbnb or Deliveroo, and of course you’re not, therefore you don’t need a team of five people going to eighteen cities and Airbnb offices and territories like China to understand how those markets differ. We're going to use the same quality of design for those small projects, we're going to go through the same process but it'll be much sharper and tighter because of the scale of their business.
We want the local talent to come in and help sculpt something that is uniquely Australian, but with the DNA of DesignStudio.Paul Stafford, Co-Founder, DesignStudio
You mentioned traditional agency structures earlier. What's your approach internally?
Ben Wright: We do have a hierarchy but it's quite flat. I've worked in design companies where you walk in and the Creative Director expects you to be a vessel for their ideas and I hated that. When we talk about growing and scaling there’s only one way to do that and, this is not a new fact, but it's about bringing the best people in. And what's bringing the best people in if they don't have a voice and if they don't feel ownership? That for us is incredibly important.
We're designers by trade and by education, but we've got an amazing team of copywriters, strategists, UX/UI as well as more traditional print designers in the business, but there are boundaries blurred all over because we have designers who are brilliant at strategy and copywriters who are great at understanding design aesthetic. We also expect more from the juniors and interns. It's intimidating to stand up and say 'these are my ideas' but that's what we want. We see [our job] as guiding their ideas through to a deliverable reality and sometimes the scarier they are the better.
A life spent in the sun and a life spent outdoors has really affected the way in which people translate their upbringing into visual culture.James Gilmore, Creative Director, DesignStudio
Was there ever a point where any of you were intimidated at a board level?
Paul Stafford: I think there was before. Even when we go back to the beginning of DesignStudio we realised we were getting railroaded down some routes that we didn't believe in because the client was telling you what to do. I can see CEO's who are a huge deal and what they've built is amazing but if people fear that an answer doesn't correspond perfectly with the CEO's, then its wrong. That's ruling with fear.
Ultimately, and this is where hierarchy comes in, there will be a decision maker and you have to respect that decision. So what we've learnt is that you're adding no value to a client if you can't speak up for what you really think is right. So now we don't fear them. If they don't agree with us and we get railroaded into some direction and it fails at least we can say 'well we told you'.
It's intimidating to stand up and say 'these are my ideas' but that's what we want. Our job is to guide those ideas through to a deliverable reality and sometimes the scarier they are the better.Ben Wright, Co-Founder, DesignStudio
What did you discover when you were here for Semi Permanent Sydney?
Paul Stafford: Seeing the calibre of people that were attending the event was fantastic and I think it instantly clarified in our minds how highly regarded creativity and design is in Sydney and Australia.
We had all this potential new business coming in, we knew James would be there and we could see that designers were really revered here as well. And there aren't that many cities really where it is so high-level: a high-level talent pool, high-level of ambitious companies and a high-level of people regarding design. We're trying to open in those cities — there are a few more in mind, but the three we've got currently are perfectly placed to give us a nice wingspan.
Semi Permanent this year is focused on the notion of liminal space, or that moment of reflection before great change. Was there a catalyst for starting DesignStudio 9 years ago?
Paul Stafford: For probably four or five years both of us had huge question marks over whether we'd made the right career choice. We love design, but we had to build a career out of it. But we saw an opportunity to enable design to have a bigger purpose, and that's what we've talked about time and time again. Design needs to play a bigger role not just on an aesthetic level, but on a thinking level too. We had lots of discussions and we certainly had that fear. It wasn't something that we went and did the next day. We probably played around with that idea for...
Ben Wright: ...three years.
Paul Stafford: It was difficult because we were working and it's very easy to just keep earning money. But the more we talked about it, the clearer it became that we were going to do it. We ended up freelancing at the same place with our contracts ending at the same time. And that was it. It almost helped us with the decision because we knew we were both running out of work at the same point so we could both back each other up to say 'this is it, this is the time.'
Ben Wright: Personally, I had a newborn baby. I needed work to earn a living. There were more commitments, we were offered decently paid jobs, but everything that Paul just said about actually wanting to do something different pushed us.
Paul Stafford: Now I think Ben suffers more from anxiety about what would have happened if he had gone the other way.
You’ve spoken about how DesignStudio was born of a belief, not a business plan. But now it’s three studios in three different countries and three different markets — was that always part of the plan?
Paul Stafford: No.
Ben Wright: No.
When did that became a possibility?
Ben Wright: We never had have a piece of paper that said 'in 10 years we will have London, San Francisco, and Sydney'. It's more about opportunity and saying 'okay this feels good'. With Sydney we'd talked about it with James who knew the landscape and the business and the talent pool. It was pieced together, all the components led us to say 'okay, Sydney could be something for us.'
Paul Stafford: You always think there are set ways of doing things and that everyone else in the business knows exactly what they're doing. But its only through growing a business and meeting others that you realise you're all doing the same thing: hedging bets, taking advice, then making our own assumptions and decisions out of it. We never had a business plan, just anxiety.
Ben Wright: There's no absolute guarantees. All we can do is know what we're willing to risk, know what's not going to cannibalise the offices back in London or in San Francisco, and then get going. We have to rely on ourselves to do that and hire the most amazing people we can find. James knows DesignStudio. We absolutely know what we can expect from him. He's the best that we can work with here. We give as much support as possible, say ‘give it a go' and usually that's a good recipe for success.
Is there a difference in client or designer attitudes in Australia to anywhere else you've worked?
James Gilmore: I don't think there is in the sense that CEO's are inherently different to those in America or Europe. But there is always going to be cultural differences and geographic differences and that is why immersion and deep understanding of organisations is so important.
I do think a life spent in the sun and a life spent outdoors has really affected the way in which people translate their upbringing into visual culture. For a long time when you're having the same conversations with mirror images of yourself, all you're doing is reaffirming your own conditional bias and ego. So coming here and talking to people like James Brown at MASH or Christopher Doyle, because a lot of their work is so closely tied to things that are intrinsically Australian (whether culturally or canonically), it redefines the centre point. That's really interesting.
What's the next steps for DesignStudio Sydney?
James Gilmore: Start building some relationships and releasing work! There's a few parts of my design life that I'm really excited to start linking up — I'm Vice Chair at AGDA and am involved in teaching and education which is about bringing in young, interesting talent. Some of the graduates coming out of school here are amongst the most interesting, creative minds I've ever met and they're socially engaged. Their pre-conception of what design has to be and what it should be hasn't been formed, so everything is open to them.
Paul Stafford: We want the local talent to come in and help sculpt something that is uniquely Australian but with the DNA of DesignStudio. Let's figure out how it's different and then we'll share any learnings that are global and we'll keep any learnings that are local.
What are you reading/watching in your own time?