This week Build celebrate 11 years of graphic design splendour with a poster exhibition, auction and catalogue. We caught up with founder Michael C Place at their rather delightful Walthamstow studio, to find out more about how they’ve grown, and what the show means to them.
Can you tell us a little about the team behind Build?
It was started by myself 11 years ago, and Nicky joined about five years later. Before we moved to London where she worked for a games company called Psygnosis, we met when I was at the Designers Republic (tDR) doing Wipeout; Nicky was the lead artist on Wipeout and we were the graphic designers for it. Joe is our designer, a Brighton graduate he’s been with us for just over a year. He’s a very talented designer, who did a placement with us for about six months and we ended up taking him on. He was our first full time employee, which was scary but brilliant. And now there’s Sophie, our studio assistant, who’s been with us 10 months. We have people come in so we can scale up and down but the core is just the four of us. We like it quite small, a tight little unit.
Could you sum up what you do in a few words?
To distil it, we’re a design studio that does well-crafted, modern, forward thinking graphic design. Always with a nod to the future, always thinking forwards, always in our own style.
The title of the show is Blood, Sweat & 11 Years. Is that an accurate reflection of your journey?
Absolutely, 100%. We put a lot of ourselves into the work. As designers and as a studio we work incredibly hard to do the kind of design we do. A lot of it is quite labour intensive, so there’s a lot of sweat, there has been blood and a lot of tears, it’s not always been an easy journey. We’ve had scary times but we’ve always said to ourselves that as much as we’re always proud of the work we produce, we’re also proud of the way that we approach work in a very honest way. The personal journey is a really interesting point, it’s not a flippant title. There’s bravado around a lot of studios; everything’s always rosy and brilliant, but it’s not always brilliant and it’s not always rosy. It’s the culmination of 11 years hard work, good times and bad, so I think the title’s really fitting. I’m glad we didn’t do a 10 years show. We thought about doing it late last year, but didn’t realise how much time it would take to create an exhibition. It’s really nice that the private view is on the actual anniversary of the studio starting, and 11 years is a bit more odd and unconventional. We’re also lucky to be part of the London Design Festival which is great, and interesting in that there aren’t that many graphic design shows as part of the Design Festival – it’s a really nice opportunity for us to be part of that, and hopefully more people will see the show.
Also I really enjoy maths and 23, which is 11 in the 24 hour clock, is a really significant number, look it (23) up. I always think 11 is a lovely number and we live at number 23 which is even more amazing.
How does it feel reflecting on your achievements of the last 11 years?
I think like most designers, I get bored with things quite quickly. And even my own stuff I get bored with. I always like to keep going forward, not looking back. I’m surprised myself that, some of the stuff from 11 years ago I thought would be horrific, but the majority of it I still really like. A birthday is always a great thing to celebrate, but being in business still is a real achievement as well. With the economic climate and all that, 2007 was particularly tough, when it really hit. So it’s actually lovely to look back at it. From a design perspective it’s really enjoyable and I’m looking forward to seeing it all in one space. It’s quite interesting remembering stories, how we did things, or what happened on certain projects which is really nice. And a lot of the people we did stuff with, or for will be around to celebrate. Without a lot of people we’d be in a much different place so it’s a really nice opportunity to say thank you. It’ll be interesting to see how it all looks together and if there are any threads that go through the work and seeing what people think. I’m really looking forward to it.
How did you decide what pieces made it into the show?
We wanted to do it chronologically so the show has a journey and it’s quite important to see how we started off, compared to how we are now. I can see the real journey in terms of my design and how I approached something when I started to my approach now. We wanted at least one piece from each year, and we had to fit the work in around the space, which is quite stark and very open. Some years were harder than others. 2010 perhaps like a fine wine was a good year, and we had loads to choose from, but then going to 2002 we could hardly find anything. Some were hard choices, some quite easy. Lots of things that I would have liked to put in we couldn’t, we didn’t have the space for it all but the catalogue is broader. We wanted to do posters as I think it’s a really interesting form of expression for graphic designers, and because everyone loves a poster and we’ve done a lot of them. And so in some ways it’s great that it’s chronological as that narrowed it down, and then it was deciding which I am still happy for people to look at! So my tastes were a big part but Nicky and everyone in the studio looked at it to see if it’s balanced, it’s a good balance of very busy stuff from the start going to more simple as we go forwards.
Have you got a favourite piece in the show?
Yes I have. It’s a Not For Commercial Use (NFCU) piece. When the show finishes on Sunday 16 September, we’re doing a charity auction of those posters. NFCU is an ethos we’ve stuck by as we never sold them to anybody ever. It was a really nice project to do; we got to do lots of very sexy print, but also we did a little short film, a photoshoot with Rick Guest, a time-lapse in New York with Timothy Saccenti so it was a really nice collaboration. It cemented our relationship with Scrub from Generation Press. We’re talking about doing NFCU 2. It was a good fun project with great results.
How important have your relationships with people like printers and photographers been?
Really important, on both sides. Scrub & Generation Press has been a thread that’s been with us from the early days of Build up until now. And that became a very good friendship that’s really important and really nice. In terms of Scrub’s input, he will always suggest doing something in a different way that adds to the project and probably makes it a lot cheaper. He always gets it and it’s a really fruitful relationship. Then there’s Timothy Saccenti a friend of ours in New York, a photographer who we got to know and started to do his identity and promotional stuff, he then got us in to do certain jobs. So there’s a certain set of people through the journey who we’ve got to know and have been consistent collaborators. It’s those kind of relationships that are brilliant because you’re helping each other out. Like with Generation Press; we’ll do his identity and he prints something for us. It’s like an old barter system, which is great and I always think we get the best deal anyway! And again part of the show is to celebrate and say thanks, and have a laugh and a good time with all these people we’ve worked with, and showing their stuff. It’s really important to have good people around you. We always try and work with the best or the most interesting people in their respective fields.
You’ve stated previously that your vision for Build was good work, good people, good times. Has that come to fruition, or has it evolved?
I think it’s evolving. The good work thing’s hopefully still there! It is still true for a lot of the people that we work for. We’ve never been asked to do anything by Coca-Cola, Pepsi, companies that people perceive to be evil or some other people that everybody hates. I think we’re probably too nice in how we approach business, but it’s that thing of treating others how you’d like to be treated yourself. For instance, we always pay people within the terms of their invoice (30 days or whatever). We always do. Always. Because cash flow’s an important thing for businesses, and especially small businesses. So it goes from that to the work we produce. It’s evolved because we’re doing bigger things for bigger people now, and it’s not always possible to become friends with those clients. But we’re proud of the good work, good people, good times thing. I’ve always said that I’ve got the best job in the world, and we’ve had a lot of amazing times and that’s important if you work hard. If you don’t get anything out of it I don’t see the point in doing it. So a good time might be being flown to New Zealand to do a talk. I get to design things for people, I then get paid for doing it, and I then get to keep the things that I design, which is just amazing, I love it! And some people actually pay for me to travel and meet more people through doing talks, which is incredible. It’s quite a privileged position to be in, that people like you enough to pay for you to go and talk to a bunch of strangers in a room. I think it’s brilliant, really nice. Design has allowed me to do that, it’s very humbling.
What spurred you to start your own agency and how did you make the leap?
I was working in Sheffield at tDR. I loved my job there, genuinely, but I’d been there for nine years and it’s quite typical and natural for people to want to start their own thing. I was frustrated by the fact that if I’d done all my work I still had to come into the studio every day. Even when I left I still loved it because I really liked what I was doing, but it was that thing of just not being in control. Ian (Ian Anderson, founder of tDR) was the mouth of the studio, and is known for that, and we were the team behind him, but we never really got into the client process. Ian met them and we, along with Ian, did the work, but I thought that was such an important part of the whole process. It’s nice to go through everything from brief, to work, to end and pay. Also I thought to myself at some stage down the line I’ll become surplus to requirements, with talented young designers coming up through the ranks. So I thought if I had my own studio I can prolong that day. I genuinely can’t imagine doing anything other than graphic design. For some reason I’m good at this thing, my brain works in this way. I love graphic design and I’d like to play a part in its history. I read about all these other incredibly famous brilliant graphic designers and because that’s the only thing I can do, I want to have a small part in such a beautiful industry. So I think that by having my own studio and doing it, hopefully I will contribute to that. Just contribute to design and hopefully stay in it for as long as I can. Before somebody chucks me out!
How did working with Trevor Jackson and the Designers Republic influence your work and the way you run your own studio?
Trevor was just f’ing mental. He was such a character. That was my first job straight out of college and it was very very scary but brilliant. A real no-nonsense London geezer. Very talented but quite intimidating especially for someone straight out of college. Then going to tDR, Ian is not quite as intimidating but he is a big character. It’s the people that are characters and have something to say that are often the best designers. Ian and Trevor were full of themselves and needed to be (I’ve got no problem with that), but hopefully I’m not that person, not intimidating, not full of myself. Working with Trevor was an amazing experience and it taught me to be self-sufficient because I got left on my own a fair bit. But when something went wrong it was horrific, he was very fiery. It was interesting how he dealt with people.
Ian had more impact on me because I was there for longer. It’s really interesting to be in a studio that had fans, even non-designer fans, and I’d never ever seen that before. When you’re inside something like that you don’t really realise it, you’re just doing the work, but when I removed myself from it, it was interesting seeing how people perceive the company. I think it’s an interesting dynamic that the people you meet as fans could one day potentially turn into someone who could commission you in future. The lesson being, be nice to people.
Ian is the king of self-promotion, he really is. He’s got that crown firmly on his ginger head. It was interesting seeing how he ran the business. I think he ran the studio like a band, so you’ve got your manager and perhaps we were the drummer and the guitarist or whatever and he was the singer, even though I’d hate to hear him singing, as we did regularly in the studio! I found it really quite weird, seeing structures of other design studios, when at tDR, there was no such thing as junior, midweight, senior, account manager etc. You did everything yourself and it was a non-traditional framework. I approached our studio originally like that, though now we are more traditionally tiered. Watching Ian was really fascinating, how much he put of himself in it. When you’re working for someone it’s very easy to just think of them as the boss. Usually the boss is the bad guy, and when they leave the room everyone has a good time, and now you’re the boss you realise that it’s really hard. Ian always treated us incredibly well, I think we’ve taken that approach – really look after the people you work with and when you find someone good, like Joe, try and hang onto them, because they’re like gold dust. There were probably times when Ian wasn’t so great but we were in the middle of an amazing studio doing incredible work so all those little idiosyncrasies you can forget about because you’re designing sleeves for Warp records or LFO. Overall I think being a character is a really valuable asset.
You spoke there about having fans at tDR. How does it feel having fans of Build? Because there are some out there…
I think it’s really nice, it’s amazing that people commission us, but also we have a few people – one guy in particular is amazing, anything we do he buys, but I think that’s a real compliment, and having been from tDR where they had shitloads of fans, it’s something I never take lightly. You know it’s a very nice feeling, like any compliment, it’s incredible. It’s great. Anybody that shows interest in my work I’m over the moon with and then having people that buy our work is brilliant.
When you made the move from working at home to getting a studio, you stayed in Walthamstow. What influence do you think location has on a studio’s output?
We’ve grown very organically. We’ve never tried to over-stretch ourselves. We started out in a basement flat in Camden on a table in the front room, to Fulham and a slightly bigger table, to Clapham and having a spare room so the studio became something I could escape from and shut the door on, which is very important. Then to Walthamstow where we bought a flat and had a bigger spare room, to being in a small studio that was outside of home.
Working from home, it’s incredibly awkward when someone says ‘can I come round to you’. I always used to say ‘no it’s fine, I’ll come to you, it’s good to get out of the studio’. Clients genuinely love coming to design studios, and it was slightly awkward and embarrassing, always try to project Build to feel bigger than it was. I wouldn’t want people coming round to my house for a meeting, it’s a bit weird and I think they’d think it’s weird. But then we were doing more and more work and spending more time and not being able to shut it off. When we were in the flat I felt a lack of input from the outside world, seeing something that creates a spark. Having the space at home was a bit restrictive creatively. It’s really important to chat with colleagues because that has its benefits. I had the cats and they are great conversationalists but I can’t understand them! Having the studio here was fantastic because people could come in, it feels more professional, your head’s in a different space. Having the studio I’m more efficient, not that I’d sit around watching daytime television, but it’s just good to have your day where you go out to work then go home again.
The location of Walthamstow is perfect. I love it. Working in Sheffield was different because all the design agencies were in London and that’s where you were supposed to be, but we liked that independent spirit. Ian loved forcing record labels to get out of London and come to Sheffield. We chose Walthamstow because we could afford to buy here, but it’s great. There’s quite a thriving arts scene, it was also the home of William Morris, which is amazing. There’s a big artisan and arts community, and we’re not amongst all the design companies in Soho, Shoreditch or whatever and that we really enjoy. I think there’s a slightly mischievous spirit to being here. I can walk to work and logistically speaking it’s dead easy to get everywhere, we probably couldn’t afford this space in town, it’s amazing. It’s a bit of a cultural wasteland in certain areas, but things seem to be happening now which is nice. You do rapidly get bored of the same things – I think we’ve had every single thing on the menu of the local sandwich shop! We were over the moon when we got a Subway! So it’s quite weird, but good. I really love it.
If you could go back in time 11 years what advice would you give yourself?
Pay more attention to accounts and money definitely. I had no idea whatsoever. As uncreative an answer as that sounds, I was really lucky that Nicky had a very good job, that allowed me to build up the client list and a reputation. Also try and get in a studio quicker, because I think that’s really important, but you can only do that when you can afford it.
Do you think if you’d done that would it have affected the sort of work/clients you did early on?
No, but I think we would have got to this point quicker. I was very idealistic with a sort of ‘sod it let’s just do some great stuff’ attitude and we still want to do that but it’s very naïve to just forget about being paid. Because I much prefer to get paid well for the work that we do, and we work very hard for that money. If you can sort your finances out it allows you to do all the beautiful stuff that you can’t do if you’ve got no money. There’s nothing wrong in wanting to be paid fairly for the work that you produce. A lot of designers forget that a little bit, or people’s perception of commissioning design, is almost like it just comes out of thin air and ‘it only costs 50p to do that’, and then when you say it’s a pound they are genuinely shocked. I’d like to say that I’d pick up that Sports Almanac or win loads of money on the lottery, but really, just pay more attention to running the studio a bit smarter.
Is there anything you haven’t done yet that you’d like to?
An airline identity.
That’s the classic graphic designer answer!
I’ve been fascinated by aeroplanes and things that go fast for a long time, maybe it’s a boys thing as well as a graphic designer thing, but planes are fascinating to me so to see my work on a plane flying through the sky would be ace. Maybe even designing something for NASA would be amazing. It’s something that’s seen regularly by a lot of people. Everybody likes their work being seen by people, it’s a real buzz. I like to do things that I’ve never tried before, like I’d never designed longboard graphics, so when someone asked me to do that I was like yeah, that’s ace. Record sleeves was the thing I always wanted to do. I still find record sleeves really good, and we do a small amount of them, but the most interesting stuff is corporate identity, creating a world for somebody. So the airline thing for me is about having something huge on a plane but also down to designing a small thing on a bit of cutlery. Most graphic designer’s wet dream is Munich ‘72 and you see that what he (Otl Aicher) and his team designed, from pictograms to uniforms, it’s amazing. Having an impact on people’s lives, whether that’s just purely visual or whether it actually helps you get through your day differently or better is really good and fascinating.
At one time I wanted to do something for a big pop bad, the closest I got to that was Dannii Minogue, which I did years ago at tDR. It’d be really good to do something mainstream, for Rihanna or someone, mainly for the challenge, more than millions of people seeing it. It’d be quite interesting. From Munich to Rihanna!
What made you decide to work together with your wife Nicky, rather than another designer or business partner?
Obviously we’re husband and wife and we trust each other. In the first instance, it was to sort myself out and stop me going bankrupt, but the trust thing is really important. It’s quite hard working together sometimes and other times it’s amazing. I know we’re always there for each other, if things go bad and for celebrating the good times. She wanted to leave her job at Sony PlayStation, and things were starting to get quite good with what I was doing, and we saw that as an opportunity for her to join. Nicky’s brilliant in that she’s the Business Director but she’s incredibly creative, so I can trust her opinion. Where somebody might think ‘that’s shit’ and not say it to you, she’ll just go ‘that’s shit’. And that makes you reassess yourself which is brilliant. We get on really well which is an advantage. It’s having someone you can trust who you can really rely on. Why not another designer? Maybe I’d find that quite hard because I want to do everything myself, I’m quite impatient. It seemed natural for us to do. It just works. It’s good.
Do you have any advice for someone starting up their own studio?
Pay attention to financial things. Definitely believe in what you do. When I was at college in Newcastle the course was supposed to be fantastic, I was really over the moon when I got in, but it turned out to be a much more commercial course than I expected. I rapidly discovered Vaughan Oliver and decided I wanted to do record sleeves and that was it. Do things that are in the direction that you want to go in. But here’s the big one: before you start a studio, work in a studio. That’s fundamental. So you get to hone your craft without pressures of paying the studio rent. It’s so important to figure things out and watch people, how the boss works, how they do business. I think that’s just so important.
What to do you love about working at Build?
It feels good to be doing interesting work and people still allowing us to do interesting work. It’s brilliant to come into the space, it’s really lovely. It feels like an achievement, walking up the stairs, it feels like we’ve built up to this. And we’ve got shutters on our windows, which I get really excited by of a morning and of a night. It’s like being in a shop, it’s ace.
What’s in store for the next 11 years?
That’s a hard one. We’re never going to be a studio of 20 people. Maybe getting one or two more people would be nice. Hopefully that airline job! Just continuing doing good work. Hopefully bigger things. That’s the way we seem to be going which is nice. It’d be nice to have a book about us, a retrospective at a reputable museum, maybe in 22 years? Still producing good work, for good people and having a good time doing it. It’ll always be graphic design, I genuinely enjoy it, it’s an exciting industry to be in. And my brain’s just wired that way.
And still in Walthamstow.
Blood, Sweat & 11 Years will be showing at Dray Walk Gallery, The Old Truman Brewery, London from Wednesday 12 – Sunday 16 September. The private view is on Tuesday 11 September by invitation only.
The Not For Commercial Use charity auction will take place at 4:00pm on Sunday 16 September, and is your chance to get your hands on an incredibly rare, sought-after and stunning piece of graphic design history. They have never been sold before and never will again. All proceeds will go to three charities close to Nicky & Michael’s hearts: Impact India, Guide Dogs for the Blind and Sightsavers. Register to be able to bid, or get more info on Build’s blog.
The Not For Commercial Use charity auction is now taking place online here. All proceeds still go to the above mentioned charities ^ , and it means you don’t have be in London to get your mitts on them! Get in.