How would you describe yourselves as a studio?
We’re a design studio working with a wide variety of businesses and individuals, many in the cultural sector but also in all kinds of other fields, and are lucky to work on really lovely projects with interesting people and learn something with each job. We are multidisciplinary: we might work on a book, an exhibition, a brand identity, or some marquetry all at the same time, and all those things feed into what we do.
When did you decide that you would have your own studio together?
We were at RCA 2001–2003 and ended up in the same studio space and got on really well. We had a lot of common interests which is why the studio’s gone the way it has, because of our strong interest in contemporary art we would go along to lots of galleries and exhibitions together. Our work was visually different but those different skill sets created a good beginning to working together and now we make quite a unique thing as a studio.
We’ve always both been very independent and wanted to have our own business — it was a meeting of two kindred spirits. We were also on the same wavelength with similar life experiences; we’d both gone straight from our BA to MA and then gone straight to starting a studio. We’d never worked for anyone else, and were determined to make it happen on our own terms.
Do you think you would have done it if you hadn’t met each other?
(Emma) Who knows! Maybe we would have because we are both so independent and strong willed, but it would be a very different thing and we wouldn’t enjoy it anywhere near as much.
(Kirsty) No! exactly. That’s the joy of two. There’s no doubt that there’s nobody in this world that cares about this business more than we do. And we each know that of each other. And we never expected to meet each other and when we did it was a natural thing — there was never a decision it just happened. There wasn’t ever a question: we just did it. Yes we do feel very lucky.
Do you think setting up having never had a job in another studio has been a hindrance at any point?
In a lot of ways it’s made things easier. I guess you could fall into the same working patterns of studios that you’ve worked at and how other people do things, but if you don’t know then you can find a new way of working perhaps. For most of the others in the studio, this is also their first place to work — so for all we know we may have the most bizarre way of working ever!
Your process is quite well documented as being research heavy – a lot of time thinking about the problem before coming out with a solution. How do you balance the amount of time and care you put in with budgets and time constraints?
For certain projects such as an exhibition, you have to gain an understanding of the background, materials and context that you’re working in to come up with a fresh take on it, so those projects are a good example of the more research-heavy end of what we do. In contrast, some projects’ inspiration comes from a much lighter and more instinctive place, though for us this is always married with research or background and varying depending on the scale of the project.
It’s also about educating and working with the right client. If we worked with a client who expected to see new designs the day after briefing us, we just haven’t educated them right in the first meeting to say ‘this is how we work’. We’ve always prided ourselves on being quite professional and always provide a proposal and timescale before we ever go near talking about designs. So we always allocate enough time for our way of working. And I think that varies from studio to studio; some studios might want more time between presenting the first round of ideas to the development, whereas for us we did all the research in the first stage so we perhaps quicken the process up along the way.
Our thoughtful approach is key to our studio. That it’s a considered and thoughtful approach that the clients and collaborators we work with understand, and they want that sort of dialogue and collaboration, because without that it’s not as satisfying.
Do you really live & breath the work or is it a 9-5?
We live & breath it and would not have started our own studio if that wasn’t the case. Every single project has got a little part of us, because you become so emotionally attached to the work, it can be very labouring emotionally but also rewarding — we are married to our work. You can see a bit of every one of us in the studio in each project.
What’s the studio hierarchy; who gets to work on what?
We hate the word hierarchy. We don’t like that and are always trying to get away from it. We recognise the studio by a studio name, we never single out who’s worked on things more because there are bits of all of us in all the projects. Projects are always studio projects.
We want the studio to be quite anonymous. That’s where the name came from; it’s adaptable. We didn’t want to call it by our names. That’s a key point, that people can come and join and not have us feeling ownership over it all.
Most of your clients are arts / cultural clients. Is that an influence from RCA?
Both of us have always had a big interest in contemporary art and also architecture, fashion design etc — it’s the groundings of what we do and why we studied graphic design, and it will always underpin what we do.
Have you discussed the possibility of working for more commercial big brands?
Yeah, we’d love to. But we’ve always said it’s so dependant on the client you’re working with — the person you’re working with. There are some cultural institutions that are difficult to work with, because they operate like a large corporation with lots of people to answer to, and then there are other small perhaps perceived as slightly boring industries that we’d love to work with, because there’s perhaps one person who’s visionary and forward thinking. We did a book on Design Research Unit and they worked for British Rail and ICI but that was all about their relationship with that client. We’d love to work with similar clients to theirs. A pub, or a lighting supplier or someone making nuts and bolts or something would be really fun.
People tend to commission you on work you’ve done before, it can be harder to get a commission that’s not in the portfolio. We’re at a point now where we have built up several examples in our portfolio where we’ve worked with more commercial clients – like the identity for the One Leicester Street hotel and restaurant which we completed last year. For us, we approached that project in much the same way we would have the brand identity of an arts institution; our way of working, with its focus on research and really getting to know a client and understanding the brief, isn’t specific to a single kind of client or sector.
What the most daunting job you’ve ever done?
The Bauhaus: Art as Life exhibition, because the subject matter has got such a legacy. It was daunting because you get the commission and obviously it’s hugely exciting, but then at the same time you know that every graphic design agency in the world is looking at you. You’re working for a world class institution – the Barbican, and with there having been so many Bauhaus exhibitions in the past, it was like: ‘well what are you going to do with this one?’ And I think all the time you’re trying to make something unique and yours, and talking with such a strong personality within the art school, it was difficult to find a point in which there was a bit of APFEL coming through.
Do you teach much, is that important for a practising graphic designer?
Depends on the individual. Compared to other practitioners I wouldn’t say we do that much teaching. We do some workshops and lectures which we enjoy but we also love being in the studio a lot. We’re really busy so it’s difficult to dedicate time to a regular teaching post. It needs to be at a time that feels appropriate and even though it could be an interesting process, we still have lots to achieve with our own studio. We want to keep working and love being practitioners. It’s a time factor really.
What did you want to be when you were a kid?
(K) Sadly a graphic designer! I chose the path really early. My Dad bought my brother an Apple Mac when I was 13, at a point when Macs were quite an unusual thing to have at home, so I was there using ClarisWorks to lay out my homework!
(E) I wanted to be an architect or a geologist, but I was really into making little fanzines and then I went to art college!
(K) I think we both knew though. There’s a definite work ethos behind us, it’s definitely a vocation and we are both workhorses! We work hard.
What’s your approach to interns?
We do have an intern in the studio – we say that the internship is 3 months at a time – no more and no less. Any less and they don’t learn much and any longer, we’re exploiting them. We do pay them, and we have a few from the Erasmus scheme too. We only have one intern at a time and we usually stay in contact with them; maybe take them on or use them as freelancers or recommend them to someone else who’s looking for a junior, so it works out quite well them being here.
It’s a touchy subject though as lots of studios feel cautious about the publicity that’s going on and I think it’s a real shame, as there are companies that exploit interns and there are companies like ours for whom it’s a great thing. It would be a massive shame for this industry if anything happens in terms of regulations to stop us doing what we do and that’s why we have these strict rules and time frames. If our interns stay longer than 3 months they move over to a freelance contract, and if someone comes to us who’s done a lot of internships we do tell them maybe they should start looking for a job or freelance work if they’re over qualified for that role. It’s not fair to keep having someone run on that train.
Do you think that feeds nicely into the studio atmosphere as well, having a turnover of people?
It changes the dynamic and the interns don’t always quite realise that, they think they’re invisible or something! It’s really important for us to get the right person because it can massively adjust the atmosphere in the studio. We’re only a small number sitting around one table in one room.
Many studios around you have closed, but you seem to be going strong, and are now into your tenth year. To what do you attribute your success?
People can be surprised we are ten years old. A lot of people view us as a new up and coming studio when actually we’ve been doing this quite a long time! That’s often a perception of age I think. We have quite a professional approach though. You can see by the structure of our company how important that is, that out of six we have two administrative staff. Clients really enjoy the balance between creativity and managing things in a professional and organised way.
Do you have account handlers?
No. That’s really important. It’s always been a struggle because we are a group but you can’t always have the whole studio talking to a client, so we end up leading on jobs just because of the client contact at the beginning. But the others are always in touch with the client depending on what stage of the project it is.
How are the jobs split?
They’re split between the whole studio. It’s a very open run studio — we’re not particular egos. We don’t close [our designers] Stephen and Jason off, they come along to meetings and clients get to meet them and have a dialogue. But they also have a dialogue with us, we’re involved in every job and we all sit down and talk about projects together – today, we were all having a go at something. One project has gone round the whole studio, because it needed everyone’s eye on it.
Then when the client comes in each of us can have a chat because we all know where the job is and that’s the key to being quite a small studio; the idea of having an account handler doesn’t work for us because it’s a model for a bigger studio and takes away from the essence of what we’re doing. If we took the dialogue away with the client at the beginning, we wouldn’t know what the story was and that’s our unique selling point. That’s who we are and what we translate into our work.
We’ve always said the moment we can’t all get round one table, we know we’ve got too big.
What’s changed in ten years?
We can’t deny money has definitely disappeared in the arts. It’s been a benefit to us at stages because big jobs like the Hepworth might not have come to us because they’d have been able to afford a big branding agency or something like that. But on the other side, a lot of our favourite little jobs have dropped off the bottom because there’s not the funding.
It’s difficult because we are constantly changing as a company too, and it’s hard to know how much of that is us changing as professionals and how much of it is the industry changing around us. People were always saying we wouldn’t still be doing books, especially in the arts world, but we find that when we do those things they have to be really taken care of and need to be special objects, they have to sell out. Publishing has become even more bespoke, because you have to design a very special object now. It’s even the same with the print that we do for galleries or artists such as an invitation, if it’s printed it needs to be something that’s really special and thoughtful.
Can you tell us anything about your new project for the Windemere Steamboat Museum?
We’re working with the architect Carmody Groarke who we’ve done a lot of work with previously; exhibitions like Postmodernism, Bauhaus, Drawing Fashion etc. This is their first museum build, and we’re right at the beginning of it. There’s a museum there at the moment which is on the site of an old gravel quarry, and it was a local guy who collected boats and he decided to open a little museum so local people could come and enjoy them too. He worked on them and repaired them, and built up his collection and then after he died the trust gained funding to keep it going and it’s gone from there really.
The project involves way finding, signage and branding; we’re working on the identity and all the various materials. It’s nice to get commissioned at the point where the architects are still in planning. They have to add foundations into the plans where the signage would go so we have to think quite quickly about what kind of signage that would be, what size, how it’s lit, and if we miss that deadline it’s so difficult to retrofit it. It’s sad to see buildings that have add-on signs because they haven’t commissioned the designer at the right point so it can’t work as a collaboration.
Is collaboration a key part of how you work?
Definitely. It adds something to each project. Whether with a client or another creative like an artist or architect or within our studio, we’re used to working with people all the time.
Do you have plans to celebrate your tenth birthday? A book, or exhibition maybe?
We will have a party at some point. Doing a book about ourselves feels wrong. That’s really not us. We’d love to author something but it would be more about a subject, one of our passions.
What passions do you have other than design / contemporary art / architecture? Any non-creative hobbies?
Both: All pretty much connected!
(K) I have a baby
That doesn’t count as a hobby!
(E) We’re learning to sail. We all cycle too.
Lots of agencies seem to set up with an exit strategy in place: being started and then grown with the aim of being sold on. What are your thoughts on having an exit strategy?
Maybe that’s a very English thing, to want to set up a company to sell it and move on. At least in design, the idea that a company is not for life is not us. We’re going nowhere!
APFEL talk at LongLunch #54, at London’s Design Museum on February 11th. Tickets are available here and cost £10 (students £7.50) which includes entry to all the exhibitions and this hand screen-printed poster designed by APFEL to mark the event.