It’s been a busy time recently and as we get busier and busier with new projects and more successful outcomes – some have been asking about the way we work in the loft and how a small agency which focusses almost exclusively on design manages to grow in the days of more ‘digital solutions.’
So I thought I’d share 10 ideas of the ways we work in the loft – working this way in the last year has fuelled our growth, brought client wins and an awful lot of nice things being said about our work.
They are more about attitudes than the actual mechanics of design but they are our 10 gems about… ‘designing with soul’
There is literally no problem that can’t be solved with positive action. This idea is our guiding principle in the studio. A high energy and productive studio brimming with ideas will always have enough momentum to create great solutions and hone solutions to perfection. Every time we think we are hitting a creative brick wall or are torn between two solutions that don’t seem quite right – we develop them both and throw in another 3 for good measure. This loose-ness and care-free abandon removes the creative shackles and almost always produces great solutions.
Action means you have momentum. In design terms at least, it is better to be 80% down the wrong road than to not have started. We find that some people fail 5 times and still find the right solution before others have barely even started to get going so we put the word ‘ACTION!’ at the heart of our way of working.
2. MAKE TOMORROW HAPPEN TODAY
This principle has as much to do about mentality as it does about practice. Making tomorrow happen today or ‘beginning with the end in mind’ means having faith in ourselves to deliver an outstanding solution to our design challenge, one that makes our client happy as well as ourselves. It means keeping faith in our work throughout the entire process, regardless whether progress is fast or slow.
It means favouring results over methods.
We avoid spending huge amounts of time changing our minds, running into creative cul-de-sacs, when we already have viable design solutions which can be completed with just a little refinement and honing. We contextualise our design solutions, standing where the client stands as soon as possible to help us gain better insights and achieve superior results.
Also, getting to a solution quicker is to the benefit of everybody and we use any time left to create stronger details. When speaking of time, it is just another resource, and when in short supply, we are amazed at how much more creative we become. We work fast in the loft, we road-test ideas quickly, we learn quickly, we fail quickly, this concentration of knowledge and energy always leads to better thought-through design solutions that are usually created in double-quick time. You can also feel the energy and immediacy in the work. Doubling the amount of time on a creative project seldom gives you a solution which is twice as good.
3. GIVE THE CLIENT WHAT THEY WANT
This may seem far and away like the most obvious principle, but it is amazing the amount of time that studios fall foul of this – ourselves included. We are all guilty of giving the client what we think they want and not what they actually want. The reason this principle is so important is that so much time can be saved going down blind allies – we save as much as 30/40% of branding or graphical solutions by asking the right questions and really listening to what a client wants at the beginning.
More importantly, the more bespoke and personal we make a design solution the more valuable we know our service becomes. The greater the challenge, the narrower the window of design constraints, the greater the opportunity for us to really test our creative mettles. We know that the client is not always right and they should be challenged at times, neither are we alway right. We always look to educate and inform, particularly at the beginning of a process. However, we believe once a designer has their parameters, the difference between the amateurs and the pros is that the true pros always deliver regardless of how limited a brief may be! We love being pushed into tight corners as it allows us to come up with even more imaginative solutions.
4. START WITH WORDS
Every single project we do begins with words, not images and absolutely not images of competitors work, or benchmarking. A brand, a piece of graphical work, a piece of digital work should arouse various thoughts/feelings in the people engages with it. Those words/thoughts/feelings or even stories are always the starting point for any project for us. They provide a much greater scope for imaginative thoughts and ideas. A canvas with much greater potential. We risk cutting off too much of what we can create if we limit our imaginations at the very first hurdle.
Interestingly most projects we work on start with various messages or a set of words which will be imperfect themselves, as we hone our graphical solutions, we become more able to hone the words themselves. Imagine a see-saw between words and images. As we progress into our designs – the images counter the message and vice versa with both becoming accurate.
5. INSPIRATION IS EVERYTHING
Inspirations are absolutely everything to us. We see it as our duty to seek out the interesting – to find those abstract shapes, patterns, marks, textures, lines colours and understand why they arouse certain emotions in us. In the studio, we always begin with mood-boards – those inspiration images are everything to us.
The beauty we find in those mood-boards is pivotal to successful design solutions. When our work runs off-course, it is nearly always because we haven’t found or remained true to the beauty of those initial inspirations. Occasionally, finding the true beauty in that inspiration is where the real work in a project is – understanding if it’s the negative space in a composition, the symmetry of a shape, a particular arrangement of colour or the drama of a certain pose – these are all things that we examine when working with our inspirations. Once we raise our awareness of why something works, we take that knowledge and apply it to every technical element of the entire project.
6. BUILD FROM THE BOTTOM UP!
This is a really important principle. We all have sky high standards, want to do our best and create something outstanding. We never try to do this in one go. The simplest, most effective design solutions that we have created, usually come from thousands of sketches and ideas that have been communicated, mulled over, rejected, re-brought in, analysed, mixed with others, etc…
Having read Jonathan Ive’s book and analysing all of the beautiful, simple and minimal Apple products; we know they are products that are not borne of a designer having one big idea but the manifestations of thousands, if not tens of thousands of thoughts, ideas and decisions made and culminated into beautiful pieces of design. This is why we see it as of the utmost importance that we put our ideas down quickly – very quickly. Then build from the bottom-up, each time, doing just enough to get us to the next stage. Every studio will be different but we work with…
words>inspirations>concept work>development work>final solution.
This involve testing out lots and lots of potential solutions along the way. We don’t perfect our initial concepts in one go, we build from the bottom up in levels, the difference is that we keep building new levels of excellence into our solutions – more honed proportions, even more eye-catching details, greater refinements.
Individual taste of our designers can plays a part in this – sometimes a desire to deduce a design to its simplest core components, sometimes it is to add greater sub-stories into a solution or sometimes just exploring a particular theme in greater depth.
Two quick tips with this principle…
We see it as incredibly important to be positive and constructive, especially during the early stages – we only see the good in our own work, we build on the good and ignore what isn’t working 100%. We see too many designers draw a couple of sketches and try and take them to a close in one go – a bit like a boxer trying to knock out the other fighter with one big punch. It seldom happens. We only see the good – the inspirational, the beautiful, the interesting – this gives us energy and encouragement to drive forward and build in the next stage. We are always looking to create, grow and build on the positive and ignore the negative. The perfectionist part or the deductive part of design for us comes only after a very lengthy creative part, usually at the end when we have a number of solutions to choose from, we never try to close with our first or even our third sketches.
One other little tip that we use in the studio is that we do 30 second sketches, sometimes even 15 second sketches. Nothing cuts through the logical barriers we put in front of ourselves by having to sketch an idea in 15 seconds. It is a wonderful process; we are constantly amazed at the quality and richness of ideas that can be generated from this simple step. It also helps us to become more intuitive as designers. Intuition alongside imagination are mental muscles that we believe every designer has an interest in developing.
7. PROCRASTINATION IS BAD!
Everybody will design differently but we are very much advocates of a high tempo, high-energy, inspiration-led design process. As mentioned, many of the most beautiful forms of minimalist designs did not come from a single idea that was perfected as a sketch but as the results of fast thinking, fast generation of ideas and decisiveness by the designer or design leader managing the process. We never treat a thought, idea, sketch or even development as precious; they are simply the building block to a ‘next-stage.’ As stated, we tend to have a lot of ‘next-stages’ which leads to better and better design solution. We make up our minds quickly and seldom change them. We see decisiveness as so important as a designer, we believe we can make just about any visual idea work with a truly committed decision and lots of persistence. In the loft, we make our minds up quickly, intuitively, and then we persist, persist, persist with a certain path or idea, almost to the point that it hurts. We see a truly great design as usually just a slight tweak away, and many of our greatest efforts only clicked at the very last moments. However, on the odd occasion when we haven’t been able to make an idea work, when we have taken a design so far down a wrong road, it is only by pushing it so far in a mistaken direction that we have gained absolute clarity about where we have fell short and why another concept may work better. The type of clarity you can’t get if you don’t travel along the path in the first place.
8. THE ANSWER LIES INSIDE
As we progress with a project, the greater is the temptation to start looking around for other ideas or inspiration. The head-shifting Meerkat syndrome. We believe this has fatal consequences in the quality of our solutions – we lose the original purity of thought or inspiration by looking at others. Occasionally clients will ask for benchmarking activities and it is something that we look at like other studios. However, we believe designers should not be looking at other designs for inspirations unless they are very much in-line with the inspiration/idea/theme/story being explored throughout their own projects. We believe great design is nearly always about purity of expression. We believe that the answer to any problems with a piece of visual design can be found by looking more closely at our own inspirations, ideas, themes and stories, getting to know them better and faithfully exploring them for more creative solutions not lumping elements from other designs onto our own.
9. ONCE WE’RE DONE, TEAR IT UP AND START AGAIN
To ensure that our designs have real purity – we take them apart and put them back together again. We reduce them to their core components on the wall or on our art-boards, we hone them, analyse them and ensure that there is a real consistency there piece-by-piece. Every piece of design, when reduced to its core components should have a common language running through them that is in line with original inspirations. We print our logos big in the studio then cut them into individual parts to ensure that the radiuses are all consistent, that the relationship between lines are correct, to ensure that every individual part is as consistent as it should be. We look at them in the mirror, we turn them upside down, we look at them big and small, we look at them as black and whites and as negatives. Every part of the process allows us to learn something more and be creative in a further way. This is the rigour and technical discipline that is necessary to create outstanding solutions.
10. WE DON’T LET IT OWN US…
In the studio, or during work times, a designer must really give their all but we believe it’s so important to have a great life outside of it. Design is a joyful activity. We never live for the work, we instead treat it as work. We believe professional designers must own their projects not the other way around, we know if we are overly precious, it owns us and not the other way around. If a designer is overly precious about their work – they will not take risks with it and he/she has to take risks. They will become tired of it quicker and this lack of enthusiasm will be reflected in the final solution.
We believe a designer needs balance. So much of what we do is about inspiration. If a designer is inspired – they will batter through their work at twice the speed anyway and this immediacy also enhances the final solution. We see inspiration as a little bit like a sand egg-timer. The more inspired an environment feels – the more the designers will work but the less it will feel like work. They will be in the zone, expressing themselves in their love of what they do. The less inspired they feel – the more turgid, ponderous the work will become, the hours become longer and this is then reflected in the final solutions. But worst, it becomes part of the work/life balance.
We have no time for this image of the miserable creative who puts his entire life on the line for their work allowing all other areas of their lives to suffer. We are professional designers, we must love what we do and to love it means not to suffocate ourselves with our love of what we do or our ambitions of what we want to achieve. Yes there will be times when you will have to work harder and longer but on the most part 7-8 hours a day is more than sufficient.
These 10 ideas only work for us at our energetic, inspired and productive best and this only happens if we are happy outside of our work going in and that means owning our work and not letting it own us. This is so important as many in the creative industries fall into this trap.
On a final and more positive note, many have spoke of the demise of design and communication as part of todays creative landscape and it is true that the majority of agencies growing in this area are digital companies but there are newer, more exciting opportunities for the type of designers who will find the above information interesting.
Alongside areas in new digital mediums, communication is becoming more and more prominent for companies/individuals who need to engage with ever more distracted and busier customers, staff, shareholders, board members, etc than ever before. In the last year, I have spoken to clients who are looking for what we do to illustrate their business plans, to present investment information to funders, to present information in a court of law.
For those that can provide delightful solutions to complex communication problems, there are likely to be no limits in what we can do. I hope you’ve enjoyed glimpsing into the loft studio as much as I have enjoyed sharing it.
Benedetto is a designer and founder of the loft – a specialist design studio based in Glasgow.
The loft takes the true essence of what organisations do and with his team brings those stories to life with a coherence, simplicity and delightfulness that helps companies to create outstanding brand communications.
‘Design with Soul’ is more than a company tag-line to Benedetto, it is a way of life.
His journey has taken him from a career in car design through to his current role. He is honoured to manage a great team, work with great clients and have a lot of fun mixing with so many great people in business.