Studio Culture Interview: Spin

Studio Culture Interview: Spin

Tony Brook works at the coalface of modern visual communication, producing sharp, highly disciplined, zeitgeisty work in print and electronic media. Yet Brook is firmly rooted in the grand tradition of graphic design, with a profound respect for and knowledge of graphic design's history.

In partnership with his wife Patricia Finegan, Brook began Spin in the spare room of the couple's flat. The studio grew rapidly, employing 32 people in the late 1990s.

Today, Brook and Finegan run a studio that produces distinctive and ground-breaking work for a rich mix of clients, while at the same time producing ambitious self-initiated publishing projects that define the studio's culture of excellence and its respect for the art and tradition of graphic design. Working with a broad range of clients, Spin is now one of the most respected studios in Europe. The interview was conducted via email.-

What prompted you to start your own studio?

Tony Brook: I was working at a studio that had no real design pedigree. I'd gone there for the money, which was a big mistake and I was very unhappy. I started thinking about what my next move might be. I was bringing in a lot of new business for the studio, a very different situation to working on existing clients, and this was really the deciding factor. It's not a big leap from ‘I got you clients' to ‘I can get my own clients'. Even though this was happening in the middle of a recession, it felt right. Another motivating factor was that after ten years working almost solely for the record industry, I was ready for a new challenge. Once my partner Patricia and I made the decision to set up a studio, I couldn't wait to get on with it. I remember being quite excited and unafraid.

 

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It's interesting that you were winning clients even while a studio employee. Most people don't get this experience until they set up on their own. Was this a good grounding for the future?

Definitely, it helped enormously. Most employers are delighted to hear that one of their staff has ideas about new clients or contacts that might lead to new work. Making business is a buzz whether you are working for someone or not, and setting up is certainly an easier step to make if you have had a taste of it.

Did you have a vision of how you wanted your studio to be?

I wanted a highly motivated, dynamic, creative studio that made challenging, intelligent and engaging work, a studio that would experiment and try new things. This is how we got into interactive design and motion graphics; there is a feeling in the studio that if we put our minds to it we can do anything. This probably came from working solely on record sleeves for a long time. I also had an atmosphere or an attitude in mind. It sounds peculiar, but I wanted a kind of relaxed intensity.

Which studios and designers influenced you?

My early influences were Peter Saville1, Malcolm Garrett2, 8vo3, 23 Envelope4, Barney Bubbles5, David Gentleman6, Grapus7, Studio Dumbar8.

Are they the same people who inspire you now, or have you found others?

I'd certainly add Wim Crouwel9, Ben Bos10, Mary Vieira11, Jan Van Toorn12, Benno Wissing13, Dieter Roth14, Karl Gerstner15 and Wolfgang Weingart16 to my list . I also love a lot of what's going on now; there is so much inspiring and exciting work being made. I enjoy designers who have strong, well-thought-out positions, with a singular vision. It's something I envy and aspire to.

Where did you go for help and advice?

We did a fair bit of research ourselves, preparing a business plan and reading up about how to run a business. Tricia's father, Cartan, gave us a huge lift with desperately needed money and advice. I remember my last boss, after telling me I was insane for setting up, saying: ‘Try and earn something each day, it doesn't matter how little, it all adds up'.

Where did the name Spin come from?

Coming up with a name was like water torture. I fixed on Spin because I love the game of cricket and have always admired spin bowlers for their nerve and skill, brains over brawn, and I'm a failed ‘tweaker'17 myself. It seems to work - a short, sharp, multifaceted word that you can say without blushing when answering the phone. I have to confess that some of the names we toyed with were absolutely diabolical; I still get a hot flush when I think of them.

Did you have to borrow money?

Yes. The bank wouldn't give us a loan to set up the studio, but they said they would give us the money if we ‘bought a car'. So we agreed to ‘buy a car'. Although it is better not to have to borrow money, we picked up one or two clients quite quickly, so financially we were soon self-sufficient.

 

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Can you describe the process you went through to get started? How did you find clients, for example?

Once the decision was made, I gave up my job straight away. Trish stayed at her job for another month and then we were Spin. I remember lots of meetings with banks and showing them our business plan. Even though they pretty much ignored it, the business plan really helped us. Then we started calling people, making meetings, showing the portfolio. We basically tried to contact anyone we thought were interesting. It was quite surprising how open people were to seeing us.

Was it just you and Trish at this time or did you have any staff?

We realized pretty early on that it's tough  to go out to meetings with any regularity and not have someone back at the ranch moving projects along and taking calls, so we had a junior designer almost from day one.

Spin went through a phenomenal growth spurt - you grew to 32 people in the late 1990s. How did you deal with this?

Not very well, I'm afraid. I had only experienced small studios and was totally unprepared for all the issues size threw up. There were problems with staff, with taking on projects that I didn't want to do but had to in order to pay the wages, and with having to make compromises in our work as a result of taking on those jobs. I think it takes a certain kind of person to control a studio of that size; I must admit it made me miserable. It was a huge relief to get back down to a size that I was comfortable with.

Coming up to date, can you define your role, and that of Trish?

Besides my role as a designer, my primary responsibility is to keep Spin in the right place creatively. I have a very strong idea of what I want Spin to be, and of the standards required. This part of my job is easy right now; I am surrounded by designers who have incredibly high expectations and who push me. Trish is the managing director and runs all the non-creative aspects of the business, including finance, billing, client relationships, new business and all organizational requirements. Basically the stuff that allows us to exist!

Could you talk about how you find new clients - have you reached the point where they come to you?

We are very lucky that clients often come to us now. But we do approach clients where we see a good fit. It has to go both ways.

Is there a type of client you look for?

Definitely, clients are as responsible for good design as designers are. I'm excited to learn about different sectors and to respond to new challenges, but at the core of each project is the relationship between us and our client. A good relationship with a client is something to treasure.

Can you talk about how you present Spin to new clients? You've got a very cool-looking website, do you have a printed portfolio?

Our website is designed to give people a quick taste of what we are about. We see our printed portfolio slightly differently; it gives us an opportunity to talk in depth about projects.

Let's talk about employing people. It's often the most difficult aspect of running a studio. You have to start worrying about the welfare of others, and keeping them motivated and inspired. How do you go about this?

Employing people can certainly have its issues, but the benefits outweigh the problems. Generally I have been very lucky; I work, and have worked, with talented designers throughout my career. As far as motivation is concerned, our process of engagement doesn't really allow for complacency. I think we are all aware of being in a privileged position and in no sense do we take it for granted. I'm grateful for the ability and hard work that have made Spin what it is, and I hope the designers who have worked here feel that Spin has given them something too. As an employer you have to treat people with respect, and be honest and open. As far as inspiration is concerned, it is a collective responsibility; we help each other and we talk about things a lot (design, politics, anything).

 

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What qualities do you look for in a designer?

The first thing is the right personality; you need the correct chemistry. This is something I have been guilty of ignoring in the past, but it is fundamental. Only after that do you get on to ability, intelligence, mindset and so on. Our process requires an ability to share thoughts and ideas, to stick those ideas up on the wall, be prepared to talk about them, defend them, rip them to shreds, maybe start again. We want to make the best work we can, and that requires a degree of collaboration, which many designers find difficult.

How do you handle ambitious designers who want a sense of personal authorship?

We are a small company, we have designers who are more experienced than others, but ultimately everyone is at the coalface. There is no great hierarchical structure in terms of titles. The more experienced designers mostly run their own jobs, but everyone has to take responsibility. Spin works as a collective entity; everyone who works or has worked at Spin has every reason to feel a sense of connection and ownership with the successes that have made it what it is. Every job we undertake is a Spin job and is credited as such, it is pretty fundamental to the way we work. Spin projects always have a number of fingerprints on them. Designers here do occasional lectures and talk to the design press, but in the end we all have to put our ego and our effort into the collective Spin pot. It is a team effort.

Do you have a profit-sharing policy?

We give bonuses when we make a profit. It has always been important that we share any success we have.

Do you ever socialize together?

Yes, everyone gets on well. We have tea and cake at 4.00pm every day, and we have our regular Friday Thai curry. The table football and pool table are in use every day. We don't go out as often as I'd like, but when we do it's always a good laugh.

Do you have formal rules about things like timekeeping and so on?

We start at 9.30am and finish at 6.00pm with an hour for lunch. I like the idea of having to focus during the working day. I used to have problems about never being able to switch off and always being in work mode - it just makes you very tired and less effective. We try to do as much of our work as we can in the day and make an effort not to work late or at weekends if we can possibly help it. I like the thought that we can all have a life.

How do you maintain the balance between creativity and profitability?

It's a tough one. If you make choices based on creative opportunity, and we do, your profit margins tend to suffer. So we aren't ever going to be wealthy. But as long as we keep relatively busy we tend to be OK at the end of the year.

What is your attitude towards interns?

We have interns all year round. They are usually here for two to three months at a time. They come to experience a working studio, to feel a sense of responsibility, and to get a sense of what is required from them when they leave college. We do our best to make sure that we give them that. They are introduced into projects and are encouraged to contribute. There is no mollycoddling; they're seen as members of the team from the off. The response to this approach has been great; I think people respond to high expectations. Our interns come from all over the world. So far we have had designers from Germany, Switzerland, Portugal, Sweden, the US and of course the UK.

How do they go about getting an internship at Spin?

The process is simple: students send in their work on PDF or send us a link to their website, and we invite the best ones in.

Spin has an admirable track record in self-initiated publishing. You produce a ‘newsprint' journal that is widely read and sold in shops. Is this an outlet for your well-known interest in design's heritage, or does it have a business rationale as well?

We have always enjoyed personal projects, it's great to have something going on in the background. At one time or another we've done short films, photo essays, interactive pieces and exhibitions. Some of them have resulted in business, although they haven't ever been conceived with that in mind. The paper [see 22/23/24] came out of a discussion we had about how we could make our personal projects less self-indulgent and a bit more meaningful. It has been really well received and has been really enjoyable to work on.

The paper is not for profit.

If you could start all over again, what would you do differently?

We've made pretty much every mistake it's possible to make at one time or another, but I think the biggest howler and the one I would wholeheartedly not make again was getting too big. I think there is an optimum size for a design company to function effectively at; it's anywhere between one and, perhaps, 12. After that it all gets a bit weird.

Why do you think big studios are problematical?

Because individuals can feel excluded, and indifference starts to spread. Cliques start to form, which is poison in a creative company. Large numbers are all too often the road to mediocrity. People can hide for years at a place and not contribute anything. The bottom line and the killer blow against size is that the work is not as good. I feel quite strongly about this.

How important is the physical environment you work in?

The layout and style of your studio supports the tone and attitude you have to your work, and the way it is made. It also puts you in the right frame of mind. So, yes, I think it is very important. At one point I had a desk away from everyone, in a desire for a bit of personal space. It didn't work for me at all. I need to be at the centre of things, and I found I missed so much.

 

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Does this mean a pristine environment with designer furniture?

Eames, Vitsoe, Apple - designer clichés - but they work functionally and tonally. I waited a long time before I succumbed to my Eames chair; I don't see it so much as feel it. What can I say, it makes me very happy. These things form a background atmosphere, a sense of order. I'm fairly chaotic and untidy, my desk is usually a blizzard of paper and Post-it notes, so the possibility of underlying order is a nice thought.

You have an open-plan studio?

Yes, our process involves a lot of chat and impromptu meetings so our main working space has to be open-plan really. That said, I find a change of environment really useful, so we have quieter spaces for research or reading and meeting. I also like sitting at home poring over books and sketching things out. I'm a great believer in physical spaces acting as a stimulus for ideas. Our current studio has a nice feel to it that is much more personal and intense than the aircraft hanger we were in previously and that has made a big difference to our work, I'm sure. Your environment can be a great creative trigger.

Do you have a music policy?

I love music playing when I work, it helps me to focus, and I can listen to pretty much anything. The only thing I struggle with is a DJ talking, or Jonathan from Spotify20, I can't see how you can listen to someone spouting rubbish and work at the same time (although I'm sure some people can). The only rule is that if the level of sound or style of music is intrusive to anyone they can turn it down or change it.

How would you define your studio's culture today?

Friendly, open, enthusiastic. Everyone is included and everyone contributes. We share influences, both new and old, and aren't scared to try things that are outside our comfort zone. The studio is a living thing; it feels as if it is growing, developing, changing. Which is good because I get very itchy if things get too comfortable or predictable.

Do you have any advice to give to someone thinking of setting up?

It is the most basic, obvious, straightforward and unavoidable fact, but the difference between survival and demise is money. Survival is the first thing. You can't just steal your old firm's clients, or at least you shouldn't if you live by any reasonable moral standards. So you have to get out there and make your own business. Starting to make money from your own clients with your own work is the single most exciting thing about setting up. The next, and much less exciting part, is collecting the money. If at all possible, don't be the designer and the one who chases the money. It's very difficult not to get emotional if some bastard isn't paying on time for the beautiful job you have made. And it's going to happen. It is much better, if possible, to have a dispassionate voice chasing your hard-earned dough.

This might be stating the bleeding obvious, but the reason you set up business is to be in control of your own destiny. To do the work you want to do in the way you want to do it. You may be lucky, and the most wonderful commissions from the most compliant and supportive clients may fall out of the clear blue sky into your lap. But if your journey resembles a salmon swimming against the tide, you may be forced to compromise to some degree. If this happens, try not to get too downhearted; be as true to yourself and your vision as you can, and hold your nerve.

 

Interview taken from 'Studio Culture: The secret life of the graphic design studio' by Tony Brook & Adrian Shaughnessy