Studio Culture Interview: Universal Everything

Studio Culture Interview: Universal Everything

Matt Pyke is an example of a new breed of designer who works for major global corporations – as well as other smaller entities – yet has none of the trappings of a large studio with a smart metropolitan address. Instead he produces a fizzing cocktail of commercial and art-based work from his custom-made studio in his garden in Sheffield, in the north of England.

He does this with the assistance of a project manger (his sole employee) and a roster of designers, animators, coders and musicians from around the world. Pyke’s network of talent – with him at its centre – is living proof that the design studio no longer needs to conform to the old rigid formula.

Pyke is a frank and willing interviewee with a keen interest in debunking many of the myths that surround studios and contemporary professional practice. He is an iconoclast in more ways than one. ‘I hope you are going to ask everyone how much they charge?’ was his first question when approached about this interview.

 

You worked for eight years for one of the most famous graphic design studios in the world – the Designers Republic. Was it there that you got the itch to start your own studio, or did you have the desire from the start?

Matt Pyke: I grew an itch over the eight years I was at DR. In the first three years it was the best art school education I could have had – learning from my peers, insane deadlines, talking about music and not design, being given autonomy on entire projects from brief to delivery. The next three years was spent outgrowing square music sleeves, and I explored Flash, interactive and motion design. In my naivety I found unusual ways of achieving things. The final two years I felt constrained by the stylistic legacy of the studio, and what the public had begun to expect, but this gave me the impetus to build my own universe-sized blank canvas.

Ian Anderson who ran DR is an individualist – a strong personality. What do you take from him that you’ve used in your own studio?

That the best can be bettered, to always push things beyond a ‘nice’ design, to embody artworks with provocation and a voice. To reach further than a pure designer/maker, and to explore publishing, DJing, broadcasting, teaching, sharing, writing, and avoiding the threat of boredom with my day job.

 

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Your studio has evolved into an unusual global collaborative entity. Was this your vision from the start, or did the vision evolve?

At the start I had a desire to explore everything – a dangerous vice, as it’s so easy to spread yourself too thinly. I wanted to resist becoming a manager, and was desperate to avoid becoming pigeon-holed. Projects came in that were beyond my skill-set, and I began bringing in the amazing talent I had met over the years to assist me in the conception. This network began to grow in new fields with each diverse commission, and has now become a global roster of over 50 experts in everything from code and structural engineering to stop-motion and woodcarving. Now we have a core of regular members, and a full-time studio/project manager to ensure a well-managed creative environment for us and the clients.

So you’ve employed a studio/project manager. That’s a big step after working solo for so long, isn’t it?

As the projects became bigger, the production and management responsibilities grew in parallel. An increasing amount of energy was going into managing clients, collaborators, schedules and budgets – potentially at the expense of the creative focus. I learnt a huge amount from this hands-on experience, but I knew that a professional could do the job far better. So I hired a superb studio/project manager, whose job is to ensure I am 100% focused on what I do best.

OK, here’s the nuts and bolts question – the one that no one asks: how did you fund your studio?

Great question; we should all be more open on these issues. I’d been advised that you needed three months’ wages as a cushion when starting as a designer. Towards the end of working at DR I’d be developing new client relationships and projects until it was eight hours doing that job, and then eight hours when I got home working on my own tasks. Then a project came in from a contact in the US motion graphics industry to design a site for an LA production company. They had a $20K budget, which bought me at least six months of income in which I could grow the studio.

In the early days, where did you go for help and advice?

I spoke to Business Link1 for the objective viewpoint, I wrote a business plan, I met with other studios to see their culture, I talked to agents and production companies, I had peers share their address books, but most helpful of all was my family, who brought all my procrastination into focus.

 

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How much money did you need to get going?

Laptop: £1500. Smartphone: £300. Programming of www.universaleverything.com: £1500. I’ve always insisted on keeping the overheads low. The core studio was my laptop and a mobile phone. No office, no commute, no staff. This allowed me to take risks, such as unpaid in-house projects and gallery exhibitions. It also granted me the freedom of turning down unsuitable projects, even if they paid well.

Are there financial complications involved in working with an external roster of creative collaborators?

I bring a particular complication on the studio by insisting on paying external people above the usual rates – preferring that they are motivated and can afford to give their all, rather than the traditional producer-freelancer model of squeezing the most for the least out of them. Again with our model, it’s a risk we can afford to take. And I hope everyone feels loved and fulfilled by this.

That’s very impressive but also good business sense. As you say, the convention is to do the opposite and grind people down on price. Nevertheless, you have to maintain financial discipline – how do you do this?

We use sales forecasts and cashflow reports. Having a solid financial grounding for the studio means that we can afford to retain creative integrity and choose our own direction. We divide time spent on every project according to budget. Some are worth investing more creative time in if they are leading into a new discipline we’d like to explore more, or will gain us exposure to a new audience.

Another thorny question – do you free pitch for business?

We don’t work or pitch for free, preferring to use budgets to ‘buy’ time for us to develop in-house projects, such as www.everyoneforever.com and www.advancedbeauty.org – which in turn lead to wider audiences and new commissions.

You decided to remain near Sheffield. Most of the leading design companies are in London – was it ever a temptation to move to the capital?

It’s never been a temptation to live there again, as much as I love London. The cost of living, the Peak District (where I live now) and the two-hour, near-empty train to London once a week kept me up here. 60% of our clients are in London, the rest overseas. Being there once a week, usually running between four meetings and a couple of galleries squeezes the best out of the time.

 

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Does it ever count against you that you are miles away from most of your clients?

Clients have never had a problem with my location. I’m beginning to hear more people wishing they could escape the capital and continue without compromise.

Where did the name Universal Everything come from?

It was formed in reaction to escape the confines of DR. I needed a name to encapsulate the idea of the biggest blank canvas in the world.

Describe the early days – what were the main obstacles?

Having a slim post-DR portfolio. I had to grow it by producing many in-house projects to get the thinking out there. Being asked to pitch for free – making it impossible to put your heart into a gamble. Negotiating budgets – learning how to have pride in your time and value in your work. Bravely accepting projects that were beyond my skills – but hiring amazing people to pull it off. Naughty clients – being brave enough to fire them and move on. Turning work down, even when things were quiet, was crucial in defining our own path for the studio.

How did you find your first clients?

I knew that wordy emails and in-depth websites are inefficient for communicating an overview of a studio; I wanted to hit people with the diversity of my past in an instant. I emailed a one-sheet collage with 50 thumbnails of past work, which was sent to everyone who I could think of who knew interesting people. It was my viral six degrees of separation theory.

Sounds interesting – could you explain your theory?

If they liked the work, and passed it on, eventually it would land in a perfect client’s inbox.

When designers leave a studio to set up on their own, there is often the tricky ethical question of what to do about existing clients. Most designers don’t approach their former employers’ clients, but some newly independent designers are approached by clients of their previous company who want to continue working with them. Where do you stand on this question?

I had developed hands-on relationships with my clients at DR, but equally I wanted to move on and work with new people. I was wary of approaching former clients as I didn’t want to burn any bridges – word travels fast in our community and I had a fragile new reputation to forge. I was contacted by some former DR clients after I left, as they were accustomed to working with me. I have outgrown a few, and grown upwards with the remainder.

Now that the tables are turned and you are running a studio, how would you deal with clients who bypassed you and approached someone on your network?

It has happened in the past. Because of the fluid nature of our studio, it’s hard to prevent. It has sometimes helped us move on to clients who are more appreciative of our work process. If a client approached a collaborator to continue with an idea we had established, then we would pull them up on this, to protect the ownership of the creative direction. Often other agencies have approached our collaborators asking them to ‘recycle’ our collaborative work for other projects – it’s a grey area between creative ownership and the independence of the collaborator.

Tell me about how you find people for your network of collaborators.

I’m always scouting for new talent, online, at degree shows, at conferences and via recommendations from existing collaborators. I’m attracted to people who have a unique voice and approach, and who constantly push the boundaries of what they do.

 

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What is your attitude to growth? Do you see a time when Universal Everything will have in-house designers?

We were approached by a much larger global agency who wanted to buy into our culture. It was tempting to gain that foundation, but any resistance from us to growth would have been met by the needs of the agency’s backers to make their investment grow, so we declined the offer. I’m opposed to the traditional model of expansion, gaining staff and offices and therefore needing clients just to keep it afloat. By keeping the core small and the network growing, we can shift into new directions quickly. I recently read some good advice: ‘Only do what only you can do’. This has made me start looking for an all-round senior designer, who can expand upon my initial creative direction and see projects through to completion. In theory this will free me up to focus on development of ideas, research projects, finding talent and finally starting to paint again.

You work from a custom-built studio in your garden – how important is it to separate home from studio?

It’s important to have a commute, whether its 25 metres or 30 miles – it’s a psychological airlock between home and workplace. It’s a very productive place, usually me alone, and time is planned to every half-hour. I’m devoid of any distractions, which helps me stick to the 9 to 5 regime I impose on myself. It’s equally as important to ignore work as it is to obsess about it. Time away gives your mind clarity.

How do you maintain the balance between creativity and profitability?

As with most studios, we take on well-paid commercial projects with less creative freedom. This ranges from internal brand films and advertising campaigns to websites for management and property companies. These sorts of jobs are rarely mentioned but they underpin everyone’s creative foundation. These projects buy us time, funding smaller, creative projects that give opportunity to grow in a new direction, or open up another audience to us. The studio is building up cash reserves that give us the confidence to keep taking risks, and having the luxury of choice in which clients to take on.

What is your attitude to interns?

My workdays are so intense and focused I haven’t the time to devote to mentoring, but I regularly talk with design students at universities and events.

Regarding your network, are there times when you say, ‘I wish we were all in the same room’?

When working with an animator in Siberia, a Japanese programmer in San Francisco, or an opera singer in Brighton – yes, it would be an advantage, if only to overcome cultural and language barriers to keep us all on the same wavelength. The core of us meet often, and know each other inside out – we discuss face to face at the conception of a project to guide us in the same direction. We then return to our own studios to create the first round of production in isolation. We are always surprised and inspired by what comes back. By seeing things fresh we are hit with the impact of the work, without the legacy of witnessing its creation.

You have a very good profile in the design and advertising world. How do you go about building and maintaining this?

When a project is complete, it’s essential to get the work out there selling itself – we send updates to press contacts, bloggers and well-connected clients. Our website uses Twitter, YouTube, Vimeo, video podcasts and Flickr to seed our activities to online communities. Once things are out there, they keep the profile buoyant.

You’ve recently completed an interesting new DVD, Advanced Beauty. Is that part of this process?

Yes, the Advanced Beauty DVD was a method of releasing our collective thinking into the wild. 18 films – one video podcast per week for 18 weeks – grew our profile as the project gained momentum. Now the concept of the project is in the public domain, we are keeping it alive by inviting new filmmakers to contribute working within the same parameters.

How important are external advisors – accountants and so on?

Accountants – essential for a bird’s-eye view of the studio. Business development advisors – essential for formulating and focusing on what we should really be aiming for. Older, wiser generation of designers – essential for retaining integrity and vision, without being seduced by the next big thing.

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

I would hire a studio/project manager from the start. I had an immense learning experience being hands-on with everything from budgets to production to conflicts to chasing invoices, but it’s healthier if creativity/emotion and business/finance stay independent.

How would you define your studio’s culture today?

After the effort of encouraging maximum creativity for commercial clients, we have now reached a happy medium between the freedom of art and the realities of design.

We have started generating and self-publishing our own in-house content, devoid of brand involvement. This is then often licensed to brands such as Nokia or Apple. It’s a healthy working method, in which we find the right homes and audiences for heartfelt work. Now larger clients trust us on bigger commissions, through us achieving unproven, ambitious projects with proven results such as a recent V&A commission to design and build a major installation for the museum.

Our next aim is to develop gallery and public art commissions. The fewer steps between the creator and the audience, the more fulfilling it becomes. From a commercial side, we are now working with brands from the ground up, being part of their culture, and having the 360-degree vision for every medium they communicate in. Most of all, never stop exploring and evolving.

 

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