How Leading Design Studios Experiment To Push Their Work In New Directions

Image detail from a piece by Vault49

Studios including Vault49, Here Design, Found Studio and Trollback+Company tell us why it pays to never play it safe – and what they do to push the boundaries.

Design studios are often thought of as art studios but on a payroll, with jobs coming in and visuals created to suit. But where does this leave the role of art in the picture, and does the act of experimenting for the sake of creating have any place in the business-first approach of a design agency?

On our quest for answers Digital Arts has reached out to UK/US studios and agencies such as Found Studio, Studio Output, Trollback+Company, Vault49, Straight Forward Design and Here Design, all leading names in the branding field with a lot to say on the matter. Find their thoughts below, and let us known on social or in comments on how important experimentation is to your design business.

Why do you think it’s important for studios to experiment?

"Self-initiated projects are a great opportunity to get the entire team working together in a fun and relaxed way.

For example, when we created Missing Marks – a self-initiated book by Here Design – it began as a small creative project that stemmed from a designer awayday. Each designer was asked to invent and design a new piece of punctuation that they felt was missing.

We opened it up and asked everyone in the studio to contribute ideas - creative partners, designers, artworkers, project managers and finance all added their thoughts. Everyone approached the brief in different ways, and it was really refreshing to experience different thought processes and approaches.

From the ‘exagerwait’ (above) to the ‘erm-Dash’ the final outcome of the project catalogues all the punctuation that you always suspected you needed but didn’t know existed."
Josh Williams, designer, Here Design

"So much of design is about different perspectives coming together to create something greater than the sum of its parts. Giving people creative license to experiment plays a significant role within that.

To experiment means to find out what works, what doesn’t and why for different scenarios, which in turn creates more effective design.

By its very nature, most of the work we do needs to be experimental because it should take brands somewhere new. Whether it’s finding new angles to visually translate a strategic brand idea, or experimenting how to communicate a single personality trait, there needs to be enough time allow for multiple perspectives and directions to be found, explored and experimented with if they’re to be pushed as far as possible."
Johanna Drewe, associate creative director, Studio Output

"It’s an exciting time. In the past few years, the craft of 3D animation has taken some giant leaps forwards. The ‘tools’ and the ‘talent’ evolve every day and are so sophisticated now that the lines between visual effects and motion design have become very blurred.

With 3D software and photo-real render solutions becoming more and more accessible, the competition is stronger than ever, with the bar being reset constantly. The need to push the boundaries and experiment in order to find new and exciting outcomes is more paramount than ever."
Mike Sharpe, creative director at Found Studio

"Giving team members time to explore their own creative avenues in working hours has the potential to open exciting new doors.

With no strict deadlines or complex briefs to adhere to, innovative thought becomes limitless. It’s a great way for your team to continue learning new things, improve the quality of their work and their skill sets. It doesn’t matter if it works and gets progressed or not. It’s a chance to trial ideas and learn fresh skills in the process."
Mike Foster, co-founder and creative director at Straight Forward Design

"Experimentation is the lifeblood of any creative studio; without it we’d just be a manufacturing line, doomed to keep repeating what we know, never learning, never risking failure, and slowly losing zest for life as a result of repetition.

It’s important from a business perspective because we are living throughout the most rapidly changing technological and social environment in human history and, as commercial designers, we need to lead the way in creating what is ‘next’ rather than becoming obsolete. From an individual perspective, experimentation is what puts a spring in our step, it is key to identifying the difference between a job and lifelong passion, the difference between growing old or staying youthful, and it’s a wonderful way to keep meeting people who challenge and stimulate you."
Jonathan Kenyon, co-founder and executive creative director, Vault49

"It gives us the opportunity to push boundaries, try out new techniques and learn. Experimentation is so important because it gets you out of your comfort zone and means you can find a place for the unexpected and the unseen. You can think freely. When you get people to work together in the studio and experiment on projects it can form new partnerships and they get to know each other better. There doesn’t even need to be an end goal with experimentation – experimentation is an end in itself."
Elliott Chaffer, executive creative director, Trollbäck+Company

How does your team experiment creatively in studio?

"We have a Stretch Projects programme which allows team members time to explore new territory in a safe, ‘no-fail’ environment.

Our most recent Stretch Project saw us working on an illustrated book The Inconvenience of Human Movement (below). It’s a light, breezy and humorous read that uses illustrations created by various designers in our team to demonstrate the frustration caused by everyday situations, like people standing in doorways, or text-walking, or not having cash to hand when they reach the top of the supermarket checkout queue."
Mike Foster, Straight Forward Design

"Our Studio Projects provide our creative team with a dedicated platform to experiment. They’re short, sharp, focused projects that explore the future of sectors, brands within them and the experiences they could offer. We base them around strategic jump off points, posed as ‘what if?’ questions, to encourage free and playful thinking.

We also regularly showcase each other’s work, including a weekly wrap-up session over a beer on a Friday afternoon, so people have the chance to show what they’ve been working on. That might be a piece of client work or a personal project they’ve been working on, but it’s a great forum for sharing more experimental work or ideas. Having the whole studio seeing it, taking it in and talking about it only sparks more ideas for where a project could go."
Johanna Drewe, Studio Output

Work by Found Studio

"Since 2015, we have put great importance on studio projects and now have a pretty even split between ‘commercial’ and ‘passion’ projects. They tend to act as a way of showcasing something that we have not yet been able to demonstrate in a commercial project.

In addition to the big studio projects, which can take a long time to complete, we have established a ‘Lab’ section on our website. This functions on a couple of different levels. On one hand it’s a place where we can share things outside of the major case studies that perhaps otherwise wouldn’t get seen - R&D, styleframes and smaller projects or pitch work. On another, it’s a place to try and further our craft and explore new techniques without the risk or constraints of a commercial project.

All of our motion designers are artists in their own right with their own portfolio sites and personas. As a studio, we try to create a culture that celebrates this so as to harness their talent and channel it towards a shared goal of creating outstanding work. It’s very healthy."
Mike Sharpe, Found Studio

"Vault49 was conceived of in the print rooms of the London College of Communication where [Vault49 co-founder and executive creative director] John Glasgow and I studied. From the very beginning we have always turned to craft as a means to experiment and be inspired by creative accidents; when your craft is printmaking (as it was for us in the beginning) such accidents are never far away.

We have had printmaking presses and craft stations as an integral part of our studio environment ever since graduation (the very first version of Vault49 was a street art/printmaking collective). Everybody in our studio is taught to screen print, from the designers through to the finance and client services team. They're also taught to enjoy the creative process, to look for the beauty in mistakes and also to experiment with what could be, not just what was intended."
Jonathan Kenyon, Vault49

"When we were asked to create ten original films to screen during the AIGA Design Conference we used our mantra: Discard Everything That Means Nothing as the tagline and get the chance to experiment. It wasn’t paid for client work, so we had so much freedom. We had a go at interpreting our tagline using different techniques such as: testing out new particle systems, freezing ink letterforms, using nails and string, knitting, pixelsticks with long exposures, and shooting plaster cast letterforms with a shotgun.

Another example was when we got everyone to come to the table with something they were interested in and talk about it. They could team up for the talks as well. We had one guy who was really into cooking and he talked about that. And two discovered they were really into fashion, so they did a presentation on that. I did a talk about in camera effects which I had delivered at the Motion Conference – we later based a pitch on this too, so it all feeds into the success of the studio."
Elliott Chaffer, Trollbäck+Company

How does this work influence client projects?

"It’s something that we encourage, but also something that comes naturally to our creative team. They’re constantly absorbing inspiration, and sharing it between them, which then translates into more experimental design work. We make sure there’s room to experiment across every project we take on by building it into the way we run them.

It’s also something we build into the brands we design themselves. In a connected world, where brands need to be constantly evolving, they can’t feel like a straitjacket to use. They’ve got to provide designers and product developers with enough play and creative freedom to be able to keep things fresh. So, when we’re developing a new design system, we’re always trying to break our own rules to ensure it has enough future flexibility without becoming boring to use over time."
Johanna Drewe, Studio Output

"New ideas that are given space to grow could be what entice your next client.

Side projects have the potential to take your paid-for business into new areas. What better way to build your agency profile and demonstrate an ability to produce engaging content and visuals in what has, thus far, been uncharted territory within your team? Self-initiated briefs can also provide a good platform for PR, changing and shifting the perception of your agency.

If you’re still not persuaded of the potential benefits of this approach, look at Google. It famously encourages staff to devote 20 per cent of their time to side projects, and it continues to be one of the most innovative companies around."
Mike Foster, Straight Forward Design

"If you don’t experiment you will forever be a vendor, competing on price and deliverables among an ever-increasing large field of rival studios.

Through experimentation there is the possibility of creating something new, of challenging accepted norms, and finding creative and technological breakthroughs. This is not only a much more exciting place to be at an individual level, but it is also a much better place to be commercially. Through successful experimentation it is possible to elevate your client relationships to a place of partnership, where you become a trusted cohort on an exciting journey to somewhere unknown.

Experimentation within a creative agency is well suited to clients who seek innovation, and often that is where the most exciting and rewarding briefs are to be found."
Jonathan Kenyon, Vault49

"Well, all of our studio films and animations have gone on to win awards and subsequent commercial work. Proving that you can do something makes it so much easier when you’re being considered for a commercial project and it’s always lovely when you see your work being used as a reference in a client’s proposal.

On top of that, we’re finding more and more clients are looking at our ‘Lab’ section as a place of inspiration and reference, and indeed reassurance, when researching a new project or potential collaborator.

The ‘Lab’ is essentially a playground and as such it’s a great way for clients to get more of a sense of who we are and the character of the studio."
Mike Sharpe, Found Studio

Work by Found Studio

"We encourage our team to create and experiment with their own projects. They can even bring their work into the studio – they shouldn’t have to hide it. Experimentation is so under-rated in agencies. Other team members can have a look at what they’re doing and learn from it.

When we go to meetings, they have already looked at our team members’ personal work on Behance or Vimeo. Potential clients are interested in the client work that you do as an agency, but they’re also very interested in what creative work you do in your spare time to see what’s under the hood and what makes you stand out. Everyone wants something fresh. And we’re finding a lot of potential clients are looking at what you do creatively outside of work.

These days with everyone seeing similar visual reference resources on Vimeo and Pinterest etc it becomes more important than ever to have that special sauce to share on a more one to one basis with a client."
Elliott Chaffer, Trollbäck+Company

"For me, in-house creative projects are an important outlet for more experimental ideas within a studio. Often, we are tasked with working to very specific briefs within the confines of a brand’s existing identity, which can be restrictive and lead to monotonous design thinking.

Working on self-initiated briefs creates a different space for creativity and encourages lateral thinking on a wider scale that feeds back into client-led work."
Josh Williams, Here Design

Note: We may earn a commission when you buy through links on our site, at no extra cost to you. This doesn't affect our editorial independence. Learn more.

Read Next...