Inside Britain's 5 best creative studios


Entering digital design consultancy ustwo’s studio is like stepping into a tourist brochure for Shoreditch: it’s all 1950s furniture, fixie bike racks and goofy Polaroids. There’s a beer fridge and kick-ass coffee. The closest thing to an executive office is the wooden Wendy house with a neon pink interior that ustwo’s co-founder, known universally as Mills, sometimes perches in to work.

It feels like the ultimate start-up, but ustwo is nothing of the kind – at eight years old, it has 120 staff in three offices and a roster of high profile clients including investment banks. “We are very informal, even with our blue-chip clients, but you can only afford to do that if you’re highly professional in the work you do,” explains business development director Julian Ehrhardt. 

Ustwo wants to find the people it loves, and hold onto them. Both Mills and Julian mention struggling not to take it personally when staff leave, and the working year is filled with informal workshops, presentations from external creatives, activities ranging from barista training to wine tasting, and even a company holiday.

The atmosphere in the studio is calm, focused – and very playful. “There’s no strict hierarchy, but there’s respect and we really like each other,” says Sae Ra Kang, who joined as a graduate in May. “Everyone teases each other... but I know if Mills pulls my hair, I can kick him right back.

“It’s special, but it means you can’t scale up too much while keeping that family atmosphere. It’s probably possible in a 120-person studio, but not more,” says Julian. To grow without growing up, ustwo has opened separate studios, in New York and Malmö, Sweden. 

What Mills cherishes most is the design studio’s rawness and realness – and when it comes to keeping people creatively fresh, ustwo puts its money where its mouth is, investing £500,000 a year in its own creative incubator. In a zone known as CWA (content with attitude), a team creates ustwo’s own products, including apps such as Granimator and Whale Trail

The creatives in CWA are often taking a ‘proliday’, which is ustwo-speak for a project holiday: an inspiration-replenishing break from the demands of corporate projects that can take months or even years to deliver. 

These projects don’t tend to earn much – quite the opposite – but that’s beside the point. “We won’t necessarily get the brief from clients that lets us explore the boundaries of new technology, and really that’s part of our DNA,” explains Julian.

“The key thing is that we give such a shit,” argues Mills. “I wanted to prove you can run a studio from the heart.”

Wolff Olins

The London headquarters for Wolff Olins is as sleek and calm as a government building, although it’s definitely hipper. There’s no doubting you’re at the heart of a creative behemoth: this is where international corporations, cities and even countries come to rebrand.

For designers, arriving at Wolff Olins sometimes requires quite a shift in mindset. “Suddenly you’re in meeting rooms not talking about colour or font choice – you’re having conversations about business models and strategies,” explains senior designer Stephen McGilvray. “Just because you haven’t studied strategy doesn’t mean you can’t contribute... It goes beyond design.”

Despite the studio’s size – it employs 150 staff between its London, New York and Dubai offices – the design process is democratic. “Everybody’s allowed a point of view,” says Stephen. “It’s not like a design director has the final say – a junior’s opinion is valued the same as everyone else’s.”

Working on such massive projects can be draining, so Wolff Olins reaches out to start-ups, hooking them up with its creatives to see what they can learn from one another. 

And it encourages staff to cultivate their passions – the quirkier, the better. “We said we wanted to create the largest bee-friendly environment in the world – we were thinking big,” says middleweight designer Charlotte Coulais of her pet project, a beekeeping social enterprise called the Honey Club. Wolff Olins gave its staff more than just time: it allowed the Honey Club to set up its hives on the roof of its London office, and helped with funding. The chef and building manager even trained as beekeepers, while local youths and staff from surrounding offices help run the club.

The office has a lively social life, too: Monday night sees a conference room overtaken for the not-metaphorically named Fight Club, run by a design specialist who’s also a cage fighter. This can be surreal: “On my first Monday, I found myself wrestling with my creative director,” laughs Stephen. Other nights see Pilates or yoga classes, while there are regular events inviting other leading designers to speak. For the Olympics, the office organised a mini-decathlon that saw staff attempting to kayak in the canal outside. 

All this helps staff to gel, which isn’t the easiest task when many projects are highly confidential, with code names and worked on by creatives in secret rooms. “It’s exciting, but it’s a relief when it’s out and you can tell people about it,” says Stephen.

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