Featured Studio

Believe in

April 2019

We chat with Founder & Creative Director of Believe in, Blair Thomson, about the odd jobs he did before settling on a career in design (which includes scanning washed raisins on a conveyer belt and removing any stalks before being added to cakes — a very odd job); their 10-acre-maple-forest studio north of Toronto; the Bob Dylan song lyrics to live by, and the handful of side projects he's got running — Canada Modern, Graphic Stamps & @graphilately

Where did you study and what were some of your first jobs?

I studied Art & Design in Portsmouth, England in the mid-late 80s. What a lot of people don’t know though is that on ending my education I had my sights set on a different path…. and not design. During my college years, I took to playing bass and the rock & roll lifestyle seemed a far more attractive avenue to this naive youngster. During my first summer after completing my studies, instead of internships and junior design roles, I worked at a temping agency doing anything on offer to raise ‘new equipment funds’. Selected highlights include: making buckles for seat belts on the production line, scanning washed raisins on a conveyer belt and removing any stalks before being added to cakes, garbage man (lasted 1 day), labourer on a building site (after 1 week was asked never to return)… I was also a bike mechanic for nearly 2 years alongside this. Luckily after a few years I came to my senses and resumed my original trajectory and went on to work in-house at a large PLC in London before going out on my own and starting the design agency that became Believe in.

How does the local culture of where you live affect your design work and getting clients?

My Canadian studio (where I am based) is actually located within 10 acres of maple forest, 15 minutes from the nearest town and an hour north of downtown Toronto. Part of the reason why we decided to base ourselves away from the city, in the country, was to really immerse ourselves in a proper Canadian lifestyle. To live with the seasons, the elements, nature and the outdoors. Intentionally a more grounded, honest existence with less reliance on the distractions of modern city life. Being here affords us a much needed life balance, whilst still allowing easy access to the city with its airport, arts and culture, restaurants, friends and of course clients. My work probably doesn’t seem too different to what I made working in the city with my team, but the freedom of being here helps me look at things through a clearer lens, and make braver, more inspired decisions, which definitely has an impact on the final execution.

Is there an active design community in your city and who are your favourite top 5 designers/studios/organisations our readers can check out?

Toronto is the thriving hub of the Canadian creative industries, employing near 25,000 designers across all disciplines. It is also the commercial capital of Canada, so there is a lot of business activity here in general. As a result, there are plenty of awesome studios, some I’m proud to call friends. My top five for TO would be, in no particular order, Underline Studio, Monnet Design, lg2, Blok Design and Concrete. These guys, in my opinion, are stellar examples. But there are many, many other great talents.

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Stay true. Believe in yourself. Do the right work, the right way, for the right clients. Always.

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Whats the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

A few years ago I was interviewed for a book on creative businesses, and I was asked the same question. I could have quoted a handful of philosophical quotes I’ve heard over the years, but instead, I chose a line from a Bob Dylan song that says ‘All the money you make will never buy back your soul’. My logic being that successful and respected creatives should never do work ‘just for the money’. Stay true. Believe in yourself. Do the right work, the right way, for the right clients. Always.

Any passion projects/collabs you would like to share?

Canada Modern is my current, major, personal project. For those who don’t know, Canada Modern is an archive of graphic design that exists to honour the amazing modernist designers of the 60s, 70s and early 80s; who helped shape Canada’s identity and laid the path for my future creative career. It’s housed within my studio and shared online at canadamodern.org, with new work added regularly. The archive’s purpose is to build a definitive and accessible record of this significant era, and a valuable reference for designers, students, teachers, historians and citizens alike. A first of its kind and what I believe will become my life’s work. Every Canadian, fan of mid-century / modernism / international style, or those interested in design history should invest some time and become familiar.

I also have the Instagram account @graphilately, which as the name implies focuses purely on ‘Graphic Philately’. The success of this project spawned the now sold out Unit Editions publication ‘Graphic Stamps’ which I collaborated with my good friend Iain Follett to produce.

If people wanted to know more about design in your city, what are the top blogs, organisations or events they can read up on?

For a broader understanding of what design has to offer in Toronto, you should check out the Toronto Design Directory, run by my friend Margot. As a relentless advocate of the Toronto design scene she invests a lot of her time in this. She also runs many events and workshops, and is really engaged holistically within the community, especially with the younger, hungry-to-learn crowds. The larger membership funded ADCC, RGD and GDC national design organizations also run many successful programs, conferences and events and are well worth checking out.

Website: believein.net, canadamodern.org

Instagram: @blairthomson, @believeindesign, @canadamodern, @graphilately

Twitter: @blairthomson, @believeindesign, @canadamodern, @graphilately

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