After studying together we graduated, and I guess we thought we would do a few internships and start applying for jobs, like most graduates do. We each had designers and design studios that we admired and wanted to aim for. Things took an interesting turn pretty much immediately, when we were each offered a job as a team running Lost in the Forest Studio, a part graphic design-part educational venture. Working there together totally shattered our expectations, both in good and bad ways. We realised this was a freak opportunity, and looking towards possible next steps (in the middle of a recession), no jobs like this existed in our proximity – most of our friends were moving towards regular design jobs. We still wanted to continue along the same path we were on, so we nervously chatted about starting our own studio and shaping our own roles. Around the same time we were fortunate to meet Daniel Russell. He questioned the nature of waiting for a job to happen to you / for you, and the nature of internships, and pointed out that if there were no jobs around, you may as well try and make your own job, if you could. He might cringe at this if he reads it, but he is one of our greatest friends and inspirations.
We don’t take on interns currently, no. We think it’s important to have the physical space to do so (we share a busy studio with around 10 other practitioners), and each of us is in the studio on different days and times due to teaching commitments, so it would be a slightly crazy experience for a new person! Instead we try to contribute to design education in other ways, we offer studio visits and portfolio advice, and we often visit different universities to give talks and run workshops. This is important to us, because we know our path to self-employment was weird and bumpy, and we want to offer an alternative opinion to design students that we may meet who don’t fit the mould and may want to do the same thing. We would love to accept interns in the near future though, maybe for the whole Engine House, so that someone could get insight from several disciplines at once.
Working in design education regularly, as we do, feels like it takes up a lot of time and brainspace, but we genuinely feel it is a mutual arrangement – beneficial to us as a studio and also the students and staff we work with. Having to explain our working process and discussing different design practices and principles with the students means that we are constantly kept on our toes. It makes us question how and why we do things. Plus, it’s exciting work because the students don’t get bogged down with too many real world restrictions just yet (which is not to say they are naive or unaware). It serves as a constant reminder that we may sometimes worry too much about budget or feasibility ourselves! We do our best to give honest, meaningful advice that we would either have liked to have received as students or would follow ourselves, right now. There is so much dreamy-instagram-slogan, advice out there right now for students, ‘be this, do that, be more like, don’t do xyz...’ that makes any kind of design-related future seem unrealistic or unattainable. Especially taking into account the level of debt that students are expected to take on these days, that kind of advice seems really dated. How can you ‘be brave, take risks’ etc when you are worried about rent?
Of course we use computers like most design studios, but we like to spend time making physical objects and prints, mark making and scanning textures, messing around with new materials to see what we can come up with. Somebody pointed out during one of our talks recently that we tend towards organic processes and textures, which is coincidental, but true. We try to keep an eye on the amount of work we do that is purely digital, and ask ourselves how we can incorporate traditional or unexpected physical processes where relevant. Anything that takes control away from us feels worthwhile. It’s also very satisfying to make by hand — bookbinding and finishing things in house that would normally be sent off to a printer and then re-appear fully finished often benefit from the hand-made approach as it allows for more complex outcomes and gives us greater control. We collect all different kinds of tools and try to look at their function and how they might be useful instead of what they are supposed to be used for.
Manchester’s design scene is big and friendly, but still quite close knit. Everyone knows everyone, and if not, they are one introduction away. There is a range of scales in design business here which I think gives students and designers a lot of options, from freelancers up to giant agencies and even bigger companies with international offices. And location wise, we’re lucky to be able to hop on a train to Liverpool, Leeds or Sheffield, who have equally great creative scenes, just an hour away. We often joke that you could spend every night going to a different creative meetup, gallery show, workshop, craft course, or arty event of some kind (we don’t, or we’d be permanently drunk). For us at the moment, The Engine House is home, and our 7th studio move. Engine House HQ is a beautiful 3 storey building in the grounds of Islington Mill, an old Victorian textile factory turned artist studios, gallery, B&B, bar and live music venue. Definitely not your standard office! The Mill is a little out of the way of the city centre, so it’s quiet in the daytime, busy at night time. All the studio holders here love the creative and collaborative environment that the Mill provides and everyone is currently mucking in with fundraising work for the main building which needs a new roof and a lift.
We’ve just done a job for the Walker gallery in Liverpool (branding, exhibition catalogue and wayfinding) and really enjoyed working with the team of curators on a show concerning the 50th anniversary of Section 28 – Coming Out: Sexuality, Gender & Identity – so more work like this is what we would really like. Part of what made the show so exciting is that the gallery are actively looking to use the show to write new guidelines on acquiring work, re-writing descriptions of work in their permanent collection to reflect LBTQ+ issues. We’ve focused on book design for quite awhile but we learned so much through doing this show, and it means a lot that however small, an exhibition like this can make a lasting difference to our culture. We’d love to work on more shows of this nature and with more artists, curators and galleries further afield.