London-based design studio Airside celebrates its tenth year of business this year by self-publishing Airside by Airside, a 296-page hardback tome choc full of images of the projects that have not only paid the bills at Airside HQ but have shaped the company. However, this is not your typical studio monograph. Dip into the text on any given page and it becomes clear that the intention is not just to show off the work created since the company’s inception in 1999, but also to use the book as a means to contextualise the work within the story of the company’s development.
“When we first talked about doing a book I was very keen that it had something of worth in the narrative,” explains Fred Deakin, who, along with Nat Hunter and Alex Maclean originally set up the company back in 1999. “I was very conscious that I wanted to do something where the narrative would be as interesting as the images. I’ve got loads of design books where I haven’t actually got round to reading the text but if you chose to read ours, I felt really strongly that it needed to be something that would give an insight into why the work was produced and the context and the culture in which the work was produced.”
The book’s hard cover favours pattern over any informational text – a removable sticker carries that. Inside, the first thing you notice is that the text on each page is both in English and in Japanese. “It’s partly because of Lemon Jelly,” explains Deakin, referring to the band which he runs alongside the design studio. “The Japanese public are so design literate that, when we first went out there, almost more of them had heard of Airside than had heard of Lemon Jelly, which was quite a revelation. We’ve done a lot of work now in Japan and while I wouldn’t say we’re big there, we’ve got an awareness – we’ve done lectures and we’ve had exhibitions in Japan and we’ve all got a real love for the culture. Our Japanese agent suggested the dual narrative and I really like it, it looks really nice. I think it gives the book more weight, more traction.”
This dual narrative that runs throughout the book tells the story of Airside in detail: from how the three company founders met, what they studied at college and an image of their first paid job, through to details of the time they put themselves into business college to learn the skills necessary to keep the company afloat. There are insights into the processes that led them towards their core values of “blow people’s minds, have fun, make money” and beyond to making the decision to move into advertising – something they once ruled out.
“I guess we were trying to do three things with the book,” says Deakin. “We were trying to show off the work that we’re very proud of, but we also wanted to show people how Airside happened because it’s been quite an unusual process. We were very lucky and we took very firm decisions about certain things that we weren’t going to fuck with so I wanted to show that, to make that explicit because that is part of the work really. The values and processes that created each piece of work are crucial, I think, to giving the book that deeper insight which is what I was hoping the people that bought the book might want. The third reason would be that if you are about to set up your own design company then it’s very much a kind of case study, a ‘how to’. If you want to set up a company like Airside then this is exactly what we did, here are our mistakes, here are our successes, this is what we’re proud of, this is what we’re not proud of. We consciously tried to put in the bad stuff as well as the good stuff. I think we expose ourselves really extensively over the course of the narrative – that’s the intention anyway.”
What Airside’s candid account of its first ten years really exposes is the learning curve it has encountered on the business side of things. Many regular cr readers will be familiar with Airside’s T-Shirt Club, the Airside Shop, and with work the company has created for brands such as Coca-Cola, Greenpeace, Panasonic, Orange and for Deakin’s own musical outfit, Lemon Jelly. But some may not know that a lack of business know-how nearly sunk Airside only a few years ago. In 2004, Deakin, Hunter and Maclean had to give their staff a month’s notice as the company’s figures just weren’t adding up. “The real killer was that we had absolutely no strategy to get new work, we would just wait for the phone to ring,” recalls Deakin. In a fortuitous twist of fate, around this time of crisis, Hunter read a feature in cr’s April 04 edition by Adrian Shaughnessy about how graphic design was evolving from a specialist discipline and becoming a culture – a piece in which Airside was favourably mentioned. So Airside took Shaughnessy to lunch and he ended up doing a day’s consulting for them, helping t0 pinpoint their areas of weakness. “We floundered because we had no real-world business acumen at all,” reveals Deakin. “I think most creative people, because they know on some level that it’s not a skill they’re naturally born with, demean it. And similarly vice versa – business people, because they know they can’t take out a pencil and draw a sketch, and that’s something they can’t show off about, they demean that skill and keep the creatives in a box. Actually both sides of the story have to get over it and start making sweet sweet love with each other because that’s where the power is really.”
Airside’s response to its financial wake up call was to acquire business skills: the three company directors went on business courses and they made the decision to work with advertising agencies – a decision that has paid off. Literally. Now the company is more comfortable balancing business sensibilities with creative enthusiasms.
“We’re not the best business people in the world but we’re a lot better than we were five years ago, that’s for sure,” says Deakin. “We’ve been wondering, is there a new way of looking how we engender creativity and make it financially viable that is somewhere between ‘I won’t get my hands dirty with the business practice’ and ‘back to work, slackers’? Somewhere in the middle, that’s where we want to be, going forward.”
Airside by Airside, £35, is available now from airsideshop.com