An interview with hat-trick

As well as offering a detailed look at the studio’s recent work, hat-trick’s latest book – 240pp of thoughts – also features an interview with founders Jim Sutherland and Gareth Howat. Writer Nick Asbury asks the questions – and gets some interesting answers. The full Q&A is republished here

As well as offering a detailed look at the studio’s recent work, hat-trick’s latest book – 240pp of thoughts – also features an interview with founders Jim Sutherland and Gareth Howat. Writer Nick Asbury asks the questions – and gets some interesting answers. The full Q&A is republished here…

240pp of thoughts is published by Chois in Hong Kong and includes hat-trick design projects for a range of clients including the Rambert Dance Company, Kew Gardens, Action on Hearing Loss, Centre Point, and Welsh National Opera. There is also an in-depth look at the studio’s identity work for Imperial War Museums, plus sections on its logo design and typographic work.

Asbury, a long-term hat-trick collaborator has written the book, which is available to buy from the studio’s online shop. His interview, Tricks of the Trade, precedes photographs of the London studio space and an amusing trawl through the numbers – from 1,291 jobs completed to 48,960 biscuits consumed (and one wedding along the way). More at hat-trickdesign.co.uk.

Hat-trick founders Jim Sutherland (left) and Gareth Howat

Nick Asbury: When people talk about hat-trick, the word ‘ideas’ comes up a lot. Do you consider yourselves coming from an ideas-based school of design?

Jim Sutherland: It obviously depends what you mean by ideas. I think there’s certainly a lot of thinking behind every piece of work. So much of design is about thinking – immersing yourself in the problem, finding out everything you can about the organisation, being relentlessly curious about everything that’s going on. All of that thinking is poured into the work and it often results in a single thought or insight that anchors the whole approach. It might be the kind of witty twist that a lot of people think of when they say ‘ideas’. But it might also be expressed as a style or a thoughtful use of craft.

Gareth Howat: When people talk about ‘ideas’, I think they often mean the kind of witty ideas in books like A Smile In the Mind [a compendium published in 1998]. We certainly love that kind of work, but you can’t become dogmatic about it. It’s one way of solving a problem, but not the only way.

JS: I think that’s the key for us – keeping it open and not getting tied to a particular approach. Not every job has the same kind of solution. Variety is good. If there’s a common denominator, it’s that it has to engage. It’s about getting people’s attention and making a connection. It’s the thinking that goes into the work that makes that happen.

London Underground stamps

NA: You mentioned ‘problem-solving’ earlier – is that a good definition of design for you?

GH: It’s a big part of it. Someone comes to you with a challenge – a message to communicate or a business problem to solve – and you have to distil the important parts of the problem down and come up with solutions. It’s never as simple as ‘we need a poster’, so off you go and do a poster. It’s much more a case of ‘we need to get this audience to do this thing’, and you work out some way to do it. We’re really interested in the results our work achieves – measurement is important. You need to know how it has worked for the client, because it all feeds into the next project.

JS: I agree that design is about solving problems, but it’s not just that. If design was just about solving the problem, then a lot of it would be much simpler and less interesting than it actually is. I think design is about adding something to the world: something thoughtful, beautiful or unexpected. It sounds high-flown, but I think design can be a force for good – it can add to life and make it better.

Donor wall at Kew Gardens

NA: Is that what drew you to design in the first place?

JS: I never thought about it as clearly as that, but maybe there was some vague feeling on that level. I went to do illustration at college, but found design was more varied and interesting. And it was the thinking side of it that appealed to me. Partly because I thought everyone else could draw better than me. But I liked the idea of using my brain as well as my hands.

GH: I remember designing a poster for my school’s summer concert when I was about 15. I can’t say I remember my thought process at the time, but it just felt natural to put the images, text and design together in a certain way. It was a pretty terrible poster, but it was a start.

NA: Did you each have any major early influences?

GH: I remember seeing a TV programme about Milton Glaser when I was at school and thought he had a really interesting job. I bought his book and read it cover to cover, so he was my first really influential designer. He also talked about Paul Rand so I started looking at his work. Both of them had a knack of simplifying things down and making them look powerful.

JS: For me, it was Pentagram. Bob Gill especially. Similar reasons to Gareth – the wit and simplicity. The slipper displays Bob Gill did for Pirelli are one of my all-time favourite designs.

NA: What about yours Gareth?

GH: I could think about that for days and still not have an answer. My favourite logo is probably V&A by Alan Fletcher.

JS: Mine too. Beautifully concise in a way that’s hard to beat.

Type (Chess) Set

NA: It’s interesting you both mention conciseness and simplicity. Is that something you aim for in every project?

JS: I think there’s a sense in which you’re taking complexity and distilling it down into a simpler form. But I also wouldn’t want to say that design is always about simplifying things – it’s too narrow a definition. There’s a lot to be said for richness, depth and complexity – and it’s easy to veer from being single-minded into being simple-minded.

GH: Like you said earlier, it’s about keeping things open. If you aim for simplicity as a default, you can end up excluding a lot of potentially interesting and better approaches. That said, I think we like the idea that every good solution to a brief can be explained in just a few words. That’s often how you know an idea is right – it doesn’t take hours to explain. Sometimes it needs no explanation at all.

Identity for Bede’s School

NA: Can you describe the mental process of having an idea? Is there a technique you use?

GH: It’s really tricky to pin down. It’s not a linear process. Sometimes you struggle with a problem for a long time then get the idea. Other times it happens instantly. Either way, you see the answer in your head first, or your mind’s eye.

JS: I’m a great believer that you have to completely dive into the subject and try lots of different things. Take the problem apart, look at it from every angle, get excited. It also helps to be interested in the world in general. A good idea often comes from making a lateral connection between two seemingly unconnected thoughts. Something you read about casually on the train might be the key to a completely unrelated brief you’re tackling months later.

NA: Is it ultimately a solitary process, or do you sit around brainstorming every brief?

GH: At some point in the process, talking definitely helps. We often discuss things as a team – usually me, Jim and one or two other designers. That way, an initial thought can be developed and improved by bouncing it around between us. Almost like an accelerated version of what happens inside your head – a quicker way of getting there.

JS: I think talking really helps, but you need to have thought about it first and come up with some ideas, if only to get a conversation going. At that early stage in the process, it’s really important to put things down, try things out, don’t write things off too quickly. There’s nothing worse than getting together for a brainstorm and having nothing to show to kick things off. Even if it’s a really rough idea or something obviously wrong that you’ve rejected, it can plant a seed for someone else. It’s amazing how often we get together in the studio and things start to happen. You sit down believing you’ve thought about this for ages and come up with nothing. But even half an hour later, those rejected or half-formed ideas might have turned into three really exciting routes, just by talking about them and seeing where the conversation goes.

Various logos and symbols

NA: Are you both involved in every job, or do you share them out?

GH: We split them up in terms of running them, but we’re involved creatively in every project – it just works better that way.

NA: Is that partly why you set up your own company – to be involved in all the best jobs?

JS: It’s certainly part of it. You get more control over the type of work you do. I think there are a lot of design companies out there who do really interesting work, but also do a lot of what you’d call bread-and-butter projects behind the scenes, which don’t get talked about so much. It’s understandable given how tough life can be in design, but I’ve always thought that – if you possibly can – you shouldn’t make that divide between ‘bread-and-butter’ and the interesting stuff. Since we started out, we’ve aimed to make all of it interesting. I’m not saying we succeed every time, but it’s a good thing to aim for.

GH: Of course, running your own studio comes with all the obvious pressures. You spend a lot of time running the business, when what you really want to do is the creative part. But you also get this very personal sense of achievement and pride. It’s great when something works and you can say ‘we did that’. Plus, you’re always learning something new with every client that comes along.

JS: It’s important to make time for ‘play’ among the client work. You need space to experiment and explore new areas. It could be a personal book or product idea. All those things feed back into the culture of the studio and make you a better designer. You can never really think you’ve made it as a designer – you have to keep throwing yourself into new things and learning from them.

‘The numbers’ – from pages of work to pages of interview

NA: Finally, what advice would you give someone starting out in design?

JS: I’d say push every job as much as you can, and also do as many projects as you can. That’s not to advocate quantity over quality – you need to give each project your all – but you really do learn from every project you take on. Even the ones that don’t work out make you a better designer. I often thing I’ll have really cracked this by the time I’m 80.

GH: All I’d add is that you should try to over-deliver on every project. It relates to what Jim said earlier about design being about giving something more than is strictly necessary. It’s about adding something to the world – solving the problem, but also contributing something above and beyond. Making life more interesting and worthwhile.

JS: It sounds idealistic, but I think you have to hold onto that idea of design being a force for good in the world. Why even enter it as a career otherwise?

240pp of thoughts (£20) is available to buy from hat-trickdesign.co.uk/shop


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