(Above: Cover of Spin 360’s book)
Spin 360˚ documents the life and work of one of the UK’s most respected design studios. Spin was founded in 1992 by husband-and-wife duo Tony Brook and Patricia Finegan, now the studio’s creative director and managing director respectively. In two extensive interviews in the book, the pair discuss everything from how the company got started and the day-to-day running of the business, to how they work with clients and keep the studio motivated – extracts from both are featured here. The interviews were conducted by Isabel Andrews and Adrian Shaughnessy and are taken from Spin 360˚, published by Unit Editions (£85). The 520-page book includes essays, interviews and over 20 years of work.
Once you and Trish had made the decision to set up Spin, what were your first steps?
We were living in a small two-bedroomed flat off the beaten track in Streatham, south London, and we converted our tiny spare bedroom into a studio. It was a pretty inauspicious beginning, but I think being away from the main graphic design areas of that time gave us space to grow at our own pace, and allowed us to make our mistakes in relative anonymity.
A couple of months after you launched Spin, Trish resigned her job in fashion PR and, soon after that, started going out with your portfolio, talking to clients about graphic design. How did she acquire the language for that?
You don’t have to know a lot of design lingo, but you do have to be able get on with people. In any case, Trish picked it up pretty quickly; her experience in fashion PR stood her in good stead. She has an interest in the visual world and a natural empathy with, and appreciation of, creativity and the power it has. Design is essentially a social enterprise – internally between the designers, then externally with the clients and finally with the audience. That’s where it loses connection with art, to some degree. If the client likes the look of your work and thinks you’re likely to be a nice person to work with, then that’s what happens. They’re not necessarily going to be that knowledgeable about graphic design, which is something that graphic designers often forget. It’s not that clients are necessarily naive; they just don’t spend their days poring over back issues of graphic design magazines.
Quite early on in Spin’s development, you had to purge your client list. What were the consequences of that decision?
When we were first starting out I read a booklet from one of the banks. It said that most businesses fail in the first six months. After that it’s 18 months, then three years. So I thought, ‘That’s my target: three years.’ I became fixated with the idea of surviving the first three years. I worked as hard as I could – there was one year when I only took one weekend off. I was obsessed with surviving, but after three years of survival, making work that I wasn’t particularly proud of, something had to give. I remember thinking, ‘My brain has turned into Plasticine.’ I was completely drained; I had worked myself to a standstill. So at the end of the third year, Christmas 1995, we had a reappraisal and decided to resign a number of our clients. It was insane – they were the source of our income – but also such a relief, as some of them were just plain horrible. One client used to fling design proposals over my head into the back of his office if he disapproved of them, which makes me laugh now but wasn’t that much fun at the time.
After the great purge we still had some decent clients, like Charly Records, but essentially we’d wiped the slate clean. We thought, ‘Well done, us – we’ve survived three years scraping together any work we could find. Right, what are we going to do now?’ It could no longer be just about survival, it had to be about the work. That’s when the self-initiated projects started to happen. We made a CD-ROM about Spin that was eventually seen by Diesel, who were really taken with the idea of launching their new clothing range 55 DSL on CD-ROM. This project proved a big moment for us as a studio. It won numerous awards and received lots of media attention. I remember anticipating a torrent of ‘new media’ work, but it didn’t materialise; instead we got a call from Levi’s asking if we’d like to work on their retail campaigns.
As Spin grew in size, it acquired a number of very big clients, but you ended up resigning some of them. Was it easier ‘purging’ the second time around?
It was much more difficult. It resulted in making a bunch of people redundant, and that still haunts me. Our expansion hadn’t been planned – we didn’t know that Levi’s, Channel 4, Deutsche Bank and Nike were going to call us up. We took on account managers to look after these big clients because that’s what seemed to be required. Rather than saying, ‘Oh, no, we’re a small, bespoke creative studio,’ we tried to facilitate all their needs. In fact, it wasn’t the size of the clients that was the problem; we just felt a self-imposed pressure to grow. The truth is that they would have wanted to work with us irrespective of our size.
It’s important to stress that we were still doing a lot of very good work during this period. We were still a very creative studio. I understand that people reading this may be thinking, ‘What the hell is he complaining about? They are working for all these phenomenal clients!’ And they’re quite right. But two issues forced our hand.
First, we were drowning in the sheer scale of the big Nike Europe retail campaigns. They were relentless and everyone was feeling stressed and unhappy; we simply weren’t set up to do that amount of churn. So we sat the account managers and the new business manager down and said, “Right, we’re going to resign Nike Europe but remember, these guys pay your wages. You are going to have to go out and pound the streets with the portfolio and get some more work in.” But it didn’t work out, for whatever reason. We carried the wages for almost a year. We had lost all this income and it wasn’t replaced.
Second, I didn’t have that feeling I needed of connectedness, togetherness and focus. There were cliques forming; Spin was becoming its own separate organism that Trish and I weren’t a part of. I realised that what I wanted was a small, creative studio. There wasn’t really a choice in the end, so clear had this idea become. We decided to reduce in size.
Running a studio is a complex business, involving balancing the demands of employees, clients and external suppliers while also maintaining quality of work.
How has your philosophy evolved over time?
Once our focus changed from mere survival, there was a natural evolution into deeper questions, such as: Who are we? What are our motivations? What is our opinion? The answers to these questions affect every aspect of your practice – the aesthetic and conceptual approach to what you make; your attitude to your work colleagues; the day-to-day decisions you take. The way I see it now is: we’re all in it together, working alongside each other, trying to make the best work we can. I understand that I have to lead the team, and I also have to work to ensure that everyone has opportunities to contribute. I could use the analogy of being in a band: after a while of not wanting to be the lead singer, I realised that I had to be. I needed to put myself back in the middle of it. Equally, I’m thrilled if other members of the group write songs too. The only provisos are that they are of the right standard and that they move Spin on.
One thing that underpins the culture and philosophy at Spin is the belief that designers should be engaged with all aspects of the world – culture, politics, food, everything. They should read, they should travel, they should be innately curious.
Design, like living, is a social undertaking. When we sit and eat together or have ameeting, we are sharing. When we design something, it is being made to share. Mine is essentially a humanist position – I always loved the idea of being a good citizen in the Greek sense, making a positive contribution to society. I hope we do that in our own way.
Can you talk us through the process you go through with clients?
There are a number of steps that we usually take when working on a project of any substance. We start from the assumption, usually correct, that we don’t know anything about the client’s business and that we are on a steep learning curve.
If it’s a new identity for an existing company, we will evaluate the existing visual language that they have. This tends to be quite a ‘gloves-off’, honest appraisal from our point of view. We will ask for a list of competitors; this is a great way of finding out about a sector, but I also have to admit we like to see what we are up against and what opportunities there are for making our response stand out.
We also ask for examples of identities they admire and why they like them. This might not seem relevant on the face of it – if someone says ‘Apple’, for instance, how much use can that be? But the language they use when describing an identity they admire and aspire to can give us genuine insights into the creative space we are operating in. Personally I find this part of our process – learning about their ambitions, desires, hopes and plans – fascinating. We have conversations with our clients that they wouldn’t have with anyone else. It’s almost like design therapy.
This process forms the backbone of a workshop. It is critical that there is a forum for debate and clarification, since the nuances and emphases placed on certain words and, in the case of visual mood boards, images can only be understood by face-to-face conversation, which can be conducted over Skype if necessary. It’s just as easy for us to work with clients based overseas as it is to work with our clients in the UK.
Following on from the workshop, we create a document which encapsulates our findings and what has been agreed. This document gives us and our client a set of agreed pragmatic requirements and emotive core values that we can hold our creative responses up against. If your designs are a specific response to a set of agreed values, then they have genuine veracity and focus. This gives you and your client a tangible base to work from, and discussions tend to be more informed and confident. I’m often asked how do we get away with the work we do, but we really don’t ‘get away’ with anything – our process doesn’t allow it.
What are your expectations for the commissions you undertake?
I want our design to have soul and life, to have genuine integrity and a real impact for the person that we’re making it for. When we undertake a commission for someone, it’s like joining their team, so what we don’t want is any misunderstanding about where we’re coming from. We’re going to make a great job of this; it’s going to be fantastic, but it’s going to require some real commitment from us and it’s going to require some real commitment from you, to make something that’s greater than the sum of its parts. When I’m analysing our work, I look at it in a very specific way: is it having the impact it should have? Is it communicating the right spirit and tone? Is there a balance between function and play? All structure and no attitude gets you ignored.
You seem to make very few compromises. Is this true?
There is a feeling that if you compromise, then you abandon all your beliefs and sacrifice the purity of your response, but for me, ‘compromise’ is not necessarily a dirty word. We are living in the real world. We always talk about ‘collaboration’ in the context of a ‘relationship’ – two worn-out words that everybody uses – but which manifest themselves in a tangible way for us. If a client comes back and says, ‘This isn’t quite working for me yet’ then we’re not just going to walk away.
We’re not prima donnas. We will drive on and keep developing fresh ideas to get the thing to where it needs to be. Compromise is fine as long you don’t drop your standards – after all, standards are what the client is paying for, so they should be non-negotiable. Plus I’m really dogged. I will keep going. I’ll keep thinking, ‘There must be a right answer – something beautiful, smart, impactful, experimental and edgy that’s going to keep all the criteria in place.’
Does this doggedness mean that you are sometimes willing to make financial sacrifices to achieve your ambition for a project?
We rarely, if ever, get paid for the actual amount of work that we put into any project. We can’t charge for it, but it just has to be there – the painful, painstaking attention to details that no one but us will ever notice; the paranoid gene that means you are unable to sleep because you are searching for a better solution. Sometimes I wish we could say to a client, ‘I had a terrible night’s sleep last night fretting about your project, so I’m adding it to your bill.’ Be great if we could!
All work from the studio carries the line ‘designed by Spin’. Could you talk about your thinking on credits and acknowledging individuals?
Spin is a studio and, in my mind, a team. The work belongs to us all, and trying to dissect the contributions of every individual to a project in a fair and equable way would be a nightmare. The only thing we can say with any clarity or certainty is that the work was designed at Spin. As far as representing Spin is concerned, I think it is really important that designers here get an opportunity to give talks, present the studio and offer their perspectives on things.
How do you keep people motivated and interested in staying at Spin?
We used to really worry about people leaving, but now we see that it’s just a natural part of an ongoing process. Over the years we’ve seen the positive effect of people who fit in and contribute – and the effect of those who don’t. We are now pretty savvy about getting the right kind of qualities in the people we employ. This might sound blindingly obvious, but it is worth remembering that you can’t beat nice, talented, intelligent people who want to do well. If people feel that they need to move on, that’s understandable. We thank them for all they’ve done for us, give them a nice leaving present, wave them goodbye and hopefully stay friends with them. In terms of keeping people happy, we work in a well-designed studio, we buy food for communal meals and we make good work. The social aspect of eating and working together is fun, and there is a really light, positive atmosphere to the studio, a lot of laughter. This often makes placement students think we are sitting around chilling, when in actual fact we are all working our arses off. It’s important to keep things fun – we are all under enough self-imposed pressure to deliver without any extra grief. It isn’t a bad life.
I believe it is vital we treat everyone with respect. Sure, I occasionally expect people to stay late, but that is very much a last resort. Remembering what happened to me through over-work, I don’t encourage it. Many studios do this working late thing as a kind of badge of honour, but I’ve worked at places like that and for me it is counter-productive. I think a work-life balance is super-important.
The move to your current studio in Stannary Street in 2006 seemed to coincide with Spin becoming the studio you wanted it to be. Was that the case?
Yes, it was a combination of factors and a good chunk of luck. The people who owned our previous studio in Canterbury Court asked us if we would mind moving out for a year – they wanted to develop the estate. We had a clause in our contract entitling us to ‘quiet enjoyment of our space’, which meant that if we refused to move, their work had to stop. We came to a financial agreement that allowed us to put a down payment on our current studio. I’d read My Workspace Does Not Yet Exist by Otl Aicher, and it was a big influence on me when we were designing Stannary Street. He said that it was important for a studio principal to sit in the middle of an open plan studio and not hide away in an office. Everyone should be able to hear any conversation that is happening, good or bad. This feeling of openness is a vital part of the spirit of the Spin studio – there are some conversations that need to be private, but very few.
What does the future hold?
Spin as a studio is really cooking right now. Our output is in a fresh place; we are getting some fantastic opportunities. I’d like to see us continue to push things on, keep testing ourselves and not take anything for granted. Complacency is the enemy of creativity; I don’t feel there is any chance of us taking our foot off the gas any time soon.
How would you describe your role?
On a practical level, my job is to make sure the studio is a comfortable, clean and friendly environment. I also look after a lot of the administrative components that keep the studio running, principally budgets and scheduling. It’s critical to the success of the studio that it runs smoothly and that projects are well managed.
It also falls to me to facilitate the relationship between designer and client. By ‘facilitate’, I mean that I try – and I don’t always get this right – not to get in the way. When the designer-client relationship is good, it is truly beautiful; it can produce exceptional work that delivers phenomenal benefits all round. Getting in the way of that can be really counterproductive. So I walk a really sensitive line.
Did anything in your earlier experiences foreshadow, or prepare you for, setting up Spin with Tony?
When I was growing up, my dad worked in marketing. He commissioned the branding, naming and identity of the DART railway, the biggest engineering event that had happened in Dublin for years. I remember him asking for my opinion on the different names and designs that his agency had come up with. I didn’t feel I was particularly creative myself, but I knew I wanted to work with creative people. When I was 18, I left home to study Design Management at the London College of Fashion.
How important is the ability to communicate to your job today?
It’s absolutely critical, and not just in the studio – it’s in absolutely everything. What surprises me is how hard it can be for people to communicate about lots of things. Some find it almost impossible to talk about money, for example, or other people’s work. But as long as the motivation is honest and you’re being truthful and constructive, you shouldn’t be afraid of saying anything.
Returning to the ‘sensitive line’ you walk, are you always trying to keep both the client and the designers, happy?
Once we’ve agreed on the basic brief and have started the job, often it’s just about reminding everybody that we all want to get to the same place, because the reality is that the objective for both parties is the same: a really creative, successful result. The designers don’t have one goal and the clients another.
Surely that’s not always the case – are there times when there is disagreement over what those objectives are?
Most difficulties come from a genuine lack of understanding, on either side or both, so identifying where that lack of understanding is, and assessing it, is a lot of my job. Rarely is a client plain unreasonable. Even if the brief changes halfway through, there’s usually a reason. The question is: how do we move forward?
Ultimately, though, I am a member of the studio. I am not the client; I am part of the design team. So if the client is being unreasonable or is behaving badly, then I will do my best to support the studio. My loyalties are completely and utterly with Spin – they have to be.
Is there a difference sometimes between what a creative hears and what a project manager hears?
When meeting a client for the first time, taking a brief on a project, or doing a client presentation, it’s really important to have two separate pairs of ears there.
I’m listening to budgets, timelines, expectations, I’m looking at the personalities of the clients, and I’m looking at how we can work together in a practical way.
Whereas Tony and other designers are listening to all the creative cues and clues that I don’t hear – I try to pick them up, and I’m learning how, but I don’t pick up half of what they will. So, when we all get together after a meeting, collectively we’ve got the whole picture.
What’s the difference between your role at Spin and the role of an account handler in a large studio?
I’ve never been an account handler in a large studio, so I only sort of know what they do. What I would say is this: I understand the value of great design. The ultimate goal is always great design that answers challenging issues and fulfils challenging functions. If we have to work harder at it and invest more time, then we do. We don’t do timesheets in the studio, because they’re completely counterproductive to creative output. We’ve tried, and you spend half your time doing timesheets – it’s like a rein. Design isn’t a science. It’s not something you can necessarily do in ten minutes or an hour. Sometimes it takes three days to come up with a good idea, sometimes three weeks.
How do you recruit the right sort of people for Spin?
We spend a lot of time speaking with candidates. Tony has specific things that he looks for, and he can be a little bit provocative in his interviews – how people respond to that is how he will identify what they’re like. If I had my way, I would take everybody out onto a tennis court, to reveal who they are under pressure. If you play tennis with somebody, all their character is revealed within about 15 minutes – whether they’re cheeky, whether they smash it, whether they’re careful, how they handle losing a point.
How do you make sure the design team is excited about every new project that comes along?
Designers have good days and bad days – they’ll be really excited about one thing, but not another. I let them come round to stuff. They’re human.
Does that ever cause you anxiety?
There are moments when I’ll have a word with Tony and ask, ‘Are you worried about this, or is it okay?’ If he says, ‘We need time,’ then they can have time. If he says, ‘Actually, they should be getting a move on,’ then I can go and say, ‘There is a deadline of tomorrow lunchtime.’ So it’s a combination. I don’t like to put pressure on designers, because I know what the consequences can be: they might work faster and harder, but they might also deliver something below par. You can’t force the idea out of them. Luckily, Tony has loads of ideas – he’s our rich seam – and when it comes down to it, I’m in awe of everyone’s talent.
Do you feel that the design team and Tony value what you do?
Yes, absolutely – I know they do. When we were first setting up I had a terrible crisis of confidence: I genuinely wondered why I’d given up my job to sit in a design studio and do what I considered to be very little. I was constantly thinking, ‘I can only count so many numbers; I can only do so much.’ But Tony was amazing, because he always said, “You will start to understand the value that you bring to the business – I couldn’t do it without you.” It took him a long time of telling me that for me to believe it, but I do now, and I just think it’s the nicest thing ever. That’s why I want to carry on doing it.
Would you say that the business side can be creative too?
Yes, I think it’s hugely creative. Furthermore I don’t think a designer can be completely absolved from his or her responsibility – to the project, to the fee, to the outcome. We’re not fine artists; we’re commercial designers. We work in a business and draw salaries. We have deliverables. So it goes both ways.
Setting up a studio and keeping it running is no mean feat – what would you say has been, or is, the biggest challenge?
To this day, the hardest part of my job is dealing with the inconsistencies of income and the fact that you can never predict for more than three months where that income, which has to pay everyone’s salaries or the next big tax bill, is coming from. We always have the quarterly VAT to pay on 31 December, so I’ve had many Christmases where I’m just trying to hold my nerve. It’s not something I can communicate to Tony, because that would have a completely adverse effect on him, and there’s nothing you can do about it anyway.
I remember having dinner with a guy who works in a global design studio and he said, “Do you know what? However big we get, if I look three months ahead, there’s no income. Literally nothing.” The pressure that puts on people is huge. There’s no real skill to dealing with it – in the end it comes down to confidence, and you just get used to it. Having sleepless nights and worrying doesn’t make the situation any different, so why bother with the sleepless nights?
Many people can’t switch off from that sort of worry. One big help is having children, because you really can’t bring work home when you’ve got babies or small children – teenagers, even – around, because you’d be doing them a disservice. The other is good financial support and advice, which I get from our internal accountant, Yousef Abdelmalak.
Spin is distinctive for its ongoing relationships with clients. How did you find them in the first place – did you actively go out and approach people?
In the early days we did. I used to have an enormous folder I’d take around. Doing that cold calling was really demoralising. People don’t want to see you in that position; they don’t engage with you. They need to feel that they’ve discovered you and are coming to you. We’ve been lucky in the past, but the best projects tend to come when people have heard of us or have seen something that we’ve done and are interested, give us a call, and we develop a working relationship from there.
What happens when that call comes in?
Usually I’m the one who starts the conversation. I really like to go and meet potential clients face-to-face – I see it as the start of a relationship rather than a job, because it always is. I find out what they’re looking for and what they want, then I come back and I tell Tony and the design team about it. They will make an assessment and say, ‘Yes, that sounds interesting,’ or, ‘No, that isn’t right for us.’
Apart from Tony’s yes or no, what are the other criteria that you look for in a project?
Are they nice people? Would we enjoy working with them? Are they honest and straightforward? Do they like what we do? Have they even engaged in what we do? Who else are they talking to? (Sometimes if they’re talking to a completely different group of people, then they don’t really know what they want.) What are their expectations from the project? What are their expectations from us? Budget rarely comes up in the first meeting – in the past, sometimes I’ve talked about money too early and killed the potential of a project. You need to develop the relationship first; then you’ll have a mutual respect and with that comes a fundamental understanding that people have to get paid for what they do. That has been a big change in me in the last few years, not talking about money in the first few meetings. If there is a mutual interest in collaborating together, we can thrash out project scope and the budget – both are negotiable.
So there is a negotiation that goes on between you and the client once the job has begun?
Although I’m really comfortable talking about money and never have a fear of challenging somebody’s quote or budget, a lot of people do find it a problem. A client might not be comfortable saying, ‘This is way too much, guys,’ or, ‘I’m not sure you understand the scope of the project.’ Negotiating is a skill that I have learnt, but I forget that it’s not one that other people necessarily employ, so I’m expecting too much. It’s easy to frighten off a client: having had a long chat together, put together a budget and a proposal and sent it over, you may never hear from them again. They’ll literally disappear into thin air and you realise it was a wasted opportunity simply because the budget didn’t fit and the client didn’t have the confidence to call back and say, ‘Let’s talk about this.’
Does running a studio require an appetite for risk?
I’d say most project managers are risk-averse and most designers, especially good ones, are risk-takers. Running a studio is a risky business. Early on, at a moment when I was freaking out, my brother advised me, “Identify the worst thing that could happen to you in business and make a plan about how you would deal with that practically – go to the bank, re-mortgage your house, whatever. Then, put the plan in the safe and forget about it. Often the anxiety comes from not having a strategy in place if something were to go terribly wrong.” Also, it reminds you that this is just a business. It’s not as important as other things in life.
How do you navigate those moments when Tony has a particular creative vision or is really pushing for something and you feel it’s a terrible idea?
Over the years I have learned to hold my tongue, and this comes right back to respecting the relationship between the designer and the client. Tony has, on many, many occasions, come up with an answer to something where I have thought, ‘You must be crazy. This is not what the client asked for. This is not what they’re expecting.’ He has presented it and the client has just said, ‘Amazing, thank you – this is just what I need.’ So by now, I trust Tony.
In other words, even when the client hasn’t anticipated a solution, if it’s a fantastic piece of design they’ll most likely accept it because ultimately everyone wants the same thing?
Exactly. The client shouldn’t have the answer. That’s our job: to come up with our interpretation of the answer to their problem. It should surprise them. It should challenge them. It should excite them. It should demonstrate our skill in doing what we do and not just give them back what they’ve already imagined.
It feels that design is perhaps a bit less valued these days – that clients are more prepared to pay for, say, the strategists, account handlers, planners and digital content providers that big firms offer. Do you agree?
Yes, largely. That trend is client-driven; there is a lot of institutional risk-averseness. It’s important to us that the clients we work with value design as much as we do.
Spin 360˚, cover shown above, is published by Unit Editions; £85. Full details available at uniteditions.com. For more of Spin’s work, see spin.co.uk. Interview extracts are republished with permission