How We Got Here: DesignStudio

Founders Ben Wright and Paul Stafford on starting out in the industry, growing an agency and the challenges of working on high-profile rebrands

If you’ve booked a home on Airbnb, ordered food from Deliveroo or watched this season’s Premier League, then you’ll be familiar with DesignStudio’s work. The agency, which has offices in London, Sydney and San Francisco, was founded by Paul Stafford and Ben Wright in 2009, and has worked on some of the most talked about rebrands of the past five years.  As the studio turns ten this month, we caught up with Stafford and Wright – who met while studying a design BTEC at college in Scunthorpe – to hear about the highs and lows of building a business

Ben Wright (left) and Paul Stafford at Semipermanent. Image: Toby Peet

Discovering design Paul: I was an absolute shit at school. It wasn’t that I couldn’t do the work, I just had no focus and I’d do the bare minimum in every subject – apart from art. As long as I had some A4 paper, I could sit there for hours and hours. I dreamt of working for Disney and creating characters and animations. That was the only thing I could really apply myself to, and it was only when it came to going to college [to study design] that I completely changed. I didn’t want to dick around anymore because I really did want to apply myself.

Ben: I don’t know if I knew I was interested in design growing up. I certainly wasn’t thinking as a seven-year-old, ‘I want to be a graphic designer’, but I was always interested in art … and as I started to mature, I realised that there was thing called design that I wanted to explore more of.

This sounds incredibly cheesy, but I saw it as a little bit rock and roll. It wasn’t like accounting or science or teaching, and as a 14-year-old choosing my GCSE subjects, I was thinking, ‘OK, I quite like maths, but I don’t want to push myself into a career path’…. I knew I really enjoyed art and I wanted to do something different.

Paul: I think design was seen quite differently back then. Now, you see all these big technology companies where design plays a pivotal role [in the success of a business], but then, you’d try to explain it to people, and they wouldn’t really get it until you said, ‘it’s like making CD covers’.

The Airbnb rebrand, which launched in 2014, was “a turning point” for DesignStudio, and its first major project after working solely with Nokia in its first few years

Moving to London after graduating from Loughborough… and having a career crisis Ben: After uni, we both knew we didn’t want to go back to Scunthorpe, so we moved to London. I ended up at the BBC’s News online department … but I had this romantic vision of designing books and going to design fairs. I got a job at Spin – this was back in 2001 – where I worked with Tony Brook and some brilliant designers, and did some work for Nike, and it was amazing as a junior to be there. After that, I went to work at Saturday and did some fashion projects, but I don’t think it was ever really my scene. And then I went to work at SEA.

Paul and I shared a flat, so we would talk about work, and looking back now, I can see I wasn’t happy [at the time] because I never really understood the actual purpose of what we were doing, other than making something look good or tantalising or whatever it might be. That’s not meant to sound derogatory about those places – I learned a lot about design there – but I never really figured that out.

DesignStudio created a new logo for Airbnb inspired by the idea of belonging anywhere

Paul: I started out at a very small agency and I think that probably gave me the confidence and insight to start a business because there was only three of us. I got to do every role – not just design but client services, building quotes, tracking how much time I was spending on things and whether we were making money from jobs – and just seeing how the business ran was really interesting to me. But what frustrated me was that the founders were very happy with where the business was and actually, I wasn’t.

I think we both ended up in pretty dark places. Ben was looking to quit his job, and I wasn’t sure if I’d chosen the right career, and we decided, there’s two ways this can go: either we quit, and we do something different, or we build something that is what we want it to be. That can be commercially minded and successful, not just for us but for businesses.