Setting up shop: How three Leeds graduates started their own studio

Leeds College of Art graduates Luke O’Brien, Max Gregory and Joe Warburton founded graphic design studio Formula while studying and have been working on the business full-time since completing their degree. We spoke to O’Brien about launching the company and finding work in a competitive environment.

Leeds College of Art graduates Luke O’Brien, Max Gregory and Joe Warburton founded graphic design studio Formula while studying and have been working on the business full-time since completing their degree. We spoke to O’Brien about launching the company and finding work in a competitive environment.

Most of today’s graduates spend the first few weeks after leaving university contacting anyone and everyone who might have work to offer and using up the last few pounds of their interest-free overdraft.

But Luke O’Brien, Max Gregory and Joe Warburton took a different approach. Immediately after their final year exams, the graphic design graduates started working full-time on their own studio, Formula, which they set up after studying a business enterprise module in the second year of their degree.

“We had to create a company and pitch it to our tutors as if they were potential investors. The module taught us a lot of really useful things about running a business, such as how to budget and work out expenses. Max and Joe and I worked together and pitched a branding agency and I think that’s where it all began,” explains O’Brien.

In their third year, the students hired a studio they found on Gumtree and started designing promotional material for friends and family and their end of year degree show, This is Not the End (top). They also won a pitch to design the Leeds College of Art prospectus, but the project was dropped when the university opted for a major rebrand.

“We started putting things in place at the beginning of our third year, because we wanted to be able to walk out of uni and into the studio. We spent most of it building a portfolio that we could use to move forward with as a group after leaving,” adds O’Brien.

Since graduating this summer, O’Brien, Warburton and Gregory have moved to a new office in central Leeds, set up their own website and designed identities, signage and typefaces for a band, a street food vendor and photography and fashion graduates, making use of their art school contacts. They’ve also set up a type foundry with fellow Leeds graduate Yafet Bisrat, an online store selling screen printed and typographic posters and are in the process of brewing, bottling and branding their own beer.

“It’s taken a few months to really get things going, but we’ve been getting quite a few bits of work and each of our clients is completely different,” says O’Brien. “It was tricky to begin with – we didn’t have a break after university and it was hard to stay focussed and motivated – but getting office space and having somewhere to work that wasn’t home or uni was the best thing we did. Even while we were still studying, we treated it as a day job and would work from nine until six whenever we could,” he adds.

Formula’s dream project would be designing graphics for an exhibition or a major sporting event but for now, O’Brien says the group is happy building up a steady stream of clients. “We’ve already ticked some boxes, like designing a record sleeve and at the moment, our aim is to make exciting work that’s affordable, because we feel like good design should be attainable for everyone,” he says.

Running their own business has given the graduates invaluable experience and a chance to earn an income instead of interning for free. While they still feel like they have a lot to learn and wouldn’t rule out work experience, O’Brien says the group are focussing on building the studio’s profile and attracting new clients from Leeds and beyond.

“Some of our friends have been doing internships and having to claim Jobseeker’s Allowance and it’s really tough, because while they learn a lot, they also feel pretty undervalued. We started the studio not only because we thought it would be fun to give it a go, but because we thought it if we couldn’t find a job, we may as well create one.”

It was a brave decision but one that has so far paid off for O’Brien, Warburton and Gregory, and the graduates’ success at managing their business shows just how valuable enterprise modules can be for creative graduates looking to set up their own practice.

To see more of Formula’s work, visit

Images (from top): Formula’s branding for this year’s Leeds College of Art end of year show, identity and brand collateral for a fictional film festival, type specimen publications for font foundry Form and Writing, a promotional Formula poster sold at the studio’s online store, external signage made from laser cut and painted wood for Crowder Barbecue, a street food vendor in Leeds, and a logo and identity for fashion graduate Rebekah Hill.

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