The in-house team at London’s Southbank Centre is responsible for designing or overseeing almost everything, both on and off-site, for its four venues: the Hayward Gallery, Royal Festival Hall, Queen Elizabeth Hall, and the Purcell Room. The type of work ranges from festival identities and marketing campaigns, to event collateral and signage and wayfinding.
Led since last year by head of design and brand Marc Atkinson, the team of eight includes a senior designer, mid-weight designer, motion designer, two creative artworkers, and a design and print coordinator. The most recent addition is studio manager, Kate O’Leary – a key new role.
This is the first time Atkinson has led an in-house team. His previous career has included periods at such notable design firms as Fitch and The Chase before co-founding several of his own studios, including as Marc & Anna and Land of Plenty.
What surprised him about life in-house? “It’s a faster pace than I expected,” he says. “Work is turned around incredibly quickly.”
“I think the real benefit of being in-house is that you’re all working together. And that’s so different to being on the other side,” he continues. “There’s always value to having an outside agency work for any company, because you get that external view, but being inside, you’re having those conversations, you’re building relationships with people and therefore you really understand their problems. That’s the joy of it. But in order to do that, you need to create some space.”
Atkinson hopes that his newly-recruited studio manager will help to create that space. “It’s a role that hasn’t existed in the team before,” he says. “My hope is that it will give the design team space to do what they do and help us in terms of being proactive, because you can find yourself being very reactive and feeling like you’re on the backfoot, a little bit. If you can get ahead of things and be proactive, that’s when we can actually start helping and being of value, rather than simply responding to a need.”
It’s something we hear a lot from in-house agencies – the desire to unlock the potential of being in-house by moving on from being just the recipient of tasks to an active strategic partner to the business.
Fixing a remit for the studio is a crucial part of that transition. “I would like the whole team to do a mini branding exercise where we can work with the heads of teams and departments to flesh out a list of services that are expected or hoped of us,” Atkinson says. “Because there are so many requests and it’s important that both us and everyone else knows what we’re able to deliver, and what we can deliver successfully. I don’t want to say no to anything, but it’s better if people have a clearer understanding of what you can and can’t do, so that they can consider whether it’s necessary, or whether we can deliver it in a different way – if we think smartly, hopefully we can solve it together.”
“As a team, we try and offer the best value we can all the time, by doing as much as we can. I think it’s the nature of designers and design teams to want to do work and not say ‘no, we can’t’,” Atkinson says. “Also, it’s an amazing place. Everything that goes on here is so inspirational and exciting. And the people we work with are so enthused about everything that you want to be able to help.”
Although the team can bring in outside help when capacity is a challenge, things are complicated by another familiar bugbear for in-house teams: IR35 employment regulations. “Because of IR35 it’s not possible here to bring people in on a daily freelance rate,” Atkinson explains. “So we need to sort of ring fence a project to be commissioned, which has its limitations. It does make it harder to just flex the size of the team to help in those little hotspots.”
Nevertheless, he says, “we’re just incredibly lucky to work somewhere that is so creative. You hear about people running teams in non-creative businesses and it feels like maybe they’re the most creative bit of the business, and they’re trying to inject culture and creativity into the business. Here, creativity runs through the veins of the organisation and we’re just a part of that. The conversations we have are absolutely amazing all the time. We’re just another creative team in the Southbank Centre in a way, which is brilliant, because it just makes it so enjoyable. It’s an exciting place to work every day, rather than feeling like an outlier in a corporate organisation.”
One particularly exciting project currently underway is Reframe, a partnership with Apple to support emerging Black creatives in the UK. Along with Factory International in Manchester, STEAMhouse in Birmingham and Midlands Arts Centre (MAC), the Southbank Centre is running The Residency, a training and development programme for up to 80 emerging creatives aged 18–30 looking to develop their skills in music, photography and filmmaking, as well as a project for 21 secondary schools to spark a passion for creativity among the next generation of talent. Those participating in The Residency will create an installation for the Southbank to run later this year and also a visual identity for the project.
Just over a year into his role, how does Atkinson reflect on his move in-house? “On one level, it’s all very, very familiar, it all works in the same way as any other design studio. You’ve got the same challenges and the same things that excite you,” he says. “Then, on another level, it’s entirely different. You’re suddenly in a huge office, with all these people, getting questions thrown at you every day. But that is also so exciting, that you’re part of the whole culture, and you are able to shape something from the inside, which was the appeal of coming here.
“Having worked with lots of businesses, brands and organisations, as a designer you play a very small part. Here, we are all part of a place that delivers incredible experiences to people every day, through performing and visual arts. There’s so many brilliant people here who make those things happen, and we are supporting them. That’s really exciting.”
Southbank Centre Design Studio team:
Head of Design and Brand: Marc Atkinson
Studio Manager: Kate O’Leary
Design and Print Coordinator: Michelle Evans
Senior Designer: Brett Woodall
Designer: Caroline Blainey
Motion Designer: Lois de Silva
Creative Artworker: Aaron Nelson
Creative Artworker: Huma Ahmed
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