Founded five years ago by Alun Shooter and Matt Bagnall, Cambridge-based agency The District now employs six other staff – including recent arrival Tom Lovell who, regular CR readers may recall, is one of the graduates we profiled in our September issue this year. We ran a piece on the agency’s rather lovely gallery space, The Frontroom, in our November issue but wanted to also showcase some of its work.
Here is our full interview with Alun Shooter and some images of recently completed projects by The District.
Creative Review: Tell us about the genesis of The District
Alun Shooter: Matt and I met at small local agency and we realised we had a shared passion for all things creative and incredibly unhealthy pub lunches. There was a kind of unpretentious approach to Matt’s design and an ethos which matched mine. When the agency we worked for began experiencing financial problems, we decided to get together and founded The District from my kitchen and moved operations, for a short while, into my shed.
Above: identity for photographer Alex Bibby. “Our brief was to design an identity that is distinctive and recognisable which compliments the style and precision of Alex’s photography,” explains Shooter. “We designed a simple marque which nodded at his name but was also simple enough to be used on and offline. In print we used great materials which were hand foiled and embossed to express the quality of his work
CR: Where and what did you study?
AS: I had had a slightly untypical career after doing a psychology degree in Leeds, working in various business development and marketing positions latterly in the creative industry which I just loved being a part of. In my last role before The District I had moved across into a creative direction role. Matt had a more traditional ‘creative’ career having worked for a couple of agencies following graduating from Surrey Institute of Art and Design. Nevertheless we weren’t your classic 10+ years in a big agency before setting up, we just loved what we did and thought, we can do this. When we look back we wonder quite how we did it in a pokey shed, always meeting at the clients and having various bust ups with our printer (desktop rather than litho), but after many 18 hour days things started to click. In hindsight I think being a bit naive helped.
The District were commissioned by Cambridge School of Art to design a newsletter for their students. The result was Create It – cover and spreads from issue one shown. “The first thing we addressed was size,” says Shooter. “In making the piece big and unbound we made a statement very quickly. We used a very simple grid and strong and consistent typography to give the piece real impact. Additionally we focused on using a lot of student/ tutor generated content to give the piece real context – what better way to shout about the success of the school than use the work generated there. We also acting as editor in chief and gave the thing a tone of voice, which had a confidence to it – a kind of self assured-ness
CR: Tell us about your approach to work at The District…
AS: We work in three main areas, identity development, design for print and web and interactive design. We enjoy each in different ways. We now work on a range of clients in education, the arts as well as out and out corporate clients and we always try to bring something unique to the table. Our team has now grown and are a great bunch, with Tom Lovell, D&AD’s best in New Blood being the latest addition. Being relatively small it is so important to us that everyone has a hands on approach and is one of the team. Without sounding crass it does feel like a small family at times and this is good and bad! We have some pretty passionate discussions about projects. We don’t just bang out work and see what we can get away with, we really care about every detail, such as the materials and finishes used, a transition on a website, how we say stuff. Challenging each other almost always ends in a better result (or a bloodied nose). Everyone in the team works on all projects – we never just throw small jobs to the intern, whether big or small as long as a project offers us something to get our teeth into we love to work on it. Another thing we have always been committed to is to get feedback from clients after each project. We have even resisted the temptation not to get feedback from clients where projects have not gone so well. The feedback has been on the whole very strong and we tend to be our own worst critics. It also helps identify any issues that have arisen during a project.
Work for Cambridge arts venue, The Junction. “We were commissioned to re-design The Junction’s monthly listings guides and their larger quarterly publication,” say Shooter. “For the monthly listings guide where images are few and far between we developed a design which was simple and typographic. We sourced lovely coloured stock from GF Smith to give the work an identity. Where longer lead times and better imagery was available for the quarterly publication we took a more image led approach and used interesting typography and flexible image areas to avoid the feeling of a heavily templated piece. Although for reasons of functionality it was actually heavily templated
After five years the things that have always excited us still do. We love it when we get an approach from someone who says they love what we are doing, whether a big client or a recent graduate. When a lovely piece of print comes back in boxes we still all stand around ready to sniff it. People have always been of interest/ important to us, hence the development of the follow us section of the site, where people can upload a picture of themselves to our site. It is a great feeling to think that someone from New York, or France, or wherever is enjoying what you are doing. It makes it even more personal when you can see them. Whether it is good for business development or not it is rewarding. And actually that is one thing we have learnt. If you do things thinking of whether they will develop business for you, you really are on a hiding to nothing. Just do what you do well and focus on that and the needs of the client and in our experience everything falls into place. You need to enjoy what you do and this will show.
Above, identity for The Frontroom in its original mailer form. Also shown is an image of The Frontroom’s first exhibition created by Manchester-based Illustrator Chris Gray
CR: You guys came to our attention earlier this year because we got invites to attend shows at The Frontroom – an exhibition space in your studio. How did that come about?
AS: Last year, stacked with client work and busy with our family lives we decided we would empty our meeting room and develop a gallery space which invites artists and illustrators from the UK and beyond to take over the space for 2-3 months at a time. So far the likes of Chris Gray of Toy fame, Sheffield legend Matt Walkerdine and our very own Alex Curtis have got involved and interest is growing. It is a great excuse to get together with other creative people, have a drink and see some great work. Also everyone we have had there has really been a really nice person – they tend to stay with us for a week or so whilst they set up, so we all go out socially and get to know them.
At times it has felt like going down the park to play football before we have done our homework, but actually it has allowed us to work with people we just wouldn’t have got in touch with, just being a straightforward creative agency. And when I say people I mean people, clients and creative freelancers and this is hugely important to us. For us doing great work is all about the people not just in the agency but who we have in our wider network, so having the Frontroom as a way of meeting them rather than calling them out of the blue is a much better way to develop a relationship.
It also feeds into the overall space we work in, which is a homely kind of place we have put bits of work up, ours and other bits we like. We are currently working on our ‘backroom’ so we have a place to meet each other and clients, and obviously we have ‘The Frontroom’ which is a great place to show clients and generally get away from the studio. As for Cambridge, we kind of settled here because our family and friends are around here, but actually it is not a bad place to be based – London is down the round and frankly these days you really don’t have to be next door to your agency to have a good relationship and do a proper job.
The District photographed by Owen Richards (who also shot this post’s lead image)