Only six years old, one agency has won some of the biggest clients and tastiest jobs in the land. Garrick Webster talks to Studio Output about what comes next.
Rhythms ooze from an iPod; designers work away at their Macs. Someone breaks away from their screen to bounce ideas off a colleague and share a laugh. Coffee's on and everyone's in jeans and T-shirts. The easy-going atmosphere in Studio Output's new London base belies the hard work they've been putting in since the company was founded in Nottingham six years ago.
Tucked away in a building in Clerkenwell that's shared with other creative companies including motion graphics and broadcast design firm Mainframe, the Studio Output team don't try to be cool - they just get on with it. "We don't have a house style," says Ian Hambleton, co-founder and account director. "It's always been something we've tried not to do. We'll perhaps have trends where people come to us and go, 'Ah, that 3D stuff you did was really cool.' But I like to think that six months after that period we'll be doing something in a different style that is actually appropriate to the brief and not because it's just cool."
For the last four years, Studio Output has worked for Ministry of Sound, spearheading visual trends to maximum effect. Many would see this as a dream job, but Ministry was in something of a dilemma when it invited Studio Output aboard. With a global brand, apparel, record releases and so forth, the club was becoming more like a tourist destination - think Hard Rock Cafe - than the cutting-edge champion of fresh dance music it used to be.
Studio Output was asked to bring the cool back to the nightclub itself by handling various marketing visuals. Going back through the agency's work over the last year, you notice variety in the styles used, but they all work perfectly with how the nightclub needs to portray itself. Staged compositions with melted cassette tapes, 3D lettering that pushes the reality barrier, illustrations inspired by the handmade aesthetic and brightly coloured avant-garde type - each project has a 'now' factor, pushing buttons with the club's clientele.
"To be brutally honest, we don't always get it right," admits art director Dan Moore, who founded the firm with Hambleton and creative director Rob Coke. "The important thing is that there's a story and that it doesn't go above people's heads. This stuff manages to work visually, work as an idea, but it's not referencing Kant or Karl Marx - it's still talking to a clubber. You can get too carried away with it. I think if we went too conceptual or too strange, then we might lose people."
That certainly isn't part of the strategy. Studio Output has worked strenuously over the last few years to get the right kind of work. One of its other big clients is the BBC. Most of the projects have been for Radio 1 - designing logos, developing branding and art-directing. When Fallon engineered a rebrand for the BBC's radio stations last year, Studio Output helped the broadcaster implement the style guides across its websites. Studio Output was also involved in the launch of Radio 1Xtra, the BBC's digital station for black music.
New technology is changing the nature of media work for the BBC, says Moore. "When we do work for Radio 1, four years ago we'd have done bus-size, we'd have done six sheets, we'd have done invites, we'd have done merchandising. However, now it's Bebo reskins, it's MySpace badges, it's animated banners, it's the takeover of magazine websites - plus a print ad."
More change is on the way. Studio Output has worked hard to make it onto the BBC's roster of preferred agencies. It's been a challenge for the studio, which employs 11 staff split between the London and Nottingham offices. The agency achieved Investor in People status, reviewed its suppliers to check they met certain standards, increased its Public Liability Insurance to £5 million, and made sure it conformed to guidelines on equal opportunities, recycling and so forth.
It's a significant effort for a small company, but the BBC gives Studio Output access to a lot of tasty work thanks to its cultural range and budgets. It all starts with a trade show for BBC departments that takes place this autumn.
"We're going to sell into every department within the BBC," jokes Hambleton. "We sat in the meeting and they were like, 'Do you want to be known as youth specialists?' And we said, 'No, we want to be able to take our approach to all the different areas within the BBC.'"
As laid-back and friendly as they are, Studio Output staff are certainly confident in their approach. They're very focused on the needs of their clients. If one comes to them without a solid brief, Hambleton sits down with them and gets at least a two-page document on the aims of the job. The creative team then come up with three mood boards and the client chooses one or two ideas to take further.
Because a lot of images are created internally, the team at Studio Output never go too far down a certain road if the client's not happy with the visuals. Communication, friendliness and efficiency are hallmarks of the company's relationships with its clients.
Looking back on their six years as a design studio, Hambleton and Moore are humble enough to admit a few mistakes. For a while, the business side of things preoccupied all three founding partners, and distracted from their creativity. Relationships with staff are more solid now that they've learned about management, and the recruitment of a studio manager for their Nottingham office enables them to get involved in the actual design work again.
"Without wishing to sound like we're denigrating ourselves, we're not high-brow people all the time," says Moore. "We come into the office, we like to have a bit of fun, it's fairly laid back, it's fairly down to earth. If we all came in wearing suits we'd have trouble doing the kind of work we do. Sometimes it's kind of a struggle but you do what you're comfortable doing."