Alphabetical has won plaudits and high-profile clients ranging from M&S to the Design Museum. We meet co-founders Tommy Taylor and Bob Young to discover the secrets of their success
If we could pick one thing that sums up Alphabetical’s ethos it would probably be a pocket-sized book called A-Z From College To Industry – a Yellow Pages-style guide for new graduates that the studio produced for D&AD New Blood. The guide is not only engagingly designed and a joy to read, it’s also packed with handy tips, anecdotes and information – exactly the kind of advice, in fact, that Alphabetical’s co-founders Tommy Taylor and Bob Young wish they’d had when they first started out on their own design careers.
Taylor and Young had the idea for the directory after being approached by D&AD to run a New Blood workshop for recent graduates. “We thought that a lot of people are just going to talk them through their work or whatever else, which could be a bit self-indulgent and not that useful,” explains Taylor. “So we thought, wouldn’t it be a great idea if we could give people the benefit of our experience – and not only ours, but also contact all the people we know who could contribute something.” The pair’s initial idea quickly snowballed into a 100-page book, which is likely to become essential reading for any design student, graduate or studio intern.
This combination of brilliant ideas, collaboration and an ego-less desire to help others gives away at least some of the reasons for Alphabetical’s success – success that has helped the two-year-old studio pick up work from clients like the Royal Mail and University of the Arts London, while also earning the studio recognition in this year’s D&AD Awards, with its branding work for film company Penny Royal featuring in the esteemed D&AD Annual.
Taylor and Young started out in the industry in the early Noughties: Taylor studied graphic design at Somerset College of Arts and Technology, while Young earned his degree at Edinburgh College of Art. The promise of job opportunities soon brought them to London, where they proceeded to work for large design agencies like The Partners and HGV, but a perceived lack of control over the whole design process ultimately led both to decide that working in a small studio was where they wanted to really be. The strange thing is that at the time – around 2010 – neither Taylor nor Young had even shown their portfolios to each other, let alone worked together. Given that, how on earth could they know that they’d end up being able to work together so successfully?
Well, for one, they’d already become firm friends while mixing together at various industry get-togethers; and two, they didn’t need to have worked together or seen each other’s work, as Taylor explains: “We both believe that you can tell a good designer if you have something in common with them – just by having a conversation and knowing somebody.”
Still, setting up your own business is a bit different, isn’t it? “It changes it from being a very social thing – very casual, cavalier almost – to a very serious thing,” Young agrees. “Although the design is really enjoyable and would drive us even if we weren’t getting paid. It does change things, but the friendship helps keep things light and lets us be frank and honest with each other. We talk about things in that way as well. It’s good that we’re friends first – the egos come along afterwards, to be honest.”
While the launch of Alphabetical has enabled both Taylor and Young to escape their previous lives as designers in larger studios, it has also helped them embrace a holistic approach to the work they do: they meet the clients, come up with the ideas, work on the designs and see each project through to completion – something they simply weren’t able to do as cogs in a bigger studio machine.
However both are conscious of the fact that they sometimes need to collaborate with other designers and creative professionals to help them successfully deliver on the branding and identity work they largely specialise in. Like many smaller design firms, Alphabetical takes a modular approach: the size of the studio expands and contracts depending on the amount and type of work that is currently underway – so if a job needs a web developer for a particular aspect of a project, Taylor and Young will team up with one of their growing “family of freelancers,” as Young calls them – talented, trusted friends who they can call on when needs be.
For both Taylor and Young, this approach enables the studio to remain nimble and flexible, while also enabling them to offer services to clients that they otherwise wouldn’t be able to provide. Another advantage of modular working is that it enables their approach to client work to stay fresh: “I find it exciting that we can collaborate with all these people, rather than having the same eyes going on every project,” Young explains. “There is an advantage to being nimble, especially at this point in time. For us, collaboration has been a real benefit, rather than a hindrance. Being small has definitely been a really big advantage.”
The point at which all these various strands – ideas-driven design, contemporary style, collaboration, identity and altruism – really come together is in a rundown part of south London, the former new town of Thamesmead, where Taylor and Young have spent the last two years working on ‘The Link’ – a project that’s still very much a work in progress. The studio was asked to find a way to attract often disadvantaged young people to a revitalised community centre that will give them the opportunity to learn new skills, further their education and, of course, to have some fun. For Alphabetical’s branding and identity ideas to work, they needed the support, collaboration and ideas of the very people who were the project’s intended target.
“It was difficult,” Young admits. “It’s one thing to get an identity through a client, but to then get it through a bunch of 16 to 18-year-olds was quite tough. We held workshops during the initial stages and tried to get as much creativity out of them as we could, and then channelled it along the way to make them feel like they had been involved. I think that’s why we’re so proud of it. Not only has this project been one of the biggest we’ve ever worked on, it’s been [rewarding in] the sense of community and getting everyone involved – from the client to local schools, youth groups and everybody in the area.”
Young says that ‘The Link’ project has also gone on to be about much more than just creating an identity: “We’ve done these massive 12-foot murals, the signage, wayfindings, website, we’ve done print for them… there are lots of different aspects that keep rolling on. It feels like one of the most expressive things we’ve ever done.”
Taylor agrees, adding: “I think ‘The Link’ will be one of the benchmark branding projects that we’ve worked on.” His benchmark comment is significant. Both he and Young consider themselves very lucky to have worked on the projects they have done so far, but they also have much bigger ambitions.
Projects on the sheer scale of Thamesmead just go to show that Alphabetical is as capable of taking on large projects and more high profile clients as any of the more established studios. The tricky bit is going to be balancing its co-founders ambitions with their ethos, but it’s clear from our conversation that Taylor and Young have figured out a way to make it work already.