Two members of McFaul talk ethics, inspiration and freelance careers with Holly Bowman
As one of the UK's most sought-after design agencies, chances are that you'll be familiar with the work of McFaul. Their work has recently covered everything from trainers, glasses and clothing, to airports, games consoles and laptops.
After John McFaul took on a job to create five posters for a Vodafone campaign, and enlisted the skills of designer Ollie Munden to help, the design agency that became known as McFaul took its first steps. Originating in Chichester on the south coast, the design boutique has expanded so quickly that it's now looking for another studio, in Bristol. Its portfolio encompasses everything from graphic design to motion graphics and brand identities, and comprises work for some impressive clients, including Sony, Carhartt, Nike, British Airways and Toshiba. Spread out over an impressive array of formats, it includes bus and column wraps, store fronts, and even a light show projected onto a building (part of Bristol's Christmas festivities in 2007).
One of the most recent success stories for the McFaul team has been dressing Liverpool's John Lennon airport in support of the city's stint as the European Capital of Culture. "BroomeJenkins [a project management contractor] approached us to do what was essentially a mural," says McFaul. "Some 10 or 12 months later, it turned into 450 metres of murals, seven bus wraps and an animation. If you drop into Liverpool airport these days, it's effectively not the Liverpool John Lennon airport - it's the Liverpool McFaul airport," he laughs.
The brief was simple: make the space look good. With such a big project, nothing is ever that easy, though, as McFaul explains. "We've got a printer [Atomic] that we use and we were working through them," he says. "Everything we did involved logistical planning, but it was great because we proved we can do that kind of thing."
Carhartt's flagship store in London is another success story for the team. Just like Liverpool airport, the brief was relatively simple and, working in the run-up to Christmas, the McFaul design team produced a very urban two-tone design for the storefront and interior decoration.
As the creatives are multi-disciplined, they are able to take a 360- degree approach to their work, often passing projects around the entire team to ensure each one benefits from their total expertise. They've learned from experience, however, that even their combined might waivers in the face of bad briefs. Talking about one such experience, McFaul explains that the company took on the work because they were offered complete creative freedom. "We made the brand look amazing, but it was taking all of our time. We couldn't do the things we really wanted to do and the art direction was becoming silly."
"We aged, in one weekend, about 10 years I think," adds Chris Malbon, McFaul's lead designer. Ethically, as well, the project didn't agree with their approach to design work. They've now moved on to a new project with Jordan, part of Nike. "It's really exciting," says Malbon. "We've got a good relationship going with them at the moment."
McFaul explains further: "Jordan is treated as a separate company. The whole thing is run by two art directors, Sean and Jason, and both of them are just amazing. Their vision for the Jordan brand is absolutely awesome. They actually look to us to give them vision, which is really nice. It's refreshing for such a big brand that you see every single day. They've pinpointed such a little niche in the market and they're running with it, which is great - it's really exciting."
Their work isn't just a nine-to-five time-filler for McFaul and Malbon. Their enthusiasm for their work, for their industry and for their fellow creatives is abundant. When asked to pick out a favourite design agency, McFaul immediately namechecks Phunk, a Singapore-based outfit. "They just rock my world, they really do," he expounds. "When I was out in Singapore I met them. They were so cool. They own their own restaurant and bars and things like that, and you just think, wow - cool."
For McFaul, this freedom to expand in whatever way seems appropriate is the attraction of working for his own design collective. "I'm very much in the camp of 'If you don't try, you don't know'," he explains. "If you try and you fail, at least you've tried."
Already freelancing by the time he left university in 1996, McFaul never felt able to limit himself to the restrictions of working under other designers. "I built up a reputation quite quickly - I used to screen-print stuff originally and then started using the computer," he says. "I realised that I could manipulate stuff quite quickly and thought 'Yeah, this is quite cool,' so I started to take on more and more work. Somehow people began to just like what I was doing, but clients and art directors weren't letting me push as much as I wanted to."
And his work attracted other likeminded designers. "I'd been looking at people like Chris for a while," he says. "He was coming from illustration at a slightly different angle - a lot more graphic design-based. There's also our other lead designer, Ollie, who I used to teach at university. I knew his talent and how much he wanted to do this."
The sum total of the McFaul team is stronger than its constituent parts because each designer brings a wealth of experience with them. While McFaul was busy learning his craft and setting up his first design collective, Black Convoy, Malbon was freelancing in London. He worked on retainer for two design companies, before being offered a full-time job at Attik. "I took that for about 12 months," he explains, "but I didn't really want to be in a big, corporate place, so I joined a smaller company.
"They were so small they couldn't really afford to keep me," he continues. "They just kept me on as a freelancer and they gave me a bit of space as well. You know, as a kind of freebie, to sit with them and work for them and find my own clients. I did that for about eight years. And then I'd just had enough of the rat race and decided to get out of London." After being offered a job on the Orange website, working with E3 [in Bristol], McFaul put his website up, which caught Malbon's attention.
With so many high-profile clients and so many successes in the bag, the team are now in a position to be able to pick projects that suit them artistically as well as ethically. McFaul explains further: "It's getting more and more difficult. We're getting to the stage now where we're having to turn more and more stuff down. And there's the ethical debate... We've just become the designers for Cancer Research, which is something I think is very important for us."
The other skill the team have perfected is self-promotion. "We do our own promotional stuff," says McFaul. "We designed it ourselves and it's very well printed. We've also been working closely with Pickled Egg, an events management and incentives company, and we're going to do an event every year."
Being active within the design community is clearly important. The McFaul team are inspired by their favourite designers and are delighted when they receive emails complimenting their work. In response to this, the team send out a regular newsletter. "Without trying to sound like we've got rose-coloured spectacles, we try to encourage people to become part of what we do. We want to give something back," explains McFaul. "Our newsletter is for people who want to be part of us. We just try to share what we've done and try to inspire."