Three London freelancers joined forces in the late 1990s to create Airside; a fun-loving design company renowned for its work across different media and the diverse backgrounds of its members. "The whole thing about us," they tell Adrian Sandiford,"is having an idea and a story to tell"
Freelancers of the world, unite!" It's an unlikely rallying cry, but an apt one when it comes to explaining the birth of Airside. Almost nine years ago, Fred Deakin, Nat Hunter and Alex Maclean decided to take a leap forward and form a collective. Not a company - a collective. And one made up entirely of friends.
"The problem with freelancing is that you're not high enough up the food chain," explains Airside co-founder and managing director Nat Hunter. "You tend to get given the shit work at the last minute. We wanted to talk directly to the clients and do better work.
"The three of us thought that if we got a coherent space and filled it up with a load of mates - a collective of freelancers - then, when a job came in, we could work on it together," she continues. "Clients would perceive us as a company when actually we were a group of freelancers. That was the idea; it didn't quite work that way..."
In fact, things worked out so well that within a year the trio had managed to sub-let the rest of the desk space in their studio to people they gelled with creatively, had started employing designers one by one, and were told by their accountant that - since everyone was doing so much work together - they would have to form a limited company.
The result was Airside, an accidental company with an accidental name. "We came up with a shortlist of about 20 words, but all of them had the URL taken," reveals Hunter, shattering the mystique. "I had The Oxford Dictionary of New Words and I went through it, starting at A," she continues, "Do you know what Airside means? It's when you've gone through passport control, before you get on the plane, you're Airside."
"We didn't set out to do that," Hunter recalls, commenting on both the company's name and the way it's developed. "We didn't get into this for the business. We got into it because we wanted to do better work. The three of us, over the course of that first year, realised that we worked well together. It was interesting, because we've got very different backgrounds. It was a bit of an experiment, because Fred didn't know Alex."
The common link was Hunter, who has a background in human computer interface psychology, graphic design and programming. It was as a psychology student at Edinburgh University that she first met fellow undergraduate Fred Deakin, who was studying English Literature and running interactive experiential club nights. Then, as an MA student at the RCA, Hunter met Alex Maclean who, at the time, had left architecture to work on virtual worlds.
When the three came together Hunter was freelancing as a Flash programmer, Deakin was both a graphic designer and part-time DJ and Maclean was working on 3D virtual worlds and models for architects. Despite their completely different backgrounds, they found that their work clicked because they had one key thing in common: they all thought about user-experience.
"We were all thinking about how to navigate space, but from different backgrounds," says Hunter. "In the early days, we did an awful lot of web stuff and a bit of straightforward graphic design and illustration. Fred developed a graphic design style for his club posters. It was for screen-printing. He separated out colours of drawings he'd done using photographs as a basis. Flash was just emerging and it translated to the format really well. The web stuff really took off."
Breaking the mould
The trio had an illustrative style to call their own and, importantly, it was one that worked extremely well on the web. "We were in the right place at the right time," adds Hunter. "No-one else was doing that style at the time and we were distinct in the market place. It really worked."
Then, of course, there's Lemon Jelly, a band consisting of Nick Franglen and a certain Airside cofounder, Fred Deakin. The crossover involved stood the design company in good stead. Franglen allowed Airside to view Lemon Jelly as a self-initiated in-house project and roll out an enormous scope of work, from live visuals and merchandise to record sleeves and DVDs.
"It's been very good to prove to people, when we were still a very young company, that we could do something on quite a large scale, think of big ideas and roll them out across many different media," says Hunter.
The downside of Lemon Jelly was that, at one point, people pigeonholed Airside as specialists in flat colour illustration and nothing else. "I think we've transcended that now," says a relieved Hunter. "We've just done some photographic idents for Sony Bravia that we're really proud of. It's hard to get those jobs, because the people that come to us tend to want the brightly coloured, flat colour stuff - which we're happy to do - but we also need to break out of that. We're always happy to get jobs where we can break the mould."
And break the mould they have. Airside now employs eight other permanent members of staff, has a regular group of freelancers and works with advertising agencies such as Mother, Bartle Bogle Hegarty, McCann-Erickson and Wieden + Kennedy. Clients include Orange, Coca-Cola, MasterCard, Sony and EMI; institutes such as the Royal College of Art and the Science Museum; and artistic individuals such as musician Richard Ashcroft and photographer Nadav Kander. So what exactly do they specialise in?
"We specialise in having really good ideas and creating mind-blowing experiences," affirms Hunter. "We enjoy the challenge of whatever comes our way. We've always said that it's all about the idea, not the implementation. We never really worry about technology or how we're going to do something.
"The idea is crucial," she continues. "That's what we're good at. It's not about the medium for us, it's about telling a story. So actually we're incredibly versatile when it comes to how we roll it out. We're good at animation, digital experiences, illustration campaigns, content for mobile phones; we feel we can turn our hand to anything."
The importance of pleasure
But while the medium may not be important, Airside's approach to new work certainly is. The company has just one rule when deciding whether to take something on or not: it must excite them.
"We are in the business to do good work, push ourselves and enjoy it. It's about quality of life and quality of work," says Hunter. "It's about daily happiness," adds Anne Brassier, new business/PR manager and member of Airside since early 2001. "The enthusiasm's got to be there. Before we agree to work with new clients, we make sure that we want to do it. If your heart's not in it, you're wasting both sides' time."
Hunter reveals that they all recently sat down to discuss which projects had been the most fun to work on - and everyone came up with a different answer. It's not about scoring big contracts or impressive-sounding clients. Airside only does work it enjoys. The importance of pleasure explains why Airside has done so much music industry work - an area that is obviously close to its heart. But there is a suggestion that this side of Airside's work may be a dying art in the light of more people buying music via downloads. Not so, says Hunter: "Our experience is that record companies are now intentionally spending a lot of TLC on the packaging. They've realised that if you spend time on packaging, then people will be interested in buying it."
Airside believes that, if anything, the rapid changes in the music industry offer more opportunities not less. There's something different about owning the packaging if there's an emotional connection. And then there's always the possibility of continuing the characterisation initiated on a record sleeve via animations on a MySpace page or phone downloads.
The company's speed in adapting to changing circumstances is not, however, replicated in its approach to staffing. It recruits slowly, at the rate of around one designer every couple of years. This almost slothful attitude is offset by Airside's three-month rolling internship - a paid position that gives four interns the chance to display their talent over a year. Most of Airside's new staff have been employed via this route.
All of which leaves one question: what does the future hold for Airside? "Things are changing," reflects Hunter. "Advertising companies are doing more online work. The first wave of the web revolution was like the Wild West: anything went. It feels like we're in the same position now. It's an open book again, and we're looking forward to exploring that side of things more." It seems that Airside is ready for take-off.