A decade and a half ago, Margaret Thatcher was in power and GTF was just getting started. Graeme Aymer meets the mature design studio searching for a certain type of client.
Fifteen is a ripe old age for a design agency, especially one featured in Computer Arts. After all, Photoshop had barely hit the shelves 15 years ago, nobody but techies talked about email, and Macromedia still hadn't been started as a company. But Graphic Thought Facility had just been born at the end of Thatcher's Britain, and during a recession that's hardly imaginable now, given the years of plenty seen at the end of the last decade.
These days, it seems that anyone and everyone has an interest in graphic design. And for the price of a PowerBook and a copy of Creative Suite, you can make a fist of your design dream. It wasn't that way when Andrew Stevens, Paul Neal and Nigel Robinson set up Graphic Thought Facility (GTF) in 1990. The three had just graduated from the Royal College of Art with MA degrees and, with a combination of grant money and teaching posts, managed to eke out an existence as a design collective. After all, when a recession hits, designers are the first to get it in the neck.
But persevere they did. Robinson left in 1993, and in 1996 Huw Morgan, himself a graduate of the Royal Academy, took a director's position. In recent years, the team has grown from three to seven people.
Thanks to a wealth of big name clients, the three founders now teach far less than they used to. These clients include Habitat, the Globe Theatre and Marks & Spencer, as well as several UK museums, including the Science Museum, the Manchester City Museum and the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA). Output has included everything from digitally conceived typography to extruded aluminium exhibition signage. And even concrete tombstones for pets, but that's a whole other story.
"We do loads of stuff with smaller clients and that's really fun because you've always got direct contact," says Huw Morgan. "Frieze was great fun, Globe was great fun. But having said that, we've also worked with great clients in much, much bigger companies. We've worked with a guy called Rodney Mylius for Marks & Spencer. You don't really get much bigger than that. He was great to work with because it was almost like working with a smaller client. We worked with him direct and he was very good at negotiating with the people he had to answer to. He made the whole process much more straightforward - as it should be."
Much has changed over the course of those first years. The team has had to jump on board the computer revolution, for one thing. The company uses standard-issue design agency kit: Macs, Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign, FreeHand and Quark, while for moving image work there's also Final Cut Pro and After Effects.
"The technology thing is great because it makes life easier in many ways," says Morgan, whose training was largely computer-free in the early and mid-90s. "Although ideas are often generated verbally, it's rare not to be sitting in front of a Mac and working digitally straight away. The fact that you've got access to so many skills is very liberating, but you can quite easily think you're a designer just because you can operate the system or operate a program. People will start to realise that there is a craft behind that."
It is process, however, rather than technology, that informs the GTF approach. When there is work to do, the requisite amount of brainstorming in meeting rooms ensues, sometimes with directors having what Morgan describes as "a good, healthy level of argument" before final decisions are made. But it is the agency's approach to client work that could be considered somewhat curious by some.
"The way we usually work - and this is sometimes what throws clients - is that we work on one idea at a time," says Morgan. "We're not the kind of designers that work up five, six, seven, eight ideas and then say, 'Choose one of these.' We do a lot of editing here in the studio. Unless you have eight great ideas and you honestly can't decide among them, I think you've always got one that you're really convinced about. If you're confident in what you do and you've been asked to do a job, one of your priorities is the job of selection and to say, 'This is what we think is appropriate for you.'"
But sometimes this approach simply doesn't work. Sometimes the client just simply doesn't like it, infrequent though that may be. What can you do? "You do it again! You might be a bit irritated, but you do it again," says Morgan. "Sometimes you know it's not going to be right because the client doesn't know what they're looking for and they're almost using the design process as a way of finding the right strategy or brief. In that case, you might want to show a number of ideas, if only to communicate why you want the one you've chosen. The most frustrating thing is when someone says, well, I don't like it. That's hard, because we can't do a better job. If the client doesn't like it stylistically, perhaps we're not the right people."
Asked how GTF keeps its work fresh, Morgan struggles for an answer. So, where does the inspiration come from? "I don't want to say there are no graphic designers around who are good, because there are - there are plenty of excellent people around," he says. "But there's no-one I could say off the top of my head, 'Oh, I really love this person's work and they're a real inspiration to me', but I'm sure there is."
He does admit to having a soft spot for Frame magazine, however. "I find it really interesting," he says. "There's something interesting about seeing stuff, often it's quite graphic, but it is printed. And it's often about ways of thinking rather than about how the stuff is put down, or manifested, or how the marks are made."
It was this idea of ideas that first got Morgan interested in graphic design. "I was really interested in David Hockney's approach to printing, that you could make something that was printed and it could still be considered as kind of an edition, in the way that you get fine art editions," he explains. "I remember in about 1988 when he had a big retrospective in London, he brought out a book, and at the back of the book he had printed a set of new artworks that only existed in black and white film. He put forward the argument that the only time they really existed was when they had been printed in the book. I found that really interesting, and I suppose it was this that appealed to me about graphic design and going on a graphic design course."
So, having looked back, it's time to consider the future. What's next for graphic design and GTF? "Better marketing, that's my New Year's resolution," Morgan confesses. Thus far it's not necessarily been an issue; GTF gets pretty good word of mouth. But Morgan craves the flexibility a raised profile might offer. "Being able to say, 'This is how I'm going to go about doing it', rather than 'I'll wait for it to turn up'. It's a great skill to have. Having that level of control would be great. But we're not very good at selling ourselves."
And, as they say, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Just as the economy in 1990 was hardly conducive to kicking off a successful graphic design business, 2006 might be the same. "If this recession that people are talking about ever comes, it'll be tricky," says Morgan. "Design gets hit quite hard, quite quickly, and for that reason staying small is a good idea. That way you don't need a huge amount of work to keep you going. The challenge is to be clear about the kind of people you want to work with and to produce a quality of work, rather than being consumed by just making money. Everybody's got to have a decent quality of life, but it's important for us to keep the quality of work up, and to find the type of clients who are going to sponsor that."