Founded in 1994 by Neville Brody, Research Studios has exerted a gravitational influence on the world of graphic design. Working through an international network of studios, the company continues to experiment not only with design itself but also with working practices and attitudes.
With defining work for names such as Macromedia, Kenzo and the ICA, the firm acts as a proponent of creative sincerity in increasingly commercial times.
From Research Studios' London base, Senior Designer Jeff Knowles outlines the company's set-up: "We're a relatively small studio set-up," he begins, adding, "with sister studios in Berlin and Paris." And, of course, don't forget the "small office in New York." Sounds cozy.
Although this list of locations creates an impression of creative imperialism, the truth is more interesting than that. "Each studio has on average four designers," says Jeff. "We all have close working relationships." It's kind of nice to hear him add that: "Many true friendships are born in the studio."
Each studio acts as an independent entity, working on smaller local projects. "When a major job comes in, the studios can be joined together as one network with major resources," says Jeff, and he has compelling evidence that this is more than just theory: "A recent example of this was for Microsoft." Once eyebrows have returned to their normal position, he adds: "They asked us to do some future brainstorming for them." Future brainstorming?
This is the defining aspect of Research Studios. Under Neville Brody's guidance, the firm has been busy exploring and doing while others just speculate. As Neville Brody himself says: "We have always worked from a basic philosophy which manifests itself more as a creative approach than a specific intellectual argument."
Microsoft is just one example from a seriously impressive client list at Research Studios. "We've just finished the new Royal Court Theatre brochure," says Jeff Knowles, running through the list of current jobs. "I had to have my head shaved while being photographed for that!" This wasn't due to an outbreak of nits, rather a hairy sacrifice at the altar of design.
"We're also working with Guardian Unlimited, the Guardian's website, the ICA and Dom Perignon, among others." Big commercial clients like these aren't the extent of it though, because the studio keeps its hand in with a number of private projects, not least the highly influential typographic periodical, FUSE. "The laboratory for typographic experiment," as Neville Brody would have it.
But while the clients often have impressive names, the Research Studios approach keeps things intimate. "This is one of our major differences," says Jeff. "We encourage the client to work directly with the designer."
Eschewing the usual project management approach means that the studio "can often reach far more interesting creative levels and more enduring solutions." The logical implication of this, says Jeff, is that, "We like to work with the client, not for them. This avoids a hierarchical attitude and cuts out the friction leaving us to deal with the job in hand."
Neville Brody has long been a spokesman for the more thoughtful side of design, openly lamenting the slip into bland commercialism which has characterised the field's recent past. Not surprisingly then, his own studio works to correct this perceived deterioration as far as possible.
"Unlike advertising," says Neville, "where the goal is to create a very specific response, we choose to engage the viewer as part of the process, a dialogue." Although this separates design from advertising, it also acknowledges a relationship between the two, a common ground. After all, he says: "As designers, we've consciously chosen a commercial industry, one that toys with people's thoughts and culture, rather than becoming artists or charity workers."
The essential difference is in the relationship to the consumer: "Our work remains dynamic, not closed. The viewer is actively involved, not strictly manipulated."
The result is inclusive in the way that art should be: "The work is not complete until the viewer has responded to the piece." This thoughtful approach to the subject as a whole feeds into the practical side of things too. "We believe firmly in the idea of structure," says Neville, priming the ideas pump. "For every project, we set about creating a project DNA which comes out of a period of observation and exploration."
The DNA provides a substructure, a 'scaffold', giving the designers freedom to manoeuvre: "We can improvise and be expressive," says Neville. "The solidity of the underlying structure provides strength and endurance so that the project can evolve naturally over time."
In practical terms this means: "We read through the brief and then sit down together and discuss what we think the project is about." Jeff's explanation puts the gap between theory and practice into sharp relief, but it would be wrong to assume the theory is empty. The DNA thing is an attempt to explore the creative process rather than glibly state "we just do it."
It's been observed in the past that Neville Brody (and by extension Research Studios) has been overlooked in his own country. Our traditional mistrust of intellectual engagement with design issues could, to some extent, explain this. Once the size and probable DNA of a project has been determined, Jeff says, "We usually have a spectrum that we work to. Someone will work on quite a conservative approach, another designer will take a radical approach and someone else will work the middle ground." This gives the studio a good range of ideas to choose from.
The first stage of development is always exploratory: "We work loosely and come up with a range of directions." Halfway through stage one, there's a show-and-tell session to thin the field, but eventually, "The person who continues on the project is simply decided by which direction the client chooses." This process even applies across national boundaries: "If the client picks something that the Berlin studio has done then they'll take the project on," explains Jeff.
"In terms of skill sets, the most fundamental are our creative design skills and talents," says Jeff, but because Research Studios works across all media, sometimes you just have to have the know-how. And this is when the network effect kicks back in: "If we lack a specific skill set, we check along the Research network to see if anyone has that knowledge." If this doesn't work, it's subcontracted out.
The issue of skill sets brings us to the subject of design more generally. "There is still a lot of great graphic design out there, some really lovely work," says Jeff as a preface to the following: "But much of it is a variation on a theme." It's dif. cult to look at directly but, says Jeff, "It is harder and harder to be unique these days." This is just a fact of life: as design has permeated so much more of the world, of course it's consumed more of its natural resources. "Everyone seems to have an extremely high skill set, to be technically very advanced, so the difference must be a creative one." According to Jeff, this can lead to designers relying on technical skill or tricks to cover up for a lack of content. It appears that this is the real problem, one which echoes the larger picture. There is a lack of new ideas in the mainstream. Neville Brody puts it like this: "The dilemma is that design is so often simply a tool for consumer persuasion, tied to the interests of major corporations."
In this sort of situation, Research Studios believes: "The most important thing is to maintain a process of self questioning, to see where design can be of use to the world." Essentially this is about belief in what can be accomplished with design. Giving up on it ever actually improving the world means you may as well work for the great Satan.
Neville Brody sums up his response to all this and his goals for Research Studios in the year ahead by saying: "We want to take more creative risks, to experiment more, and to bring our clients with us. This is not the time to sit deep in defence." Is that a rallying cry?