The UK's best design studios revealed

Welcome to the UK Studio Rankings 2016, Computer Arts' annual rundown of the top UK design studios, as voted by their peers.

Earlier this year, the Computer Arts team polled almost 80 top designers, creative directors and studio founders from all across the UK to discover which industry peers they most revere, respect and in some cases envy, to produce the third-annual UK Studio Rankings.  

As per last year, this is all about peer reputation – regardless of number of staff, operating budget or awards won. In short, the 30 world-class studios that made the list are there because their fellow designers think they should be. Starting in reverse order, here are the UK's top 30 design studios...

30. SomeOne

  • Founded: 2005
  • Location: Shoreditch, London
  • Number of staff: 45

SomeOne has had a busy year. The studio was voted No. 1 Agency in the UK by its clients for the Drum Design Census; bagged a Brand Impact Award for its work on Debbie Thomas skincare; and has helped Cancer Research UK over-deliver on its targets.  

Simon Manchipp, co-founder of SomeOne, believes there’s a reason behind this success. “We’re a dysfunctional family where great work, great fun and fair fees ensure a rewarding balance for all involved,” he says.  

The studio is very welcoming to interns, and many of the current team started out that way. “We love interns,” says Manchipp, “they are the sparks to the flames.”  

To those looking to break into the sector, Manchipp has some words of advice. “Good luck,” he smiles. “Design has got to be one of the most competitive, relentless and unforgiving sectors because everyone thinks they can do it. But if you choose your clients wisely, over-deliver and enjoy the ride, it’ll show in the work."

29. Horse

  • Founded: 2012
  • Location: Angel, North London
  • Number of staff: 4

Having picked up design agency of the year at the FAB awards, as well as three other awards, Horse went on to win two D&AD pencils for its work on projects for Tapped [pictured] and Nongfu Spring. “The D&AD Awards were the icing on the cake,” says creative partner Sarah Pidgeon. 

Pidgeon describes Horse’s team of four as “small but mighty,” adding that they break the traditional agency structure. “We pick the best experts for the brief,” she explains, “which means we’re able to stretch budgets further without compromising on the talent applied to each project."

Pidgeon also believes that positioning yourself from the outset as the kind of agency you want to be is vital. “It’s key to focus on really nice briefs to get some great designs under your belt,” she says. “Good work will attract new business.” 

A small studio such as Horse is an enriching environment for interns, and the studio has six internship opportunities per year.

28. Turner Duckworth

  • Founded: 1992
  • Location: Chiswick, London; plus worldwide
  • Number of staff: 82 (36 UK-based)

Turner Duckworth has a long list of big-name clients and accolades within the design community, but when asked about how they feel about being in the UK’s Studio Rankings, co-founder Bruce Duckworth still states that the team is “flattered that anyone thinks we’re any good.”  

This year saw the opening of its New York studio, which had been in the pipeline for a few years. This new addition shares the same ethos as the other branches, and work is shared between studios.  

The studio has picked up some new clients in 2016, including Tick Tock Tea, Samsung and Kelloggs, and finds its biggest challenge is finding talent that suits the studio and its way of working. “We keep looking, interviewing and hoping,” says Duckworth.  

Looking to next year, Duckworth feels optimistic: “We have some great work in the pipeline for some big clients you wouldn’t normally expect to see good work from. I’m hoping it sees the light of day next year,” he says.

27. Studio Makgill

  • Founded: 2007
  • Location: Brighton, East Sussex
  • Number of staff: 6 (5 UK-based)

A new entry for 2016, Studio Makgill does not take part in awards nor seek out accolades, so founder and creative director Hamish Makgill was extremely flattered to have been included in the list: “This recognition is a reminder that we must be doing something right,” he says. This year, the studio has taken the slow step into working with physical products, allowing the team to experiment in new ways and opening doors to a range of new opportunities.

In an industry that Makgill describes as “healthy, with “freelancers either busy or getting offers for permanent posts,” Makgill feels positive about the studio’s future. “I’d like to grow the team by one or two,” he says. There are also plans to take on another mid-sized client to join  a list that includes Purple PR and H Furniture, and launch sister company The Good Modern; but Makgill says the most important thing is to “continue working with good people on work we enjoy.”

26. Jones Knowles Ritchie

  • Founded: 1990
  • Location: Camden Town, London; plus worldwide
  • Number of staff: 204 (124 UK-based)

“Our door is always open. We’re continually looking for new talent to join the jkr team globally,” says James Nixon, managing director of Jones Knowles Ritchie. “Next year, we want to attract more great talent so we can continue to produce the game-changing work that drives brand growth.”  In 2016, that work has included the launch of projects such as the global rebrand of Budweiser [pictured], the redesign of Domino’s and the launch of global challenger brand Hippeas.  

These projects have not only allowed us to demonstrate the value of design to our clients,” says Nixon, “but they have also resulted in fantastic recognition from the creative community. It’s been great to finally share this work with the world and show how we are working with our clients across multiple touch points to deliver results."

Nixon encourages other agencies to know what makes them unique, and deliver on this promise to help their clients.

25. Six

  • Founded: 2007
  • Location: Enderby, Leicestershire
  • Number of staff: 11

New entry Six may be based in a small village in Leicestershire, but judging by its client list – which includes Kirschner in São Paolo [pictured], What To Cook in Sydney and Pomme Chan  in Thailand – distance from its clients hasn’t held it back.  Six’s managing director, Darren Jessop, describes the studio as having “equal strength and capability across brand, digital and print,” and says that for him, this year’s highlight has been creating an in-house technology team to develop the sites the studio works on. “This ensures the build quality is as detailed as the design. The collaborative effect of tech and design working together adds real value to the digital work we produce,” he explains.  

A few of the agencies on the UK Studio Rankings list were the inspiration and benchmarks for Six when it began, and Jessop describes appearing alongside them as “a wonderful and very humbling honor.” 

24. Here Design

  • Founded: 2005
  • Location: Hackney, East London
  • Number of staff: 30

“We are extremely proud to have created our own book, Herbarium [pictured] for Thames and Hudson,” reflects Kate Marlow, creative partner of Here Design. “It is always rewarding to see an idea move from sketch pad to bookshelf in a short space of time.”  

While some of the studio’s best work has come from self-initated projects such as Herbarium and another food-inspired book, The Geometry of Pasta, Here Design’s new clients for 2016 have also included big names such as Glenfiddich, The Bowes Museum and Faber & Faber.  

“We would like to think the UK design industry is very healthy at the moment,” continues Marlow. “We are continually inspired and delighted by the quality of design work produced in the UK.”  The studio aims to foster a democratic creative culture that allows everyone in the studio to learn, research and express ideas freely, and tries to run a rolling programme of paid internship opportunities throughout the year.

23. GBH

  • Founded: 2000
  • Location: Chiswick, West London
  • Number of staff: 19

This year has seen the release of GBH’s book: a collection of 16 years’ worth of work named Charm, Belligerence & Perversity: The Incomplete Works of GBH. Creating this book has been a personal highlight for founder Mark Bonner. Other high points include work for high-profile clients such as the Americas  Cup [pictured] and Eurostar, as well as “a very interesting collaboration” with Starck.

We are good at working in a space between the traditional disciplines, and that makes us attractive to clients who want dexterous creative partners,” says Bonner, talking about GBH’s biggest strengths.  

When it comes to challenges, Bonner says that Brexit has caused the studio a “philosophical challenge” and that “identifying and retaining talented design  staff ” is also key. He continues to say that being part of the top 30 in the UK Studio Rankings is “one of the nicest accolades around”.

22. Animade

  • Founded: 2010
  • Location: Hoxton, East London
  • Number of staff: 17

Animade has worked on a broad mix of deliverables this year: the studio has been called on to think about how its characterful animations can work on everything from spot animations on a website to a full TV campaign. The studio has also launched Boords, a web app which helps make storyboarding simple. 

“To see it helping other creatives has been amazing,” says James Chambers, co-founder of Animade. “As a self-funded venture and our first commercial digital product, it’s something we’re tremendously proud of.”  

Animade has worked hard to develop a studio culture focused on nurturing experimentation with a healthy work/life balance, and Tom Judd, Animade’s other co-founder says the team were “absolutely blown away” to hear they had made it onto this year’s Studio Rankings list. “We have always placed a lot of focus on creating meaningful relationships within our industry, so to hear this is music to our ears,” he says.

21. johnson banks

  • Founded: 1992
  • Location: Clapham, South London
  • Number of staff: 9

It’s been a stellar year for johnson banks. Its philanthropic campaign for the University of Cambridge helped raise vast sums (winning Best of Show at CA’s Brand Impact Awards), and the studio was appointed from a longlist of 60 to rebrand Mozilla [pictured].  

Carrying out the Mozilla project “in the open” was very challenging, admits founder Michael Johnson, who says the studio’s biggest strength is doing branding and design that makes a genuine difference to the world.

“Brexit has spooked quite a lot of people, and stalled several projects,” he says, when asked about the UK design industry. “Come the autumn, we’ll find out what’s really coming next, but we have to assume things are going to flatline for a while.”

Nevertheless, 2017 looks bright for the studio, with Johnson’s new book Branding, In Five and a Half Steps out soon. “We’re hoping the Mozilla project will snowball into more work outside the UK,” Johnson adds.

20. Field

  • Founded: 2009
  • Location: Hackney, East London
  • Number of staff: 10

Up two places, creative studio Field has welcomed Toyota, Diesel and Chivas to its client list this year. “We’ve had many highlights,” says Emma Nuttall, Field’s studio manager. “Our new studio space is homely and has space enough for our ping-pong table. The year started with a bang when we presented our new kinetic installation Spectra-3 at Kings Cross for LumiereLondon [pictured]. We’ve also had some new clients that we have to stay quiet on for the time being.”  

Always on the lookout for creative talent, Field takes on a lot of freelance and short term contracts. “This way we can get to know staff and they can get to know us, and if it works out, people either become full-time or keep coming back.”  According to Nuttall, the most exciting work was done this year by small and independent design studios and individuals talking directly to brands: “They’re much better at convincing a client of an outstanding idea,” she says.

19. ustwo

  • Founded: 2004
  • Location: Shoreditch, London; plus worldwide
  • Number of staff: 324 total, 150 UK-based

"In 2010 we focused on working in healthcare, and we’ve really seen the rewards this year,” says ustwo’s joint managing director, Tim Kim. “Collaborating with DeepMind Health and releasing our Moodnotes 2.0 mental health app are testament to that, and the future looks exciting. What’s really special is hearing from Moodnotes users who have felt life-changing benefits as a result of the product – it doesn’t get better than that.”  

The studio’s biggest challenge of 2016 has been finding and attracting talented people. “There’s serious competition out there,” Kim explains. “Tackling this requires a variety of approaches. Focusing on our professional and personal networks, referrals, studio events, and learning and development for existing staff all play their part.”  

Also, watch out for ustwo Adventures in 2017 – a dedicated London space for ustwo to invest in innovative new start-ups. “We’re excited about the future of existing businesses that we’ve created in London, including ustwo Games.” 

18. Paul Belford

  • Founded: 2012
  • Location: Islington, London
  • Number of staff: 6

A new entry into the UK top 30 this year, London agency Paul Belford works across advertising, branding, graphic design and digital. “Highlights this year? Winning projects for YO!  Sushi, Luscombe Drinks, Social Enterprise UK, Connor Broadley and Qlearsite,” says founder Paul Belford. “Also, publishing a unique digital project called Textbook, and advertising for eve Sleep and Soap Co [pictured].  “We’re a relatively new and small company, so it’s very flattering to be voted in the UK’s top 30,” he continues.

 “We compete with the best across a very wide range of disciplines – from branding to advertising to publishing. We’re always looking for talented people to join us.”  For Belford, the studio’s biggest challenge is “occasionally having to remind clients that they are paying us to do what they cannot do themselves.” His best advice for up-and-coming new studios is to ignore graphic trends and have good ideas.

17. The Partners

  • Founded: 1983
  • Location: Smithfield, London; plus worldwide
  • Number of staff: 75 total, 50 UK-based 

The range of work The Partners take on is perhaps best emulated in executive creative director, Greg Quinton’s highlight of this year: The Argos Simple Value range [pictured], when compared to last year’s big project, luxury hotel The Connaught. “Both solutions are testament to our ambition to create great, well- crafted ideas,” says Quinton.  

The Partners is known for its strong strategic work, which Quinton describes as “these powerful insights that allow the opportunity for the creative work to develop fully into solutions that add real value to our clients.”  

Quinton is positive about the UK design industry, saying that it is much healthier than last year, despite the delay before the Brexit vote and the usual summer lull. “The autumn/winter is looking rosy. The next couple of years are going to be interesting,” he says.  2017 is hardly looking dull either: “We have some amazing new clients that we can’t wait to develop,” Quinton reveals.

16. Universal Everything

  • Founded: 2004
  • Location: Sheffield and London
  • Number of staff: 8

Universal Everything founder Matt Pyke highlights the studio’s 360-degree ‘silicon curtain’ projection, Parade – part of Ron Arad’s Curtain Call installation at the Roundhouse, Camden – as one of his standout moments of the last 12 months.  The studio has won a number of new clients this year, including IBM and travel luxury brand MCM, which commissioned Universal Everything to create a multi-sensory immersive installation [pictured].

Pyke says invention is Universal Everything’s biggest strength. “My biggest challenge this year,” he says, “was allowing the business side to be led by others to enable my shift back to full-time making in the studio.”  “We’re always looking for upcoming inventors and wizards,” he says, adding that he’s noticed an industry shift away from decoration and entertainment towards helpful endeavours. “Publish dream projects you’d like to do more of,” he advises.

Next page: Discover the UK's top 15 design studios...

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Julia Sagar is a freelance journalist and editor. Formerly a commissioning editor for Creative Bloq, Computer Arts, net, Imagine FX and 3D World magazines, she’s been writing about art and design for 10 years.