Eskimo Creative: Breaking out of the bubble

“We’re not one of those reactionary studios where the brief comes through the door, it lands on the desk and we just ship it back out,” says Eskimo Creative’s founder Mark Janson. “We’re the annoying people who say, ‘Hang on a minute, is this the best route to reach your objectives? Let’s talk about it.’”

Described by Janson as a strategic design agency, Manchester-based Eskimo is bold, proactive and eager to get its hands dirty with print, digital and experiential design of all stripes. Its five-strong team, together with Janson and business partner John Owens, is hugely versatile, and happy to chop and change roles as a project demands.

For the Manchester Food and Drink Festival 2012, Eskimo created its own microsite on the theme of ‘food stories’ submitted by the public

“There are a lot of informed choices,” Janson says of Eskimo’s emphasis on versatility. “A designer might suddenly have to become a copywriter, or make decisions about photography. At the end of the day,” he continues, “designers are there to solve problems.”

And solve problems they do. One of the studio’s most challenging recent projects largely popped up from nowhere – and illustrates the studio’s willingness to have a go at anything. “It was for One Extraordinary Day, which was in London in July as part of the Olympics, and it was all about words that make me shudder: contemporary dance.”

Performance artist Elizabeth Streb and her troupe of ‘extreme action’ dancers would perform a series of events across London over 12 hours, such as dangling from the Millennium Bridge. “The idea was to pop up somewhere in the city and do something random and pretty mental, from 7:30 in the morning to 7:30 at night,” Janson recalls. “Every location had a different activity and dance.”

Illustration from Eskimo’s identity for the Manchester Food and Drink Festival 2012. “We invited some of the city’s best writers, DJs, food critics and musicians to submit a short ‘food story’ telling us what makes them tick in the food department,” says Mark Janson. “We then took those stories and created illustrations representing each, which in turn formed the core graphical elements in the overall identity.”

Eskimo won the proposal, but was then in the position of not being able to publicise it before the event itself – part of the attraction was that each event would only be announced an hour or so before it happened. “We had a site online called Surprises: Streb and also on mobile, which was constantly being updated with the relevant information, through social media and news channels, with the hope being that maybe a few hundred people would turn up to each event,” Janson says. As it turned out, both the events themselves and the website proved to be incredibly popular.

A flyer for a symposium called ‘The Future of Storytelling’, hosted by Eskimo as part of Kopparberg’s NESTABLISHMENT campaign in October

“The exposure to the project overall was absolutely phenomenal. We had, I think, 50,000 site visits over the course of the 12 hours, but eventually we got a million hits. The New York Times flew out a journalist to do a story on it. So in the end it was one of the most far-reaching projects we’ve done to date. It was scary, too, having to sign contracts for things like ‘This website needs to be up 99.99 per cent of the time’.”

Perhaps more in keeping with its ‘usual’ work is Eskimo’s campaign for the Manchester Food and Drink Festival, held in the UK in September and October. The studio produced the whole campaign and the activity behind it, as well as a microsite to enhance the festival’s main website, and invited members of the public to contribute their own food stories to complement those submitted by food writers. “It was all about engaging with the public at a grass-roots level through social media,” Janson explains. “The message was very much: ‘This is a festival, we’re all going to go and spill beer on the floor and grab burgers’’.”

Being active with the public through events and collaboration is at the core of Eskimo’s ethos. Janson’s background in event organisation came through working for Sole Technology, the California-based sports footwear company, where he created skateboard tours, competitions, branded events and more. Meanwhile, business manager John Owens is very active in the student community and has just finished a two-year teaching course.

“Print, Digital & Experiential began as a conversation with paper manufacturer GF Smith on how we could bring their vast archive of printed work to life and celebrate design culture as a whole,” says Janson. “We devised five parts for this project: a limited-edition photography and essay book, a crafted private event invitation, a limited-edition set of three A2 posters, a promotional website, and the day and evening event.”

“We also have study days, so that every month each person here goes out and does something tangible – a gallery, a workshop or whatever – and then they report back on it,” Janson adds. “I think it’s really important. We’re not designers in a bubble. It only adds to the work that we produce.”

‘Iron Designer’ – more from the NESTABLISHMENT campaign, in which four creatives debated some of today’s most important questions via Photoshop

Cider brand Kopparberg’s recent NESTABLISHMENT campaign in Manchester – a week’s worth of events based around ‘unestablished’ people – is a prime example. “We got involved with that and put on a couple of events that went down an absolute storm – like having 200 people in a venue at full capacity,” Janson says. “We had a Photoshop battle with me as a host, and Jo Good from 6 Music. Loads of free cider, done!”

It’s not, he’s quick to point out, just about booze-ups, though. Another recent event Eskimo curated was on the future of storytelling, a discussion forum where designers and other creatives could debate the future of branding and storytelling in all its forms – which was so successful that people had to be turned away at the door.

In Janson’s view, the more active Eskimo can be in the community, the better. “We’re happy to say, ‘Look, we’ll put ourselves on stage and take the hit for it if it goes wrong,’” he adds.

“We’re also not precious about inter-agency politics, with all the ‘I’m not going to that event because it’s held by so-and-so’. I mean, come on – don’t worry about it. There is competition whether you like it or not, so let’s just get on with it. We’re not here to steal your clients! I just find it very odd.”

Material for the first Manchester Design Symposium in 2011, encouraging designers to shut up shop and pay a visit to it

Ultimately, of course, socialising is also good for Eskimo’s business, and in recent years it has built up a network of reliable collaborators and contacts. “We map this stuff, so we know exactly who we’ll be in contact with, who we can chase up afterwards and so on, so that the week after the event we can get to work.”

Having grown the company deliberately slowly, Janson feels that Eskimo is now in a very stable position – and he knows exactly what he wants to achieve in the coming year. “We used the end of 2012 as a kind of strategic planning and design phase, so we can push on this year with new work,” he explains. “There are some clients on the horizon that we want to approach and some new staff we want. By the end of 2013 I’d like to have brought on another couple of people.”

Whoever they are, you can be sure they’ll fit in with Eskimo’s cheerful, hard-working and enthusiastic approach to life. “To be honest, a lot of designers like to sit in the corner with their headphones on and just get on with it,” adds Janson. “While they might produce amazing work, that’s not our style…”

The live website for Elizabeth Streb’s Surprises: Streb, part of One Extraordinary Day at the 2012 Olympics. From 7:00am until midnight, the Eskimo team constantly monitored live social media and updated information on the site

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