Design is an industry that thrives on new blood, and this means that the shelf-life for a successful design company can be relatively short. Out of the 30 companies listed in last year's Computer Arts UK studio rankings, 21 were founded in this century, and only one dated back to before the 1990s.
Like people, many businesses tend to reach a point where they become middle-aged and a bit conservative. That's absolute poison when it comes to the creative industries, though, which rely on fresh ideas and experimental design that tend to come from younger designers.
Some companies, though, have managed to not just stay the distance, but to positively thrive despite their advanced years. Here are six that have stayed relevant and look like they'll continue to do so for a long time yet.
01. Johnson Banks
- Founded: 1992
Michael Johnson set up Johnson Banks (opens in new tab) back in 1992, and 28 years on he's still in charge, overseeing the strategic and creative side of the company, but still relishes the opportunity to get involved with projects.
Sometimes having a veteran at the helm who likes to get hands-on can be counter-productive, but this approach seems to pay off well at Johnson Banks. With its focus on non-profits and a mission to create work that makes a difference while demonstrating wit, intelligence and humanity, it's carved out an enviable niche for itself and looks set to remain relevant for a long time.
- Founded: 1992
Staying in the design game for any length of time means that you have to adapt to a discipline that's constantly changing. Tastes never stay the same for very long, new trends are turning up all the time, and any agency that doggedly sticks to what it knows is unlikely to last the distance.
Spin (opens in new tab) recognises this, and describes itself as being obsessed with the challenges that this ever-changing discipline throws in its way. Recent clients include Apple, Wallpaper* and MUBI, and its placing at number 7 in the Computer Arts UK studio rankings shows that it's definitely taking the right approach.
- Founded: 1990
Now in its 30th year, JKR (opens in new tab) has studios in London, New York, Shanghai and Singapore, and recently came in at number 2 in the Computer Arts UK studio rankings thanks to some stunning work for big brands such as Budweiser, Burger King and Heinz.
What's really grabbed the public's attention recently, though, is its controversial rebranding of Dunkin' Donuts as simply Dunkin'. Not everybody approved of the move, but it generated a stack of publicity for the brand and also brought in its fair share of design awards, demonstrating that JKR very much has its finger on the pulse.
04. Graphic Thought Facility
- Founded: 1990
Another studio due to celebrate its 30th birthday this year, Graphic Thought Facility (opens in new tab) is jointly owned by its three directors, two of whom – Paul Neale and Andrew Stevens – were its original founders, while the third, Huw Morgan, joined in 1996 and became a director in 2003. All three describe themselves as very hands-on, and with a small team of nine designers they maintain their reputation for appropriate, effective and original design solutions.
Graphic Thought Facility prides itself on understanding its clients and building long-term relationships with them, and a look through its portfolio reveals a stack of regular clients; a great way to ensure your studio's longevity.
- Founded: 1972
Often the driving force behind a studio is its original team of founders; if they move on the studio subsequently loses its way. For Pentagram (opens in new tab) this hasn't been an issue. All of its original founding partners have long departed the company, but Pentagram keeps going from strength to strength and is now the world's largest independently-owned design studio.
Perhaps the secret to its ongoing success is a flat management structure in which all its partners are working designers who are also the primary contact for clients. Even though many of its partners are industry veterans, they're still very much in the game, and this personal commitment to design shines through in Pentagram's portfolio, which most recently has seen stunning work for the likes of Fisher-Price, Warner Bros and Yahoo.
06. Wolff Olins
- Founded: 1965
Now well into its sixth decade, Wolff Olins (opens in new tab) has never lost the ability to surprise – and occasionally outrage. Originally founded by Michael Wolff, who left the company in 1983 and now runs Michael Wolff and Company, and Wally Olins, who stayed until 2001 and died in 2014, Wolff Olins was well into middle age when it attained notoriety for its London 2012 Olympics logo.
More recently it's worked with brands including Uber, Tesco and Google, and was named the most innovative design firm in the world in 2018 by Fast Company.