The UK's best design studios revealed

15. Pentagram 

  • Founded: 1972
  • Location: Notting Hill, London; plus worldwide
  • Number of staff: 170 total, 64 UK-based 

“For us, 2016 has been about continuing a journey that started 44 years ago and maintaining high standards of design for every client we work with,” says Pentagram partner Domenic Lippa. “Our main strength continues to be being a multi- disciplinary design company with all the partners still working as practising designers.”  This format also means there can be opportunities for new designers at Pentagram. 

“Internships and junior roles are dependent on workloads and what projects are in activity at any particular time. We don’t tend to take on mid or senior roles, as so much is still maintained by the partners. This means that many junior designers grow into senior roles,” he explains.  The challenges for the firm, he continues, remain the same. “We’re not interested in ‘growth’ for the sake of it,” he adds. “We’re more interested in finding new partners who can add and change what Pentagram means.”

14. John Morgan Studio 

  • Founded: 2000
  • Location: The Strand, Central London
  • Number of staff: 6

For a studio best known for its work with artists, architects and cultural institutes, the design and art direction of The Magazine for the Artist’s Institute, New York [pictured] was perhaps the perfect project; the first issue was awarded one of The Most Beautiful Swiss Books.  Other projects in 2016 have included a new graphic identity for The Artist’s Institute and the art direction of an illustrated version of Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.  

When asked for his thoughts on being included in the UK Studio Rankings, the founder of his self-referential studio, John Morgan, says: “It’s always an honour to be acknowledged by your peers – those people who know how difficult it is to get ‘good work’ done.”  

His advice to up-and-coming studios is as follows: “I’m naive enough to think that making good work is enough to achieve success, no matter how you quantify or measure that.”

13. Spin

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

“We’re a European design studio in attitude and application. No little Englanders here,” says Spin founder Tony Brook, describing why Brexit has presented the design studio’s biggest challenge this year. “We haven’t overcome it yet,” he adds. “It’s very hard to say, but I don’t believe anyone is having an easy time of it. Having said this, I remain optimistic: we are a resilient bunch.” 

Perhaps best known for its contemporary identity systems, the studio intends to continue to set the benchmark high in 2017, and keep it there.  “We had an exhibition of our work this year at UCA Epsom. It was beautifully hosted. Unit Editions [pictured: Lubalin book] has continued to go from strength to strength and that has been hugely satisfying,” says Brook. Talking about his hopes for 2017, Brook hopes that “Spin pushes itself into some interesting new places.” He also notes that the best recipe for success is for studios to be “lean and keen.” 

12. Sutherl&

  • Founded: 2014
  • Location: Kennington, South London
  • Number of staff: 2

Although Sutherl& only launched in 2014, the two-person design studio is quickly making a name for itself thanks to its stunning portfolio of work for the likes  of Fedrigoni, Royal Mail and Almacantar. “Being voted as one of the UK’s top 30 studios is amazing,” says founder Jim Sutherland, who highlights working collaboratively with Boss Box and Fedrigoni to produce D&AD Yellow Pencil-Winning packaging project Boxes in Boxes [pictured] as a standout moment.

“Our biggest strength is working collaboratively with interesting people, and doing interesting things,” he continues. “The challenge has been working out which projects we should do,” says Sutherland, confessing that he gets excited by the potential in projects and “says ‘yes’ too much.”  The duo plan to stay small for the moment. “I’d like to continue loving the work and therefore producing creative, unusual, engaging, interesting work. If you love what you do, it will show.”

11. Sawdust

  • Founded: 2006
  • Location: Shoreditch, East London
  • Number of staff: 2

Fresh from their D&AD and Type Directors Club awards this year, Sawdust studio co-founders Rob Gonzalez and Jonathan Quainton say they’ve received “incredible support” for their work this year. The pair have continued to push themselves to learn new software in 2016, in an effort to have more tools to create with. “This includes 3D software and font production packages,” says Gonzalez. “Learning complicated programs whist delivering projects and running a two-man studio is incredibly demanding, but as the age-old saying goes: ‘No pain, no gain’.”  

New clients this year have included Transport for London and National Geographic Traveler, while the studio has continued its relationship with Wired, Nike and Fast Company. “Our biggest strength is being explorative with the work,” says Gonzalez. “Find the thing that most stimulates you, do it and challenge yourself. Forget what anyone else thinks,” he advises. 

10. DesignStudio 

  • Founded: 2009
  • Location: Clerkenwell, North London; San Francisco
  • Number of staff: Total: 35, UK-based: 26

DesignStudio continued to make a stir this year, with its huge rebrand for the Premier League in particular hitting the headlines. The agency’s biggest strength, says founding partner Ben Wright, is its ability to find “the meaningful difference” for its clients’ businesses. 

In terms of challenges, Wright says that the growth of the ‘in-house design studio’ in some of the world’s biggest companies has attracted a lot of top talent away from the UK. This means that the studio now has to reach far and wide to recruit a mix of people. “Next year, we want to continue to work with brilliant clients, produce amazing work and develop the diversity of our team,” says Wright.  

His advice for younger studios is to push yourself out of your comfort zone. “I think clients are more open than ever to working with interesting, creative, small design companies,” he says. “As a start-up, you have the advantage of agility and speed.”

09. A Practice for Everyday Life

  • Founded: 2003
  • Location: Bethnal Green, East London
  • Number of staff: 7

The seven-strong APFEL team share their secrets for success...  

You launched your new website at the start of the year – why launch a shop too? Our new website and shop let us show more of the work that’s been keeping us busy. The shop gives us space to get some of our past, present and future studio projects out into the world.  

What can we expect in 2017? We’d love to work on a new identity for a cultural institution or festival, or a large publication for an artist or movement that we’re particularly interested in – or something completely unexpected!  

Do you have any tips for others?  Aside from ambition and hard work, don’t be afraid to go for big projects when you’re starting out.

08. NB

  • Founded: 1997
  • Location: Southwark, Central London
  • Number of staff: 12

It’s been an epic year for NB. One highlight was the debut of the studio’s first ever play, Turn-Table, performed in front of 2,500 people (and streamed to a further 10,000) at Cape Town’s Design Indaba. The studio also rebranded Ravensbourne, and created a “mysterious” bottle for Glenlivet Cipher [pictured]. Co-founder Alan Dye reflects... 

What’s NB’s biggest strength? I still think that, after nearly 20 years, we have creative courage.  

How does it feel to be voted as one of the UK’s top 30 studios? Terrific! Hopefully we’re doing something right.  

How healthy is the UK design industry is at the moment,?
I think you’re only as healthy as your clients’ marketing budgets, and we’ve seen both increases and decreases.  

What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced in the last year? Huge rent increases. It’s made us focus on winning new business.  

What entry-level opportunities does your studio offer, either in terms of internships or junior design roles?  We have 10-12 internships available every year.  

What are your ambitions for 2017?  To be bolder and braver, and increase our turnover while keeping our design integrity.  

Finally, do you have any words of advice for up-and-coming studios in the UK (and beyond) keen to emulate your success? Stay curious.

07. OK-RM

  • Founded: 2008
  • Location: Bethnal Green, East London
  • Number of staff: 5

OK-RM has climbed dramatically up the ranks in 2016. Founders Oliver Knight and Rory McGrath talk through their best projects...  

What have been the studio’s standout projects this year? The visual identity and exhibition design for Home Economics; the quarterly publication Real Review; and our book and visual identity for The Costume Institute’s spring 2016 exhibition Manus x Machina: Fashion in an Age of Technology [pictured: Under the Same Sun].  

What’s OK-RM’s best strength? The belief that good concepts need appropriately good ideas.  

Do you have any advice for up-and-coming studios? Remain true and those with a shared ideological position will find you.

06. 4Creative

  • Founded: 2001
  • Location: Westminster, Central London
  • Number of staff: 40

Channel 4’s in-house agency creates risky, innovative and culturally potent work across all Channel 4 brands and services. Creative director Chris Bovill says it’s as fun as it looks...  

What was the biggest challenge you faced in the last 12 months? Following up the multi-award- winning and much-loved 2012 Meet the Superhumans campaign. No pressure, then!  

And your biggest highlight?  The Paralympics, because it’s the biggest perception-changing bit of work we’ve ever worked on.  

What are your goals for 2017?  We want to continue to make risky, innovative work.  

Any advice for others?  Be nimble. Be bold. Be nice.

05. Graphic Thought Facility

  • Founded: 1990
  • Location: Bethnal Green, East London
  • Number of staff: 14

A mainstay of the top five in the UK Studio Rankings, Graphic Thought Facility has an impressive roster of long- standing clients, including Gagosian Gallery, Science Museum and Frieze. This year has seen the studio win projects for the likes of Danish textile company Kvadrat [pictured], River Café and stately home Castle Howard, and maintain its reputation for producing appropriate, effective and original solutions.  As the studio moves its centre of operations from Clerkenwell to Bethnal Green, Huw Morgan, director at Graphic Thought Facility, reflects on the luxuries of space and light...  

How does it feel to be voted by your peers into the top five of the UK’s top 30 Studios for the third year running? Like a sneeze.  

What’s been this year’s highlight for Graphic Thought Facility? Finding and planning our new space in Bethnal Green. Space is the greatest luxury in this city.  

How ‘global’ is your studio? Would you consider branching out abroad? We only have staff in the UK but the globe is in Graphic Thought Facility. We speak English, French, German, Swiss-German and Portuguese. 

What do you consider to be Graphic Thought Facility’s biggest strength That’s one for our clients and peers to decide.

Have you faced any big challenges in 2016? Our biggest challenge has probably been finding a space with good light.  

How healthy do you think the UK design industry is compared to this time last year? Brexit is erosive, as is the cost of space, though. In the end, one may erode the other.  

What entry level opportunities does your studio offer? Do you run any internships? We run a paid internship programme, and take on three or four interns per year.  

Do you have any words of advice for up-and-coming studios keen to emulate your success? Don’t be seduced by polls.

04. Magpie

  • Founded: 2008
  • Location: Shoreditch, East London
  • Number of staff: 8

Magpie leaped a long way up the UK top 30 studios list last year, and has managed to stay in the top five once again. Synonymous with creativity and craft, the brand consultancy prides itself on delivering bright ideas that catch the eye and really connect with an audience.  Some of the studio’s most iconic output includes work for international hotel chain The Morgans Hotel Group and Channel 4, but recent clients include charity and performance venue The Roundhouse, New York City restaurant Boqueria and The Thinking Traveller [pictured]. Founder David Azurdia reviews the last year...  

What’s been the studio’s biggest highlight this year? Seeing the team change shape, and gel together. We’ve seen a few faces graduate to bigger and better things recently, and new people take their places. It’s been wonderful to see the chemistry change, and witness the formation of something new.  

Does Magpie offer many entry-level opportunities? We offer both internships, on a rolling basis, and junior roles. We’ve taken on three juniors in the last few years.  

How does it feel to be voted by your peers as one of the UK’s top 30 studios in 2016? Humbling. It can be hard to get a grasp of external perception when you’re on the inside. We tend to plough our own furrow, focusing on our clients, our work, our culture. It’s a huge compliment to be called out by our peers. 

What are your goals for 2017?  We want to keep the intensity in the studio, whilst enjoying life beyond it.  

In your view, how healthy would you say the UK design industry is at the moment? It’s as competitive as ever. One thing we can say with certainty  is that there’s a healthy level of creativity in the work we see around us.  

Do you have any words of advice for up-and-coming studios keen to emulate your success? Simple. Always ask yourself: “How can I make it better?” 

03. Made Thought

  • Founded: 2000
  • Location: Fitzrovia, Central London
  • Number of staff: 25

“Unfaltering. Unbeatable. Unquestionable” is how our panel described Made Thought. It’s little surprise, then, that the studio remains in the top three after topping the list last year. Director Ben Parker reflects  on the achievement...  

How does it feel to be voted in the top 30 again this year? It’s a great honour and testament to the amazing team who create and shape our output.  

What are your 2016 highlights?  We’ve worked on some really exciting projects, but also thought about how we do things. We’re working in a holistic way on projects from the stable of strategy, packaging and identity through to retail, interiors and digital. We’re also spending more time defining who we are and where we’re going, which is both exciting and scary.  

In respect to clients, we’ve spent nearly two years working on Stella McCartney’s new fragrance Pop, with packaging and POS, which was released in early summer. We’ve been exploring more green screen and CG techniques on the film and campaign work for Adidas StellaSport. Earlier in the year, we worked on Greenwich Peninsula’s Paper World in both a digital and physical manifestation, and explored new ideas on how to sell a new district and neighbourhood in London. Also, our continuing (11th year and 22nd show) work for the Design Miami brand and collaborating with Cabana.  

Have you noticed any changes in the UK design industry? There’s been a slowdown, or pausing, of work in the property sector post-Brexit, which has had some impact. Apart from that, we sense no real change in activity.  

What can we expect from Made Thought in 2017? Our first ambition is shared by all creatives – to present ourselves in a far more compelling way than we currently do. The second is about the launch of our own new luxury accessories brand, which we’ve spent over two years researching and testing.  

What entry-level opportunities does your studio offer? We run internships over the year. We do take on a number of junior designers, but it’s all about finding the right fit.  

Do you have advice for others?  Although a cliché, the quote by Jack Kerouac is worth remembering: “Great things are not accomplished by those who yield to trends and fads and popular opinion.” Be brave, take risks and be prepared to stand for something different.

02. ManvsMachine

  • Founded: 2007
  • Location: Haggerston, East London; Los Angeles
  • Number of staff: Total: 27, UK-based: 19

Climbing two places up the list in 2016 is Black Pencil-winning studio ManvsMachine, which since last year has become part of brand consulting firm Landor Associates. “They’re pushing  the limits of motion design at every opportunity – faultless,” commented one panellist.  Best known for its high- profile work for Nike, Channel 4 and Apple, the studio continues to wow global audiences. Co-founder Mike Alderson contemplates the last year...  

Which new clients have you collaborated with this year? We don’t ‘win clients’ as in retainers, but we’ve recently done our first projects with PlayStation, Audi and Dolby.  

You opened a new studio in the US this year – how’s that going? Launching our second office in Los Angeles was a huge thing  for us. It opened in July with a great blend of relocated London crew and some mind-blowing local talent. Branching out like this was much less scary thanks to the partnership we’ve formed with global design consultancy Landor. As well as opening doors to new opportunities, it’s given us an amazing platform to create a successful long-term vision based on the foundations we’ve laid over the last nine years.  

How does it feel to be voted by your peers as one of the UK’s top 30 studios in 2016? Pride level: 1000. It’s particularly rewarding to see our name alongside the branding specialist elite, because we occasionally question whether people appreciate that side of our work, or just see the pretty pictures and flashy edits – which are just as important to what we do.  

What are your goals for 2017?  For London to continue to punch above its weight, and LA to cause a bit of a stir, hopefully frightening a few of the local motion design stalwarts. The main thing is always to do good work for good clients, whilst spending a healthy amount of time outside the studio pursuing our personal interests.  

What entry-level opportunities do you offer at ManvsMachine? We take interns and juniors if they’re exceptional and will slot straight into the team. The majority join at middleweight or higher. For us to keep our boutique culture but compete for the big spoils, every individual needs to be exceptional.  

Finally, do you have any advice for other design studios? Know your strengths, but don’t ignore your weaknesses.

01. North

  • Founded: 1995
  • Location: Clerkenwell, Central London
  • Number of staff: 15

The studio voted at the very top of its game in 2016 has absolutely rocketed up the list this year. Thanks to a couple of high-profile rebrand projects, North has climbed 16 places since it was a new entrant to our top 30 in 2015. “North execute intelligent and thoughtful identities that stand the test of time, and seem to work with a considered creative conscience,” said one panellist. “Consistently on top of their game, creating pure design that’s beautifully crafted,” said another.  We talk to founding partner Sean Perkins...  

How does it feel to be voted by your peers as one of the UK’s top 30 studios in 2016? We’re pretty chuffed as we’ve been pretty much under the radar for the past 21 years – we didn’t know people really knew what we did.  

What have been North’s biggest highlights of the year? Launching the new Co-op brand identity across the entire organisation and reinstating a classic logo from 1968. It was two years of hard work and detailed planning. Also, launching the Tate identity across all of the organisation – especially the opening of the New Tate Modern – and standing up for our belief in the EU by creating the ‘Britain Stronger IN Europe’ identity, even though it was massively disappointing to see it badly executed and misused by others. Finally, starting to build and plan our new studio space in Clerkenwell.  

What are the studio’s biggest ambitions for 2017? We plan to build an incredible architectural studio space to inspire the North team, and the future clients!  

How healthy is the UK design industry at the moment? I’m unsure because of Brexit. A lot of our clients are European and I’m not sure what happens next. It will have an impact – but right now it’s too soon to tell, and after a long European summer break we will now have to see.  

What entry-level opportunities does your studio offer? We usually mainly recruit from junior college leavers.  

What advice would you give other up-and-coming studios keen to emulate your success? Worry about what you have, not what you haven’t. Concentrate on creating the best work for the projects you have: this gets you more work in future. Never, ever free pitch. Giving your ideas and time for free is dumb and desperate. Nobody really values something given for free.

Want more? Discover the full Top 30 in Computer Arts issue 259

If you can't wait any longer to find out the other studios that made the cut, discover the rest of the Top 30 in the UK Studio Rankings 2016 – including useful stats, insights, and opportunities to work for them yourself – in issue 259 of Computer Arts, with exclusive scratch-off cover by top studio Sawdust. The issue is on sale now – get your copy here

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Julia Sagar
Editor-in-chief retail

Julia is editor-in-chief, retail at Future Ltd, where she works in e-commerce across a number of consumer lifestyle brands. A former editor of design website Creative Bloq, she’s also worked on a variety of print titles, and was part of the team that launched consumer tech website TechRadar. She's been writing about art, design and technology for over 15 years.