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UK top 50 studios 2017

04. The Partners (opens in new tab) 

Founded: 1983
Location: London, New York, Singapore
Staff: 75

Jumping from 17 on last year’s list to the top five, The Partners has explored new territory in 2017, says UK creative director Stuart Radford. “We’ve done some very exciting work that has seen us push into new areas of design, such as moving image, digital and 3D installation,” he explains. 

“We’ve also been working with a broad range of clients across different sectors: the arts, professional services, artisan products and even extraterrestrial communications – a very diverse set of projects, but we love it.”

What have been the standout projects of 2017?
Stuart Radford:
Creating and launching the new visual identity for the London Symphony Orchestra to mark the appointment of conductor Sir Simon Rattle [Best of Show at CA’s Brand Impact Awards]. This gave us the opportunity to innovate an identity we created in 2004. 

Creating the brand for #RewritingTheCode, an initiative to expose hidden values and behavioural codes of gender inequality. We were proud to see that on its launch day, it was trending on Twitter at no 4. And collaborating with Lambie-Nairn to rebrand Arte, Europe’s leading culture channel. We created a moving-image brand for broadcast, a first for The Partners.

How will Brexit affect you?
When it comes to hiring, we prefer to bring the right people in on a permanent basis. We believe this is better for the culture, the work and our clients. Therefore our freelance requirements are relatively small. In terms of Brexit, who knows what will happen? But it’s not all doom and gloom. Opportunities can come out of the most unlikely situations. Just a month after the referendum, we were invited to pitch for the Arte work, and next week we’re off to meet a new European client.

05. Pentagram (opens in new tab) 

Founded: 1972
Location: London (plus New York, Berlin, Austin)
Staff: 183

Rather like The Partners, Pentagram’s jump from 15th to the top five stands testament to a constant flow of great work on high-profile projects. These have included a visual identity for UK charity Nesta; the 2016 edition of The Typographic Circle’s magazine; a new typographic and story-driven identity for the Old Vic theatre, and a visual identity, dynamic typeface and pattern generator for machine-learning start-up Graphcore.

Partners Luke Powell and Jody Hudson-Powell, who joined in late 2015, share their thoughts on the last 12 months...

What’s been your biggest highlight of 2017 so far?
Luke Powell and Jody Hudson-Powell:
Being able to work on a broad range of projects that utilise all of our skills, such as Graphcore, an AI start-up in Bristol. For Pentagram, the high has been continuing to work with a high calibre of client.

What are the biggest challenges you face going into 2018?
LP & JH:
As we’re independent, we’re still able to choose the projects we work on. We want to remain a studio that can take any size of project, from a beach hut in Brazil to Mastercard’s rebrand. Keeping that balance is a challenge.

How do you think Brexit will affect the studio?
LP & JH:
Who knows? Obviously it’s something we are concerned about. We’re trying not to be pessimistic, but it’s hard.

Why do you think you were picked by your peers as one of the top agencies of 2017?
LP & JH:
It’s a huge compliment. We think it’s because of Pentagram’s ability to stay relevant, which is driven by one of the firm’s founding principles: to invite in new partners who bring with them different sets of skills.

06. Made Thought (opens in new tab) 

Founded: 2000
Location: London
Staff: 27

2015’s winner Made Thought has never fallen prey to complacency. As director Ben Parker says: “The last 12 months have been as much about focusing on our internal culture – defining how we work, not just thinking about what we do.” That includes moving to a new studio, doing more international work, and getting more involved in experience design for clients, including Adidas StellaSport.

Any standout projects of 2017?
Ben Parker:
The Nue Co involved working with the founder to create a new brand from scratch. The market of luxury supplements is growing, and our client believes much of the success of Nue can be traced to its brand and design. Another highlight has been our work for Adidas StellaSport – we shot two seasons’ worth of visuals.

What are the biggest challenges you face going into 2018?
Branding is part of what we do: thinking deeply about why and how the brand feels and behaves, not just ensuring it looks beautiful. So maybe a challenge, or something we’d like to get better at, is communicating what we do and the breadth.

How do you think Brexit will affect Made Thought? 
We haven’t felt the impact yet, but our concerns would be about the implications of Brexit on business as a whole. However, if anything, Brexit is making us think more about opportunities further afield, such as the USA and Asia, where we’re growing business anyway.

07. Graphic Thought Facility (opens in new tab) 

Founded: 1991
Location: London
Staff: 13

Last December saw 2014’s rankings-topper Graphic Thought Facility move studios, from Clerkenwell to Bethnal Green. “We went from an area we’ve been in for over 20 years, and it was quite a wrench,” reflects director Huw Morgan. “We intended this move to be our last: we’re only a small studio, but it took a year of planning, work and renovation.” 

It was necessary though: “Space is increasingly becoming a luxury in London. The rocketing rents are tough and particularly destructive for the creative industries.” 

Morgan reflects on the year that followed...

What’s been your biggest highlight of 2017 so far?
Huw Morgan:
Having a place to put a bike! Continuing to work with existing clients, and developing relationships with some lovely new ones. We’ve just completed a project for COS – its first book, launched in October; a monograph for Industrial Facility is almost complete; a new identity and magazine for Gagosian; work with Vitra and Kvadrat; the third-year of Photo London, and the start of new Holocaust exhibition at the Imperial War Museum. Outside of work: Hockney at the Tate, Nathalie Du Pasquier at Pace, the chair collection at Vitra Schaudepot, and Love Island.

What’s Graphic Thought Facility’s take on Brexit? 
It’s such a crazy own goal. Our client list is fairly international, so I guess at the moment the upside for them is that we are less expensive than we were a couple of years ago. 

The obvious concern is staff. We have long-standing designers from France, Switzerland, Germany and Portugal, and I’m delighted that, for now, they are still with us, pushed by neither fear nor law. Long term, like everyone else – including the politicians – while I can guess at the possibilities I have no idea of the reality. Of all things, I hope this Brexit still allows freedom of movement.

08. Johnson Banks (opens in new tab)

Founded: 1992
Location: London
Staff: 6

Founder Michael Johnson describes 2017 so far as “a rollercoaster” year for Johnson Banks, not least due to the success of its experimental website rebrand, which was widely acclaimed across the design community. 

There was also an innovative campaign for the Action for Children charity, and the high-stakes rebrand of Mozilla “in the open” – winner of the Collaboration Award at CA’s Brand Impact Awards – where each significant stage of the process was shared publicly.

So it’s perhaps not surprising to see them jump from 21 last year into the top 10...

What have been the standout projects of 2017?
Michael Johnson:
Getting to a decent result with Mozilla. Carrying out the Mozilla rebrand in the open was an unprecedented challenge, but I think we just about coped. Also, continuing to do some valuable not-for-profit work with Action for Children and Action Against Hunger. Oh, and a new (and seemingly popular) website – that was a result.

What are the biggest challenges you face going into 2018?
Same as we face every year: seeing more than six months ahead in terms of projects and turnover.

How do you think Brexit will affect the studio?
As regards working in Europe, that hasn’t affected us hugely yet, as our clients are spread far and wide, so paradoxically a weaker pound has helped there. But as the ‘Brexit Blues’ start to sink in, I’m a little worried that it might affect consumer and client confidence. And for some of the sectors we work in, such as education, the implications are fairly catastrophic.

Why do you think you were picked by your peers as one of the top studios?
Well, I’m not sure, apart from being very flattered! Maybe it’s because we’re living proof that a small studio can do global, important projects? Maybe.

09. ustwo (opens in new tab) 

Founded: 2004
Location: London (plus Malmö, New York and Sydney)
Staff: 300

This year, ustwo has hit some big milestones culture-wise, reveals Nicki Sprinz, managing director. “In particular, we’re immensely proud to have introduced equal parental leave – six months for each parent. This will enable mums and dads who work for us to have a real choice, and gives the opportunity to establish a balanced work-home life from day one.” 

In terms of the effect of Brexit, client work has increased, and the majority of their relationships are growing. “But it certainly is starting to present a challenge to us on the talent side,” she admits.

10. 4Creative (opens in new tab) 

Founded: 2005
Location: London
Staff: 40

4Creative is the in-house creative agency of Channel 4, and 2017 has seen it achieve a number of high-impact goals. “For instance, we’ve been encouraging young people to pop their voting cherry via our E4 election ad, and persuaded a record four million people to watch women’s football via our Women’s Euro campaign,” says head of business Jane English. 

Going into 2018, Brexit is a potential concern. “Channel 4 is funded by advertising, so if the ad market suffers, our marketing budgets might too,” reflects English. “But we would use this as an opportunity to be more creative than ever.”

Next page: Top UK studios 11-20

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Nick is a content strategist and copywriter. He has worked with world-class agencies including Superunion, Wolff Olins and Vault49 on brand storytelling, tone of voice and verbal strategy for global brands such as Virgin, Pepsi and TikTok. Nick launched the Brand Impact Awards (opens in new tab) in 2013 while editor of Computer Arts, and remains chair of judges. He's written for Creative Bloq on design and branding matters since the site's launch.