5 small design studios with the clout of a huge agency

Many of the world's best-known design and branding agencies boast more than a hundred staff, spread around the globe. Look at Pentagram, Landor, Wolff Olins, JKR, Design Bridge, Pearlfisher or the recently-formed Superunion – household-name agencies, granted custody of household-name brands.

Plenty more highly reputable design agencies operate in the sweet-spot between around 20 and 50 staff – the likes of Made Thought, DesignStudio, DixonBaxi, Taxi Studio and Moving Brands all fall into this category.

But size isn't everything when it comes to creating world-class work. Read on to discover five small but perfectly formed agencies – all with just a handful of full-time staff – that command respect from peers and clients alike...

01. Studio Sutherl&

Start-rite Shoes rebrand, by Studio Sutherl&

Sutherl&'s Start-rite work demonstrates how the tiny agency's boutique approach can adapt to a high-street brand

Jim Sutherland left hat-trick design, the multi-award-winning consultancy he co-founded with Gareth Howat, in 2014, to set up his own, smaller, now also multi-award-winning outfit – which topped Computer Arts' UK Studio Rankings 2017. Not that hat-trick was ever a big agency – but Studio Sutherl& couldn't much smaller: it has a full-time staff of two.

Joy, wit and simplicity lie at the heart of the studio's work. And while many of its warmest, most personable projects are for small arts and culture organisations, a strong collaborative spirit opens up a wider range of potential projects.

As its website attests, Studio Sutherl& was founded to be "agile and personal, building teams from the best artists, architects, writers, strategists, fashion designers and others to suit each project." Recent work for Start-rite Shoes demonstrates how the tiny studio's compelling approach can appeal to a major high street brand.

02. Build

Build is one of two inclusions on this list founded by alumni of the Designer's Republic (tDR), the era-defining design agency of the '90s. Having cut his teeth at tDR, Michael C Place founded Build in 2001 and has built it into a multi-award-winning agency in its own right – with just a handful of staff in Leeds.

According to its website, Build "helps clients to communicate, tell their story or grow their brand with contemporary, thoughtful design." The studio works across multiple disciplines, including art direction, image making, moving image and typography.

Like many other small agencies, Build has its fair share of small, artsy clients – but they sit alongside global heavyweights such as Nike, Getty Images – for whom Build rebranded iStock in 2013 – and Virgin America, which included a character-led animated takeover of Times Square, produced in collaboration with Animade (and filmed in situ, above, by Branded Cities).

03. Supple Studio

Film 4 Summer Screen 2018 by Supple Studio

Supple Studio has worked on various projects for Channel 4, including this Film4 Summer Screen campaign

Jamie Ellul left Magpie, the award-winning London agency he co-founded with Ben Christie and David Azurdia, to move to the beautiful city of Bath. There, he established Supple Studio, again with just a handful of staff, working with major clients such as Channel 4, the NSPCC and Royal Mail.

Collaboration is often the key to scaling up the level of ambition for a small studio, and Supple spells it out on its website: "With us you get small agency thinking paired with big agency impact... a small dedicated team with the benefit of a large network of partners and experts."

In fact, Supple is one of the most outspoken advocates of 'small agency thinking': "It means we approach every client brief with the same care and attention. It means we sweat about the little details that can make a big difference. It means your project won’t be passed along from one person to another. We know that beautifully executed ideas can seriously improve your business: small agency thinking means big ideas, and big impact."

04. Sawdust

Converse rebrand by Sawdust

Sawdust doesn't just craft stylish typographic imagery – the two-man outfit recently rebranded Converse

Sawdust is the only small studio on this list not founded by someone who split off from the senior team of a larger outfit – so has built its reputation from scratch. The long-running partnership of Rob Gonzalez and Jonathan Quainton specialises in typographic work and image-making, with editorial clients including Wired, Esquire and the New York Times – but also commands the confidence of big-brand clients such as Nike, Coca-Cola, Apple, Converse, Virgin and IBM.

"At the heart of what we do is a desire to create work that is both explorative and beautifully crafted," is Sawdust's mission statement. "Above all else we retain a deeply rooted conviction to not only deliver design that is effective but that exceeds our client’s expectations." 

Would you expect a two-man outfit to work with Converse's global brand design team, and have the clout to help rebrand them? If not, Sawdust proves you wrong.

05. Universal Everything

Our final inclusion on this list is the brainchild of another tDR alumnus – Matt Pyke. Universal Everything is a "global collective of digital artists, designers, animators, musicians and developers", with only a skeleton staff for the agency itself.

With a dizzying array of global clients including Apple, Audi, Chanel, Google, Nike, Samsung and more, Universal Everything proves how effective a flexible, collaboration-based agency model can be to deliver awe-inspiring projects on a global scale. The agency's portfolio includes immersive multi-sensory experiences, innovative moving image installations and more, including launch events for some of the world's most forward-thinking brands.

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Nick Carson

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 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.