Creative Lives — Brand consultant and ping pong specialist Algy Batten on closing one business to start a very different one
Having set up his own agency and built a 20-year career in design, Algy Batten decided to switch things up. Closing the business in 2016 and following his passions, he went out on his own as a brand consultant, alongside founding The Art of Ping Pong – an art focused ping pong brand, that celebrates the popularity and subculture of ping pong by colliding it with all the colour and fun of art. Through the creation of their own products, events, exhibitions and charity campaigns, Algy is striving to build the most spirited ping pong brand on the planet. It’s been a time of upheaval, liberation and vulnerability, as Algy tells us here, with many lessons learnt along the way. We hear how his path in graphic design began with jewellery-making, and how he’s found his way in a whole new creative and professional phase.
Independent Brand Consultant and Creative Director of The Art of Ping Pong (2016–present)
ustwo Adventure’s Playground co-working space, London
Designer, Browns Design (1998–2000)
Design Director, UNICEF (2000–2002)
Freelance Designer (2002–2004)
Rebrand Team, Nokia (2004)
Co-founder and Creative Director, Fivefootsix (2005–2016)
BA Graphic Design, Northumbria University (1995–1998)
Algy at work inside ustwo Adventure
How would you describe your job?
Up until a couple of years ago I had been the creative director of my own agency called Fivefootsix (with my mate Mark McConnachie), overseeing a team of around 15 people. Since closing the agency, I have gone independent again. I work with some young design studios helping them develop their own businesses, I direct the product photography for Logitech, I’ve built a small team to develop the brand and communications for Legoland Discovery Centre, I still work for Ben & Jerry’s (a client I have had for well over ten years) and I’ve done a brand audit for The Dungeons.
I enjoy the relationship I have with all my clients, and for me at this stage in my career, good client relationships are a priority. At the moment, I’m also developing my own side project called The Art of Ping Pong and I’m designing ping-pong tables!
“I meditate first thing in the morning. It’s something I started doing at 21.”
What does a typical working day look like?
I meditate first thing in the morning. It’s something I started doing at 21. I only have a 15-minute bike ride to work, so I can often be in by 9am each day. I’m very self motivated, so I don’t have any issue dragging myself in to work. Once I’m here I do something called Morning Pages, where you continuously write your stream of consciousness for five minutes. It’s good for clearing your mind and bringing things to the foreground that worry you. It’s like free therapy.
For two-thirds of the week I’m usually at a small studio in a friend’s editing company called Trim, based in Whitechapel. And the rest of the week I’m at the ustwo Adventure floor. Normally, my time is split between client work and AoPP, but at the moment I’m deep into a product development phase, so most of my time is spent developing our own range of tables and bats.
Algy working in the ustwo Adventure co-working space
What inspired you to take on The Art of Ping Pong full-time?
Apart from building Fivefootsix agency, the majority of my career has been working on projects for other people’s businesses. I always had a passion for creating something for myself, where I’m not at the mercy of client whims, opinions and budgets. I really enjoyed building the brand, culture and reputation of Fivefootsix, but I wish we’d spent more time designing our own products.
The Art of Ping Pong gives me that opportunity. The charity auction has gotten harder and harder to manage on my own, especially as it grows each year. So I want to turn it into a ‘for profit, for purpose’ business, using a portion of that profit to continue managing our own charitable initiatives and campaigns.
How collaborative is your role?
To be completely honest, I don’t enjoy taking it forward alone. Maybe that will change one day, but I do have lots of collaborators in different areas. For example, I’ve been developing the products with Morrama and Ayla, both from the ustwo Adventure floor, and I’m about to start working with PR company Zetteler on a launch campaign for the tables. I also have a brilliant web partner, Roll Studio, who I develop the website with. For the charity auction, I’ve had huge support from Colt Press and Fenner Paper, who printed the exhibition book and supplied the paper.
Mr Doodle at an event for The Art of Ping Pong
The Art of Ping Pong charity collection 2016, photographed by Paul Thompson
A mini ArtTable, The Art of Ping Pong, painted by Morag Myerscough, 2017
What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months?
Receiving the final prototype of our mini ArtTables yesterday got me really pumped. They were an idea I had over a year ago when my girlfriend made me get rid of my ping-pong table in the garage. I thought of ways I could keep a table in the house that wouldn’t take up space or be an eye sore when not used. That was when I stumbled on the idea of a mini table that, with the legs folded away, can hang on the wall as a piece of art.
For the first prototype, I worked with a great graduate from Kingston and I put two into last year’s charity auction. They needed a lot of redesigning to turn them into a commercial product, so I’ve been working with Moramma this year to make the set up easier, and they are now being produced by Theo from Ayla who has a little workshop in Devon. The look of the table hasn’t really changed from my initial sketch, but the mechanics have greatly improved, so I’m super happy and they’re nearly ready to launch!
What skills are essential to your job?
Simply being able to cope, adapt and be resourceful is important. In addition to that, overall creative vision, ideas, networks and passion keep it all moving forward.
What tools do you use most for your work?
For design, I use Adobe Creative Suite – InDesign, Illustrator and Photoshop. For ideas, I use Pages – I love how it syncs across all devices, since most ideas are on the hop and typed into my phone. For presentations and talks, I’m behind the times and only starting using Keynote.
The branding for Algy’s former agency, FiveFootSix
One Eighty brand creation by Fivefootsix, 2014
Movement for Modern Life brand creation by Fivefootsix, 2013
Clippet brand creation by Fivefootsix, 2013
UEFA Youth League Identity created by Fivefootsix, 2015
Ben & Jerry’s product launch by Fivefootsix, 2014
How I Got Here
What did you want to be growing up?
I wanted to be a tennis player, a jewellery designer, a decathlete and a dancer (Bez of the Happy Mondays in particular). I became a tennis coach at 19. Designing jewellery got me onto a foundation course, which ultimately led me to become a graphic designer. The decathlete bit got me to run loads of halves and a few full marathons, and the desire to become a dancer never materialised, although I did end up in a grime video once.
How is the subject you studied useful to your current role?
Studying graphic design was essential for building the foundations as a designer but I learnt most of the craft in my first job at Browns Design. The entrepreneurial streak has probably always been there, but running Fivefootsix developed it. I also did English for A Level and that’s proven very useful. Content is key for design but it’s also useful for selling your ideas and communicating with clients and team alike.
Was there a particular turning point that helped your development?
I’ve always considered my time at Browns as the moment I truly became a graphic designer. But it was also the moment I learnt how to ‘people please’ through design. Which isn’t always such a great thing. You can lose your own identity on many levels. So it’s important to make sure you find the time to explore your own creative freedom and work on your own projects that help you develop your own voice.
“It’s important to explore your own creative freedom and do projects that please and develop your own voice.”
Art of Ping Pong website produced in partnership with Roll Studio, 2016
What’s been your biggest challenge?
At the start of the year I decided to focus my time developing The Art of Ping Pong and not take on any client work. I had money saved from closing Fivefootsix and wanted to take this risk. What I wasn’t prepared for was how quickly my own confidence would collapse like a house of cards, as I watched my savings disappear so quickly. What a numbnut, to think I could explore my own creativity, earn no money and support a family of four!
Fortunately, a couple of old clients got in touch out of the blue and I started to manage them alongside The Art of Ping Pong. I never appreciated how earning money gives you a sense of self-worth. Going all-out on a new business venture that needs a lot of work and money before you see any fruits from your labour takes big balls.
“What I wasn’t prepared for was how quickly my own confidence would collapse, as I watched my savings disappear so quickly.”
Is your job what you thought it would be?
I thought Fivefootsix would be my job for life. Never in a million years did I think I’d set up a ping-pong brand. I still think The Art of Ping Pong will only ever be a side project, but we’ll see. At college I never realised graphic design might not fully satisfy my creative soul because the work is inherently tied to client’s needs. This isn’t a bad thing, but that’s why it’s very important to have your own projects on the go too.
What would you like to do next?
I lived abroad in Geneva for two years when I worked for UNICEF. Without doubt, that was one of the best decisions I ever made. I’d like to do that again in the future, especially with children. Quality of life in other countries can be so much better than here. London still has a pull on me, but it’s getting weaker. Creatively, I’m excited to see where I can take The Art of Ping Pong and I feel like that’s enough of a challenge at the moment.
Legoland Discovery Centre Key Visuals, 2017
Legoland Discovery Centre Key Visuals, 2017
Words of Wisdom
What advice would you give to a young creative wanting to set up their own company?
Some people can leave college and go at it alone straight away. I couldn’t have done that. It’s important to learn from others with good experience behind them, especially ones that enjoy nurturing your talent. Everyone needs a sounding board.
This article is part of a feature on ustwo Adventure – a Lecture in Progress Agency Patron. Every year, Lecture in Progress partners with like-minded brands and agencies to support our initiative and keep Lecture in Progress a free resource for students. To find out more about how you can work with us, email [email protected]