Creative Lives — Creative director and Fiasco Design co-founder Ben Steers on pitching, persistence and making your own job
In the year that Ben Steers graduated from his design and illustration degree, the UK recession was in full swing. Unemployment rates were the highest they had been in nearly two decades, and anxiety levels were running high for fresh graduates. A year down the line, with little but call centre experience to his name, Ben took his fate into his own hands and co-founded creative agency Fiasco Design. Set in Bristol, the company balances larger clients, like Channel 4, BBC and Penguin Random House, with local icons such as the Arnolfini gallery. More recently Ben started monthly event series thread, and will soon launch a major design festival, Something Good, featuring workshops from the likes of Anthony Burrill and Morag Myerscough. We caught up to find out what it takes to make your own company flourish and why integrity and persistence are so essential to good work.
Creative Director and Co-founder of Fiasco Design and thread Events
Plymouth, Illustration and Graphic Communication (2006-2008)
Penguin Random House, Red Bull, Cosy Clubs, Hereford College of Arts, Arnolfini, Cosy Club
How would you describe what you do?
We’re a multi-disciplinary design studio. We work with a range of varied clients on branding, digital and print projects. Our clients include Penguin Random House, Red Bull, Moleskine, Cosy Clubs, Hereford College of Arts, UWE Bristol and Arnolfini. We get a kick out of working with brands big and small, using ideas and creativity to solve often complex business problems.
What does a typical working day look like?
No two days are ever really the same, but generally speaking I get in around 8.30 or 9am and work through to 6.30 or 7pm. We’re constantly juggling a lot of projects. For example, at the moment we have approximately 20 live or ongoing projects on the go, so my job is to make sure that the plates keep spinning and keep the wheels turning.
We don’t work only with retainer clients – which we see as a positive thing – so it means that there is constantly new projects coming in and out of the studio. Most of my time is spent either in internal or client meetings, on email or new business and strategy work. I try to get not spend all my time in front of a screen, but it’s not always easy to achieve.
I like to stay in touch with what’s happening in the studio, so most of my time is spent there but of course, with a percentage of our clients being based outside of Bristol, I’m often on the move, for example to London.
“[Pitching for new work] is a numbers game; you need to have enough irons in the fire for something to come off.”
How does new work usually come about for the studio?
We’re lucky that we get a good deal of work through referrals from old or current clients. Bristol’s a small city so a lot of people find us through word of mouth, or via Goole, which isn’t always a good thing! We also have a sister company, , which we set up about 18 months ago, to organise and curate creative events in Bristol, so inevitably we end up meeting people through that too.
We get involved in a lot of pitches – too many in fact. It’s actually quite rare that a prospective client will come to us and us alone. There’s a real culture of pitching in the industry, which can be difficult to manage, but it’s a numbers game; you need to have enough irons in the fire for something to come off.
How collaborative is your work?
Collaboration is a huge part of the way we work, both as a team and with our clients. In fact it’s one of our core principles: ‘Together is Better’. We find that we get the best results when we work with our clients and not for them. Close collaboration means effective communication, being able to be honest, having trust and respect from both sides. I see so many agencies and companies who talk a big game about collaboration, but working in a truly collaborative way with your clients takes a lot of hard work and energy. You have to really mean it.
What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job?
The least enjoyable is dealing with highly strung, over-empowered marketing managers or company owners who hire you to do a job, only to insist that they can do it better. There’s a lot of integrity in the work that we do, so we won’t just roll over if we’re asked to do something that we don’t believe is right. Having those conversations, with clients who think they know best, can be really taxing and can make or break a project.
Visual identity design for Bristol based theatre, Tobacco Factory Theatres, 2015
What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months?
We’re currently working with Hereford College of Arts on an overhaul of the College’s entire visual identity, which will eventually include everything from the logo through to marketing collateral and wayfinding and signage. It’s been great to work with an arts college and I’m super proud of the work we’ve produced. We’re still working through some of it at the moment but we should be able to show the world very soon.
What skills are essential to your job?
Patience, empathy, being personable and an eye for detail.
Are you currently working on any self-initiated projects?
We’re currently in the process of creating the look and feel for new design festival Something Good, which is being organised and curated by our sister company thread. We set the brief and decide what we do, which means we have complete control over the whole process. It also means we can have a lot of fun with the design and application of the branding. We like to use projects like this as a testing ground for things we can’t really get away with in our client work, such as trying new techniques or technologies.
We’re also in the very early stages of planning a studio project that’ll involve distilling, branding and packaging and selling our own liquor, but that’s about all I can say on that for now!
What tools do you use most for your work?
An iMac 2015 21” with second screen; iPhone 6; iPad Pro 2; Adobe CS, InVision, Asana, Slack, Basecamp, Google Drive and Docs, Hourstack, Spotify, Pocket; a good old Bic Ball Pen; Moleskine ruled and blank notebooks; Hard Graft laptop case.
Website design for the upcoming Something Good design festival, 2017
Fun with names on the Something Good website
Branding for thread Events
How I Got Here
What did you want to be growing up?
When I was very young I wanted to be a policeman. It’s funny how kids of a certain age have dreams of growing up to be these really noble professions, like being a nurse or astronaut and end up pushing pixels around a screen! I never really had a clear idea of what I wanted to be or do. I’ve always made choices based on gut and intuition.
How (if at all) is the subject you studied useful to your current role?
Studying illustration really helped me to understand composition and layout. It’s not always easy to articulate why, but I feel I know when something doesn’t sit right. I think the course also taught me that illustration and graphic design is difficult, and if you want to make it and be successful in the creative industries, you have to put in a lot of hard graft. No one’s going to just hand it to you; you have to go out and get it for yourself.
What were your first jobs?
Funnily enough, I never did an internship or had a job at a design studio before we set up Fiasco Design. Everything I know about commercial design work and running a business I’ve learnt over the past seven years since founding the agency. Internships weren’t really encouraged by my university, so the importance of getting real-world experience under your belt before graduating was never really communicated.
When I graduated in 2008 the recession hit, the job market went flat as a pancake and unemployment was the highest it had been in 20 years. I spent about a year working in various call centres, doing mind-numbing work for about eight hours a day and making peanuts. When we eventually set up Fiasco, the time I had spent working in these places really drove me to succeed. I never wanted to go back to that.
I’d like to say that there was some grand five-year plan, but there wasn’t. It was started out of necessity. A lack of jobs and outlets as an illustrator and designer. We went in with nothing and thought, ‘What’s the worst that can happen?’ It’s amazing how far hard work and commitment will get you.
“Studying really helped me understand composition and layout, and that illustration and graphic design are difficult. If you want to make it and be successful, you have to go out and get it for yourself.”
Design and development of The Snowman and The Snowdog site for Penguin Random House
D&AD award-winning design and development work for Pelican Books
Visual identity and environmental graphics for UWE Bristol
Was there anything in particular that helped you at the start of your career?
I’m not sure there was any one thing. In the early days a lot of our clients took a big punt on working with us. We were young, fresh faced, inexperienced and just finding our way. It would have been a ‘safer’ bet to go with an agency with more than a year of experience, but they took a risk and gave us a chance. That was massive.
Was there an early project you worked on that helped your development?
About a year into setting up the studio we won a gig working with Somethin’ Else, creating characters and environments for an online game for Channel 4 called Nightmare High. Needless to say it was a huge deal and it meant that we had Channel 4 on our client list within the first 18 months of the business. The game also went on to win a Children’s BAFTA, which ain’t half bad!
What’s been your biggest challenge?
We’ve made a million mistakes along the way and we continue to do so. We’re constantly pushing the work we do; you can’t be afraid of taking risks and making mistakes. The biggest challenges we’ve faced whilst growing the studio have been organically growing the business whilst balancing the books and keeping our heads above water. It’s hard to know when to expand and get the timing right.
We’ve always tried to create an environment and culture that people want to be a part of, and being a small team means we have to be super-selective about who we bring in, and what they bring to the table. We haven’t always hired the right people but we’ve learnt to pick people over skills, and this has made a real difference.
Is your job what you thought it would be?
I don’t know if I ever gave much thought to what my job would be when we started out on this journey. There was no grand plan or road map; we set up the studio out of necessity and seven years later we’re still here. My job is so varied; I wear many hats and the variety of work and daily challenges are what excite me most about what I do. It keeps things fresh and interesting.
“When we eventually set up Fiasco, the time I had spent working [in callcentres] really drove me to succeed. I never wanted to go back to that.”
Interactive map of Rio in time for the 2016 Olympics; a studio-initiated project
Interactive map of Rio in time for the 2016 Olympics; a studio-initiated project
Work for University of the West of England
Work for University of the West of England
What would you like to do next?
We’re in a really good place at the moment. We're working on some really exciting projects with a fantastic team that I’m extremely proud of. I just want to continue doing what we’re doing, and continue to push ourselves and learn as we go.
Could you do this job forever?
Right now there’s nowhere I’d rather be. I can honestly say that I love what I do. I love what we’ve built and the people I work with. Whether I’ll be saying that in another ten years, who knows? As long as I’m excited by what I’m doing and I’ve got the hunger for it, I’ll be here.
What do you feel is the natural career progression for someone in your current position?
Typically creative directors will have climbed the ranks from junior designer, plying their trade at different studios before reaching the level of creative director. The trend would then suggest that they go on to start up their own studio, wanting to try something new and have more control over their own destiny.
Visual identity design work for The Corner Shop, a leading arts PR agency
Words of Wisdom
What advice would you give to a young creative wanting to found their own studio or become a creative director?
Just do it! It’s hard – really hard, but if you want it enough, you’ll make it happen. Get some experience under your belt; a couple of years working in an agency, learn the ropes, understand how a creative business is run and what’s required, then go out and make it on your own. If you can, take someone with you – it helps to have someone by your side. And take a client or two with you, or have work lined up for when you start out. We didn’t do either of these things, so we started from scratch.
Get your name out there, speak to everyone and anyone who will listen to you talk about what you do. Work for free if you want to. Be audacious. Approach everything you do with passion and energy. Don’t give up; even when it gets really tough. Do all of this and with time, there’s no reason why you can’t be your own boss if you want to be.
The Something Good design festival will take place in Bristol on 6th and 7th October 2017, and will feature speakers including Morag Myerscough, Anthony Burrill, Snask and Wilfrid Wood. Tickets are available here.