Creative Lives — Nick Finney, Creative Director at NB Studio
Twenty years ago creative director Nick Finney left Pentagram to set up his own practice, London-based NB Studio, with friend and colleague Alan Dye. Over these two decades NB has won huge clients like John Lewis, The Victoria and Albert Museum and Channel Four, and last year even co-created a play that was performed at Design Indaba. As creative director, Nick splits his time between the ideas and excitement of the studio’s creative vision and the more mundane (but essential) financial and administrative demands of running a business. He might not be such a big fan of the latter, but he finds the experience fun and rewarding and “loves coming to work”.
Founder and Creative Director of NB Studio
John Lewis, Pernod Ricard, British Heart Foundation, Channel Four, Waitrose, V&A
Designer, Pentagram Design (1991–1997)
Junior Designer, Howard Brown (1991)
Higher National Diploma Graphic Design, Somerset College of Arts and Technology (1988–1990)
Nick at NB Studio
How would you describe your job?
Being a creative director means finding new ways, seeing potential in an idea and supporting the strategy, accounts and design team in finding a clear path to an effective and beautiful solution. And as a founding partner I work with creative partner Alan Dye to run NB Studio as a business and a creative studio. We tend to work with different clients but will always come together to share the load and share ideas. It’s a really rewarding role and I love coming to work.
What does a typical working day look like?
I generally wake up at 6.30am with a quick coffee and read my emails. I’ll eat breakfast at my desk with a second coffee when I arrive at work. By this time I’m wide awake and ready to tackle the day. I like to make a list of things I need to do on my commute so then it’s about turning that list into actions. This will range from liaising with the team about the projects, opportunities, proposals and presentations we have on the boil at any one time; some more time-critical than others. Ideally I’ll get through the day with a completed list but more often than not I won’t be able to get through it all.
How did you land your current job?
I guess I created it. Working as a designer in my previous role was a rewarding education. I couldn’t imagine working anywhere else so I teamed up with my partners and we formed NB.
Where does the majority of your work take place?
I’d say around 70% of the time I’m sitting at my desk in front of my Mac and scooting round the studio to sit with the team individually or in groups. The rest of my time is spent in transit, in client meetings, giving lectures, networking or out and about doing client research and finding inspiration.
How collaborative is your work?
A various points throughout the week I’ll work with creative partner Alan Dye, strategy director Dan Radley, account managers Tom Moloney and Hannah Rea, studio manager Saphira Parry and the design team in order to get things done smoothly, efficiently and hopefully with aplomb. I can’t work without a talented team or an open-minded client. We’re a super-efficient machine on the best of days. Everyone is passionate about their roles and draws the best out of each other. I will also work with clients, friends and collaborators to get the best results. We have a fat address book of tame consultants, both business and brand. Great writers, image-makers, technical experts and general all-round geeks help us in our creative endeavour. If we don’t know how to do it we will know someone who can.
“I don’t think we knew that we were going to become a full-time studio, but we naturally grew into one.”
Cards of work by NB Studio
Inside NB Studio
Inside NB Studio
What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job?
I’m most happy when I’ve got a new puzzle; a client who needs design to help them answer a business need. I love inspiring the team to push for difference and creative courage. I love being out of my comfort zone, being thrown in at the deep end, not knowing the answer, not yet fully understanding the problem and learning along the journey. I think learning and progress are the key to happiness.
I’m less keen on the management side of our business; the administration, the financial strategy and the other processes that keep the studio running. They can be quite taxing and stressful, especially when what I really want to do is scribble, think and create. Of course in reality I know that we wouldn’t function as a studio without the rigour we employ here. From time to time we’ll shake things up, we can be creative in our approach to the management of our business too.
What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months?
If I look back over the last year my favourite project has been slightly self-indulgent and removed me from the day-to-day. I co-created a play about design with my colleague Alan, playwright Jimmy Osbourne, actor-director David Aula and actress Georgia Clarke-Day. It’s called ‘Turn-table: Anatomy of a Pitch’ and on the surface is about a crucial meeting with a client that goes wrong. It’s also about relationships, the assumptions people can make of each other and about how the past can affect the present. We showed it first at Design Indaba, Cape Town and then at Design Yatra in Jaipur. We had a great deal of support and encouragement from both our team and our most trusted collaborators with whom we shared our hopes, fears and work in progress.
What skills are essential to your job?
Listening, learning, inspiring, collaborating and empathy. Empathy for your client, for their customer or audience and for people generally. You must see all points of view and come at things as a fellow human with an open mind and a positive approach.
What tools do you use most for your work?
Apple iMac 27” Retina; MacBook Pro 13” Touchbar; iPhone 7plus; Moleskine A5 ruled notebook; Evernote; Dropbox; Uniball Eye 0.5mm Rollerball pens; Rotring pencil; paper; Post-Its; The Times; The Guardian.
Artwork for ‘Turn-table: Anatomy of a pitch’, a play performed at Design Indaba
‘Turn-table: Anatomy of a pitch’ at Design Indaba
What were your first jobs?
My first real job was stacking shelves at night in Sainsbury’s, Shrewsbury during the summer break at college. This was followed by a summer as evening pizza delivery boy. I tore around Taunton, Somerset in a yellow car with a giant glowing red phone on the roof. I learnt that ‘work’ is all about the people you work with and that they’re what makes life interesting.
After finishing college I joined designer Howard Brown in Chiswick as his design assistant working on various small-scale design projects including stamps for Royal Mail, books for photographers and illustrators and identities for individuals and charities. I learnt so much in the short time I worked with Howard and that stood me in good stead for my next role at Pentagram.
Was there an early project you worked on that helped your development?
The first task Howard Brown set me was a simple typography brief. He’d set up this beautiful little system for the Zelda Cheatle Gallery and all that was required was a little creativity using Helvetica. I failed to listen properly to what Howard was trying to teach me. Feeling creative I managed to use almost every weight of the font and as a consequence it looked ‘different’. I was quite proud of my solution. When Howard returned to look at my work I was taught a valuable lesson about listening.. and about typography.
What skills have you learnt along the way?
We have to keep abreast of the tools of the trade (the hardware and software) but its the human skills that really matter.
What’s been your biggest challenge?
The biggest challenge has always been about business: finding new business, retaining clients and hitting monthly targets. My biggest mistake (but also my best idea) was going into business with my friends who were also designers. None of us really had a clue about money or business so we had to learn. We’re still learning.
NB’s work for Almeida Theatre
What would you like to do next?
Grow the business, grow the team.
Could you do this job forever?
I hope so. I love it.
Words of Wisdom
What advice would you give to a young creative wanting to become a creative director?
Be brave, be open-minded and be nice.
This article is part of our In the Studio With feature on NB Studio.