Creative Lives — We chat to Build Co-founder and Director Nicky Place about running her own business and balancing creativity with strategy

Posted 10 March 2017 Interview by Laura Snoad

With a background in the games industry, Nicky Place co-founded Leeds-based studio Build with husband and business partner Michael, joining him full-time in 2006. Seeing herself as a “balance” to Michael’s creative output, Nicky takes the lead on strategy and client management, but is currently delegating more of the operational side of her work to free up time for design. Even though the pair recently escaped London for Leeds, Nicky admits that when you’re running your own business is stressful and switching off can be a huge challenge.

Nicky Place

Job Title

Co-founder and Director, Build (2006–present)

Based

Leeds

Clients

Nike, Stow Brothers, Virgin America, Nokia, Getty Images.

Previous Employment

Art Manager, Sony Computer Entertainment Europe, London (2001-2006)
Lead Artist and Art Manager, Sony Computer Entertainment Europe (1995-2000)
2D Games artist, 3D Games Artist, Team leader and Lead Artist, Psygnosis Liverpool (1990-1995)

Education

BA Graphic Design (specialising in Illustration), Liverpool Polytechnic, now John Moore University (1987–1990)

Website

Day-to-Day

The Build studio

How would you describe your job? 
My role started as a balance to Michael [Place]’s creative director role – to make sure everything other than pure design was dealt with. I have a creative background with team management experience so it’s a good balance – I understand creative processes and pressures as well as workflow and the need to appease clients. Over the years my role has encompassed operations, strategy, developing systems, project management, client development and client liaison, as well as creative strategy and direction on certain projects. My role is currently split; I’m still responsible for budgeting projects as well as ensuring clients are happy, but I’m handing over some of the operations elements and  starting to concentrate more on the creative aspects of projects.

What does an average working day look like? 
I’m up at 6am, leave at 7.30am and in the studio at 8.30am, where I’ll write list of emails to answer and all the tasks I need to do. I leave at 6.30pm and am home at 7.30pm. My ideal day would start at 8.30am and I’d have all my essential tasks out of the way by 10am. I would then spend time on whatever large project I’m working on with a leisurely break for lunch. Then I would then leave at 4pm!

How did you land your current job? 
When Michael started Build he worked full time and I was still working at SCEE London studios to make sure we had an income! I was a co-founder and an advisor on certain aspects but not involved day-to-day. As Build got more established and Michael was  dealing with all the additional jobs of running a small business, I could see there was a need for him to have a bit of help, and mooted the idea of me jumping ship to be at Build full-time. 

“It’s hard to switch off when the business is your own and the job can be highly stressful.”

Original sketches done while at Sony Computer Entertainment Europe

Original sketches done while at Sony Computer Entertainment Europe

Original sketches done while at Sony Computer Entertainment Europe

Original sketches done while at Sony Computer Entertainment Europe

Original sketches done while at Sony Computer Entertainment Europe

Original sketches done while at Sony Computer Entertainment Europe

Original sketches done while at Sony Computer Entertainment Europe

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Where does the majority of your work take place? 
Usually in the studio, although most recently I’ve been working on an interiors project for our longstanding clients [Walthamstow estate agent] Stow Brothers, which has meant I’ve been on site a few times.

How collaborative is your role? 
I work with everyone in the studio in different capacities. Externally it totally depends on the project and the client.

What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job? 
Least enjoyable is paper work and admin. Most enjoyable is securing and then completing  a project.

What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months? 
Stow Brothers’ new office fit-out is the biggest single creative job I’ve been involved with in the last year, alongside other smaller projects.

What skills are essential to your job?
Creative thinking, diplomacy, organisation.

“When I said I wanted to go to art college, my dad was adamant that I should get a job – my mum said no and took a part-time job to help out.”

What tools do you use most for your work?
An iMac; iPhone; Mail; Excel; Adobe; Word; Photoshop; Wilkos rubber tipped pencils; Papermate Inkjoy; A4 Paper held onto A4 card with a mini bulldog clip as my note paper.

I also have a set of printed sheets (made in Excel) that I use to plan my day and week and  to note what emails and calls I need to make.

Would you say your work allows for a good work-life balance? 
No, it’s hard to switch off when the business is your own and the job can be highly stressful. I definitely need to make more time for non-studio things. Both Michael and I tend to work until breaking point, at which point a holiday is an essential. 

Do you run any side projects alongside your job?
No, although there are plenty of things on the back-burner that there never seems to be time to do. We bought a house just over a year ago that needed a lot more work that we realised so that has taken up the little spare time I have. 

New office fit-out for estate agent Stow Brothers

New office fit-out for estate agent Stow Brothers

New office fit-out for estate agent Stow Brothers

New office fit-out for estate agent Stow Brothers

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How I Got Here

What did you want to be growing up?
A nurse or an artist of some sort.

How (if at all) is the subject you studied useful to your current role?
Absolutely. I decided to go the artist route and did a foundation course at the local college then went to study graphics with illustration. It led me into my first job – they needed people who could draw to make 2D computer game artwork. It led into 3D game development and I gravitated towards organisational and leadership roles while still being a games artist. 

Was there anything in particular that helped you at the start of your career?
My mum. When I said I wanted to go to art college my dad was adamant that I should get a job. My mum said no and took a part-time job to help out, although eventually my dad was very proud of what I achieved. I think it’s a story told many times by many people wanting to go into creative roles, especially in the 80s before the creative industries developed into what they are today.

“Having invested so much time, energy and love into the business, it’s hard to feel that it’s ok to leave it behind one day.”

Was there an early project you worked on that helped your development?
The most life-changing project for me was working on the Sony Playstation launch title Wipeout and subsequent titles. Through that I met Michael, who was at the time working at the Designers Republic and is now my husband and business partner. It was a really exciting time to be working in the games industry and it led directly to my current role here at Build.

What skills have you learnt along the way?
Diplomacy, organisation, negotiation.

What’s been your biggest challenge?
Staying sane. Too many mistakes to mention early on, usually involving too much enthusiasm to work on projects. 

Nicky at work

Nicky at work

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Thinking Ahead

Could you do this job forever?
No and it’s taken a while to realise that it’s healthy to want change. But having invested so much time, energy and love into the business, it’s hard to feel that it’s ok to leave it behind one day. But I am searching for what that could be or how I could use my skills and experience to develop something else, probably not vastly different.

What do you feel is the natural career progression for someone in your current position?
Starting a new venture.

Words of Wisdom

What advice would you give to a young creative wanting to become a director?
Keep your eyes on the prize but be open to opportunity.

This article is part of our In the Studio With feature on Build.

Posted 10 March 2017 Interview by Laura Snoad
Photography: Sophie Stafford
Collection: Creative Lives
Disciplines: Graphic Design, Design
Mentions: Build
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