In the Studio With — Redefining success and achieving “work-love balance” with Bath-based design practice Supple Studio

Posted 23 July 2018 Interview by Indi Davies

Reassessing how he wanted to approach his professional and family time, Jamie Ellul launched Supple Studio with a focus on what he calls “work-love balance”. Having previously set up and directed Magpie Studio in London for five years, he felt it was time for a change – escaping the competitive cycle of award-chasing and expensive inner-city life. Relocating to Bath, Supple was established in 2013, and has since added a team member for each new year. With reduced outgoings alleviating the pressure to take on bread-and-butter jobs, Supple’s small and agile team have been able to take on projects they care about. He tells us about a portfolio that ranges from stamp design for the Royal Mail, to an identity for a local community initiative, and what he enjoys about working in Bath.

Supple Studio

Founded

2013

Based

Bath

Team

5

Selected Clients

Brownsword Hotels, Cocoa Jones Chocolatiers, Channel 4, Childline,  Film4, The Glove Factory, National Museums of Scotland, NSPCC, Prison Radio Association, Royal Mail, The Royal Mint, Thames & Hudson Books

Hours

9.30am to 6pm

Website
Social Media

The team at work

Background

We create visual identities and launch new brands, rebrands and campaigns for all sorts of businesses in all sorts of sectors – from startups to household names, craft chocolate makers to investment funds. But we also have a specialism and deep understanding of good old-fashioned print work – books, posters, stationery, packaging and brochures. For us, appropriate production and finishing is just as important as the design itself.

Our approach is pretty simple: we aim to make our clients’ lives easier by creating effective design work. We do this by over-delivering on every front, on-time and on-budget, but most of all by being nice people. We try to spend time really getting under the skin of a brief in order to crack a great, and hopefully unique idea. 

“For us, appropriate production and finishing is just as important as the design itself.”

I founded Supple in 2013 after five years as co-founder and creative director of Magpie Studio. But as the company grew and became more successful I started a family. Having kids made me reassess what my idea of success really was. Was it winning more yellow pencils? Or being the best dad I could be? By leaving Magpie and relocating my family to Bath, I had an opportunity to try to achieve both things.

I started my career at Hat-Trick Design in 2001, and got an amazing insight into how to run a successful agency. So this time around I knew how to set up a robust business, and had things like VAT registration, indemnity insurance and PAYE covered from the off. At Magpie, I felt we were our most creative and lucrative when we were little, so I wanted to keep Supple small and agile.

The company grew by one designer year on year – first Katie, a Falmouth graduate, then Sheri who joined us from London agency Fivefootsix, in year four Phil joined us from Magpie as design director. And this year his wife Becks joined us, having had a great career at The Chase. Over our five years the number of clients has grown too – we’ve got a very diverse client base which keeps it interesting. 

Inside the studio

The building outside

The team at work

The Work

I was really lucky to have a handful of clients who still wanted to work with me when I left Magpie. So from the off I was working on identity briefs for Channel 4 and stamp briefs for Royal Mail, which meant our name got out there pretty quickly. 

This year’s been an exceptional one for us. Highlights have included: a recent poster campaign created for Film4 Summer Screen; Votes for Women stamps we created were really interesting (we went super-deep into the research side of things and unearthed some amazing pieces of period design); our first packaging range and identity for Cocoa Jones Chocolatiers is close to launching; and a few NSPCC projects we’re super-proud of launch later this year. Plus, we’re working on a lovely coffee-table book for Childline, and we’ve branded packaging for a new skincare range for a Bath startup.

As the years go by I feel more compelled to do more work that makes a real difference, so working with charity and third sector clients is becoming a bigger part of our approach and philosophy. We try to do one pro-bono local project a year as a way to engage with our community, and had a lot of fun creating an identity for a CIC [community interest company] called Bath Strings Academy.

“Clients shouldn’t be seen as barriers to good work, get it right and they’ll actually be your aid.”

Work for Royal Mail

Work for Royal Mail

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Part of the joy of being small is we don’t have to say yes to shit work to pay the bills. In general, every project we turn out is something we’re proud of. If that’s not the case then we’re not doing our job properly. Designers often blame the client if a job doesn’t turn out as well as they thought it should, but I think it’s our role to sell the idea to the client. 

Clients shouldn’t be seen as barriers to good work – get it right and they’ll actually be your aid. Every brief has the potential to become a great project, sometimes you just have to pull it apart a bit with the client to make sure it’s the best it can be. The tighter the brief the happier we are – in fact some of our best work comes from tight briefs and budgets. They make you simplify. 

Work for Bath Strings Academy

Work for Bath Strings Academy

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Work for Prison Radio Association

In terms of project process, we don’t have much of a hierarchy – whoever has time works on the project. Usually a brief will be written by myself or our design director Phil with a client. Then we try to get as many heads on it as possible – filling our white board with ideas on post-it notes. Then we’ll chat through everything and try to pick out the ideas. After that we let designers have a sense of ownership if possible. Then if their sketch gets picked they get to work that idea up into a client presentation. If the client picks their idea we try to make sure they see it through to artwork and delivery. 

“If work-love balance means doing more design in your spare time because you love it, that’s ok.”

Recently I came up with the term ‘work-love balance’, as I want us to love work and life equally. If the clients we work with are all people we like and have a mutual respect for, then the work should be a joy. So, if work-love balance means doing more design in your spare time because you love it, that’s ok. I quite often find myself doing more design out of work hours just for fun – stuff like a train-track typeface for my son, album covers for musician friends or writing for blogs like Dads & Design. I don’t think that means I have a bad work-life balance because I’m still doing what I enjoy in my spare time.

Inside the studio

Founder Jamie Ellul (right) with an intern

Designer Katie Cadwallader

The Team

We’re small by design and this aids our flexibility. With a team of five like ours we can tackle any type of project from a long strategic rebrand to a one off poster, and still make it commercially viable. This also means we all wear many hats to keep the studio running, whether it’s doing the monthly supermarket shop or chasing invoices.

When recruiting, number one for me is personality – talent really comes second. Obviously being a great designer is a given, but finding someone you want to spend eight hours a day with, in a high-pressure environment, is key. The best designers are interested in the world around them – they tend to be more rounded, with a bigger sphere of ideas and influence. I like to work with people who are full of ideas. They could be great at writing copy, animation, retouching, illustration – but essentially I want to build a team that can offer a big skill set to our clients. 

“The best designers are interested in the world around them – they tend to be more rounded, with a bigger sphere of ideas and influence.”

We have a placement scheme, and always endeavour make them feel part of the team – giving them the same briefs, so they have a chance to share their ideas on the same platform. We benefit from having young, enthusiastic designers working with us. They tend to have unbridled creativity – not restricted by second-guessing the client or worrying about budget. It’s very important to all of us here that we help nurture the next wave of talent. 

The team at work

Designer Sherilyn Dykes

The team at work

Environment

The creative scene in Bath is pretty small, but there are some very good design agencies, like Northbank, Steers Mcgillan Eves and Mytton Williams. Bristol is also only a 15-minute train ride away, with a thriving scene. But the benefits of being in Bath include cheaper studio spaces, great travel connections to London (important as around 90 percent of our client work is London based) and it boasts some amazing coffee shops. I honestly think the days of having to be London-based to be taken seriously by clients and peers are over. More and more agency owners are getting dragged down by London house prices and studio rents, and are looking to move their businesses to cheaper and greener areas. 

“I honestly think the days of having to be London-based to be taken seriously by clients and peers are over.”

Inside the studio

Our studio space is a three-floor Georgian townhouse with amazing high ceilings and massive windows. It’s right in the middle of the city, and was once home to artist and playwright Prince Hoare. We share it with our digital buddies Mud; but since the studio is too big for us, we’ve filled the rest of the building with great creatives, such as International Magic, Honest, Float and Tristan Manco. It’s become a little creative hub with shared meeting rooms and photography setups. 

Our main studio space revolves around a desk system we had made by OpenDesk. It’s important that we all sit together and are able to constantly share ideas. We avoid everyone sitting around with headphones on so that communication is easy, but the Sonos system is always pumping out tunes. 

Outside Supple

Inside the studio

Inside the studio

Culture

In terms of employee benefits, we have 20 days’ holiday a year, plus we close for a week at Christmas. We also get our birthdays off and an extra day of holiday for every year they’ve been with us. We all try to do a bit of CPD [continuing professional development], whether that’s software training, attending talks and design festivals or D&AD training. This year we had an away weekend to Glasgow, where we hooked up with the agency D8 – it was a great way of getting a guided tour of a city and getting to meet other designers. 

We’ve got a good culture at Supple where working late isn’t expected, it’s frowned upon. If everyone is working late then we’re doing something wrong. Every Friday the whole team goes for lunch together. It’s a chance to all hangout together and get ready for the weekend after a busy week; we also try to arrange the odd night out.


“There are still challenges: doing good work, coming up with new ideas, winning and keeping clients, finding and retaining great people...”

We usually have a self-initiated project or two going on. At the moment I’m working on a blog with our copywriter friend Jim Davies which is all about band logo design – bandlogojukebox.com. These are usually just fun ideas in the back of sketchbooks – it’s important to see things through. Interestingly one of my clocks was selected for the new Smile In The Mind book and exhibition, which was a career highlight for me. 

Designer Phil Skinner

Inside the studio

There are still challenges: doing good work, coming up with new ideas, sleeping when you can’t come up with new ideas, winning and keeping clients, finding and retaining great people, making enough money to pay them, getting home in time to pick your kids up from Cubs! The list goes on. 

My main hope is to continue as we are – I feel like we have a really strong team and we’re doing some of the best work we’ve ever done. Plus we’re doing it without having to work crazy hours or compromise on the types of client we work with. So I just hope everyone sticks with Supple and we get to carry on doing what we do for many years to come. 

Posted 23 July 2018 Interview by Indi Davies
Photography: Morgane Bigault
Collection: In the Studio With
Disciplines: Graphic Design
Mentions: Magpie Studio, Hat-trick Design

Creative Lives from Supple Studio

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