In the Studio With — Digital design studio ustwo: “It doesn’t look like any other agency from the outside because it doesn’t from the inside either”

Posted 04 July 2017 Written by Indi Davies

Founded in 2004 by longtime friends John ‘Sinx’ Sinclair and Matt ‘Mills’ Miller, digital design agency ustwo started life in a small studio above a bar in Shoreditch. The company has since evolved to include branches in Malmö, New York and Sydney, a workforce nearing 300 people, and spin-off initiatives such as a ustwo Games and a startup incubator. Alongside developing innovative digital services for clients such as Sky, Google and Ford, ustwo has also created its own, in-house products, from mental health app Moodnotes to popular ticketing app DICE and multi-award-winning game Monument Valley. The latter clocked up over 30 million downloads, has won fans including Netflix’s House of Cards character Frank Underwood, and recently grabbed headlines with the release of its highly anticipated sequel edition. Here the studio founders take us on a tour of a unique company culture that puts experimentation and fun first, where the team even have their own collective nickname… Enter the world of the ‘ustwobies’.

ustwo

Founded

2004

Based

London

Team

Almost 300 globally (we have a mixture of around 200 designers and developers, alongside delivery coaches, commercial teams and business support)

Hours

9am–6pm (flexible)

Clients

Sky, Google, Ford, Adidas, DeepMind Health, Harvey Nichols, Jaguar Land Rover, Foursquare, Lush

ustwo-owned and collaborative products: Moodnotes, Sway and PAUSE, Monument Valley 1 and 2, Land’s End

Website
Social Media

Overview

We’re a digital product studio, teaming up with companies to design and build digital experiences across a range of industries including retail, health, finance, TV, Auto and mobility. We work across the whole lifecycle of a product, from validating ideas and prototyping to launching big new digital services. We also build our own products and businesses, like Wayfindr and ustwo games, and support startups with ustwo Adventures.

ustwo may look like a slightly confusing mix of digital studio, game studio, incubator and venture fund – but we’re glad of that. It doesn’t look like just another digital agency from the outside because it doesn’t from the inside either. More than anything, it’s a place to enjoy what we do together. ustwo’s heartbeat is real, genuine friendship; the rest just emerges naturally from there.

“ustwo may look like a slightly confusing mix of digital studio, game studio, incubator and venture fund – but we’re glad of that.”

Mills and Sinx in the London office

Over the past 13 years we’ve grown from just the two of us in London into a family of four unique ustwo studios around the world: in London, New York, Malmö and Sydney. Each studio does similar work, but with its own particular flavours and specialisms. And we’ve also built ustwo Games, our brilliant games studio, and more recently ustwo Adventures: our startup incubator and investment fund – we’ve invested in over 25 businesses to date.

Things have always grown, changed and evolved for the company. A strong, genuine company culture is not something to impose or retro-fit. It takes shared belief, collective focus, hard work and time. We see ourselves as building a community of passionate people – a serious playground for ustwobies, clients, investors, entrepreneurs, partners, users and friends. We like bringing people together to create magic, not only because it works better that way – but also because it’s a lot more fun!

Inside the London studio

The view from the studio

Inside the London studio

Inside the London studio

‘What We Do’ by ustwo

The Work

When thinking about the most exciting projects of the past twelve months, it’s impossible not to mention Monument Valley 2. Seeing it announced on stage at WWDC [the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference] was wonderfully surreal. The response has been incredible and we’re really proud of it. We’re also massively happy with our great client work, like Sky Kids and Ford GoPark, and another venture SwaySway – a new kind of interactive meditation experience. Developing the ustwo Adventures floor has been exciting too. Supporting such a wide range of startups has brought a great mix of new energy and expertise to the London studio. 

We work as one team with our clients, sometimes across multiple sites and different countries, so there’s a lot of coordination involved to make things run smoothly. A lot gets done though having a delivery coach attached to each project, to ensure everyone is able to contribute at a high level. The work needed for a given project can vary a great deal, but it will always be rooted in user-centred design: we’ll be iterating and testing with users as we go.

“Supporting such a wide range of startups [as ustwo Adventures] has brought a great mix of new energy and expertise to the London studio. We’ve invested in over 25 businesses to date.”

The trailer for Monument Valley 2

The Jaguar app developed to be used with Apple Watch, is connected to a car’s security system

Sway, an interactive meditation app

The Team

In terms of building the team, we look to find and draw on a diverse pool of great candidates for any given role, so that we can hire for cultural growth – not cultural ‘fit’; there’s no specific ustwo type of hire. We do also use freelancers to help cover the odd gap, or boost a team’s capacity, but generally we try to hire to permanent positions.

We take on interns from time to time, and right now we’re working with a group of our agency peers to help drive forward Flipside, which is an initiative to help support talented young people from diverse backgrounds into jobs in our industry. We’re looking forward to seeing what we can achieve with it!

Digital product designer Kota Kobayashi at work

The team at work

Product designer Joyce Li

The Culture

We’ve seen Shoreditch change loads since we started – from the early years in our tiny studio above a bar on Curtain Road, to our current incarnation in the Tea Building. The area is busy, full of creatives and creative agencies and that suits us. It’s easy to get to for most, with loads of places to get coffee, lunch or an after-work drink.

The studio is a relaxed and open space, with a bit of a DIY aesthetic; there are random pictures and drawings all about the place. Variable work patterns and new projects mean that the space is always changing – a new team always makes their mark on an area, whether it’s work stuck up on the wall, moving desks around or borrowing a sofa to create a more relaxed space. Music is usually on, selected democratically, and is occasionally a bit weird!

People often eat together on long tables in our ground floor social space – but sometimes people prefer to eat solo or to head out somewhere in Shoreditch and that’s cool too. You don’t see too many ‘al desko’ lunches! We have a regular Friday afternoon meeting (aka FAM) for the whole studio – an informal mixture of gif-heavy project updates and a couple of drinks – and each month someone cooks a breakfast for early birds on a Monday. Every fortnight we have our studio ‘picnics’ – when we gather to eat and talk, passing round a mic to ask questions about anything from finance numbers to social events.

“Projects will always be rooted in user-centred design: we’ll be iterating and testing with users as we go.”

Inside the London studio

Inside the London studio

The Moodnotes app

We take training and development really seriously. We don’t have capped personal training budgets, so there’s both opportunity and responsibility to make the most of it; we expect everyone to be refining skills or learning new ones. Health insurance and a flexible benefits system are part of our commitment to ensuring people feel valued. We also promote flexible working hours, and remote working too, but this is often a decision to be made within teams dependent on a given project. Earlier this year, we made parental leave equal for new mums or dads, who get a full six months. 

We’re always working on self-initiated projects as a studio [see a recent example here], from little side-project Slackbots, to hackathon chatbots. Even our fully-fledged own products like Wayfindr and Moodnotes began life as side projects. We really encourage and support people’s outside projects too. That’s always been a big part of ustwo.  

Posted 04 July 2017 Written by Indi Davies
Photography: Sophie Stafford
Collection: In the Studio With
Disciplines: Graphic Design, Advertising, Interaction Design
Mentions: ustwo, Google, Ford, Monument Valley

Creative Lives from Ustwo

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