happy bricks

Inspiration, collaboration & participation.

Working for yourself… with others.

When I became self employed in 2008 I had no idea what to expect. I had some distinctions that I wanted to make about the way I worked and some personal rules, but I had no real ‘plan’.

“We never had a plan so nothing could go wrong”
Why Not Associates

I felt I was a good designer and communicator and I had a passion and a philosophy which I was pretty confident I could make work. But still, I wasn’t entirely sure how things would turn out. Taking that leap is a scary thing to do, but then everything’s scary nowadays, right?

It’s now five years on and it would be fair to say that as a result of the working relationships and experiences I have had over those years I have gradually refined my philosophy. But it wasn’t until I read Salenbacher’s Creative Personal Branding that I decided to write it all down. In doing so the changes I needed to make became apparent and the metamorphosis of James Gilbert Design into Studio Contents began.


I mentioned that when I became self employed there were a few distinctions I wanted to make about myself as a designer. This was most important for me. More important than which typeface I chose to use on my website, or what colour my logo was. I want to always remember the reasons I am doing this in the first place.

A few distinctions I made, in no particular order:

1, I was adamant that I was not described as being ‘Freelance’.
I can’t stand the term freelance, even now. Apart from the obvious connotations of the word ‘free’ it had, to me, become a word synonymous with secretive art-workers who turned up at a studio, worked for a week or so on a project that nobody else in the studio wanted to touch and then left. I wanted to collaborate, converse, discuss, something which in my experience freelancers are not typically given the scope to do. Whether people’s perception of the word was the same as mine or not was irrelevant. My associations to the word freelance were so negative that I chose not to be associated with it.

I stuck by that. This inevitably led to a few awkward conversations with people were I was forced to explain why I “prefer not to be called that” but as a result I feel that I gain a degree of respect. People seem to understand when you explain.

To some extent it’s not unreasonable for people to have thought of me as a freelance designer—I named my practice ‘James Gilbert Design’ so it’s easy to see where the confusion arose. Not that I necessarily consider this name a mistake, it worked for me in most respects. The reasons behind the name were simple:

1, It’s my name! Nobody knew of me at that point and it was important that people remember me rather than “…what’s that guy who works for ‘X’ called again?”. It worked, people did remember me.

2, I didn’t intend to employ anybody. I wasn’t an agency so I didnt want to call myself ‘banana’ or ‘square’ or something equally as ambiguous and feel I was tricking people into thinking that this was a more ‘traditional’ design agency—the very dynamic I was striving to escape. So ‘James Gilbert Design’ seemed logical.

“‘Freelance’ was first used by Sir Walter Scott (1771–1832) in Ivanhoe (1820) to describe a “medieval mercenary warrior” or “free-lance” (indicating that the lance is not sworn to any lord’s services, not that the lance is available free of charge).”
Wikipedia

Another issue with the term ‘freelance’ is that it didn’t suit the way I intended to work. The vast majority of my work to date has come directly from clients. I intended this to be the case, even at the beginning. In these past years of working for myself there are only two other creative agencies who I work with regularly and that’s because we have such a like minded approach. A case in point: One pet hate of mine had been that there tended to be a feeling in most agencies that they somehow needed to hide it from the client when they brought in external help on a project. As if it was a slight on them as an agency, rather than (as it should be) a case of them bringing in the correct experts for the project in hand. Ben Davies from The Neighbourhood (one of the agencies I work with regularly) summed up my thoughts on this perfectly whilst we were travelling together on a train for a meeting in London. I asked how he wanted me to introduce myself in the meeting, as ‘James Gilbert from the Neighbourhood’ or simply as ‘James Gilbert’? He replied “Just tell the truth. Nothing good in business, or otherwise, has ever come from lying.”

2, I meet and work directly with clients rather than middle men.
I believe that designers should talk to clients directly (at least initially) and not to project managers or account handlers. How can I design for someone I have never met or spoken to? It seems ridiculous to me that people actually work this way! If you’ve ever played the game Chinese whispers then you’ll understand how problematic this is.

I want to understand. Call me crazy, but I want to get it right! When creating visual identities and working on branding projects design is the visual expression of a brand. It just so happens that brands, on the whole, are incredibly personal things. Some of the most succesful brands in the world owe their sucess at least in part to the fact that designers have understood and translated their messages successfully. In order to achieve this a designer needs to understand who and what they are designing for.

3, I have the freedom to choose what clients I work with and what projects I work on. Put simply I want to work on interesting projects with like minded people.

Something that people tend to forget is that we are all individuals (even designers). We all have likes, dislikes, interests and preferences and so it stands to reason that some projects, just like some clients, are simply more up our street than others. I don’t buy into the thinking that it’s up to the designer to make projects interesting. Sure, don’t get me wrong, technically proficient designers should be able to do a good job on projects which are less interesting to them, but still, it can be… well, boring!

Why would you not want to immerse yourself in working with the things which interest you?

In my mind, it stands to reason that if you’re working on something you find interesting not only are you going to have a better connection with your client but you’re also going to feel more inspired/motivated and ultimately create better work. The same can be said of clients. Some clients are more open to investigate, to explore, to challenge—these are the projects and clients I want to be working with. I don’t tend to work for anyone that I don’t feel I could sit down and have a meal or a drink with. If we dont see eye to eye, believe in the same goal and trust and respect each other, then what’s the point?

4, I want to hone my skills by concentrating on what I’m good at but use collaboration to make projects shine. Understanding the importance of collaboration was a big part of my ethos over the course of ‘James Gilbert Design’ and remains a driving force behind Studio Contents. I’m a designer. I do certain things very well but there are other things which I don’t do. I doodle a bit but I am not an illustrator. I own a camera and I snap in my spare time but I am not a photographer. I understand the architecture of the web but a developer I am not. What I’m getting at here is that there are experts out there in every field imaginable. To consider that any one person can be an expert at everything is implausible. To make a project truly great you need to assemble the right team for the job.

Traditionally this is where agencies come in. They employ talented experts in a variety of areas. The agency is the team. The more experts an agency employs the more chance they will do a good job for their clients. However the larger an agency becomes, the more difficult it becomes to manage and the larger the overheads become, ultimately increasing costs to the client and stressing out any un-business savvy owners from creative backgrounds.

The way I choose to work is to purposefully not employ anybody. Keep the overheads and the stress of running an ‘agency’ down and in order to deliver the highest quality work, assemble bespoke teams of talented experts on short term contracts. It’s not a new idea. Matt Pyke of the über succesful and innovative Universal Everything has been taking this approach for some years now.

“A lot of the work still stems from initial seed ideas I have, and I then tend to oversee the creative direction, help to push people further. But I think, more and more, that Universal Everything is about getting really good teams of people together to work on things.”
Matt Pyke,
Universal Everything

I try to surround myself with like minded, skillful creatives—as equals and friends. I’m interested in the work they produce, the projects they embark upon, the ideas they have and vice versa. Working this way, to my mind, also solves some essential workflow problems. Problems which I had found infuriating in my experience of more ‘structured’ agency dynamics. Problems of hierarchy and control. It seemed to me that everyone has a role to play and people should all be considered to be equally important in a project. To me the idea that one persons’ idea is more valid than another didn’t feel conducive to producing the best work. I had the first embryonic thoughts of how I’d do things differently, but never really elaborated on that.

It wasn’t until I read Jurgen Salenbacher’s aformentioned book ‘Creative Personal Branding’ (I remember I was sat in Montjuïc park in Barcelona looking out over the City) that I saw my thoughts on this topic explained exactly (more succinctly than I ever could have done) in 3 lines:

Instead of authority - inspiration
Instead of heirachy - collaboration
Instead of delegation - participation

Brilliant.

This picture was taken where I was sat when I was reading those 3 points in Jurgen Salenbachers book for the first time: “Instead of authority - inspiration
Instead of heirachy - collaboration
Instead of delegation - participation”

This is, I think, why many creatives choose to work for themselves nowadays. The freedom of working for yourself—with others—means that creativity can be harnessed to the fullest. Creativity takes time and thought, making and being responsible for your own decisions without the pressures of typical agency dynamics really helps this process . As Salenbacher says:

“Certain pressures and last-minute panic may sometimes help…”

The stress and pressure is to me reminiscent of agency dynamics…

“…but finding ‘solutions needs time …’ Creativity doesn’t work from 9 to 5. Ideas come and go and you need time to sit down and reflect. Time alone. Time to play around. Time to experiment. Time to read. Time to think. Time to converse with others. An idea is something organic, it has to grow, and that implies that you need to invest time.”
Jurgen Salenbacher

Working freely and collaboratively allows this organic process to happen as we have found with various projects, most recently in our success with the arts organisation IOU.

5, Time to work on personal projects. There’s a lot of chatter on the internet about designers realising their potential as ‘thinkers’. Creators of their own ideas rather than simply ‘artworkers’ for other peoples. Sahil Lavingia (Pinterest’s founding designer) wrote a brilliant article for FastCo Design about how design isn’t just wirefames or visual style; It’s about the product as a whole.

“Design is shrinking the gap between what a product does and why it exists. Designing is not just about picking the right font or gradient. Stop thinking about design in terms of wire frames or visual style; it is about the product as a whole. Designing is figuring out the purpose of your product and how you orient everything else around it.”
Sahil Lavingia

As a designer I recognise the power of a brand but most of my time is spent creating visual identities for other people’s brands.

I have ideas for other side projects. The people I collaborate with have ideas too. So I wanted the freedom to explore this potential. To give myself time to work on projects which provide some nourishment, which challenge and help me learn. Google realise the potential of this and encourage their people to spend up to 20% of their time on a project of their own choice.

Here Rachael Burns writes about Art Map Project a website we are working on together which maps the cultural institutions of cities. She talks about what the value and experience of building this project in her own time, for free, has taught her. Art Map Project is an ongoing project that we have committed a percentage of our own time to for the sole reason that it’s something we believe can be really useful.

Art Map Project

Taking this philosophy means at any one time I have various projects—either self initiated by myself or someone I collaborate with—which I am invloved in and spend regular time on. I don’t expect or want this to change.

Time isn’t money like some people say... It’s much more valuable than that.


So why ‘Studio Contents’?

Strictly speaking, not much has changed. The philosophy is pretty much as discussed above. Studio Contents is more a way to change perceptions. To explain better the way I have chosen to work. It’s the embodiment of the above ideals.

‘James Gilbert Design’ was a name which suited me and has worked well over the years but whilst I will always be James Gilbert—I can hardly escape it—that name no longer describes my practice. Studio Contents seems to suit.

“whilst I will always be James Gilbert—I can hardly escape it—that name no longer describes my practice”

Ultimately with this change in name I am hoping to finally remove those connotations that I solely work alone. I want to openly discuss and promote the strong sense of collaboration which drives the work we create.

It’s a concept as much as a practice. Studio Contents is not a design agency in the traditional sense. The approach is simpler:

—Hand picking the right creative experts and assembling bespoke teams to complete specific tasks or projects.

—Giving appropriate time to thought and process before design begins and involving the client along the way.

Eliminating the overheads, cost implications or management issues that come from running an agency.

Not only do I think that this is a calm, free and more effective way to work, but I believe it could also be the future of our industry.

Here we go!

@J__Gilbert
@studiocontents
studiocontents.com