Toronto-based 56 on honing in on one design concept, rather than a plethora of options
We talk to the studio’s founding partner, Peter Li, on being both thrilled and terrified at the speed of everything today.
- Alif Ibrahim
- 24 November 2020
- Reading Time
- 3 minute read
Establishing credibility when you’re starting out in the design world is a tough task. Equipped with a portfolio of assignments from your classes, final projects that often feel too heady, or favours done for friends to pad your Instagram, it takes some sleight of hand to show collaborators that you are someone who can be trusted. This familiar story takes on its own form for Toronto-based 56, a studio that currently consists of three core members: a tech lead, a design lead, and a designer, along with a network of collaborators on a per-project basis.
Beginning back in 2014 when its founders were studying graphic design and freelancing on the side, “We thought that we might be able to get more work if we called ourselves a studio, so we came up with a moniker and presented ourselves like one,” says founding partner Peter Li. “It felt more credible than saying: ‘me and my friend can make you a website’.”
Although now specialising in web design, at first 56 wanted to touch all areas of the medium, from album covers to brand identities, interiors, clothing and books. Today, despite a digital focus, the studio touches many of these areas building upon their experience of growing up with the internet. “It was easy to feel media-agnostic when it came to design in general,” explains Peter. Always immersed in creative capabilities online, “It may be naive, but I didn’t see much of a difference between a poster versus a landing page,” he adds.
Considering this landscape, Peter believes, as creatives, “there has never been a better time to be making stuff,” feeling both thrilled and terrified at the speed of everything. It has led him to wonder if their jobs would still be around in five years time, just because of how fast things change. Referring to this velocity, Peter advises the design world to “slow down and look around.”
With this in mind, the studio’s focus lies on developing a practice built around a close relationship with its clients, who it believes would make or break the projects. Quoting Tibor Kalman, “Good clients are smarter than you. Bad clients are dumber than you,” Peter adds. “Fortunately, we’ve had a great record of amazing clients. Not sure what that says about us,” he jokes.
Putting this into practice, Peter references a few projects 56 have been busy with lately. One, for Vice Media Group, saw the studio create an internal employee dashboard, building the company a chrome extension featuring a bookmark manager, screening room, staff directory and other modules. “It was refreshing to work on something that wasn’t consumer-facing,” Peter notes, “and we were very excited by the amount of impact this would have on an organisation like Vice.” On a similarly large scale, the studio has a close working relationship with Condé Nast, producing digital projects such as its 2020 diversity report and The Condé Code, with further projects in the pipeline. The studio have also created Big Sean's official website, working with Mike Carson and the artist's internal team to create a “dynamic feed of assorted content which pulls from a variety of sources.”
Operating from their unique position, the studio also has a slightly different approach to normal when it comes to delivering work. “A few years ago, we decided to only offer one direction per project,” Peter recalls. Finding it “was much more productive to explore one concept in-depth, and fully audit out before proceeding to the next,” focusing on one concept encourages the studio to really understand the project's needs and requirements. In 56’s experience clients also appreciate this approach, since it shows the studio understands their needs in the first place. “We believe you shouldn’t put lipstick on a pig, so we try to exaggerate existing qualities in a project over imposing our own.”
Looking to a new year of possibility, Peter says the studio is looking forward to dedicating their time to more studio-led projects and ventures. Following their distinct point of view all the while, the founder’s last piece of advice is to keep in mind the uncertainty that life holds, but when it comes to developing a creative practice “Keep an open mind,” he says, “and have fun.”
On Practices Round 1 & Round 2 logo composition made with Luca Devinu (Copyright © 56, 2020)