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Lecture in Progress: In the Studio With Leeds-based design agency Build


Sophie Stafford

Lecture in Progress inspires and informs the next generation of creatives with advice, insight and first-hand accounts that demystify the day-to-day workings of the industry. In the Studio With is a series of features that go behind the scenes at acclaimed agencies, studios and offices.

After feeling disillusioned and disheartened by the design world, Michael Place left his job at The Designers Republic to go travelling. On his return he co-founded design practice Build with partner and creative director, Nicky Place, in London in 2001. New projects and prospects soon followed and they’ve since gone on to work with both local independent businesses and international brands including Nike, Getty Images and Virgin America. Having relocated the studio to Leeds in 2015, Michael and Nicky give us an insight into their ethos, studio culture and the close collaborative relationship they share with clients.


Graphic design alone will not save you. Build started life with just me (Michael). I left a job at The Designers Republic feeling a little burned out and disillusioned with design. Before that point, design was everything to me, but I had fallen out of love with it. So I left that behind and travelled around the world with Nicky. I always knew I was going to set up something on my own when we got back, but I didn’t have a clue what I wanted the ‘studio’ to be. 

I had a name, ‘Build’, a laptop – a gift from [The Designers Republic founder] Ian Anderson – and a good reputation. But I had no clients. After a while Nicky quit her job and worked full-time with me. We ran the ‘studio’ from various flats, houses and a studio space in Walthamstow before moving from London to Leeds where we now work as a team of four: myself, Nicky, our designer Ellie and our marketing and project manager Elena.

We help businesses both big and small across a multitude of sectors to communicate in smart ways and feel confident about doing so – whether that be through graphic design, art direction, website design or typography. Our approach is very simple: always look at things with a modern and contextual point of view. We enjoy the whole design process – from talking to clients, to actually designing and everything that happens after that. We enjoy thinking about both the big picture and the finer details – it’s what keeps us awake at night and what keeps us coming back for more.

“I had a name, a laptop and a good reputation. But no clients.”


Tower Works, Leeds


Tower Works, Leeds


Outside the studio in Leeds


Inside Build’s studio


Inside Build’s studio

The Work

The type of projects we take on has evolved naturally. We’ve worked with bigger clients as the years have gone by, which I can only assume is due to more people seeing our work. We were a little worried that clients may not come to us after we left London, so getting to work with Nike so soon after we moved up North really helped with our confidence. It was great to work collaboratively with their brand team on a new track and field identity. 

There have been a few project highlights from the past year. We’ve been working with the guys at Generation Press for about 10 years now, and it’s always an absolute pleasure – we believe they are the best printers in the country. Every project we do together is a really interesting journey and we always learn something new; how to do some thing better, something smarter. They came to us with the idea of working on a series of promo pieces showcasing all the processes they can offer to clients. 

“We were a little worried that clients may not come to us after we left London, so getting to work with Nike so soon after we moved up North really helped with our confidence.”

Another project was with "Timothy Saccenti":, an amazing photographer, director, futurist and long-time collaborator. He wanted a website to reflect his forward-facing approach and show off his incredible body of work. Because we have worked with Tim for a long time we had a really good understanding of what he does and doesn’t like, and this helped us get to a good place relatively quickly. We worked with another long-time collaborator and developer Chris How on the site. (Chris also knows what we do and don’t like!)

For our work with furniture designer and maker Matt Kelly, we came across his work on Instagram. We really liked what he was doing, so we followed him and started a conversation. We arranged to meet and talked about his hopes and dreams of running a furniture workshop, (Plæy) and that he wanted an identity for it. We worked with him on naming and the identity itself. It’s been the start of a long relationship and one we are really looking forward to continuing.


New look and feel for Nike Track and Field, 2016


New website design for NYC-based photographer and long time Build collaborator, Timothy Saccenti


New website design for NYC-based photographer and long time Build collaborator, Timothy Saccenti


New look and feel for Nike Track and Field, 2016

The Team

When a new project comes in, Nicky will usually set up a meeting, call, or Skype, or Google Hangout, dependent on where the client is based. The scope of work is then agreed and costed. Once the client has signed the project off, we work on nailing the brief with them before passing this onto the design team. Depending on the work needed we’ll then have a meeting about the project in the studio. We try and give as much autonomy to Ellie, and talk through any concerns she might have. 

I think it’s really important that job titles don’t create too many barriers. Everyone mucks in on all sorts of aspects of studio life. It can range from Elena ordering tiles for an interior design project we are doing to all of us sat there folding and collating pages for a presentation. We don’t often use freelancers, but enjoy having them in the studio. If we do, it’s usually for a specific project and skill set.


In the studio


In the studio


Michael during tea time at Build


Bookshelves at Build


In the studio


In the studio


In the studio


In the studio

The Culture

Our studio is within five minutes of the train station, overlooking the Liverpool to Leeds canal, which is lovely. The area is due to undergo heavy development over the next few years so it will be interesting to see what that brings.

There are five windows down one side with skylights, so it’s super-light. We have a beautiful meeting table designed by Studio Octopi and built by Aldworth James & Bond and a big desk made and installed by Matt at Plæy. We’ve also got the ubiquitous studio staple of IKEA shelves and cupboards for books. We haven’t been in the space that long so I’m hoping to get some pictures up on the walls soon.

“I think it’s really important that job titles don’t create too many barriers.”

There are no prima donnas here! Because we’re a small studio it’s generally quite a relaxed atmosphere with no real office politics going on. We’ve restarted ‘Stuff Days’ which we used to do at the studio in London. Anyone can chip in with a suggestion for a day out, which will usually revolve around an exhibition or event.
 I do tend to hog the music; it’s a real responsibility and one that I take very seriously.

We have a Spotify account and a Teenage Engineering OD-11 speaker that’s always on. Pretty much everything is fair game, but the only policy we have is no pop music or ‘Gangster Rap’ which really winds Nicky up!

See the full feature on Lecture in Progress, including Creative Lives interviews with Build’s in-house designer Ellie Polston, co-founder and director Nicky Place and marketing manager Elena Dransfield.

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