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Features / Graphic Design

Combining thoughtful design and big business: an interview with Made Thought

For Ben Parker and Paul Austin, the founders of London-based design agency Made Thought, a brand should consider its identity as the “current coat you’re putting on”. In turn, Made Thought’s process of creating an identity is akin to designing a tailored winter coat.

The coat an individual chooses to wrap up in should differ from everybody else’s and, frankly, it doesn’t matter if all the layers underneath are more appealing or carefully chosen, it’s the coat that offers a first impression. Thanks to Ben and Paul’s understanding of this, from both the point of view of client and consumer, Made Thought has designed some of the most long-lasting, household name identities to date.

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Made Thought: GF Smith — Placing paper centre

The successful line of identities Ben and Paul have designed over the years, from their meeting as graphic design students at Ravensbourne in the mid-90s to founding Made Thought in 2000, is the result of two attributes. The first is their like-minded love of strategy that makes satisfying sense. Once the pair, and their now sprawling team, have picked up on the personality of a brand the second attribute Made Thought is known for then begins, translating this personality into thoughtful, crafted graphic design.

It’s this approach that encouraged brands such as GF Smith, Tom Dixon and Stella McCartney to look twice when Made Thought first joined the scene. Brands tend to stay in Made Thought’s gaze too, regularly returning for an updated fitting of what Ben and Paul designed the first time. It’s a clever business model and even over ten years of running their own studio, they’re still firm on the fact that “The relationships with our clients are somewhat everything… the minute they start feeling less cared for, we’re really doing something wrong,” says Paul in a glass office at Made Thought’s central London studio, with dozens of designers working away behind.

This approach is now encapsulated in a term Ben and Paul use to describe the studio’s output: Made Thought is a “super boutique”. “It’s the fact that if you do shop at a boutique, then you build a relationship with that person and they know what you like,” says Paul. “That’s exactly what we really hold so dearly.” But the other term a boutique is associated with is want not necessity. This too is true of the kind of brands Made Thought appears to attract. You don’t need a Tom Dixon chair or a Stella McCartney dress, you want it. By elevating the desire these brands evoke in audiences, Made Thought has elevated itself too. It’s the “super” in this term “super boutique”, and it’s what built Made Thought into a big profitable business rather than a few able-bodied designers in a room.

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Made Thought: Adidas by Stella McCartney — Making sport hyper real for the digital generation

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Made Thought: Adidas by Stella McCartney — Making sport hyper real for the digital generation

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Made Thought: Adidas by Stella McCartney — Making sport hyper real for the digital generation

When a brand first begins to work with Made Thought, conversation is the initial mode of communication. Ben explains how “we tend to talk about brands behaving like human beings”, picking up on how we’re each different characters even in ourselves. “I’m different with you than I am with my kids,” he says, gesturing at Paul, “and behaving in those different ways is when we identify… It’s where it becomes fascinating to work with brands. It’s so many dimensions and yet the visual part of it is a small fraction of its personality.”

Once this is identified Made Thought’s team gets to work. How and exactly what the team design is one area of approach that has evolved over the years, wanting to offer a brand the whole package and not just one piece of the jigsaw. “We bolstered our content strategy, our art direction, the core of us as graphic designers and we’ve had to bolster a larger team to deliver that,” Ben continues. “That’s the key thing that hopefully will keep us relevant for years to come,” Paul agrees, seeing himself and Ben “shifting from creating the design to causing good design” through investing in younger talent. “That for me is the exciting bit. We should be the platform for creative people to create stuff, under the umbrella of Made Thought obviously. But it’s our role to funnel and channel our energy into something that’s really relevant for the wide client base that we have.” Ben and Paul are honest about the fact that they’re hardly behind their desks staring at InDesign anymore, and “that’s tough too, as a designer”. However the pair are also hesitant to describe themselves as businessmen – “We’re struggling with that title right now” – tending to sit somewhere in between mentor and boss.

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Made Thought: Prior — Reimagining the wonder of travel

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Made Thought: Prior — Reimagining the wonder of travel

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Made Thought: Prior — Reimagining the wonder of travel

Gaining respect, not only from their clients but their employees, is brought up in conversation a lot with the pair. “It’s not us wining and dining at all, it’s just that there’s got to be a mutual respect and trust for us to go on a really good journey together,” says Ben. You get the impression, even from just interviewing the pair, that they just want you to like them. Their likability then turns into respect, and respect into a trust that they’ll definitely get the job done. This is mirrored in Made Thought’s approach to gaining clients, admitting they’ve “never done any new business activity or marketing”, instead gaining work off the back of recommendations. Knowing a client trusts them filters into the logistics of the work too, with Ben explaining how they don’t often pitch and, interestingly, when they do “we actually only ever present one solution”.

There are several examples in the back of Made Thought’s portfolio which showcase the design results of Ben and Paul’s relationship building. Looking back, certain career game-changers were particularly their work with Charlotte Tilbury and & Other Stories. Stella McCartney too can’t go without mention, noting how “working for Stella suddenly gave us validity in an upper tier,” says Ben. However, one piece of work endlessly referenced and praised is Made Thought’s rebrand of paper manufacturer GF Smith, the greatest example of how far their relationship with a brand can go.

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Made Thought: GF Smith — Placing paper centre

Ben and Paul’s relationship with GF Smith goes right back to a small promotional piece of work they completed for the brand. They knew, “from the moment we started working with them,” that the way the company presented itself to the world “wasn’t on brand at all”, Ben begins to explain. “It is the most unbelievable business and product, and it’s family-based, and they weren’t portraying that. We have a duty to present a more true version of yourself and the journey of the rebrand was to do that.”

And so they did. Made Thought took the most obvious entity of GF Smith’s product service, its paper, and put it at the forefront, making a doorstop of a paper sample book, crafting elements together, and retold the brand’s history as a result. Now, the rebrand is always referenced as a coveted D&AD Black Pencil winner, but it was the client rather than the designers who submitted the work to the competition. Winning the award was “by no means our driving force,” but when they did win, John Haslam, GF Smith’s managing director, “grabbed us like sons,” says Ben. “It was such an achievement for the brand,” adds Paul. “It just cemented the relationship. For me it wasn’t about a trophy. It was a symbolism for the energy, care and enthusiasm we put into the project and the outcome was something they could tangibly put on a shelf.”

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Made Thought: GF Smith — Placing paper centre

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Made Thought: GF Smith — Placing paper centre

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Made Thought: GF Smith — Placing paper centre

However, one anomaly in the family tree of brands Made Thought has built is its more recent work rebranding the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The design agency’s previous work, and the relationships that back them up, was somewhat irrelevant in this case. Ben and Paul had to pitch, and pitch against 20 other agencies and then present again in a five-way global pitch. Despite not being able to utilise their usual approach, Made Thought still won by going back to the outlook that founded the design agency: looking into behaviour.

“When somebody says, ‘The MoMA needs a new identity’, instantly it’s like what can we do for the logo?” Ben begins to explain of Made Thought’s unorthodox – and consequently winning – approach. “We actually had the restraint to say the issue with your brand does not sit in your identity, it sits much more in the messaging and communication you put out. In fact, your brand mark is an icon, why would you change it?” In its ability to be honest with an institution about its problems, Made Thought’s approach made MoMA’s board, who wanted “every I dotted and every T crossed”, sit up and listen. “The main reason we won is through the way we thought of the behavioural side of it, rather than just visual output,” says Paul. “But very quickly, what you realise is, to satisfy or to fuel that engine, these are the things they need to be tactical and creative. I think that was probably a real eye-opener for us.” Made Thought’s approach of avoiding the obvious won the pitch and in the end the logo “went to the gym, got a bit tighter and a little smarter” anyway.

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Made Thought: MoMA — Bringing a more compelling and human visual spirit to the MoMA’s diverse audiences.

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Made Thought: MoMA — Bringing a more compelling and human visual spirit to the MoMA’s diverse audiences.

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Made Thought: MoMA — Bringing a more compelling and human visual spirit to the MoMA’s diverse audiences.

18 years after founding and with large rebrand boxes, from high street shops to cultural institutions, ticked, Made Thought recently went looking for a new way to represent its way of thinking. A passion project of Ben’s in particular (“he spent more money than he should have done but I’d be worried if he didn’t,” chips in Paul), the studio has launched a publication titled To Think.

Termed a “journal” rather than a magazine for its look and feel as a publication you’ll treasure and read, To Think features little imagery and instead boldly typesets conversations between two creatives on a certain subject in visual culture. Going back to its method of speaking with brands, To Think puts into print Ben and Paul’s belief that “conversation is a medium for cultivating deep thought, and deep thought is a prerequisite for great decisions but also great design”. It also visualises Made Thought’s relationships into a substantial object, featuring the likes of Tom Dixon in discussion with perfumer Frederick Malle, or chef Skye Gyngell chatting with ex-Condé Nast travel writer David Prior. It’s also, of course, printed on GF Smith paper.

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Made Thought: To Think — A journal exploring thoughts and conservations on visual culture

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Made Thought: To Think — A journal exploring thoughts and conservations on visual culture visual culture

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Made Thought: To Think — A journal exploring thoughts and conservations on visual culture

To Think’s title develops from Made Thought’s name and viewpoint on design, but mostly a feeling inside the studio of how “people are too busy to stop and think”, says Ben. “Thinking has become demonised. ‘Don’t overthink it’ has become a staple of the lexicon… We’re no longer making nourishing choices, in part because we don’t have time to,” he continues. In Made Thought’s work too, design is built to always last and the studio has been particularly vocal about each designer’s responsibility to ensure sustainability, creating the world’s first plastic-free aisle earlier this year.

Sustainability in turn is the question raised in the journal’s first issue, which picks up on how we’re in “a society that only works on four-year government cycles,” says Ben. “Who is actually thinking more long term about some of these issues?” By placing creatives into conversation, To Think additionally doesn’t shout a certain overlord-like opinion of ‘you should be doing this or that’, but instead leaves it to the reader to consider and hopefully come to their own judgement. “We want to take people on a journey of having access to those interesting minds. It’s trying to tap into their heads.”

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Made Thought: To Think — A journal exploring thoughts and conservations on visual culture

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Made Thought: To Think — A journal exploring thoughts and conservations on visual culture

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Made Thought: To Think — A journal exploring thoughts and conservations on visual culture

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Made Thought: To Think — A journal exploring thoughts and conservations on visual culture

The fact that these high-profile names agreed to be so personable and honest for a new publication’s first issue is testament to the relationships Ben and Paul work so hard to cultivate. “We’re talking about people who by no means need any form of promotion but were very eager, happy and willing to support our idea and be part of it,” he says. “That, for me, was heartwarming, like ‘Oh god, they said yes!’”

It’s an unlikely move for a design studio to launch a publication so attached to its practice but one that nestles in nicely next to Made Thought’s overall output and future too. Ben and Paul want more for this industry, their employees, client list and the consumers who buy the products too. They, just like their evident relationships with clients, are in it for the long haul now, “beyond being an executor of briefs,” as Ben puts it. “It’s about being on a real creative journey together and actually really admiring each other’s creative ambition.”

To Think is available to purchase via MagCulture and The Design Museum in London, Standards Manual in Brooklyn and Berlin’s Do You Read Me.