Shape-shifting studio Play Nice wants to use creative knowhow to elevate communities

Meet Ayo and Nate, the inspiring duo turning their hand to everything from design systems to films, to a Designs of the Year-nominated protest placard series, and now a mentorship scheme for passionate young creatives.

Share

Illustration
Uli Knörzer
Date
22 March 2021
Reading Time
8 minute read

Share

In partnership with

Baume & Mercier is designing an artistic, collaborative, responsible watchmaking approach shaped by design and creativity in order to lay the ground for cooperation and the sharing of experiences.

Play Nice is… well that’s a difficult sentence to finish, something its founders Ayo Fagbemi and Nate Agbetu are coyly happy about. Established in March 2019 with the overall goal to “help build intersections between communities,” their shape-shifting studio has already turned its hand to a broad range of project types, and is now starting its own mentorship scheme The Pattern to help support other emerging creatives. More on that later – first off, we need to start at the beginning of Ayo and Nate’s stories, and how they came together, to better understand their unique outlook.

Ayo was born in Oxford and grew up in Tottenham, where his dad was the local priest, and studied politics at the University of Nottingham. There, he remembers lacking drive at first –“I was comfortable doing nothing,” he says, until finding creative outlets that lit a spark in him. With this newfound motivation and innate intellect, Ayo embarked on a slew of creative projects, contributing to a magazine called Diss, a series of video content for said magazine, and a T-shirt range. In turn making small, instinctive steps into the creative world.

Above

Indiana Lawrence and Lottie Tellyn: Fridays for Future placards. (Copyright © Play Nice, ILoveYou and UKSCN, 2021)

Nate was born and bred down the road in Hackney, having a difficult time at school, labelled “disruptive” and kicked out at one point. During and after sixth form he channeled his irrepressible energy and social skills into promoting safe club nights and charity fundraisers, and later a streetwear brand. He also had a brief stint working in digital UX, all the while, trying to find his career path. Then Nate went through a tough period, experiencing homelessness and being wrongly diagnosed and medicated for bipolar. “My life was just melting,” he describes, then he remembers his good friend Dillon Bradley telling him “you’re a creative… and I was like ‘what the hell is a creative’”. Bradley sent him the application form for D&AD New Blood Shift, a night school run by the charity as an alternative route into creative careers. With one day left to apply, he got in. “I’d come from complete rock bottom,” he says, “and then I found a home. Literally, doors opened.” Around the time he landed a place on Shift, he also landed a spot on Wieden + Kennedy’s creative incubator programme The Kennedys, and somehow, did both pretty much at the same time.

Serendipitously, Ayo also got a spot on The Kennedys, and though the duo had met socially on nights out in Dalston and established a friendship, this is where the professional partnership truly began. On the course, the students learned a bit of everything, from copywriting to design, photography and coding. “It teaches you quite a good skill – generalism – which I think is super important,” says Ayo, citing David Epstein’s book Range, and lending some insight to the multidisciplinary ethos behind Play Nice. “The main point is to try stuff, and maybe there’s one thing that might click. Obviously it’s a good way for them, as an employer, to see who can do certain things, but as an individual it’s learning what parts of the process you’re good at.”

Above

Harry Butt and Noga Levy-Rapoport: Fridays for Future placards. (Copyright © Play Nice, ILoveYou and UKSCN, 2021)

During Shift, Nate’s team won a Nike pitch that led to him being offered a placement with AKQA. There, he worked again with Nike, using his knowledge of London culture to build a whole new social strategy for Nike London’s Instagram, to reach younger audiences and develop “new ways of bridging the gap between the brand and the city”. Showing such prowess, the brand soon pinched him to work in-house, where he ran social channels, and later worked with talent to develop bigger projects. Meanwhile, off the back of the course, Ayo got a job at Wieden + Kennedy as a strategist where he stayed for three years, recently moving over to Mother.

In parallel, the two continued conversations they’d had during the Kennedys course, sharing ideas and philosophies that gradually built into Play Nice. Nate, the more extroverted of the two, remembers constantly nagging Ayo to start their own enterprise, while Ayo, the quieter of the two, believes this is a valuable quality in his business partner. “Nate will always push against the grain, against an institutional way of thinking to almost create your own new institution” – another hint to how the two define Play Nice.

Above
Above

Lena Manger and Rosie Smart-Knight: Fridays for Future placards. (Copyright © Play Nice, ILoveYou and UKSCN, 2021)

From the outset, the duo’s entire reason for doing any project has been to support causes and organisations they believe in. Case and point is its first fully fledged project, a collaboration with the UK Student Climate Network and agency ILoveYou that saw Play Nice partner five designers (including It’s Nice That’s art director Will Knight) with five young activists to make protest placards. The Fridays For Future project was nominated for the Designs of the Year 2019 prize, no less, and established a relationship with the Design Museum that has more recently seen Play Nice create a film called The New Rave for its exhibition, Electronic: From Kraftwerk to The Chemical Brothers. The film explores the past, present and future of electronic music through a Black lens, featuring a cast including Errol Anderson and Shy One.

On the UKSCN project, Nate says much of the impetus was giving the proponents of the movement a visual voice. “At that point there was a shift from the youth from getting drunk to really caring about issues. Young people in our country weren’t being taken seriously, which was something that needed to be tapped into, supported and platformed.”

The studio also worked with Black Minds Matter, an organisation helping Black individuals and families access free mental health services as well as sharing resources and offering a network of support. Play Nice reached out to the charity at the height of the BLM movement in 2020 with the intention to bolster their work and raise their profile to reach more people, and ended up designing its whole brand design system and content strategy, enlisting the help of designers Johnny Isaacson and Mark Gilligan. Ayo says this project was particularly rewarding because it was “super vital for the time,” and gave the creatives a chance to use their ad-world skills to not only give them an identity and “shape who they are,” but “give them all the tools as a springboard to go and do it themselves.”

Allowing themselves and their studio to be adaptable has made it possible for these eclectic projects to become part of their portfolio in just two short years as a studio. Ayo describes his goal to be doing projects his 60-year-old self would be proud of, but also projects that his 17-year-old self would think were cool. “I always keep those two characters in my head,” he adds.

Above
Above

Play Nice talk for Today at Apple (Copyright © Play Nice, 2021)

Above
Above

Play Nice one year celebration (Copyright © Play Nice, 2021)

“That’s what's so important about having our own space,” Ayo chimes in, “space to tell the stories we feel are interesting and important.” They both describe Play Nice as a funnel for these ideas. Whereas before they felt something needed to be done, but had nowhere to channel that thinking. “That’s one of the really powerful things about creativity,” he says, “is that it allows you a space to do something”. The studio-cum enterprise is also described by Ayo as an “umbrella,” under which all manner of initiatives can materialise. They’ve learnt quickly over the past couple of years, their first lesson being how to craft ideas, then how to create that metaphorical umbrella, “how to make it flexible enough so you can have intersectionality, different ways of being, different identities, tell a range of stories, so it doesn’t feel like all the stuff we do has to be within a certain box”. So when people don’t really know what Play Nice is, “I actually look at that as the biggest compliment,” Ayo smiles. “Because you’re interested, but you don’t know why.”

When pushed, Nate says that while they’re trying to escape “having to define ourselves as such-and-such,” one definitive feature of Play Nice is its intention to highlight fringe communities, identities and people in general. “The only way we can build our future is by making something that is there to be claimed by anyone, or to stretch and flex to everyone’s needs. One thing we can say is that we use creative mediums to communicate lived experiences, so therefore we are a creative studio. But why pigeonhole ourselves? The best museums are white spaces that can change and evolve with the curator’s mind. So we’re trying to build our empty white space, essentially.”

Left

Play Nice: What's Not Being Said with South London Gallery and REcreative. Design by Wei Prior. (Copyright © Play Nice, 2021)

Right

Play Nice: What's Not Being Said with South London Gallery and REcreative. Design by Wei Prior. (Copyright © Play Nice, 2021)

Above
Left

Play Nice: What's Not Being Said with South London Gallery and REcreative. Design by Wei Prior. (Copyright © Play Nice, 2021)

Right

Play Nice: What's Not Being Said with South London Gallery and REcreative. Design by Wei Prior. (Copyright © Play Nice, 2021)

Above

Play Nice: What's Not Being Said with South London Gallery and REcreative. Design by Wei Prior. (Copyright © Play Nice, 2021)

“We show our identity through our action,” Ayo adds, and in that respect, its latest endeavour The Pattern exemplifies the duo’s community focus. The Pattern is an initiative offering mentorship and funding to young people hoping to create their own community project, created in partnership with the Culture Mile. Aspiring creatives from underrepresented groups applied in their hundreds for a couple of dozen spots on the course, which is currently underway and aims to build skills in research, ideation, curation and production. Participants work with mentors including Lamisa Khan, founder of Muslim Sisterhood; Naeem Davis, co-founder of BBZ London; Lavinya Stennett, founder of the Black Curriculum; and Noga Levy-Rapoport – all of whom Ayo and Nate have connected with along the way in their own winding career paths. At the end of the course, there will be opportunities to work with institutions who are affiliated with Culture Mile including Barbican, LSO, Guildhall and the Museum of London. The mentees will be split into four groups, and each group will be commissioned with £5000 to bring their projects to life.

“It’s about handing skills over,” Nate sums up. “These people have the richest ideas and references, so it’s important to give them the resources to go and build something.” Ayo adds that it’s also about creating what he calls “radical transparency,” demystifying creative projects and making them more accessible and tangible by showing the reality behind the magic curtain. He describes feeling how the creative sector has opened doors to them, revealing its secrets as a consequence, but the industry still tries to make sure the door closes behind them. “We don’t just want to leave the door open, we want to knock down the walls and show everyone how it works and how to do it. The world is really just information and resources, so it’s important to us that, in our own small way, we bend those resources and that information for people to use for themselves.”

Echoing their experiences on The Kennedys, they also hope to work with the participants in the future, and incorporate them into future Play Nice projects, “so,” Nate concludes, “our gaze isn’t the only gaze defining what Play Nice is, and can be”.

In tune with their community spirit, Ayo and Nate asked us to include a list of all its collaborators so far, because “at the end of the day our win is their win!”

Collaborators include: Darius Rodrigues, Josh Chalmers, Louis Schreyer, Sang Woo Kim, George Stuart, Noga Levy Rapport, Harry Butt, Lena Manger, Indiana Lawrence, Lottie Tellyn, Will Knight, George Bond, Anna Taylor & Axel Lagerborg Martha & Tropical Isles) Joelle Fontaine, Taro Shimada, Christian Cassiel (Tropical Isles) Wei Prior, Zaineb Albeque, Tarik Fontelle, Jojo Sonubi, Tobi Kyre, Naeem Davis, Linda Maitland, Monique Tomlison, Josie Tucker & Richard, Carter O’Sullivan, Lydia Weigel, Emma Wallace, Natalia Cacciatore, Javiera Huxley, Stephanie Alvarez, Scuti, Kam BU, Pablo Pullen, Masterpeace, AyChibs, Horacio, Dellon, Esai Asiaw, Lewis Robinson, Agnes Mwakatumma, Annie Nash, Saskia, Olivia Weigel, Rani Patel, Scrappy Metal, Jonny Isaacon, Mark Gilligan, Aaron Skipper, Yasser Abuker, Jaime Ackroyd, Michael Hannides, Iona Greaves, Corey Thomas, Chris Har, Alex Adetiba, Denisa, Errol Anderson, Tommy Gold, Tash LC, Shy One, Laura Casali, Mike Ford, Lamisa Khan, Lavinya Stennett, Jodie Yates & Curtis Cyrus.

Share Article

About the Author

Jenny Brewer

After five years as It’s Nice That’s news editor, Jenny became online editor in June 2021, now overseeing the website’s daily editorial output. Contact her with stories, pitches and tips relating to the creative industries on jb@itsnicethat.com.

It's Nice That Newsletters

Fancy a bit of It's Nice That in your inbox? Sign up to our newsletters and we'll keep you in the loop with everything good going on in the creative world.