Industrial designer Jo Barnard on founding a design agency for startups
Working from the co-working space at company builder ustwo Adventure, Jo Barnard is the founder and director of design agency Morrama. During her degree studies in Product Design at Brunel University, Jo set her sights on founding a studio of her own, and after a short stint freelancing in London, a supportive friend helped set up her company in 2015. The product design agency is specifically dedicated to working with startups and aims to be the best in the business, launching products ranging from straight razors to digital prayer beads, baby homeware and sleep masks. In this interview, Jo shares stories of the successes she’s achieved and the core lessons she continues to learn from: “You either have to be better or cheaper than your competitors, and you can only make it so far by being cheaper.”
Founder and Industrial Designer, Morrama (2015–present)
ustwo Adventure’s Playground co-working space, London
4 People (Including a design manager and designers)
Freelance Designer (2014–2015)
BSc Product Design, Brunel University (2010–2014)
Google, Unilever, Nestlé, Lipton, Pernod Ricard
How would you describe your job?
As one of the industrial designers at Morrama, I manage my share of design work and client communications. On top of this, I work alongside our design manager to ensure that both the clients and the team are happy. The other aspect of my role is managing and growing the business, evolving the Morrama brand as we learn and develop as a team and finding new and better ways to communicate our process and our values to potential clients.
What does a typical working day look like?
Work starts around 8am from home with communications to our Chinese suppliers, then moves to the office by 9.30am. After a cup of tea, there is usually an hour of admin (proposals, invoices and emails), one or two client meetings and I aim to get half a day of design work in, otherwise I don’t feel like I’ve achieved anything.
Currently, I’m designing an electronic version of Subha – the Muslim prayer beads, a range of baby homeware and a sleep mask. My ideal is spending a whole day on one project and really digging my teeth into solving a design challenge, but this only happens when I’m away in China working with suppliers during the manufacturing process. The last time I got to do that was last year on the Marlon Suitcase project [pictured below].
“My ideal day is spent digging my teeth into a design challenge, but this only happens when I’m away in China working with suppliers.”
What inspired you to start Morrama?
I wanted to run my own design agency since I started studying design. I often gravitated towards positions of leadership as I’m naturally organised and a good problem solver, so I can get people to work together and achieve bigger things than we all would individually. More than anything, I work hard and am always pushing myself to grow and learn. I was easily bored in the positions I had at other companies, and found running Morrama a lot more rewarding.
How collaborative is your role?
Very collaborative. Although we each take lead on different projects, we work together as a team at the early stages of the design process. That way we can pool our creativity and bounce ideas off each other. Externally, we try and involve our clients in our process as much as possible by running workshops and weekly feedback sessions. There are also the suppliers. This can be the most challenging as a lot of our product manufacturing takes place in China, which means a language barrier and an eight-hour time difference.
What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months?
In March, we launched the very first product under our own name, the Angle Razor. This started as an internal side project but in January we decided to put it on Kickstarter to gauge interest. It completely took off and was featured on all of my favourite design blogs, including Dezeen, Wallpaper*, Core77 and Design Milk. We raised nearly four times our initial target of £15,000, and just won our first D&AD Graphite Pencil for it. It’s definitely a career highlight and a testament to all the hard work we’ve put in as a team, including design manager Andy Hutt and designers Ben Polhill, Léa Berger and Mike Hankin.
What skills are essential to your job?
Communication is super-important, which can be really tiring because I’m not an entirely extroverted person. Creative problem solving is also up there. Luckily this is something I love, which is fortunate because you find yourself facing a lot of problems when you start your own business.
Would you say your job allows for a good work/life balance?
My job has been my life for the last two-and-a-half years and it’s been super-demanding. However, over the past year I’ve realised the importance of switching off and taking a break, and I no longer work weekends and late evenings. Learning that I can create that balance myself has been huge and I do my best now not to let it slip and fall into the bad habit of working late.
What tools do you use most for your work?
A 0.8 fine liner is probably my most important tool, closely followed by email. I use software tools such as SolidWorks for 3D CAD, Illustrator for early visualisation, KeyShot for rendering and InDesign and PowerPoint for client and supplier presentations.
How I Got Here
What did you want to be growing up?
I always wanted to be an expert in something, but it wasn’t specific. I wasn’t particularly amazing at any one thing. I just wanted to be recognised for being really good at something. My priorities in life have changed and my ego isn’t so in need of that attention, however, my mission for Morrama is to build the most successful design agency for startups, so maybe it’s not that different after all!
How is the subject you studied useful to your current role?
I studied product design at university. I’m one of the few that has a career in what I studied.
Was there a particular turning point that helped your development?
I initially co-founded Morrama with a friend from university, Rob Bye. If we hadn’t both ended up in London without a proper job, I doubt I’d be where I am now. Despite him leaving after a year to start another company, Morrama wouldn’t be here without him giving me the confidence to just do it. I’ve since relied on both my team and the communities we’ve worked in for support and encouragement. Our move to ustwo Adventure has been a huge boost in both respects. The ustwo community gives me so much energy.
“I initially co-founded Morrama with a friend from university. If we hadn’t both ended up in London without a proper job, I doubt I’d be where I am now.”
What skills have you learnt along the way?
How to manage my ego, be more mindful of my actions and more grateful for the kindness of others, and having the confidence to deal with people who try and take advantage of my generosity.
What’s been your biggest challenge?
Learning how to build and manage a team. I initially hired too early, and then went too long without providing proper structure and direction to my employees, which left them feeling unsure of their roles and responsibilities. Our design manager Andy has been key in helping me work out what I really want from Morrama and ensures everyone is on board and can see how they fit into the bigger picture.
Is your job what you thought it would be?
When I started I had no idea what I would be doing two-and-a-half years later. Every month brings new challenges and reasons to be grateful and excited. That’s part of the fun.
What would you like to do next?
I’ve just bought a flat with my girlfriend, so for now I’m focused on making it our home in time for summer.
Words of Wisdom
What advice would you give a young creative wanting to set up their own company?
Find what you can offer that sets you apart from others. You either have to be better or cheaper than your competitors, and you can only make it so far by being cheaper. Morrama offers industrial design services but what sets us apart is that we work exclusively with startups, and spent the last two years tailoring our service to be the best at understanding and meeting their needs.
This article is part of a feature on ustwo Adventure – a Lecture in Progress Agency Patron. Every year, Lecture in Progress partners with like-minded brands and agencies to support our initiative and keep Lecture in Progress a free resource for students. To find out more about how you can work with us, email [email protected]
Interview by Arielle Bier
Photography by Andy Donohoe
Mention Jo Barnard