Inside Made Thought, the London design studio prizing ideas above action
Set up by Paul Austin and Ben Parker at the dawn of the millennium, Made Thought is a London-based studio with a reputation for clever ideas, efficient execution and exacting attention to detail. In 19 years, it has grown from a bedroom business to a team of 45, working on projects for the likes of Design Miami, Stella McCartney, Sunspel, and MoMA. It develops deep relationships with its clients (its art direction of our brand partner G . F Smith is a prime example), and forces brands to confront and define their purpose before anything visual even comes to the table. Here managing director Nick Marshall talks us through the ‘thought’ element of Made Thought, its growing focus on company culture and embedding sustainability into the studio.
The most succinct description of what we do (which is a belief we work with everyday) is using good design to drive behaviour. We use progressive design to elevate and transform.
We talk about the fact that we are no longer a graphic design studio – we are a creative office that helps clients solve any problem through creativity. A lot of the work is branding-related, but it’s typical for us to get stuck into anything that is a physical manifestation of the brand visually. We try to create a visual culture for our brands and clients.
Made Thought was founded a little over 18 years ago by Paul Austin and Ben Parker, who went to university together at Ravensbourne. They did a short stint in another design agency and then started working out of Ben's bedroom in 2000. Made Thought grew from there.
Early projects that got the studio noticed were work for [furniture brand] Established & Sons and [international design fair] Design Miami. That led onto a collaboration with Stella McCartney, who we’ve worked for ever since.
“As a studio we are quite particular about our philosophy and design approach.”
For the first 15 years we grew at the rate of about one person per year. Since I joined, around three-and-a-half years ago, we’ve had a real explosion in terms of the size of the team. We fluctuate, but nowadays we’re around 45 or so. We try not to have a huge amount of freelancers – around five to seven at a time. As a studio we are quite particular about our philosophy and design approach, and that really comes through when you’ve been working here for a period of time.
In terms of structure, there’s a project team and then a creative team headed by Paul and Ben. Within the creative team, the majority are designers. We have a separate small department for art direction and an in-house part-time 3D person. In the project team there are project managers, but for us they are effectively producers who make projects happen. We also have a specific art producer who focuses on creating imagery and film.
One of our main beliefs is that good design drives behaviour. We don’t want to find the simple solution, we always want to go a bit further. One example is our project for travel brand Prior, which reimagines the travel agent for today. In today’s world we’ve become so visual that we go on holiday and expect the experience to be exactly like a picture that we saw on Instagram. We wanted to get people excited about the journey and going somewhere where they don’t know what to expect.
The idea was to ban the picture of the infinity pool, in fact, all photography. We wanted to evoke the imagination of travel through a more creative approach. It’s a very high-end proposition, where holidays can cost up to £200,000, and this aesthetic has worked very well for the client.
We’re also very proud of our work for Design Miami. It’s our longest running project. It’s based on beautiful consistency and simplicity: there’s this one line that's the logo, but we completely reinvent it every season. We’re proud of the fact that 28 seasons later the identity still feels fresh and energetic.
Our collaboration with G . F Smith is deep and based on trust. I think the best work we do is when there is a real relationship of trust between the client and the designer. We almost work with them as their creative directors across their business. So on anything that they need to do – whether it’s a campaign, promotion, even the most commercial job – we’ll try to find an interesting creative twist on how it could be done. We developed a campaign to find the world’s favourite colour which came out of a conversation around them needing to add to the Colorplan range. What started as a functional commercial thing turned into a way to engage their community. Its second season is coming out very soon.
Another project with G . F Smith we’re proud of is the campaign, collateral and exhibition design for Extract, the UK’s first paper made from recycled coffee cups. They have this amazing sense of purpose and responsibility from an environmental point of view – being part of that journey was great.
We’ve had a lot of press for the work we do with A Plastic Planet and the development of the Plastic Free mark [for the world’s first plastic-free supermarket aisle]. It’s been important for us because we want to deliver value back to the world through the work that we do.
For better or worse, we don’t have a rigid and replicable process when it comes to how we work on projects – that’s because we think every problem needs a specific approach. That said, we start by coming up with a point of view and provocations.
That first phase is called ‘define’ – it’s about trying to think about the creative opportunity. We often say to our clients that we never start by talking about design. Sometimes I think people jump straight into design without thinking about the fundamental point first; but our job is to try and work out where there’s an opportunity to do something a bit different.
The second phase is imagine. This is the visual sketch of what the brand could look like. We will be quite resolute in our recommendation; we tend to insist that we only ever provide one answer. We won’t do three options – how can you really believe in three options and pick this one or that one? But at this stage, it will be quite broad in terms of what the brand feels like.
Everyone has to be happy with the imagine phase and then ‘refine’ is really about getting down to detail. We love obsessing over the detail and making sure that everything is really thought through.
Delivery is our last phase, which is really about the execution. How we approach the four stages will be different depending on what the client needs.
“We love obsessing with the detail and making sure that everything is thought-through.”
In terms of people, our belief is that you have to have a person on both the project side and on the design side who really owns the project from start to finish. As you can imagine, there’s typically heavier involvement from creative directors Ben and Paul and the design directors in the early phases.
What we’re often most proud of is the thinking we do to get to that particular idea, but that’s really hard to document. We’ve just launched our magazine, To Think, which is about trying to show the more thoughtful side of what we do here.
When we’re recruiting at Made Thought we’re not just looking for the quality of a candidate’s design work, but their thinking. It’s a given that someone has to be a great designer but for us, it’s about originality of thought. If someone is starting off talking about typography, they’re probably not going be the right person for us because we want to know about the idea.
One of the things that’s really important to us is a demonstrable display of passion and emotion. As the team gets bigger, the thing that we look for is wanting to go against the grain – that thinking can’t always come from the creative directors.
The Environment and Culture
We're based in Fitzrovia, just north of Oxford Street and north of Soho. We’re not in Shoreditch almost intentionally – we didn’t want to be defined by the cool area where all the designers hang out. Being more central also really helps with clients, as they will often want to come to us rather than us go to them.
It’s a big open plan space that we designed ourselves two years ago – a great little project. We’ve got a project table at the centre and that’s basically it. It’s quite a functional space, but with a nice vibe. Before we were in a very higgledy-piggledy setting, so the fact that everyone can be together is really important for us.
“Being more central really helps, as clients want to come to us rather than us go to them.”
The hours are 9am to 6pm. We were probably a bit late to the game around flexibility because we felt there were too many people here for that to work. Sometimes we have to stay late to deliver certain deadlines but we’re increasingly trying to put in systems to ensure it doesn’t happen as much as it used to. We’re also introducing more flexibility around working, especially as more of the team start to have kids.
In terms of employee benefits, our aim is to have happy people. We’ve probably been a bit too focused just on the work in the past. We have what’s called an 11/4. So once a month, you can come in at 11am or leave at 4pm on a day that you choose. We have private healthcare, which includes all your glasses. We have a big blowout at Christmas time and a small event in the summer where the team comes together.
We’re also starting a series of internal lectures to help people learn and expand their minds, alongside training. We had a director of Sainsbury’s come in and do a talk about the future of design and sustainability – right through to a physiotherapist talking about our bodies and how to keep ourselves feeling good at work. We also do various social activities like a show and tell where two or three people talk about a piece of work that’s being done. Plus, we have a Made Thought football team.
We created our own leather accessories brand (M, A, P.) last year that will officially launch to the public in April. That’s the first of what we're calling Made Projects. The idea is that every year we will launch a project so there’s something inspiring for the studio be part of, and feel ownership over.
Later in the year we’re starting an initiative around sustainability that will become a core focus of our entire business from Easter time onwards. It includes some open source projects around plastic. Everyone’s aware of the problem now, but designers are not always aware of the solutions for particular issues. We’ll launch a really interesting resource for people with A Plastic Planet shortly as well as bringing in more of these type of speakers into the studio.
We feel that the world needs more and more creativity, and we’re starting to build a new type of agency that is not quite advertising or graphic design – and that’s where it’s interesting. Irrespective of how you’ve been taught, we encourage the idea that the more diverse you can be in your use of your creativity, the better.
Meet Some of the Made Thought Team
Scarlet Evans, designer since 2016
Previous employment: INTWorks, Graphic Thought Facility, The Chase
Graduated with a BA in graphic design from Central Saint Martins in 2014
“I have actually wanted to work here since I was about 16. I emailed the studio and met with the design directors, then the next week met the founders. I couldn’t say what it was that made them want to hire me, but I remember Paul saying he could tell that I’d be a good fit.
“I run a magazine, Ladybeard, with some friends. It’s a bit of a nightmare trying to fit it in around work, but as a young designer just starting out it was a really great outlet. At the beginning, more often than not you aren’t doing the most fulfilling work – it’s great to have something that you do outside of work that is completely yours.”
Stay tuned to read our full interview with Scarlet in the coming weeks.
QM Tan, designer since 2018
Previous employment: Winkreative
Graduated with a BA in Graphic and Media Communication from London College of Communication in 2018
“As the junior designer in the office, I take directions from the creative lead and support the team with ongoing projects. Sometimes I have to adapt to urgent requests that need immediate attention, this requires being flexible, and is a part of the job I really enjoy as it keeps my daily schedule interesting.
“I can not disregard what I have learnt from my degree, it served as a good introduction to the world of design. But when I was trying to get into the design, I quickly realised what the industry really entails, and nothing prepares you for that. Some of the most useful classes I took were the contextual and theoretical lectures, where I learnt about visual and design culture, as they helped to inform my work with insight and analysis.”
Stay tuned to read our full interview with QM Tan in the coming weeks.
Jessica Dubeck, senior project manager since 2017
Previous employment: On|Off, The Doll, Port Elliot Festival, Sarah Mower at Vogue
Graduated with a BA in Fashion History and Theory from Central Saint Martins in 2012
“It is my job to ensure my clients are happy and that each project runs on time, on budget and is a creative success. I can only achieve this if my team is empowered and motivated, so I make this my priority on a daily basis.
“Communication skills are essential to my job. If you want people to trust you and listen to your point of view, you need to learn how to best communicate with them, whether it is face-to-face, on the phone or by email.
“You don’t need to have a degree to do my job but studying at CSM definitely opened doors and gave me contacts that I wouldn’t have otherwise had.”
Stay tuned to read our full interview with Jessica in the coming weeks.
Annie Masciavè, art buyer and shoot producer since 2018
Previous employment: Asos magazine, Mastered
Graduated with MA Publishing from London College of Communication in 2013 and a BA in Arts, Music and Performing Arts Theory, University of Roma Tre in 2011
“I jump on a project every time there’s any photography or video to be produced by the studio. I constantly research photographers and directors, and check all the new editorial and commercial work that comes out. I then apply this knowledge when suggesting and commissioning talent for a brief. Next, I will work on the shoot production, from managing the budget to sorting out the lighting, casting models, finding the locations and overseeing post-production.
“There’s so much to learn before you can produce photography – the best way to get there is by interning and assisting as much as possible. You need to know a lot about the level of different photographers and their agencies, the calibre of stylists and glam teams they work with, the editorials and campaigns they take on and how they might affect their fee as well as the reputation of the client you’re commissioning them for. There’s quite a lot of politics strategy involved, and also a pretty strict etiquette when dealing with artist agents and model bookers. You can only learn all of that by doing it.”
Stay tuned to read our full interview with Annie in the coming weeks.
Radek Wojcik, design director since 2011
Previous employment: Construct London
Graduated with a BA in Communication Design from the National Institute of Design (Swinburne University) Melbourne in 2005
“My role requires a high level of agility, overseeing a team of designers over a variety of projects and clients. I’m involved in all phases of a project from client immersions, concept development, presentations to the client, through to artwork and delivery. In a way I act as the conduit between creative ambition and guidance and the practicalities of making it a reality. There are always unexpected parts to the role…it keeps you on your toes!
“[I think you have to] be passionate about what you do and really throw yourself at it. It’s not just a matter of talent, but dedication to your craft – this will help you understand who you are and how you think as a designer. Be open to new ideas and points of view, if only to reinforce your own.”
Stay tuned to read our full interview with Radek in the coming weeks.
Made Thought is a close collaborator of our brand partner G . F Smith, which has supported Lecture in Progress since the beginning. You can discover more at gfsmith.com.
Interview by Indi Davies
Mention Made Thought
Written by Laura Snoad