Universal Everything founder Matt Pyke: From designing album covers to lighting up Sydney Opera House
Matt Pyke is the mastermind behind Universal Everything, a diverse digital art and design studio creating super-sleek animations, 3D graphics, large-scale installations and future-facing artworks. Since its founding in 2004, output has ranged from a full MTV rebrand and work for the 2012 UK Olympics identity, to solo shows at the MoMA, V&A and the Sydney Opera House. Whether it’s a projected video or an experiential piece for clients such as Chanel, Nike, Hyundai or Deutsche Bank, a playful interaction with architecture is often a central feature – something that has carried through from Matt’s early skateboarding and graffiti days.
Trained in technical drawing and graphic design, Matt spent the first eight years of his career at The Designers Republic, renowned for its iconic artwork for artists like Aphex Twin and Pulp, before starting his own thing. Now in his thirteenth year with Universal Everything, Matt’s set-up has changed little since he launched the company; he still works alone from home near the Peak District – more specifically in his garden, from a purpose-built wooden structure. And despite many of Universal Everything’s projects being global undertakings, Matt has managed to keep his team to a modestly sized five full-timers – all based in various locations between London and Sheffield.
Creative Director, Artistic Director and Founder, Universal Everything (2004–present)
BA Graphic Design, Croydon College, London (1993–1996)
Technical Illustration, Portsmouth College of Art (1991–1993)
Apple, Audi, Barbican, Chanel, Deutsche Bank, Dolby, Google, Hyundai, IBM, Intel, Microsoft, MOMA NYC, MTV, Nike, Nokia, Radiohead, Samsung, Science Museum, Sydney Opera House, V&A Museum, Vice, Zaha Hadid
How would you describe the studio and your role?
We create digital art and design for fashion, music, automotive, technology, architecture, museums and galleries. This usually involves playing with emerging technologies to invent new forms of design and moving image.
Universal Everything started as my solo studio; I designed and directed everything myself. As the clients grew and the ideas became more ambitious, I built a network of freelance experts from around the world. Now, as we work directly with high-end clients, I have the support of full-time team, which consists of a senior producer Greg Povey, creative director Mike Hughes, animation director Chris Perry, managing director Simon Thompson, Kat Hall on communications and a large roster of regular freelance talent and partner studios.
As creative and artistic director of the company, my role includes trend research, strategy, taking to press, sharing inspiration, doing the initial creative direction on a project and inspiring the team to push our work beyond a client’s expectations.
“Being a skateboarder and graffiti artist growing up instilled a maverick sense of inventiveness in me, and a desire to interact with architecture.”
What does a typical working day look like?
My commute to work entails walking down 12 steps into my garden studio... It’s an architect-designed wooden space in my garden, on the border of Sheffield and the Peak District national park. When I get in, I’ll try to avoid opening the email and Skype floodgates until vital creative thinking is down on paper. On a typical day, I spend about four hours thinking and drawing, then two hours on a Mac – writing and creating design references for the team.
Everyone who works at Universal Everything is split into dispersed workplaces, which means that each of us works in our own space, with regular meet-ups. We also have production studios in Sheffield city centre at the Site Gallery art space, and in a shared creative space in East London.
The majority of my work is spent thinking and taking phone calls; I could be walking in nearby Peak District, working offline, or drawing and writing in my garden studio. Otherwise I’ll be having meetings or designing in the Sheffield production studio.
How collaborative is your role?
I work closely with our creative director and producer to guide the design process. I also spend time searching for new freelance talent, and work with them to get them up to speed with our studio culture. Part-timers or freelancers can include musicians, architects, PR, interactive developers, choreographers, AV consultants, animators. Then, when we’re adding to the team, we look for design, art and architectural savviness, self-motivated and inventive thinkers with impeccable taste.
What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job?
The most enjoyable part is drawing ideas on A1 sketchpads, seeing projects come to life, receiving amazing briefs, turning down pitches and seeing the public enjoying and using our work. The least enjoyable bit is waiting for projects to start, seeing our work copied, or having to turn work down due to having too many enquiries.
What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months?
Working with Zaha Hadid Architects on an installation for Milan Design Week. I kicked off the initial creative direction for the overall experience and the project was lead by our creative director, and producers. We all regrouped before the launch, onsite in Milan, where I did a final polish of the experience in-situ.
What skills are essential to your job?
Staying focused, curiosity, avoiding cliches, spotting trends and maintaining a helicopter-style view of the studio.
Do you run any side projects alongside your job?
Yes, about 30% of our work is self-initiated as a studio, and it’s my main role to invent and lead these special projects. This work leads to new opportunities, in the form of exhibitions, commissions from clients and sales to art collectors.
In my own time I paint nature and landscapes, design record sleeves and direct music videos for musician friends. I also teach on the design course at the university in Sheffield.
What tools do you use most for your work?
A HB pencil, A1 paper, a white pencil with black paper, an iPhone 6s, Skype, an iMac and Keynote.
“About 30% of our work is self-initiated as a studio, which leads to new opportunities, in the form of exhibitions, commissions from clients and sales to art collectors.”
How I Got Here
What did you want to be growing up?
I wanted to be a graphic designer and animator. I was a skateboarder and graffiti artist growing up, which instilled a maverick sense of inventiveness and a desire to interact with architecture.
How (if at all) is the subject you studied useful to your current role?
I studied graphic design, which proved useful in terms of communicating complex, unusual ideas clearly to clients. Creatively it gave me an awareness of composition, attention to detail and a modernist, design-led aesthetic.
What were your first jobs?
My first job was landed at my dream studio, The Designers Republic, which had the feeling of being in a high-end art school.
Was there anything in particular that helped you at the start of your career?
I Iived with my younger brother for a while in London, and that was a big influence. He has made and released electronic music since the age of 16, and I would get to design his record sleeves. Eventually he released an EP on Warp Records ‘Prowl’ under the name Freeform. When it was out, Ian Anderson, founder of The Designers Republic saw the sleeve, got in touch with me and then I was hired.
What skills have you learnt along the way?
I’ve worked my way through Freehand, Flash, Final Cut Pro, After Effects, Illustrator, Apple Motion. I hit a wall at 3D software and interactive programming, so that led me to hiring people better than me.
What’s been your biggest challenge?
Saying yes too often and spreading myself too thin has been the biggest learning. After burning myself out, I learned to avoid saying yes immediately – instead asking for time to make a decision, and then making informed choices about accepting the right projects for the studio. Now we only accept work we are proud to show on the front of our website. This sets our acceptance criteria very high, and motivates us to focus on only the best opportunities.
Is your job what you thought it would be?
I thought I’d still be designing record sleeves and directing music videos. It’s ten times bigger, harder, inspiring, competitive, exhausting and fulfilling than I ever expected!
“The majority of my work is spent thinking and taking phone calls; I could be walking in nearby Peak District, working offline, or drawing and writing in my garden studio.”
What would you like to do next?
I’d like to spend more time meeting new collaborators in other fields such as anthropology, robotics, or orchestras and chefs. I also want to spend more time painting and drawing ideas until they are bursting off the page to become studio projects.
Could you do this job forever?
I’d love to love this job until I die – like Matisse or architect I. M. Pei…
What do you feel is the natural career progression for someone in your current position?
Doing more museum exhibitions of new work, nurturing younger talent, teaching at art schools, mentoring new studios.
Words of Wisdom
What advice would you give to a young creative wanting to get into a similar line of work?
I’d recommend learning programmes such as Unity, Houdini and Cinema 4D. Create work that avoids all the cliches and trends driven by the latest plug-ins. Do your research, find your own unique passion, and then let that drive your projects!
Interview by Indi Davies
Mention Universal Everything
Mention Olympic Games
Mention The Designers Republic