Inside Uniform: The innovative Liverpool studio designing footballs, AI radio and 50p coins
In 1998, Uniform co-founder Nick Howe graduated with a BA in product design and marketing from John Moores University in Liverpool. Inspired by his studies and determined to stay in the city as it experienced an surge in creative growth, he teamed up with two fellow students to create the beginnings of the studio as it stands today. Starting out with some ‘mad’ projects, their earliest commissions combined design, engineering and a very healthy imagination (think future-facing sake dispensers). The company has since evolved to offer a wide range of services that includes architectural visualisation, strategic digital marketing and VR development. With a core team of over 60, their space has expanded to accommodate – comprising an impressive 7,500 square feet in the centre of town, and includes a fully functioning workshop space, complete with model-making equipment and 3D printers. Nick tells us the story so far, and how they are embracing a community-oriented culture.
We’re a design and innovation company based in Liverpool, founded 20 years ago. We work with a pretty wide range of global brands to help them deliver meaningful change across their business.
Three of us set the company about two weeks after I finished uni. We all studied product design at John Moores University and all knew we wanted to do something together, but we didn’t know what at that stage. We didn’t want to leave Liverpool, because we really felt there was a great energy here, with a lot of regeneration going on. The city has always had this real sense of pride and we wanted to be part of its creative scene.
There weren’t any businesses in the city we wanted to work for (it was a lot of traditional marketing and advertising agencies) but we wanted to make groundbreaking projects. We chatted about doing something together over that summer, and pretty quickly won some work for another studio. To get paid, we needed to be a proper company, so we decided to set up officially, and won a couple more projects off the back of that.
“We didn’t want to leave Liverpool; we really felt there was a great energy here.”
In those first few years we were just trying stuff out. We launched a range of furniture, and designed the first belt conveyor-belt sushi restaurant in Liverpool. Our strategy was to head down to London to meet the kind of clients and brands that we wanted to collaborate with, and ended up working on a really mad project with Simon Woodroffe from YO! Sushi. Together we combined product design and engineering to develop an in-tabletop warm sake dispenser. This product design background has been part of Uniform’s DNA ever since.
We have two core offers. We have architectural visualisation, which is very much focused on the property and architecture sector to deliver a very niche service. And then we also offer broader design and innovation – from strategic thinking, branding, right through to comms across digital, film and animation, graphic design and digital marketing.
For the architectural visualisation, we do a lot of work with global architecture practices like SOM, Foster and Partners, and real estate developers, like Canary Wharf Group. For other work we’ll collaborate with sports brands, like Mitre and LFC (both longstanding clients) and both national and global brands in the retail and consumer goods space – from Primark to Unilever and Innocent. We also work with a lot of British manufacturing companies, including Mitre, Amtico Flooring (high-end vinyl flooring), Premdor (part of Masonite Group) and Fever-Tree.
Some of our favourite recent things to work on have been the Primark Christmas campaign, and many of the projects we've completed with Mitre. In particular the design of a Mitre ball to be used in the football league – it was great to see it on the TV. We’ve also been working on collaborations between Mitre and Disney, creating a series of Star Wars and Marvel balls.
For the last couple of years, we’ve worked with the Royal Mint on a couple of 50p pieces. We did one for the World War I centenary, and one for the Rio Olympics. Very occasionally, you go into a shop and you get some change with your 50p, which is a really incredible feeling. Those moments make you proud of what you do.
“We worked with the Royal Mint on a couple of 50p pieces. Occasionally, you get some change with your 50p, which is a really incredible feeling.”
We’re about 60 to 65 people altogether. We have around 14 people in architecture visualisation; about 30 people across design and innovation (including creatives, designers, artworkers, copywriters, motion designers, editors, developers and client directors – responsible for client relationships and growth of accounts); another 15 people across operations (including the operations director, head of IT, head of finance, studio coordinator); three people in new business and marketing; and six project managers.
We’ve recently started to evolve the structure of the business to a more customer-focused approach. So we now have an agile group of four people on our client team, who are absolutely focused on the customers we work with. They look at things from a creative, strategic, customer service and customer experience perspective. Although it's only a few months in, it’s really helping us push the boundaries of projects and help clients to be innovative in terms of technology and creativity in response to human behaviour.
“We now have an agile group of four people on our client team, who are absolutely focused on the customers we work with.”
Within the development team you have a couple of people work purely in immersive and VR content and technologies. Some work purely in R&D-focused and creative technology roles. They will explore new and future technology, and how that might apply to client work. One project we’re working on is called The Trust Pursuit, which looks at how trust is the common theme for business, and how it’s eroded on a macro level globally. Through traditional research and thinking, we explore how businesses can use design and creativity to rebuild trust, using new technologies in a meaningful way.
Other things we're looking at include how AR is becoming more ubiquitous and accessible through the latest generation of smartphones. This allows us to be prepared for the tipping point where that becomes a feasible way for brands to communicate with consumers. But while it's very exciting to be future-facing, I think it's just part of what we offer. There's still a lot to be said for a traditional approach to creativity and storytelling, and getting your strategic positioning right.
When we’re hiring, we look for attitude and behaviour as much, if not more than, technical skills. We have people in the business who are very specialised (for example, in filmmaking or immersive technologies), but their attitude is broader than that, with a problem-solving mindset to work out the best solutions. We also look for people who are thinkers as much as doers. We’ll go out and explore, understanding how consumers are buying before designing adverts, for example. We also understand when to bInside the studioring in specialists, and not try to do everything ourselves – I think that's pretty important.
We are pretty involved in trying to develop the next generation of creatives, digital thinkers and practitioners. Six or seven of us are STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics] ambassadors in Liverpool, who get out to schools and talk about careers in creative tech. We are also a partner member of Liverpool Girl Geeks, who champion diversity in the workplace.
We have a number of internships and placements throughout the year. On the visualisation team we usually have one or two 12-month internships paid at above living wage. These are typically filled by Bournemouth University students in their sandwich year, as they have a course which is very aligned with what we do. We also do a number of three to six-month internships.
Environment and Culture
We’re based right in the heart of the city centre, two minutes away from the train station. It’s known as the independent quarter, with lots of shops, restaurants and cafes. It’s constantly changing, with lots of new things popping up all the time.
We actually acquired the top two floors of the building last year. We're on the top floor, which is a beautiful, bright and airy 7,500 square-foot space. We've got a few different zones, including a meeting area with a couple of little booths, more formal meeting rooms (a boardroom and a cork room – to pin work up), a workshop space (with various bits of kit, model-making equipment, bandsaws, 3D printers). Having a workshop means we have the ability to quickly prototype things in-house, hacking bits of technology to show what we could do. This space is really unique and important to us.
“We’re based right in the heart of the city centre, two minutes away from the train station.”
Then we've got our main studio, where most of the team sit. Some sit within disciplines, but other people will be mixed up to help this sense of collaboration and break down those silos. We use our kitchen for our Monday morning meetings with the whole team, and every four to six weeks we have a lunch together, made by a different team. We also often collaborate with local initiatives, opening up the space for them to come in, and really foster the sense of community within the city.
In terms of benefits, we do a lot of stuff that other agencies do, but I think we do it in quite a rounded way. Our maternity policy is really strong for an SME [small/medium-sized enterprise]. We believe strongly in family and supporting that. We've got a flexible working policy, so our core hours are 10am to 4pm, and people need to be in between those times, but if you want to start earlier and finish earlier, you can.
Our pension benefit has always been strong and above the legal requirement. Then, there's the usual stuff, like access to cycle-to-work schemes and Busy Bees childcare vouchers. Everyone has a training budget, working with their line manager to agree what they need in terms of personal development. Most teams go to conferences and events most years. It might be a conference in Venice or Barcelona, and this is part of the team’s continuous professional development.
We have a family barbecue every year where everyone’s family is invited. Also, for one day over the summer holidays, we’re inviting everyone’s kids into the business to get a completely unique take on ideas, from a completely new set of people. We’re calling it Imagine the Impossible, which is a bit of a mantra for everyone in the business.
Interview by Indi Davies
Photography by Pete Carr