A mini Where Designers Work-style peek into two leading London studios: Wolff Olins and Pentagram.
For all its five decade history, Wolff Olins is an agency that seems determined to look to the future, rather than the past. When we visited in the summer of 2016, the agency’s home was a cavernous space next to the canal in King’s Cross: wide windows open onto a doesn’t-feel-like-London horizon of nesting ducks and territorial swans, and the entrance space is housing an exhibition ahead of London Design Festival. The pieces on show are futuristic product and furniture designs; classic pieces reimagined through 3D printing and a knack with resin. It seems much like where Wolff Olins itself wishes to be: founded on solid, trusted, hard-earned histories; yet pushing for something new, whatever that might be.
What seems striking is just how young the team is. There’s lots of design jargon chat: iterating, disrupting, design-thinking—you get the gist. It feels like a surprise, considering the agency’s past—one that for us journalists was briefly punctuated by a period just after the revelation of the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games identities of near-shutdown when it came to talking to press.
We sit in on a company-wide catch up meeting where various teams and designers discuss the personal projects they’ve been working on, which seem to be very much encouraged and supported by the agency. Much of this is pro bono work, such as one young designer’s branding and interior graphics for a football charity.
Recently, the Wolff Olins studio moved from its expansive space in King’s Cross across London to Bayswater, in the west. A “build committee” was set up to decide on the design of the space, working with London interiors company Jackdaw. The new set-up is based around open-plan desks split into two studios; one “chapel side” mainly for staff in as freelancers or part-time, the other for more permanent staff. The idea is to foster closeness, and enable easier collaboration. Features include an area for hosting events, and a number of bespoke pieces of furniture and fittings from Jackdaw.
Around 100 people are based in the London office, and when every new starter joins they are assigned a “coach” who works with them on both professional development and more pastoral or personal issues, should the coachee want to discuss those. This is where those personal projects are discussed: the coach and their charge navigate how best to fit such projects in around client work and other commitments. Wolff Olins is keen to stress their emphasis on learning—there’s a dedicated head of learning and development, Ellen O’Connor, and all development-related materials and findings from internal workshops are hosted on a Confluence cloud platform for everyone on staff to access.
When a new project comes in, a dedicated team is assembled that will then sit together for the duration of the work. It’s what Wolff Olins former PR manager Rachel Phillips described to us as a “flat system,” which aims to avoid hierarchy. The various departments are dubbed “communities,” in Wolff Olins speak.
Usual working hours are seven-and-a-half a day, though many of the team work on flextime, especially since the move to less accessible west London. Though days can sometimes be “intense,” we’re told that people are always ensured “space to breathe” and that overtime can be logged and claimed back. Every day the whole studio eats lunch together at around 1pm; sometimes food is ordered in, or a “sandwich man” comes round.
According to Phillips, rather than investing in quirky accoutrements like ping-pong tables, the space is “much more led by the thing we’re actually doing in it.” A key feature is an artwork by Joshua Lake, a fine artist who once worked at the agency, which shows a rocking chair stopped mid-rock, stuck in cement. When based in King’s Cross, Wolff Olins became involved in local projects, such as the Honey Club which harvested produce from “urban bees” in the area. Over in Bayswater, they’re keen to engage in similarly site-specific projects in their new London locale.
Wolff Olins’ other studios are based in New York and San Francisco, and while each works with its own clients, the teams do occasionally collaborate across the Atlantic. Recent London projects include the rebrand of Swedish telco Telia, hotel chain Hyatt’s new branding, and reworking the identity for Orange, having designed the mobile company’s initial branding more than 20 years ago.
Owen Hughes, Wolff Olins London’s strategic delivery director, says that London feels unique in being “a meeting point for so many different cultures and attitudes.” He explains: “There are so many different tribes and people all living and working together in close proximity, and it’s the overlap and friction between these that makes London such a creative place.”
This has impacted the design of the agency’s new space in the removal of “traditional boundaries between working, meeting, and making spaces.” Hughes says, “We’ve also taken down the client/Wolff Olins people separations. Our clients, collaborators, and regular employees all sit together in open spaces. This even extends to us all sitting down together to eat breakfast and lunch regularly.
“Of course, there is the challenge of the space being buzzier, busier, and noisier, but those are things we’re used to in London. We’re already seeing a more open, sharing culture and really interesting collaborations happening. Especially in the current global climate, we feel really strongly that this style of working is something London needs to hold on tight to.”
Pentagram’s London studio is a vast space near Notting Hill in west London, which partner Harry Pearce claims is haunted. Different members of staff seem to have different stories about what the studio was used for historically, though they all involve horses traipsing in and out, which is very much believable given the cavernous interiors.
The agency has been at Needham Road since it was founded in 1972 by Alan Fletcher, Theo Crosby, Colin Forbes, Kenneth Grange, and Mervyn Kurlansky. All the London-based partners are now “third generation,” and comprise graphic designers John Rushworth, Angus Hyland, Harry Pearce, Domenic Lippa, Naresh Ramchandani, Marina Willer, and (the newest additions) brothers Jody Hudson-Powell and Luke Powell; as well as industrial designer Daniel Weil.
Pentagram’s partner structure means that each partner forms their own team of designers, each working as discrete units within the business. Each is responsible for bringing in their own clients, and the teams work exclusively with the partner who hired them, though resources such as the studio itself, the communications and new business managers, admin, and finance staff work across the whole business. The gender balance of each team varies (Willer’s and Ramchandani’s are predominantly female, though others are more male-dominated), but across Pentagram 70% of the roles are creative. Partners occasionally work with other partners on projects, but for the most part they remain separate.
Working hours at Pentagram London are usually 9:30 a.m. until 6 p.m., and all the staff have lunch together, prepared by the studio’s very own cook, between 1 and 2 p.m. It’s a quiet, leafy area, though former communications manager Zuleika Sedgley (now a copywriter at Pentagram) pointed out that just next door is “the best pub in Notting Hill, according to Time Out,” which the team makes the most of with post-work drinks every Friday. In healthier pursuits, Pentagram also runs weekly Pilates lessons for staff and regularly hosts talks open to the public as well as staff.
Partner Luke Powell describes the atmosphere of the London office as “friendly and supportive.” He adds: “There’s plenty of interaction, but we don’t have music on as we’re respectful of the fact our next door neighbor might have their head down.
“We’re good at sharing knowledge and experience,” he continues. “The studio is open and not competitive in that way. We can become isolated in terms of knowing what we are each up to, but we’re working on that.”
While most of London’s agencies are based in Soho—or Shoreditch, where many of the smaller studios choose to be—Sedgley says that being based out west feels “very Pentagram,” as the unusual amount of space allows each of the nine teams to be autonomous. She says: “Pentagram has never been about trends, it’s about creating beautiful work. We’re well enough known to not have to move to a creative area, but we’re close to a lot of big agencies. That separation does suit us. You can be very focused, and as Pentagram is around 45 years old it’s amazing to be connected to the history that’s weaved into this building.”
Powell agrees. “It does feel like a ‘London office,’ even though we don’t personally interact with the local area at all, apart from the coffee shop and pub next door. Ninety-five percent of the office live in the east, north, or south, and most partners and staff do interact with the design community and interact socially in our respective corners of London—but we are a bit of an island out west.”