Time flies when you’re NB Studio. Nick Finney, the co-founder and creative director, is trying to recall how long they’ve been in their current studio, a beautiful airy space on London’s south bank, tucked behind the Globe Theatre and within spitting distance of the Tate Modern. He takes a stab at five or six years, until their studio manager sweetly mentions that in fact they’ve been there since 2006. “Hello, and welcome to senile corner,” Finney jokes.
Jokes aside, there’s nothing senile about NB and its work. The variety of projects the studio takes on and its ruthless commitment to pushing each one as far it can be taken perhaps explains how 11 years can seem like five. NB works according to its Creative Courage mantra, which essentially means “pushing for brave work for ourselves,” says Finney.
This principle manifests not only in the work itself, but in the range of clients NB takes on. It prides itself on never specializing, and over the years has worked with D&AD, the BBC, booze behemoths Pernod Ricard, Kodak, Britain’s Royal Mail, and Sainsbury’s supermarket, among many others. “We’ve always worked in every single sector, we’ve never specialized, and that’s why a lot of people like us,” says NB co-founder and director Alan Dye.
We look to work with people who appreciate design and who are interesting for us to work with.
“Until we worked with Mothercare [a chain of mother and baby stores] we’d never worked with retail before, but people like that don’t just use off-the-shelf solutions.”
Another neat little NB phrase that underpins the studio’s work is “what if?” This is used to interrogate briefs that come in, as well as to spark off self-initiated projects. Recently, NB asked, “What if cricket…?” and proposed numerous ideas on how to reinvigorate the perception of this genteel sport as a little bit dull and pedestrian. These included banishing the traditional white kit and replacing it with “bespoke apparel for every playing position, from reptilian gloves for outfielders to aerodynamic body suits for fast bowlers.” Baffling, funny, but smart, too: the project caught the eye of the BBC almost immediately.
“It’s become part of our everyday language,” says Finney. “What if say, money were something else? What if churches were this? That’s the sort of questioning we champion. There is no stupid question here, really. We still have to do things like seven-level embossing and artwork for a tin of Chivers though, so we do ask a hell of a lot of our people. We’ve got a brilliant team.”
The core team is made up of ten people; “there’s me and Alan, we’re Mum and Dad (I’m obviously Dad) as directors,” says Finney, and elsewhere the studio is made up of a head of strategy, account manager, new business and four full-time designers. Usually there’s also an intern and a freelancer on board. It’s a sought-after placement for interns, it seems. “Alan and I get weird things in the post and lots of emails,” says Finney. “Well I say weird, but nice things. People really make an effort and send over brochures and things like that. It’s not weird like [British fashion designer] Paul Smith, where people just write his address on a radiator and send it over.”
Choosing who to hire from this groaning post bag hinges on how well applicants come up with ideas, rather than purely their technical ability. “For me it has to look as if somebody cares about what they’re doing, and we won’t have to teach them basics like typography,” says Finney.
“Their work also has to show great ideas. It comes down to those two things really: design rigor, and madcap mayhem in the ideas—being out there and pushing things to the limit. What appeals is a left-field approach for me. I want other people to challenge thinking because otherwise everything is going to be along the same path.
We’re not choosing graphic designers, we’re choosing thinkers who happen to be good at design.
According to Finney, the space itself has not changed much since they moved here from previous studios in central London. “It was a shell, and it pretty much is still a shell.” So why was this a good spot? We wanted to be in the center, but everything we saw was either wildly expensive or Satanic in some way. We got shown round a Masonic Lodge. We weren’t supposed to be shown round, but it was such a strange building we were in, and there was a locked door, so we asked to have a look round. It was so surreal, it had an eye symbol on the wall and a podium where you could switch the eye symbol on and off.”
Their unusual search paid off, and yielded a beautiful open-plan, airy space with a little kitchenette and room for a rarely-used ping pong table. Magnetic boards are dotted about to quickly pin up and take down notes, ideas, and sketches; and there’s a healthy number of shelves devoted to books and magazines. “Alan and I often know exactly where a certain reference or image is in a book, so sometimes it’s just much quicker to show someone the page than to search online,” says Finney. “Less is more here, though, and we try and keep things off the wall. We’re so bombarded with imagery all the time, so why celebrate your own stuff?”
For all this less is more chat, there are a couple of wonderfully odd little features in the studio. One is a classical bust adorned with a crude papier maché crown and medallion; another is a road sign that reconsiders how road signs portraying the elderly convey their subjects. Keen to move on from depictions of stooped old folk with walking sticks, the studio undertook a project in 2015 called Sign of the Times, inviting designers to create more upbeat wayfinding. It was a huge success, culminating in an exhibition and talks with Transport for London, thanks to submissions from the likes of Alan Kitching, David Hillman, Erik Spiekermann, George Hardie, Milton Glaser, and Jack Renwick.
Right now NB is looking to the future. It’s just launched a new website that saw the team bravely cull 96% of its previous content. “Doing any portfolio is difficult, even doing your own letterhead is difficult, yet it’s easy to do for other people. But it’s cathartic too, and it focuses us. It’s pushed us to think about how we’re talking to people and about the sort of work we want to do.”
Currently the team is working on a branding project with a leading UK university, using VR technology to help people overcome the challenge of quitting smoking and deal with various phobias, as well as branding a Russian financial startup. As for who they’d like to work with in future, NB is characteristically open. “Design can really add value to a business, and certain forward-thinking marketeers can see that, whatever sector they’re in,” says Dye. “It’s such a joy to work with those sort of people as they understand that commissioning good design is going to add value to their business.”
“We want to work with people who think like us,” says Finney, “and ‘creative courage’ is just one way we set that out. We know we can produce exciting work and we want to produce exciting work with exciting clients.”