East London-based Ustwo is a pretty unique place. First off, it’s billed as part-studio, part-agency, thanks to its mix of client work with the likes of Adidas, Sky, and Jaguar Land Rover; and self-initiated projects including the game Monument Valley, and music platform Dice. Secondly, one of the first things you notice when you walk into its frankly bonkers space is a life-sized cow, grass, and all manner of strange accoutrements that are more befitting of experiential theater than a digital consultancy. It’s right at home in Shoreditch, a place renowned for both nonsensical wackiness and creativity.
Since its founding in London in 2004 by Matt Miller and John Sinclair, often known as Mills and Sinx, Ustwo has expanded across the world, and now boasts outposts in Malmo, Sweden; New York; and Sydney, Australia. London is still the biggest studio, though all sites work in a similar way, splitting their projects loosely into four strands: Discovery & Strategy; Design & Build; Launch & Scale; and Ways of Working, in which the studio “bakes transformative ways of working into your business.”
Ustwo design lead Jay Chan says: “We really consider ourselves a studio not an agency, and a lot of that is down to making our own products as well as working with clients, so we feel that’s one thing that sets up apart. We try and work and do what we do with our clients in our own projects, which gives us a unique way of thinking about our users. We say we’re a user centered studio but you have to understand that clients have business goals and targets to meet too.”
With each client brief that comes in, a different cross disciplinary team is assembled. “We like to challenge briefs and drill into why the client is trying to solve a certain problem,” says Chan. “You try to present a vision that’ll provide the best experience and value for them, and there’s no template for that. All companies and team shapes will vary with every task. It’s like the difference between making a meal for you and your partner and cooking for a dinner party.”
He adds, “Every member feels like they play an equal part: a developer’s idea is just as strong and equal as a designer’s or a product coach [like a project manager or account handler]. The emphasis is on ensuring teams are working together, and with the client, as best they can.”
Wellbeing of staff is also paramount at Ustwo, which isn’t surprising considering the number of health and mental wellbeing digital products it’s created. These include the relaxation and mediation app Pause; Sway, an “interactive meditation experience”; and Moodnotes, an app that allows users to tracking emotions and change behavior through CBT-based journaling.
“In many senses we’re a very emotional company,” says Chan, “so those things we do aren’t just for projects—it drills down to making sure we’re able to share honestly our thoughts about the project, it’s a really important thing. It would be strange to be somewhere where that wasn’t like that.”
Ustwo is a very sociable place. The London studio has ample space for teams to take breaks together, including the sizeable ground floor “cyber cafe,” and is based in an area where workers are spoilt for choice when it comes to lunch, drinks, and galleries.
Away from the streets of east London, the studio also takes a “summer holiday” of a few days for staff, previously visiting Portugal, Croatia, Wales, and Berlin. “They’re about trying to bring people together and relax and do things outside of thinking about work,” says Chan. “We’re very conscious not everyone’s the same and not everyone wants the same things from a holiday, so we cater for everyone. There’s sometimes work elements, so a slight agenda might be talking about where the company is going and our plans. It’s an opportunity for leaders to come together and share those things, especially now we’re so big we do it per studio. Sometimes it’s just an opportunity to let your hair down.”
Working hours adhere to “flexitime,” loosely based around 9 a.m. until 6 p.m. but leaving it up to individuals as to whether they want to arrive an hour early and leave an hour early, or vice versa. However, all staff are expected to be in the studio from 10am until 4pm as that’s when all the team meetings happen. Every morning each team has a “standup” for 10-15 minutes. “You talk about the work you’ve completed in the previous day, and targets for the next day,” says Chan. “That’s the opportunity to raise ‘blockers’—things that stop you moving forward.”
But why do you have to stand up? “It’s a psychological thing. You have a lot of meetings where you sit down and you’re relaxed. Standing up means you’re more focused and recognize the fact you’re in a temporary amount of time, so you can afford to be focused in that moment.”
While Ustwo is firmly an international agency these days, its London birthplace sees itself, in Chan’s words, at a “different life stage” to its global siblings. So what’s so great about the Big Smoke for Ustwo that’s allowed it to flourish there as it has?
“I think London is—to coin a cheesy term—a world city,” says Chan. “It’s is so cosmopolitan and so open, and in terms of tech it tries to be very much at the forefront. It attracts a lot of talent, and Europe isn’t far away. It never ceases to amaze me the number of different cultures and backgrounds that work here.”
The wackiness of the interiors isn’t just a throwback to Shoreditch’s golden era of hedonism and neon trousers, either. “We take our work seriously but we try not to take ourselves too seriously,” says Chan. “I don’t know what clients think but I like to think they feel they can be a bit relaxed here. If they see the cow and grass, then they know anything they do is going be ok. If the environment’s a bit crazy it enables you to have a bit more freedom.”