PLANNING UNIT IS A LONDON-BASED DESIGN STUDIO consisting of co-founders Nick Hard and Jeff Knowles and designer James LeBeau-Morley. It’s a reincarnation of a design studio by the same name which was started by Nick’s grandfather in the 1960s, who found early success working alongside Knoll Furniture.
When Nick and Jeff relaunched the studio in 2011 they announced Knoll Furniture as a key client, and have since added big names to their roster including Salomon, Paris Saint-Germain FC, Design Museum and D&AD. They recently worked with the BBC Global Experience Language team to develop a suite of icons to be used across the BBC’s digital platforms.
The trio spoke to Slanted Mansion about how they got here and what’s on the horizon for the up-and-coming studio.
Nick, Jeff and James work predominantly from a shed, aka the Shedio™, in Nick’s garden in Essex, where he lives with his family.
Jeff: “It’s funny because in the beginning we went to a lot of meetings and we were a bit apprehensive about mentioning where we worked. We were at meetings at places like the BBC and the question would come up, ‘where are you based?’ It just spilled out of Nick’s mouth… ‘We work in a shed at the bottom of the garden!’ And they were like ‘brilliant, absolutely love it!’”
Nick: “People realise it’s cheaper and it’s clever starting up a business without all those overhead. It’s good when the weather’s warmer and you can have the door open.”
Having only made the transition from graphic designers to business owners in the past few years, Nick and Jeff have had to spend less time on the creative side of things and more time on the management of a successful design studio.
Nick: “There’s things like putting together a proposal which we didn’t really have a clue about in the beginning. I was just saying the other day that the design side of things gets easier, it’s actually getting the work [which is the hard bit]. With the BBC project, doing it was just a matter of hard work and making it happen. But getting the work involved a pre-qualification questionnaire, an invitation to tender… it’s this whole process which we were never involved with before.”
James: “When I graduated you don’t really think about all the background things that happen before a project starts. To get the project you kind of just assumed that they get dropped in your lap. There are some days when you’re like, I haven’t even opened Photoshop or Illustrator at all today because all I’ve been doing is filling out forms and emailing people and organising. But you don’t seem to mind because if you want to start your own business then part of you should enjoy the running of the business as well as the creative side of it. Otherwise you’re just a graphic designer, not a graphic design business.”
Nick: “When you’re in the studio you want to make things as creative and as beautiful as you possibly can, but then when you’re running it and you know that time costs money, you have to analyse how it all works really.”
As seasoned players in the London graphic design scene, Nick and Jeff had different experiences breaking into the industry than today’s graduates.
Jeff: “Interning wasn’t around so much when [Nick and I] were looking for jobs. You literally traipsed the street with your portfolio looking for a job. You didn’t finish university then think ‘right, I’m going to intern for two or three years now.’ It’s just ridiculous that this is the case. But I suppose there are a lot of people coming out of uni now who want to be graphic designers.”
Nick: “I did a few. I was at Attik for three months and some other smaller companies. We’ve talked about it. I don’t think it’s the right thing for us. With our studio where we are now, an intern… well obviously there’s nowhere for them to sit, but it would also take up a lot of time, so it would be counterproductive. We knew James could come on board and just do stuff; the BBC Icon project, he came straight onto that and did a great job.”
James: “If universities prepared students for working life better, they could graduate and get a job and not have to learn by interning. It’s almost like there’s no confidence in graduates. Everyone’s a bit like, you need to quickly learn in three months actually how it is, because university taught you some basics, but not industry-specific lessons that we now have to teach you.
“I did an internship at Research and got a job there then I left and did freelance for two years. I worked on and off with these guys as they set up Planning Unit. Then they got too busy and needed my help.”
Nick (laughing): “We’ve just gone from freehand to Adobe Illustrator full time so that’s why we’ve got James to help us.”
Planning Unit’s modus operandi is discovering the unique voice and vision of its clients.
Jeff: “Clients seem surprised by how much information we want to know about them. We go to meetings saying, ‘Right, we’re going to ask you loads of what you will think are stupid questions.’ The better you know your client, the better job you can do for them. Even knowing things that won’t have any bearing on the visual outcome help you understand who and what you’re designing for. You can do a better job.”
Since their interview with Slanted Mansion, Planning Unit has relocated to an office off Broadway Market, East London. Find out more about the design studio here.