Going freelance is always challenging. It was something many of us did after the global recession 10 years ago. Some out of necessity, as jobs were few and far between. Others because there was so much opportunity to do so. Many of us went on to build successful agencies.
One such individual is Ben Steers, co-founder and Creative Director of Fiasco Design, a creative studio in Bristol that he launched in 2010 with Jason Smith and has since gone on to win awards and work with clients as impressive as Red Bull, Channel 4, BBC and Twitter.
Like many successful agencies, Fiasco has been too busy in recent years to think of its own branding, which is why it was great to see the launch of its refreshed identity and website this month. Apparently, overhauled to better reflect how far they've come. We spoke to Ben about this and more.
Can you tell us about the journey so far with Fiasco?
We started the studio back in 2010, straight out of university, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. After eight years, we’re still here, which is pretty amazing. Starting a design studio with no clients and little to no previous experience working in an agency isn’t the fastest route to success, but we’ve done it and in our own way.
It’s been a crazy journey with plenty of ups and downs but we’ve always stayed true to our values and our ethos, which I’m really proud of. We’ve built a business and culture based on trust and honesty, chasing passion not profit. Whilst it’s not the easiest route to take, it’s certainly the most fulfilling.
Did you always set out to grow and run an agency?
When we launched the agency, we didn’t have any predefined idea of what we wanted to be or how we wanted to grow. There was no five-year business plan. No company roadmap. No grand vision. Any dreams or ideas we did have you could fit onto a post-it note.
We had no real experience of how an agency should be run – having never worked in one! Our ambition was simple: to do work we enjoyed and were passionate about. The assumption was always that if we did this, the rest would follow. That’s how it’s worked out.
You've just refreshed your brand and website. Why the change?
We have and it feels great! It’s been over six years since we last branded the studio, since then we’ve had the same look and feel. We outgrew it years ago and we just never got round to updating it. In that time the studio has changed immeasurably – new faces, new digs, new clients, new ambitions, new dogs!
We realised it was time for a refresh – to update our branding and website so that it better reflects who we are now and where we’re going next.
Our main concern was that our brand lacked personality. The logotype worked just fine and the icon was graphically quite strong, but it didn’t quite feel like us anymore. We wanted to pour more of ourselves and our personality into the branding and find a better way to show who we really are and what we’re about – serious but fun. Seriously fun.
Can you talk us through the thinking behind it? We especially love the hand icon!
Thanks, we love it too! We started the process by asking that very difficult question: who are we? It’s one we always ask our clients, but one we found so much harder to answer ourselves. So, who are we? Well, we place a heavy emphasis on creativity and see ideas as our currency. We embrace new challenges and are hungry to learn. We believe wholeheartedly in our three core principles: "Creativity Takes Courage; Together is Better; Simple is Good".
When we think about who we are, we consider how we work. As a creative studio, so much of how we communicate every day is through gestures and hand movements. It’s this idea that inspired us to rebrand with the creation of a Fiasco icon series, starting, of course, with our new A-ok icon – a mark that signifies everything is just right. A seal of approval. An "alllll right".
There's always pressure behind designing your own brand. How did you overcome any anxieties, if any?
Oh yeah, 100%. The pressure is so much greater when you’re the client. In some ways, it’s easier, as you have full control over the final output and greater flexibility when it comes to deadlines. On the other hand, it’s usual to doubt the creative, especially if you dwell on it for too long.
In order to keep the momentum going and ensure this didn’t happen, we set it up as if it was a commercial project; establishing a schedule of work and blocking out time – just like we would with a regular client job. We also had daily reviews and crits during the process to ensure that we kept to the core concept we’d agreed on. This worked really well and helped to keep the whole thing on track, whilst getting it all over the line within a reasonable amount of time – six months.
Are you worried about how it'll be received by the design community?
Not really. We’re not in the habit of designing for other designers. In most cases, we’re designing for our clients and to a brief and a set of business objectives. If we produce work that designers like, that’s great but it’s not what we strive for. What is most important is that the new branding reflects us and our character.
Moving on, what work have you been especially proud of lately, can you tell us more?
There are lots to be excited about. We’ve just wrapped up a few really challenging branding and digital projects, that involved a big team effort, namely a website design and build for Hereford College of Arts. This followed the rebrand we carried out for the college last year. There's also a new eCommerce website for an exciting London-based LED lighting company.
I’m also hugely proud of the team that we have at Fiasco. We’re very lucky to have some supremely talented people working with us. They also happen to be wonderful individuals whose values align perfectly with our own company values. I consider myself very lucky to work within such a special team.
Is there anything that frustrates you about the creative industries? What would you change?
My chief bugbear is this culture of free pitching that is so prevalent within the industry. It’s rare these days that a prospective client approaches us with a brief that doesn't involve a pitch. And then, 99% of the time, clients are asking for strategy and/or creative upfront, free of charge.
We used to make a point of not pitching creative, however, it’s become such common practice these days, it’s expected. For the bigger players, this time is easier to soak up. For a smaller studio like ours, it’s a lot harder. Pitching is something that, as an industry, we need to address. But how you change it, I don’t know.
If someone wants to work at Fiasco, what advice would you give them? What do you look out for?
Good question. We get a lot of approaches from people looking for work. A few tips for anyone approaching a studio about potential work… First off, make sure you have something to offer. Find out exactly what we do and make sure that you have a skill-set that complements what we already have – we don’t need any more print designers, for example.
Secondly, when you get in touch, make it count. As a designer, you’ll be judged on every detail of your communication with us. For example, if you send us a CV via email as a PDF attachment that starts with "To whom it may concern", it won’t even get read. First impressions are everything; think about it and don’t fuck it up.
Finally, be patient. If you’ve sent us the best email of your life and you’ve got a cracking portfolio to boot, don’t worry if you don’t hear back from us. The chances are someone’s looked at it and it’s sitting in a folder somewhere. Don’t follow up with an email asking if we got your last email. Keep on top of social; like some of our posts and make sure your name pops up every once in a while. That’s the best way to stay in touch.
What's different about your agency? Why's it special?
Without having worked in agencies before, it’s hard to say what makes us different. I think we can offer a really broad set of services for a team of just 10 – from brand strategy and branding to website design and development. We’re not sector agnostic, meaning that we work across many different sectors and industries, learning all the time and applying that new-found knowledge to the next job. As a team, we’re also a really strong unit. There are no egos. We trust each other. I think that’s pretty special.
It's been eight years since you created Fiasco. What have been the biggest challenges during that time? How've you overcome them?
There have been so many. Getting things off the ground and turning the business into something that paid us a full-time wage wasn’t easy and took a good year or so to accomplish. The only way we managed to do this was to say yes to everything and worry about the rest later. Not the best approach to business, but a necessary one when you’re just starting out.
Bringing the right people on board can also be a real challenge. With such a heavy emphasis on culture, it’s as much about hiring someone with the right set of values, as it is about finding the right skill-set. We got burnt in the past when we rushed a decision on hiring someone without doing our due diligence and that turned into a nightmare.
So now, we really find out as much as we can about someone before we interview them – you can discover a lot about someone just by going through their Instagram account. We always go for a drink with the newbie and the whole team before they start – if they don’t offer to buy around it’s not a good sign! And we have a six-month probationary period, just in case…
Finally, what's next for you?
For me, personally, 2019 is shaping up to be a big year. I’m in the process of moving house and my wife is due in February, so I’m looking forward to becoming a dad.
We have big plans for Fiasco Design – to grow the team, and continue doing great work for brands that really excite us. We are also planning a new venture which, all being well and good, you should hear more about in early 2019. Watch this space.