Claire Robertshaw of Design Bridge on women in design, studio culture and the power of creative freedom

Claire Robertshaw is Executive Creative Director at Design Bridge, an award-winning brand design agency now in its 31st year and with studios in London, Amsterdam, Singapore, and New York.

Based in Kent with her husband and three children, Claire started life at the firm 15 years ago, after graduating in Visual Communication from the Kent Institute of Art & Design, and has since worked her way up the ranks. Today, she is responsible for the creative management of the London studio, working across Design Bridge’s portfolio of clients, with a current focus on some of Unilever’s key global brands.

With such a successful career so far, we chatted to Claire to find out more about her journey, how she juggles work and family life, and what it means to be a woman in design today.

What was your route into design and to becoming Executive Creative Director at Design Bridge?

At university, I did lots of work placements at design agencies, so I got a really good feel for what the industry was like and a headstart on other grads. One of those placements was at Brown ID, (which later became Brand Union) who offered me a job for when I finished my course, which was great, and I was there for three-and-a-half years.

I moved to Design Bridge as a mid-weight designer and have been here for 15 years, 10 of those as Creative Director. I was promoted to Executive Creative Director in January and during that time I've also had three children.

To be honest, I've never really scrupulously planned my career, there's certainly not been a masterplan from the outset. I've just always had a kind of hunger to take the initiative and work somewhere where both the clients and the culture are inspiring.

How do you manage to be a mother and also a senior creative at a design agency?

So, for me, the key is flexibility: at home and at work. Because let's face it, you just can't do it all. If all the responsibility is on your shoulders – running everything at home and at work – then it's not sustainable. My husband is a freelance designer and that helps us manage the unpredictable day-to-day and we've moved out of London to be nearer my Mum as well. I feel that support from my family is vital and you really need this kind of back-up when juggling project deadlines and school runs.

My colleagues and I spent a lot of time working out the best way I could continue in my role while still having a degree of flexibility to run my home life. It was a challenge to set up, but it was really worth it. And of course, you really have to want it if it's going to work because whatever plan you set up, that plan is almost guaranteed to change – frequently!

I think being a working mum has made me better at my job in lots of ways. I don't have the luxury of having loads of time, and that makes me even more focused on the task at hand. My decision-making is sharper and I have greater empathy for my team and my clients than before.

Guinness Identity by Design Bridge

Guinness Identity by Design Bridge

Packaging design by Design Bridge for Fortnum & Mason

Packaging design by Design Bridge for Fortnum & Mason

There is a lot of talk about the need to see more women in top design positions at the moment. What’s your view on that?

I totally agree. I believe women in management positions are crucial to brilliantly-run businesses, so we need to ensure that women progress beyond the middle tier of the industry and that motherhood isn't a barrier. But I don't think a woman should be appointed above a man just to tick a box.

It feels like we have found the right balance at Design Bridge. We always give the job to the person best fit for the role, regardless of gender, and we have a balanced mix of gender throughout the company – we have nearly a 50/50 split in senior management, and three of our four Managing Directors are women. Design Bridge has invested in female employees when they have become mothers by giving them flexibility and allowing them to grow with the company. I'm not convinced this is the case in other agencies.

I don't feel like I've broken through a 'glass ceiling' as such. I do believe it's important for the younger generation of designers to see women in these roles to reinforce the notion that it's achievable. There is a truth in the phrase "if you can't see it, you can't be it" and luckily for me, I have always had strong female role models in the industry. From my first Creative Director, Jo Saker, to Antonia Hayward at Design Bridge, I've never had reason to see being female as a barrier.

What's needed is a combination of drive and ambition to succeed and a working environment that gives you the flexibility and room to do that.

We need to ensure that women progress beyond the middle tier of the industry and that motherhood isn't a barrier.

What's the secret to successfully leading a creative team?

I'm really passionate about creative freedom and empowerment. This was instilled in me early on because my seniors always gave me real ownership of projects and the freedom to make my own creative decisions. So I continue this – I'll work with my team to make sure they have a clear brief and some good starting points, but then it's up to them to come up with the ideas and develop them. That way, they feel more connected to the work and that helps them learn and progress.

And then recognition is the final piece of the puzzle – the knowledge that they've done a great job really helps designers grow and build their confidence. Recognition means designers feeling more empowered and then the whole process starts again. I really feel that this approach gets the best out of people and produces the best creative work.

What's the culture like at Design Bridge and how do your four studios around the world stay connected?

Something we always say here is that we're "a small company with a lot of people". So yes, the agency has doubled in size during the time I've been here, but we've managed to maintain a real family feel, which I think often attracts people to come and work with us. That family feel has possibly lead to the huge number of Design Bridge weddings (including mine) that have taken place over the years and there are a fair few babies too!

The projects and brands we work on are amazing, because of our breadth and scale, but we also have a really close team culture. We organise the studio into teams, so designers have a 'home' and a mentor. We're passionate about nurturing talent and ensuring that people feel supported in their careers.

Because of how we work, there's a healthy sense of competition and drive among the designers, too, and it can be quite hardcore at times, especially when timings are tight or we're working on massively important projects. That said, we do have a lot of fun, we socialise a lot, and we've all forged life-long friendships from working here.

As for our studios – well, London was where Design Bridge began, and each of our three other studios were set up by people from the London team so there is a strong sense of continuity. And people move about between studios, too. We have designers from London working in Singapore and New York temporarily at the moment, and there are plenty of people around who have worked in more than one location during their time at Design Bridge.

Also, great care has been taken when choosing the studio locations and their styling, so if you move between them it still feels familiar. You can't mistake a Design Bridge studio, they've got a real atmosphere of fun and creativity – on a global scale.

Re-positioning Hellmann’s as a real food brand

Re-positioning Hellmann’s as a real food brand

Save the Children – creating a unified brand for an international charity

Save the Children – creating a unified brand for an international charity

What kind of people do you look for when growing the team at Design Bridge? Is there a ‘Design Bridge person'?

Well, we put an enormous amount of effort into recruiting people – we go all out to make sure we’ve got a really broad range of skills and experience in the team. There's not strictly a 'Design Bridge person' as such, but there is a common attitude and approach to work throughout the company, and that’s definitely something we look out for when recruiting.

We want people who are up for taking initiative, being proactive and driven. We want people who are very inquisitive, willing to challenge the 'norm', collaborate, and push ideas further to get the best creative results.


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