Michael C Place won much acclaim from the design industry even before he established Studio.Build, the award-winning, pioneering studio that started life in London before moving to Leeds.
He initially made a name for himself at The Designers Republic, the people behind cult video game, Wipeout. And then went on to launch his own successful business with wife Nicky, picking up clients such as Google and Nike.
They've just launched a new website for Studio.Build, so we thought it was an excellent opportunity to speak to Michael about this and much more.
It's been a few years since you left London for Leeds. How's the relocation affected you?
The relocation was a monumental task! We had to give up and move all of our stuff out of our London studio and into storage, sell our house and shift our belongings and move it into storage in Leeds.
We then had to look for a house to buy up North, then when we did find one, it needed a lot of work so we rented for six months while the work was being done. That overran and we ended up living in our new house whilst the work was complete. We had no heating (this was in winter), no kitchen, we basically were living in a building site for another six months. And whilst all of this was going on, we had to run our studio too.
Two and a bit years later and the house is nearly finished and we now have a studio space in Leeds just behind the train station in the city centre. It was super stressful moving up and sorting life and business all at the same time, but we are starting to settle in.
How did the clients take the relocation news?
We had a couple of instances where potential clients voiced a concern that we weren't in London and for that reason we didn't get the project. Which, of course, is a massive shame. We also don't know if there are others that didn't get in touch in the first instance because of our geographical location.
I completely understand some people like to be able to meet at the drop of a hat, I get that. But it is frustrating to think that location trumps creativity. We've worked with Nike and Google since moving up North, both not once asked where we were based. We communicated by email and Hangouts/Skype, with no problem whatsoever.
We've worked with London-based clients with no problem, and are currently working with Public Rec, a clothing brand based in Chicago, and Three Six Zero an international entertainment company in LA with no issues.
We've also worked with a couple of brilliant Leeds-based companies and people. We've branded Plaey, a furniture designer/maker workshop founded by Matt Kelly. We also rebranded Colours May Vary, a lifestyle store and events space organised by Leeds legends, Andy & Becky.
We'd like to do more work for local brands, businesses and people. Leeds is a very vibrant city, with a lot on incredible local businesses doing really well on national and international stages.
Do you think there's still a north/south divide?
I think there will always be people who see a North/South divide. I think it's a redundant conversation. What I love about the modern North is that there is a real sense of 'anything is possible'. There is a really great pioneering spirit. I don't think people here feel they have anything to prove but they have everything to win. People generally quietly go along doing their thing. I love that.
I feel the North is (to quote Blade Runner) a golden land of opportunity and adventure. I get this feeling in my gut that something magical is going to happen. That the true potential of all this immense creative talent is going to have its moment. It's quietly waiting, confident and excited.
I loved living in London and the South, but I love living in the North more. It feels like and is my home. The chips and beer are better up here too.
Why did you relocate in the first place? Do you ever regret your decision?
I wanted to come home. It felt like the right time to come home. To reconnect with the Yorkshire I love and missed while living in London. I wanted to be nearer my family who I had been absent from for such a long time. We felt that the business was in a good state, one that could survive the upheaval and ultimately thrive.
We wanted to try and achieve that holy grail of the work/life balance. Have we achieved it? Not yet, but we are getting there. We live in an amazing house, in a beautiful market town surrounded by greenery and open space. I look around and it makes me smile. I get to see my family all the time which I love.
Do I ever regret our decision? You must be mad.
Leeds is a thriving, creative city. It's certainly booming from what we've seen and heard. What's it like to be based there?
Leeds is this ever-changing, perpetually moving, incredible city. Full of independent businesses and people doing amazing things, all with that magic Yorkshire spirit and character. I have developed a real love for the architectural vernacular of the buildings here. Big beautiful, brutal stone monoliths, a testament to the march of the Industrial Revolution.
It has all the diversions of a modern city, places to eat, drink and shop. It has great museums and galleries, all these things are important to us. Yes, we spend a great deal of time in the studio, but it's really important that the guys who work for us are in an environment that is exciting too.
Moving on, you've got a new website. It's taken a year to create. We love it. Was there anything in particular that sparked the update?
Thank you. We felt that the old site no longer truly represented us as a company. We felt that it didn't talk enough to clients about what we can do for them. We tried to make the site as dynamic as possible and for it to be simple to use, yet still, have some character. We are people after all, not machines. We also tried to get this across in the way our work is presented.
Refreshing your website is also a good opportunity to reinvent yourself. Alongside the website, we refreshed all our stationery (so we got to work with Generation Press!), digital and presentation templates.
We loved the recent Note.Book project with Generation Press. I see trust and collaboration are important to you. Tell us more
We've worked with Generation Press now for over 10 years. We trust them completely. What we've found that comes with trust (from both sides) is that we can work through ideas efficiently and come to a solution a lot faster too. We don't have to prove something doesn't work before we can discount it. We try to cultivate trust with all our clients, the same for collaboration – collaboration is key to everything we do.
The best design is the result of a collaborative process. We go into each project without a preconceived idea of the outcome. We learn from the client, we try to see the world through their eyes. Get to know their business and through that sharing of knowledge add our thinking to the process.
What have you learnt from one another along the way?
That this business can be tough, and it's good to have someone you can talk to and help through the hard times. That it's good to have fun with projects. That it's good to trust someone and to not try to totally control the process.
I've also learnt that life is too short to work with arseholes. That all designers are wankers. That all printers are tossers. And the best ideas generally include the drinking of beer and the eating of pies.
There is a lot of new work on your website. Can you chat through a favourite recent project? What did you enjoy about it?
Colours May Vary (CMV) because it's a great example of where we can see how our rebranding helped the owners as a business. CMV (as mentioned above) is run by two hard-working people, Andy and Becky. So this isn't a big brand operated by a faceless corporation, quite the opposite. We worked closely with the pair to really understand where they wanted to go and to try and represent them both as individuals and as a collective unit/business. To bring their influences and taste to a new audience, without alienating their loyal customers. And to renew their confidence and pride in the brand.
Solidarity Sports is a charity who do incredible work for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. Sean Mendez is the man behind the cause and was truly inspirational to work with. It was rewarding to work with a business that is genuinely making a difference to people's lives. We refreshed the whole identity from the ground up. This has given Sean the confidence to reach a whole new level of supporters and partners for the charity. They have just announced that they are Kensington and Chelsea Mayor's charity of the year for 2019, which is fantastic news.
The work for Nike Track and Field, 2018 was really enjoyable as a design task. The brief was to work with and elevate the identity we designed with Nike for T&F, 2016. It's super graphic and very exciting, a real visual feast. We love designing systems for brands and this was exactly that. We extended the system by introducing a new graphic element, 'the acceleration graphic'. This simple device was used in multiple configurations to create a dynamic world for Nike sponsored Track and Field events and apparel.
As an established designer, do you think Twitter is the right place to criticise work?
No. My biggest problem with the people who are openly criticising the work is that they have no idea of the process involved and how it led to the end result. They are not privy to the discussions with the client. It's critique based purely on a visual outcome. Which we all know is just one element of the whole design process.
The whole 'I could have done better' is utter bullshit. It's disrespectful to the client, agency and designer. Basically, it's design as spectator sport or clickbait.
Aside from that, is there anything else that currently frustrates you about the design industry?
It's a tough industry. It's not easy. The whole: 'So? Are you busy?' attitude. I sometimes think the design industry needs to be a bit more honest. To say 'actually it's a bit shit right now' and not feel like you have to say everything is rosy. It can be an incredibly stressful job, and it's OK to say it's a little crap every now and then.
For those looking to work at Build, what advice can you give them?
We are a people company. We expect your work to be great, but as we're a small studio we need to make sure your personality fits too. We love people with passion, and a strong desire to learn. People who don't think they have all the answers and are willing to work hard. People who have good communication skills.
Our advice? Don't try to be cool. Just be you. Show your passion, show interest in the studio you are approaching. And for students, don't wait until you have graduated before you contact studios you like. Engage with them early and get to know them.
What's next for Build?
We're trying to nail the work/life balance. We want to keep working with great clients, and hopefully bigger clients too. We're aiming to promote good design in the North of England. And we want to have fun whilst doing all of the above.