A LINE on the benefits of a flexible, remote-first approach and building the brands of the future
A LINE is a global brand strategy and design studio, partnering with bold businesses to create the brands of the future. Co-founders Nick Monkhouse and James Trump lead the team, balancing their decades of experience in marketing, advertising and design, to deliver high-impact and innovative results. We spoke to Nick and James about the ins and outs of the studio; learning how their remote-first approach optimises results, and their lessons in creating better client/agency experiences for everyone.
PT Hi Nick and James! Can you please introduce A LINE?
NM A LINE is a brand strategy consultancy and design studio based out of San Francisco, London and as of a few months ago, Nashville (although increasingly, our geographic locations are mattering less and less). Our focus is on partnering with bold, future-facing businesses to build brands that transform categories and drive growth.
We’ve worked with clients ranging from early-stage start-ups, such as Rolfsen (a family-owned Norwegian Bakery chain) to multinationals like Google and Apple, but I think our sweet spot is ambitious growth-stage companies that have decent product-market fit, and where a differentiated, high-impact brand can make a material difference to their growth and visibility.
The other thing to note is our commitment to building a fully-flexible, remote-first work environment for our team. We passionately believe that talent exists everywhere, and we feel this approach provides the inclusivity and autonomy needed to create the highest quality work.
We passionately believe that talent exists everywhere.
PT How did you and James first meet, and what led you to start a studio together?
NM James and I had previously worked together, helping a well-regarded UK-based branding agency establish its footprint in North America. After going our separate ways for a year or so, we reconnected, and decided to establish A LINE. After years of helping run agencies, and with experience on both client and agency side, we were both very aligned around the types of client we wanted to work with, the kind of work we wanted to focus on, and the changes we wanted to make to the traditional agency structures. Having both been in the agency-world for 15+ years, I think we’d had enough of the regular 11pm finishes, and seen enough of the processes that were supposed to create a better output, but were in fact blockers to both a better client/agency experience, and to creating world-class creative. In simple terms, we really wanted to focus on doing the best possible work, in the most efficient way for clients, and with the best people, wherever and whoever they may be.
PT Can you summarise what your roles are on a day-to-day basis?
JT I’m focused on creative, whether that’s strategy, copywriting or design. My main role is to make sure all of the parts of a brand feel like they’re expressing the brand idea and personality in ways that feel fresh and distinct. I also focus on A LINE’s marketing, new business, hiring, planning, and more generally, how we evolve and do things in a better way.
NM My focus is on two things. Firstly, helping our clients ensure that the work we do is successfully supporting their business objectives, which typically involves being a consultative voice across our projects. Secondly, it’s running A LINE, working across all the day-to-day areas of managing a business, including new business activity, marketing, operations, recruitment, etc.
PT What does your team typically look like beyond the two of you?
NM It honestly varies depending on the project. The core team is usually going to involve James and myself in some capacity, a Project Lead overseeing the day-to-day, a Creative Strategist, a Writer, a Design Lead, and a Designer. Depending on what we’re outputting, there might then be a UX and UI designer, a Motion Designer, a Development Lead, an Illustrator, etc.
PT With your remote-first approach, how do you make sure workloads, tasks and deadlines are managed efficiently?
NM Breaking it down, I would say regular team check-ins (two-three times a week for most projects), lots of collaboration through online collaborative tools (Figma, Miro, Slack, G-Suite, Notion etc), and lots of trust and flexibility. We also have Tess – our amazing Project Lead – who does a fantastic job of keeping an eye on everything and making sure things are running smoothly.
I’d also say that having really interesting projects with engaged clients helps as it encourages the team to want to deliver great results. And the freedom they get because of our remote-first approach encourages team members to work in their own time (and time zones) while managing family or other life responsibilities. This approach isn't for everybody, but it is really effective with the type of independent-minded, resourceful people we want to work with.
We have a very collaborative, open culture.
PT What are you looking for from your team members?
AL In general, we look for three things.
Talented – we want to work with the best people in their field, so we’re pretty particular about finding team members who are really great within their particular skill set and bring a very unique perspective to their creative role.
Self-motivated – the nature of how we work means we look for people who are self-motivated self-starters. We need people who are experienced in their fields, and therefore don’t need a lot of hand-holding. We have a very collaborative, open culture, where all ideas go on the table, so team members need to be good at presenting strong ideas, and have the conviction to stand behind their work when we all gather to discuss.
Nice people/Low-to-no egos – this one is pretty self-explanatory, but we really don’t want to work with people who think they are better/more talented than everyone else in the team. We aim for creative excellence, however, we all work on projects together, so we listen and evolve creative work respectfully and additively. People who aren’t very nice, or are no fun to work with don’t usually last very long!
PT What significant differences do you notice between the US and UK design industries?
NM I think the UK design industry has maybe been seen as more ‘creative’ in certain ways, which I interpret as being slightly less corporate-focused, and perhaps a little more edgy/art-driven. US clients are typically very commercially driven, and the goal is pretty much always a growth focus, however, I also think the appetite is definitely there to do really creative work that creates clear differentiation and stand out in the market, and permeates the cultural conversation. That’s something we really try to tap into with our approach to branding.
One of the things we wanted to focus on doing really well at A LINE is what we call ‘progress through creativity.’ This is using creativity in all its forms and inspiration to progress how we all show up in the world, whether that be as individuals or as a business. It’s a mantra to be constantly reinventing our culture and commerce to find better ways of doing things (more sustainable, more inclusive, more useful, a better experience…), and we see the right combination of art x commerce as a brilliant way to do that. Ultimately, we think design should inspire and excite people (stopping them to make them think) in the same way that an amazing new business idea with a crafted, considered brand can inspire and excite people.
JT I think the main differences between the UK and US design industries stem from, in my opinion, the UK celebrating creativity and craft, whereas the US celebrates more popularity and commercialism. My theory here is the UK has invested in creativity and design for a long time, seeing it as a way to innovate, boosting the economy. Also, I think open critique is a part of the UK culture – mainly the banter that doesn’t exist to the same extent in the US. I think this open critique is good for collaboration and building off each other’s ideas.
PT How have your own backgrounds impacted the way you run A LINE?
JT My background is partly in design and I tend to use a design-based process, approach and thinking across everything we do. This is partly creative problem-solving and thinking of better ways to do things, and partly thinking of systems that could improve experience, efficiency or productivity. My background is also in art direction, creating campaigns that have to work globally. I think this idea first approach that you find in advertising has affected the way I approach design and branding; looking for a strong idea and letting that help direct the style of the brand. Over the last few years, there’s been a huge amount of design that looks amazing but in my opinion, without an idea, it’s less likely to stand out or have longevity. AI will be able to nail design style in a few years, but creating ideas that make design distinct, relevant, playful is going to take a long time for AI to master in my opinion.
NM My background is in advertising and marketing, so I tend to approach the projects we work on from a strategic, business-first perspective. At the back of my mind is always the question of whether the brand we are creating and building will really resonate with their intended audience, and whether the creative will support their business objectives and achieve the goal the client is looking to achieve. Over the years I’ve learned to trust my instincts more and more, and to let the creative process go wherever it needs to go. In a commercial context, lots of people want creativity to be very constrained, linear and clean, but as we know, it’s inherently quite messy, and to get to a breakthrough, you need that freedom. I think as an agency, A LINE is really good at knowing how to strategically frame the messiness, giving ourselves a clear creative northstar at the outset that allows us to explore thoroughly, but without getting lost. I think together, James and I are really good at doing that, and complement each other really well with different, yet aligned, perspectives.
PT What project do you think best encapsulates A LINE’s strengths?
JT I think one of the projects we’re just wrapping up showcases a lot of our strengths (we can’t name the client yet). It involved distilling a complex business strategy into an ownable brand idea and personality (which is both immediately relevant, but also creates plenty of room for the brand to grow into), turning the idea into a new name, and then bringing this to life through a pretty in-depth design system, messaging framework, and set of brand applications. The brand is also B2B2C, so it allowed us to flex our skills in both B2B and B2C. In summary, I think our strengths are distilling brand strategy into an idea that can translate into design. Creating simple systems that bring the idea to life using animation and art direction.
NM This answer may be a slight cop-out, but I'm not sure there is just one project. I think they all encapsulate our strengths in different ways, ranging from rigorous research, to strategic and considered thinking, to clever and original design work, and detailed execution.
PT What are your favourite parts of the branding process?
NM I think depending on who you ask on the team, you’ll get a slightly different answer, however, the red thread through all aspects of the process – strategy, design, execution, and client engagement – is finding a great idea the client is really excited about, and then, letting that idea dictate the design. This often comes from uncovering what a company stands for, and what makes them unique, then, crafting this in an inspiring and ownable way.
Also, finding a very practical solution that works hard, but is also unique and fresh is a really enjoyable challenge for us. The combination of strategy and design is at the core of everything we do, and our teams really excel when challenged with bringing these great ideas to life across design, messaging, motion and brand experience.
PT How do you think the studio has developed since it launched?
AL The focus has remained very much the same, but the ability of the team to execute larger projects has gotten better.
The work is also more multi-disciplinary, with a broader focus and increased capabilities across website (UX, UI and dev), motion, environmental, packaging, video etc.
The scale and profile of clients we are working with have changed, with A LINE now partnering with larger, better-funded companies (e.g. Abnormal > $200m Series C at a $4B valuation, Medable > $304m Series D at a $2B valuation).
The depth of talent and geographical range of our team has grown, meaning we bring an even more global mindset to what we do.
In general, we have much better client engagement, and a clearer set of internal processes that allows us to better manage projects, but without the processes getting in the way of the creativity.
We actively wanted to avoid having a large, impersonal, hard-to-manage agency structure.
PT What would you like A LINE to look like in five years?
NM This is something we talk about all the time, but are still figuring out. We actively wanted to avoid having a large, impersonal, hard-to-manage agency structure where we are stuck in the day-to-day running of everything, and miss getting our hands dirty in the work. The goal, therefore, has always been to avoid growth for the sake of growth, and instead focus on quality and enjoyment. I think the balance there however is how we do that, but still position ourselves to work with the best and most interesting brands in the world.
The other areas of interest are how we can build products out of our agency, whether that be brands we incubate ourselves, or tools we use in our day-to-day. A great example of this is things like Brandpad, an online brand guideline product created by an agency in Olso. We love thinking about areas like this, and how we can build platforms like this out of A LINE.
JT I’d like us to be working on more brand campaigns and art direction projects as well as rebrands. I think there’s a real opportunity for brands to express what they stand for in their campaigns. I’d like us to develop some design tools that use AI as I see AI being an essential tool for designers in the not-too-distant future. I’d like to be in a position for us to invest in businesses that we see potential for their brands. I’d like these businesses to be future-thinking and really value brand and design.
PT Any last words of advice?
AL Don’t worry about what other design agencies or designers are doing. Just find and follow what feels unique to you, and do it with passion and persistence.