An Open Understanding’s James Kirkup on his creative background and the launch of his studio
James Kirkup is the Founder and Creative Director of London-based full-service design company, An Open Understanding. After working for several years in the design industry, and enjoying the creative freedom of extracurricular work, he took the plunge to go it alone and start his own studio. Much like his studio’s namesake, his ethos is rooted in openness and helpful honesty. Speaking to James, he gives us a glimpse into his design career; including life and work abroad, starting An Open Understanding, and the industry insights he’s picked up along the way.
PT Hi James! How is your week going so far?
JK The sun is finally out… or is it?
PT Can you tell us about your background leading up to starting An Open Understanding?
JK Pre-Open all feels like such a blur. There was certainly no master plan.
Going right back to the beginning… My Grandfather had his own business and I think subconsciously I always had this itch from that to run my own thing. Throughout school, I’d always be looking for an escape with projects in music or skateboarding and in hindsight being an only child possibly escalated a desire to do something on my own.
At 18, I got an internship at a design studio slash record label, which mainly tested my attempt to figure out how the hell design software worked. Then at the weekends, I had this job in a computer shop, but instead of actually doing my job I’d use the macs to search endlessly for any kind of opportunity of escape. A theme is brewing here.
I somehow landed an interview in London, but my Mum insisted I wore a suit so… that chance evaporated, although arguably also because I didn’t have anything in a portfolio. Second time lucky, no suit this time round, I landed a full-time junior role. This formed my grounding not just in what I thought I wanted to work on, but how important it is to work amongst genuinely nice people.
After four years in the junior role, I moved around, learning how I could combine the practical design side of things with creative thinking. I think it was around this period where I started doing a lot of outside of work design projects. From attempting to start a music newspaper to running a club night, the extracurricular really got me excited. Meanwhile, inside the 9-5 I’d gained the opportunity to work with more, recognised brands amongst insanely talented people whereby just sitting next to them you’d absorb new ways of applying yourself both as a designer and a human being.
Somehow, after some more stumbling around, I ended up inside one brand. The level of your output here could not be second best. Working inside a brand at that level was what I’d consider akin to doing a masters in a subject. Every aspect was in one building and whichever corner you turned there were a team of people executing something absolutely insane. An overwhelming and completely inspiring place to be every day.
Fast forwarding a fair bit, I then spent a year freelancing and doing personal work in Melbourne – moved back to London – made a book about football – attempted more freelancing and landed in a good friend’s studio working predominantly on identity projects then somehow… I am where I am now.
PT Where did the name ‘An Open Understanding’ come from?
JK For a while, I had a few ideas for names that looked cool and sounded like they could be ‘the one,’ but none of them really meant anything or related to anything of any importance.
With the company itself, I wanted to structure it around the ethos of being more open. Whether that be with clients about how our industry works, or with peers on how the company operates and how it does or doesn’t succeed.
I didn’t want to hide anything. So the name stemmed from this thinking, and for me, instantly felt like ‘the name.’
PT What was the process behind branding your own studio?
JK I always love making things for my own projects, so when it came to the ID for the studio it was almost the easiest part of it all.
In terms of an internal brief; I wanted to keep things stripped back and easily adaptable across the company’s output. Let the work do the talking and aim to portray a clean, capable, professional aesthetic.
The character and tone of the studio then come through my voice, whether that’s on email or through meetings – or on Twitter (facepalm).
For me, there’s this fine balance to set between ‘this is our character’ and ‘this is the style and visual tone we can set for you’ and despite constantly evolving how the studio’s identity works in practice, I like to think I’m hitting that balance.
I think every project brings a new learning.
PT Has anything taken you by surprise while running the business?
JK I think pre-going out alone I always had this fear that it’d be ridden with surprises that I might not be able to handle. Certainly at points early on there were immediate lessons learnt, and I think every project brings a new learning but if I’m honest the biggest surprises have all been positives.
I’m surprised that we’ve relatively quickly been able to set a consistency of people approaching us to work on great things.
I’m surprised other designers and great studios have brought us in to collaborate on gigantic projects I thought I’d only dream about.
I’m surprised we get a lot of people loving the work we’re putting out.
I’m surprised I’ve managed to set time off both for my family and myself, stick to it and add to it year on year.
I’m surprised people are interested in the value of being open as a business.
I’m surprised running this thing actually works.
PT How have you found relocating the studio from Amsterdam to London?
JK From a business perspective, this was relatively easy. As a single person limited business, shutting one thing down and opening it up in another country is easy - bar the odd lost in translation accountant email and invoicing across currencies and tax statuses.
From a personal perspective, it’s also been great. Amsterdam was a beautiful, inspiring city to live and work from during the blur of COVID and London is a great city to be back in, with the bonus of knowing more people here to hook up with for a chatter.
I’d strongly recommend moving around. If you can make it happen, do it. The next question for my family and I is where next?
PT What creative habits and software do you find the most helpful in your day-to-day practice?
JK Practically, Open is run off: email, Notion, Toggl, Dropbox, Xero, Monzo, Figma, Adobe, Pitch, Slack then our accountants Fizz (highly recommended) and my brain.
This set-up, for me, works pretty seamlessly.
I’ve always found it hard to not be organised (I’m not OCD but, probably on the spectrum) and a lot of the applications above really help keep things structured from project timelines to proposals to client discussions.
My brain forgets rapidly if I don’t record things down so Notion is great to keep an eye on live and potential projects. Toggl structures my working week and the following months ahead, whilst Figma and Pitch hold the keys to everything else.
Portfolios nowadays are absolutely stacked with levels of work.
PT Based on your own experiences, is there anything that you would change about the design industry?
JK I think there’s still, no matter the work that’s always being done by great organisations – a barrier to entry for a lot of young designers.
Portfolios nowadays are absolutely stacked with levels of work no senior or director now, had at that point in their own careers. Whilst that’s absolutely incredible, it seemingly sets a new president that a lot of young people cannot compete with.
Whether that’s from the practical skillset and technical ability to access to the ability through hardware and software costs, access to entry needs to evolve with the same impetus our industry gives to crediting those with access.
Alongside that, I’m really interested in the employee-owned model. I genuinely believe that shared approach, alongside giving a team a top-line understanding of how the business side of things work could make a huge difference not just in the success of a company, but in the quality of its output.
PT Do you have any advice for someone who might be thinking about working abroad?
JK I’d make it happen.
There’s been a few opportunities in my short career, looking back, I wish I’d pursued, or pushed harder to make happen. If the opportunity arises, and it’s feasible – hit it. You won’t regret looking back on life and saying ‘yeah I moved here and did this’ no matter whether it fails or is a massive success.
I think what with us all being semi-used to working remotely, there’s even more reason to move your desk to a different view.
PT Similarly, are there any words of wisdom you would give to emerging designers and graduates?
JK Keep going.
Everyone you’re looking at, every studio founder, creative director, midweight, junior and intern has been in your place. Mentally, we all understand the desire to rush it, we all want to create our best work instantly, but take your time. It’s truly a marathon, not a sprint.
You will work on bad things. You will meet nasty people. You will fail. You will get frustrated. You will struggle. You will move on. And all these things will make you better at what you want to do both in work and in life.
PT Is there anything coming up in the near future that you’re looking forward to?
JK I’m always super excited to show off what we’ve been working on. There’s a huge collaboration Erik Herrstrom and I worked on last year that we might, one day be able to speak about. Then a collaboration with Mike Sullivan for KnownOrigin that’s going to be our biggest piece of work for this year and hopefully a few other things we’re tying together pre-Q3.
Then alongside that, I’m working on how we can open up the inner workings of the studio even more similar to our end of year reviews as well as an intern programme that’s back in the works.