Companion’s Myles Palmer on launching a studio with a collective purpose for positive change
With over a decade of experience in the bag, Myles Palmer found himself fatigued by unhealthy and insincere design industry cultures. After some encouraging nudges from friends and colleagues, Palmer founded Companion in November 2020 and has since led the studio to create playful projects that have a positive impact on those around them. Now, with growth on the cards, we spoke with Myles about the emerging brand and digital studio’s favourite projects and the value of positive working environments.
PT Hi Myles! How’s it going?
MP Good thank you! We’re just kicking off a very large new project in the office, so excited to see what the next twelve months or more bring on that.
PT Could you tell us about your creative background and what led you to start Companion?
MP I started studying graphic design at LCC quite some time ago (2011), and when I began on that journey I was completely obsessed with letterpress studios and print – but through the course of my studies I began to realise that I was more interested in processes rather than products – and that led to me learning how to code, as I felt it offered a new field of human interactions for me to explore.
Relative to where we are today, digital experiences, agencies and studies were in their nascent, so as many people often do, I kind of hacked and chopped my way at making more elaborate digital experiences that started to use the browser as a tool, rather than a consumption method and this fell nicely into learning more about the behaviours, motivations and patterns that people have when using digital products.
Through being able to code and design, over the years this naturally evolved and I took up roles at various agencies in London which taught me a lot more about the craft, thoroughness and the visual side of design – not just in a digital context, as I was fortunate to often work in studios that worked across all aspects of ‘graphic design.’
Over the years I took more responsibility on the ‘management’ side of things, as I think because I am quite a people person that likes solving complex problems (of which humans are the most complex), it felt quite a natural extension for me to start to take on managing and scoping projects, mentoring other designers and getting involved in the ‘business’ side of design.
Through all of those experiences I learnt many different ways of working, saw lots of successful projects, some not-so-successful projects, and worked with colleagues that were very happy in the studio, and some unfortunately very much not.
At the end of 2020, it felt like the right time for me to bring all of those experiences together and to create a studio that I felt combined the best bits of each – a studio that created an environment where colleagues, collaborators and clients could all do their best in a sustainable and sane way.
I believed that great digital work could be done in a different way to what I saw out there, and I had a desire to create a company that contributed to the communities it was a part of, rather than just take from it or sit idle and watch the world turn around it.
We don’t take ourselves too seriously or create an environment where it feels intimidating to come into.
PT How did you find the process of starting your own studio? In hindsight, is there anything that you would have done differently?
MP Tiring! But in many ways it was great – I think I kind of thrive on doing many things at once and being able to move between a variety of problems – so starting a studio really gave me the chance to take all of that on.
Whether it was working out our positioning, how we pitched ourselves as a business to new clients, working on the actual creative solutions for the work we were doing or finding an office space, it was all things that kept the momentum up and that’s where I operate best.
I don’t think I would have done anything differently, really, no. Maybe not take one or two projects in hindsight, or slow down 5-10%, but broadly I would do it all over again.
Many of my learnings and expanded thoughts can be found here where I did a bit of a summary on our first year in business.
PT How would you describe the studio culture at Companion?
MP Pretty open! We’re all still getting to know each and understand what makes us tick as a team, but I think at the core of it we’re all very open and honest with each other and I think that creates a healthy environment for everyone.
We don’t take ourselves too seriously or create an environment where it feels intimidating to come into. As a group, we understand that we’re all there to do great work to a high standard, but that ultimately, we’re eight people trying to have a good time doing what we love – so making sure we’re able to take a step back and not get caught up in things is important.
Ultimately I think we have a team of people that give a shit, basically. For what they do day to day, for each other, for the world around us and we all know that we’re here to make a positive difference to those around us, no matter how tiny.
We want to create a culture that isn’t about work-life ‘balance.’ This idea that they are opposing forces that must be balanced like a see-saw isn’t true for us – we want a culture where both work and life can thrive and be great.
Mental health support for employees is critical.
PT What have you found to be the key to creating a positive working environment for a small team?
MP Similar to the culture really – just trying to ensure the team understands that being open, honest, communicative and trusting each other to do their work is key for me.
I don’t want anyone in the team to feel like they can’t say something, positive or negative – and it needs to be an environment where everyone feels like they can shape not only their individual future but the collective one.
I find that it’s about creating spaces for people to step into – not necessarily forcing them into them, but ensuring that they are there for them – that goes from ensuring that there is space for individuals to grow in responsibility, spaces for them to express frustration towards something, space for them to experiment and play, and also that there is support there when they need it.
That support comes in many forms, but one of my favoured ones is that we offer Spill to all employees. Mental health support for employees is critical, and I think even for those that don’t use any of the ‘critical’ features of the platform (such as therapy) – it’s clear that it is always there whenever they need it, and that I personally am happy to talk about anything personal or business-related that they’re stewing on.
PT When hiring, are there any particular skills or qualities that you look for?
MP Honesty and empathy. Those are the two key ones for us – as a small team, everyone we hire is critical to the company and has a role to play in terms of shaping our culture, working methods and business direction – so if an individual isn’t able to really talk openly about things, or understand other people’s perspectives on something, it’s an uphill battle.
Outside of that really, we’re just keen to work with people that are hungry to learn, progress and care about the people and world around them – a desire to do more, be better and do it whilst having fun is key.
PT The studio contributes 5% of annual revenue to organisations that create a better future for the earth – what led to this decision? Was it difficult to implement in terms of the studio’s financial security?
MP It kind of started off with me thinking that 1% For The Planet was something we immediately needed to do, where you donate 1% of revenue towards environmental causes, and spiralled a bit from there.
The feeling I have is that businesses have a duty to try and contribute positively to the systems around them – socially, politically, environmentally – and that if we built this in from the very start of our business, it would be something we could always do.
The 5% was kind of arbitrary to be honest, as it felt like a nice amount. The reality has actually been sort of straightforward, but tricky in places.
We count the cost amount for any work we do pro-bono for non-profit clients towards this, as well as direct financial contributions to charity. About 3.75% is made up of pro-bono work and the remainder has been financial contributions. All in, it has totalled almost £45,000 since we started, which I am quite proud of, and we still have a healthy runway for the studio’s future.
We also encourage our clients to donate when they are doing user research surveys or testing for example, such as donating to a charity relevant to their company per entry submitted to surveys, which has proved really successful and started to widen our reach.
We are just working through our first financial year’s end, so check back in a few months to see if I hit any snags!
Limna has taken a radically different approach to the art world.
PT What has been your favourite project to work on so far?
MP This is a tricky one, because I have enjoyed them all for different reasons. I think that because in our first twelve months all of our clients took a bit of a chance on us, they all hold a special place, but the first two – Limna + The DO Lectures – I think are the best representation of the studio and what we want to do.
Limna has taken a radically different approach to the art world and through its design language and positioning, it’s trying to break down that barrier to entry that many of the stuffy, outdated establishments create – and it has been received well by users, so I am proud of that as the Limna team could have easily played it safe.
The DO Lectures for me is a personal highlight because of some of the really small details. For example, all of the shapes, patterns and colour palettes used across the site are dynamically generated through code in the back-end, so administrators are able to create them without making static assets, as well as we can then animate those elements and play around with them in the browser.
This is similar for the usage of playful illustrated characters – the faces, shapes and colours are randomised through code and therefore create surprising moments.
I have always loved being able to use code to generate design, or a set of rules to create design outcomes, so that really scratches that itch for me and I hope we can do more of it and continue to do it not just as ‘experiments’ for a case study, but in real production environments to enhance users experiences and reduce overhead on content administrators.
But I love them all!
I have always loved being able to use code to generate design.
PT What would be a dream client or project for you?
MP Oof! Toughie. I asked around the office on this because it’s not something we talk about often, and I was intrigued by the team’s answers, a few below:
An app or interface for travel that would be used frequently to enable people to move around cities more effectively.
Projects and causes that don’t have the normal funding to produce the kind of work but are in need of help spreading their message.
Anything that is combining a physical and digital world together, such as Teenage Engineering, Headspace, or Arts Institutes like Serpentine/Tate/Barbican.
The UI&UX for a games console!
For me personally, it is probably Lego. I don’t think there is any company that captures the imagination of people like they do, and I think that stays true even when you are an adult.
I think even as adults, we still learn best when we are having fun and playing, so I am always keen on anything that enables that to happen.
The process of design and creativity is fascinating, and in many ways, I find the design of the systems that enable those things more interesting than the visual outcomes, so for me, Lego would be the dream – just in the hope that we could do something that inspired and brought joy to people’s lives.
Outside of that, really anything that ticks similar boxes of bringing joy, being playful and having a purpose that makes a difference to the world.
PT How would you like the studio to evolve in the next year or so?
MP After a really fast first ~18 months, I am hoping to consolidate our position and grow the team out a touch more before settling into some large projects that we take our time with.
Outside of that, really just about more of the same – working with clients that we like, that like working with us, and continuing on adventures together and seeing where they go.