Mark Martin on how constant curiosity and evolution have helped Rabbithole become a better studio
Based in Leeds and Glasgow, Rabbithole is a creative studio specialising in brand strategy, identity and web design. Founded by Mark Martin and Tim Dee, the pair’s unwavering curiosity and openness have ensured a steady stream of work has entered the studio. Now with a small yet robust team, and an enviable list of clients on record, we’d say the studio are in a good and happy place. To find out more about how they got there, we spoke to Co-founder Mark about his favourite projects, working remotely and the growth of the 14+-year-old practice.
PT Hey Mark! How’s 2022 been treating you so far?
MM 2022 has been a rollercoaster. We’ve won some great projects and have done well financially, but it’s come at a cost. Some team members have worked long, unsustainable hours to keep up with the deadlines, with work regularly spilling over into evenings and weekends. It’s a reminder that success isn’t just about winning pitches and exceeding financial targets; it’s about achieving a healthy work-life balance and avoiding burnout. Our aim for 2023 is to achieve the same level of success as 2022, but with far fewer hours. Perhaps by transitioning to six-hour days or four-day weeks.
PT How did you and Tim first meet, and come up with the idea of starting the studio?
MM Tim and I met at Leeds Metropolitan University. We both graduated in 2008, right at the apex of the Great Recession. The labour market completely seized up, and the only jobs you could get were your old bar jobs. I went back to work at a cinema I worked at as a teenager to pay my bills. One day, Tim and I had a catch-up pint at the Original Oak in Headingley, Leeds; Tim mentioned a couple of website projects he was considering pitching for on a freelance basis. I asked if he wanted help, and a few days later, we were setting ourselves up as a limited company. We hunkered down in a spare room in Tim’s house-share, pitched hard, and won both projects; the 50% deposit from each job was enough to get us started. And so, Rabbithole was born!
We used to chastise ourselves for being erratic and inconsistent.
PT How has the studio, and the work you do, evolved since then?
MM We’re constantly evolving; Rabbithole changes from one year to the next. We used to chastise ourselves for being erratic and inconsistent; we considered it a sort of failure that we had to redesign and rewrite our website every year. One year we’d be really into WebGL; the next, we’d be obsessed with brand strategy; the year after, we’d want to completely change the sectors we worked in. But I think our constant curiosity to try and explore new things and the disruption that can bring has benefited us in the long term. It’s made us more rounded creatives and brought many new ideas into the studio. We’ve seen other agencies stick to a much steadier formula and eventually decline.
The constants throughout our 14 years have been the two directors (Tim and myself) and website creation. Everything else has been in flux. In the early years, we were an all-male crew smashing out websites for the music industry; now, we’re a branding studio with a much more diverse team, working in a broader range of sectors, such as architecture, and arts & culture.
PT Can you tell us where the name ‘Rabbithole’ came from?
MM I was reading Alice in Wonderland the week we started our company. I said the name out loud, and we both thought it had a nice ring. The name has come to suit our studio’s erratic and inquisitive nature.
PT What pieces of work or projects are you most proud of?
MM I think we’re particularly proud of our work for Leeds International Festival of Ideas. Our ideas and creativity have had a significant and tangible impact on the festival’s direction, esteem and success. This year it’s likely that all events will sell out, and locals tell us the visibility of the festival branding boosts their civic pride. This word – impact – is often our measuring stick for success. Sometimes projects go out, and it feels too much like vanity; it’s the projects that have a tangible, positive impact on the world around us that we’re most proud of.
PT You’ve worked with the festival for several years now – how do you go about reinventing the identity every year?
MM We love working on the LIFI identity; we have absolute trust from the client (LeedsBID), which allows us to be brave. For the last couple of years, we’ve collaborated with Frankfurt-based digital artist Joseph Toereki to produce artwork for the festival. The LIFI brand is very visible in Leeds in the build-up to the event; it’s advertised on billboards, poster drums, and lamppost banners all over the city, so our aim is always to create something bold, vibrant, intriguing, and arresting.
The identity for LIFI21 had an academic, highbrow, scientific approach, with various imagined materials resembling something grown in a laboratory. In contrast, the identity for LIFI22 is much more playful, accessible, and fun; it has families and the more casual attendee in mind. Inspired by everyday materials and the messy, amorphous formation of ideas, it’s been affectionately described as ‘weird multi-coloured balloon monsters.’
We really value creative taste and an appetite for learning and improving.
PT Where do you and the team find inspiration outside of the studio?
MM Each team member has their own creative outlet outside of the studio. For Tim, it’s his garden. For Guy, it’s touring Germany with his band. Danielle designs and makes jewellery. Claren runs a music publication. It’s definitely important to bring outside influences and ideas into the regurgitative bubbles of the design industry. So we’re always supportive of everyone's external interests and hobbies.
PT How does the team work between Leeds and Glasgow?
MM Most of the Rabbithole team are in the Leeds studio. It’s just myself in Glasgow. Our plan is to grow the Scotland team throughout 2023. The cultural shift to remote working during the pandemic has made long-distance collaboration more effective. But, on occasions, I’ve struggled. Zoom sessions and Slack collaborations don’t have the same energy as being in the same room (we’re investing in more face-to-face client meetings for this reason). I’ve missed the studio environment in Leeds. Still, studio social events, which I’ll often travel down for, and our studio trips (we recently went to Berlin to see long-term clients Coldplay) help to keep the two studios connected.
PT When hiring, what is one thing that makes you think ‘yep, they're a perfect fit for us?’
MM Over the last few years, we’ve become a closer, more sociable team. We’ve been going on more studio trips together, and our studio's atmosphere, energy, and chemistry are really good. So right now, we're looking for people who can fit in or enhance that. Of course, we need people with the skills to pay the bills, but becoming a rabbit is mainly about attitude; we really value creative taste and an appetite for learning and improving.
PT What have been the biggest changes you’ve noticed with clients and the design industry as a whole? What changes would you like to see?
MM I’d like to see more emphasis on technical skills. Both in higher education and self-learners. Talented technicians in motion, 3D, and coding are not easy to find, there’s no abundance of those skills coming from the universities, yet this is what the industry is crying out for. There’s also a technical side to graphic design that is too often neglected. There’s plenty of experimental creativity out there but not as much understanding of the core fundamentals of typography – how to kern, grid systems, baselines, ratio compositions etc. The best designers can do both; they can be both Carson and Vignelli.
PT As we’re approaching autumn, what do you have planned for what’s left of the year?
MM Finish off our 2022 projects, update our portfolio, and then get to hiring more designers and web developers. We’ve also got a studio trip to Glasgow coming up in November for INTL, where Rabbithole heroes Mirko Borsche and Neville Brody will be speaking. Maybe see some of your readers there!