OGRE’s Steven Walker on the studio’s humanity-driven values and how design can be a tool for change
OGRE Studio’s approach is simple: “people matter, society matters, and the planet matters.” Helmed by Steven Walker, the studio is a Newcastle-based brand and design practice that leverages creative bravery, big thinking and brand strategy for social and commercial change. Having launched in the early days of the pandemic, we talked to Steven as the studio approaches its second birthday; discussing the value of working with purpose-led clients in this socio-economic era, alongside studio life and their exciting new project, RRREAL.
PT Hi Steven! How are you doing?
SW Hey Poppy, I’m doing alright, thanks, just navigating the world and trying to make our little part of it better, thanks for getting in touch. Let’s have a brew!
The sun is shining and it’s hot in Newcastle today. The national rail strike is gearing up (solidarity) and I’ve just come out of a morning of Zooms on a few new projects – so you’ve caught me at a good time – feeling energised after chatting to interesting folk. I may have had too much coffee also.
The driving factor is a love of the craft of design aligned with our values for creating positive change.
PT Can you give us a quick insight into how OGRE Studio began?
SW The driving factor is a love of the craft of design aligned with our values for creating positive change. It’s in my bones. Great design changes the world. Sounds clichéd, but it’s true. Art saved my life as a young person growing up in a chaotic environment in a little ex-mining town in County Durham (it’s not all Harry Potter and Bill Bryson around there), so I know first-hand how creativity can have deeply transformative effects on the course of people’s lives. Even rough scrappers like me.
Design can go one step further than art though. It has the creative energy of art, but can also shape systems, strategy and communicate at scale.
Our approach is simple; people matter, society matters, and the planet matters. Unchecked capitalism, however, can get in the sea. Where inevitably we’ll all be if we don't change the way we all operate.
I love collaboration and co-design so that’s baked into our processes for clients and project partners. Working with equity with other creatives to make bold work that matters, that challenges and changes, is incredibly exciting, and is a great recipe for exciting work.
So this formed the original foundational instinctive urge to set up shop. Then came the strategic direction defining aspects of defining a creative business. But also, it’s been really, really tough. What a time to begin again. Taking into account the seismic changes that have affected everyone working in design, with BLM, the pandemic, societal unrest, and wars, diversity in design still being an issue, stifling working-class representation in the creative industries, the challenges facing students emerging into an uncertain landscape for professional graphic design, advances in technology, coding in visual design, and Web3. The next generation of designers have a lot of problems to solve. We’re making sure we’re part of the solution.
Admittedly I did obviously decide to set up the studio in 2020, as the pandemic was entering the pre-vaccine “will this wipe us out?” phase. It’s not the first time I’ve founded a business in the creative industries, having set up and ran an arts organisation/space and an illustration studio servicing the music industry in the past. But, the timing for creating a purpose-led studio from scratch continues to be a big challenge!
I thought, if I can build a network and do the work we want to do in designing for social and commercial change, with great clients, in this environment. And if we can generate enough revenue to seed the studio as a well-respected, thoughtful design practice, then we’ll already be a million miles ahead in comparison to waiting for the ‘perfect time’ to build a business. But it’s like having kids. There’s never a perfect time.
We don't really have a concrete strategy or business plan (that’s changing) but we do place importance on publicising the work that we do through a mix of channels, speaking at design events, guest lecturing and trying to evidence our process and approach as a means of giving prospective clients a better understanding of how we could provide value to them – it also helps in attracting the type of client with whom our approach might resonate. Mostly though, the love of the craft and the people we work with keeps us inspired, creative and evolving.
Our approach is simple; people matter, society matters, and the planet matters.
PT Where did the name OGRE come from?
SW Ha. I always get asked that. It’s good because people remember it. It’s like naming a band. You want something memorable and intriguing that somehow feels part of the fibre of the studio. I’ve named clients’ businesses, products, my own children, dogs, guinea pigs and bands, but naming your own studio is hard. Harder than naming children.
Essentially, I really liked the connection between the idea of an ogre – ugly, repellant, mythological – aligning a brand and design studio with this which is often the opposite – considered, clean, concise and beautiful, but both are bold and defiant. There’s nice duality. You’ve got to settle on a name and after much back and forth, this stuck.
Secretly too, I’m interested in a lot of these ideas and concepts to the mass contradiction we’re all living through. A weird duality. Like where, on one hand, the untapped potential of future technology to save the planet, to create new sentient forms of artificially intelligent life and move humanity into the stars seems within grasp – and on the other hand, the very real impact of the centuries of the global extinction economy, full-time workers having to use food banks to simply survive, politicians pitting people against each other, and political movements being released upon the back of the success of a tweet – this is happening right now. And it stinks.
It’s overwhelming. And our leaders are more worried about populism and cronyism than directly tackling our most pressing problems. Some days I wake up and feel like I’m in my own personal episode of Black Mirror. But with a Netto, not Netflix budget.
PT What has been your favourite project to work on in your career, and why?
SW This is always such a hard question, man. Why have you asked me this? Ha. You’re supposed to say your last project, aren’t you?!
I love leading on the nose-to-tail brand design projects; the strategy, consultation, workshops, visual identity, tone of voice and creative activations – end-to-end joy! You can really get properly immersed in a client’s world, their organisation, their future and their people. I love helping a client to create their own brand universe, positioned ‘just so’ within lots of market factors.
I also love collaborating with other creatives one-on-one, like the recent animated music video I made with Jimmy Turrell, whose studio is handily just above mine, for David Holmes on Hope Is The Last Thing To Die, a brilliant track featuring ace vocals by Raven Violet. This was such a laugh as we made the video in just five days and it was nominated as one of the ‘hottest’ animated music videos of 2021 by LIAF (London International Animation Festival) alongside some of my music heroes like John Grant. My daughter was more impressed that Dua Lipa was also nominated. Hey ho.
But to be honest, my favourite project is our big in-house project, RRREAL, which I’ll tell you a bit more about in just a sec.
We’re focused on working on behalf of clients and ourselves to make steps in the right direction.
PT OGRE is described as creating ‘design for social and commercial change,’ how does this arise in the day-to-day running of the studio and what projects you take on?
SW Things will happen, both good and bad. Where we’re heading isn’t a utopian climate-stable future enabled through AI and world peace. Hopefully in a few thousand, but not now. Not next. So we’re focused on working on behalf of clients and ourselves to make steps in the right direction, with big vision and commitment.
Commercially, we will only work with brands and organisations who are either purpose-led or can prove to us that their activity doesn’t contribute to our list of ‘don’t work with’ elements such as the promotion of fossil fuels, social injustice or general nob-headery.
For our social change or creative clients, this doesn’t equate to less profitable clients. Most of the clients we take on have an embedded expectation because we set the creative and strategic tone when getting to know them and the briefs more deeply from the get-go. Sometimes, this end of the client spectrum can be less monetarily profitable, but way more ‘change profitable,’ so, we are able to leverage the profits we do make from bigger clients to take on the work of our smaller ones, but the level of creativity and execution does not fluctuate based on budget.
We’re almost a toddler, coming up to two years old as a studio, and it’s only really now that we’re also being approached, inbound, by the type of clients we really want to work with where our creativity for change drive can begin to make national, rather than regional impacts. Our own in-house projects aim to fast forward this to a larger scale again.
PT What is RRREAL? Can you tell us a bit about the project?
SW This has quickly become a massively pivotal project for us. It’s influencing how our studio practice is developing and what the larger purpose of our purpose and mission is as a studio able to partner up with amazing people and orgs to change things on a much larger scale.
RRREAL is a ‘change-tech’ platform. Harnessing the next iteration of the internet to shape the future sooner, and is born out of creative activism, between the studio and project Co-founder Carlo Viglianisi.
RRREAL is for future thinkers and community builders working to bridge the gap between URL and IRL – life online and life on the line.
Currently, the Web3 evolution is conflicted. Its potential and opportunity are huge. However, it’s also a nuanced space with muddied ethics and a conflicting duality of decentralised intent, but pursued by a hyper-capitalist status quo surrounding its wider operational context.
We believe that technology is not the villain but the key to:
Evolving the RRREAL Framework, a pioneering philanthropic funding model built for Web3 and able to fund the progress of direct, impactful work on our six core themes: the environment, social justice, co-creation, community, sustainability and investment.
Achieving world-saving change at scale for people and the planet, with long-term vision. Why create a 3-year plan when we can create a 1000-year plan?
Connecting climate action, creativity, enterprise, science and technology to create and support ground-breaking solutions, opportunities and economic innovation. Essentially, we’ve discovered a way to be transparent Robin Hoods in Web3 to fund de-carbonisation and sustainable energy innovation activities of partners, as well as funding social justice, and artistic innovation in the Web3 space with some amazing partnerships.
I honestly can’t say too much about this until we reveal our ecosystem of products and services, but you can subscribe to our news or more importantly, get involved!
We’re currently finding our people, building our Advisory Group (please apply!) and working with supporters to develop our seed funding round of investment. More info here.
Of course, we’re building the tech and structures, but we’re ensuring that ethics and real human connectivity are taking priority over hype trends and new tech. Because as long as there are humans, there will always be new tech. We want to make sure we’re getting the ‘better humans’ part right as this obviously sits at the centre of everything we create and the audiences we want to build.
I’m a practical person, so I guess I’m just trying to ‘control the controllables’ of my own life, of our own collaborations and as a growing studio with influence to make sure that our important in-house work can move towards addressing, and creating change together.
Watch this space.
The mental equilibrium is different for everyone.
PT What do you think is the most important skill a designer can have that isn’t design?
SW Two main points come to mind.
One, is building long-term resilience to the burn-out factory that is the creative industries. It really is about embedding good mental health practices that work for you. I still haven’t nailed it, but that’s always going to be tougher to achieve for the founders/directors of businesses.
The mental equilibrium is different for everyone. So find what works for you. If you have to drop out of an industry that you love and away from work that you're proud of, in an industry that you have influence over, then what a massive waste of human potential, creativity and being able to do something that you massively love.
Even if you have to take a step back, pause and look at all the scraps of your careers on the floor. Examine these scraps because your new big design energy may be hiding in these scraps.
The second is to find what really drives you. Find what makes you dig in your heels when you feel the weight of the world bearing down, what makes you stand up for yourself, your ideas and for others.
Don’t just do as you’re told. Find your purpose and grab onto it, because fundamentally, the secret to creating the best work of your life is in aligning your talent, ambition and motivations. I still feel like my best work is in front of me, which I’m putting down to years of experimenting, failing, not being too precious and eventually finding my truth. No one can take that away from me.
Oh, and please don’t be a dick. Look after each other, yeah! :)
Less comfort zones. Less fear. Less rules. Less unhappiness.
PT What is your favourite thing about living in the North-East of the UK, as a creative?
SW The people, the community, the culture, the working-class spirit, the rebellious air, the sense of place and history, the ambition, the graft and the potential. Plus, the fact that you’re only ever half an hour away from the coast, countryside or hills for a beautiful stomp.
PT What would you like to see more and less of in the design industry?
SW More happiness. More long-term thinking. More bravery. More diversity. More cross-industry collaboration. More working-class people. More risk-taking. More generosity. More compassion and thoughtfulness. More standing out. More breaking the rules. More BIG ideas. More belief. More human. More taking up space. More purpose. More love and generosity. More reaching out.
Less conformity. Less comfort zones. Less fear. Less rules. Less unhappiness. Less staying in your lane. Less putting up with bad leadership. Less putting off until tomorrow. Less barriers for marginalised people to join our bloody amazing industry.
PT What are you looking forward to, in the near future?
SW A better UK government, a trip to Denmark with the family, pushing forward with RRREAL and connecting with the North-East tech and investment community. Also, starting my own show with Right Aligned on design for good later this year (I’m looking for people to talk to!), and a trip down to sunny Scarborough with great friends to drink beer and unplug.