For The People's Olivia King on flexible identity systems, remote working and putting people first
Established in 2014 by a trio that used to run international studios, For The People is an Australian agency that are doing things differently as a result. Their portfolio is characterised by a multi-faceted approach to branding and how they do it is perhaps best summarised by their name; with a particular focus on caring for each other and the small details. To find out more about what they do and why they do it, we spoke to Design Director Olivia King.
EM How has the studio evolved since it started?
OK Being the first employee at For The People, it’s been interesting to see how the business has changed since day 1 to day 2332. In many ways, the studio was started as a response to the bad practices and ways of working that were prevalent in agencies at the time, and the early days of the studio were focused on trying new technologies or practices that put us closer to people and our clients. Some of these methods were great and we still use today. Others, like no titles, flat hierarchy, or agile working methods – not so much. We were crammed into a tiny terrace house in Surry Hills and the vibe was dysfunctional family meets lean, scrappy startup.
What we experimented with during this time though helped build out a culture and team that is very multidisciplinary, which has carried through to the makeup of our studio today. Much of the work we do involves our team being highly adaptable, able to flex across brand, digital, product, strategy or writing projects no matter what their role. We also established some important traditions, like our Nerd Nights or Friday Wrap Ups, while spending any spare moment in tense, team-wide Rocket League competitions.
Probably the most important thing we’ve learned over the years is how to live out our name, creating work that is fundamentally for the people. That wasn’t something we started with, and I remember times in the early days where we had trouble defining what that meant. But in the last few years, we’ve developed methods and practices that help us always put people first in our work – whether that’s in shaping cultural change in large organisations or empowering non-for-profits and charities to achieve their missions. Where we’ve learnt this the most though, is in our community brand and place identity projects. These types of projects are only successful if we spend long periods of time amongst the people of the region and deeply understand their world, so in a lot of ways, it’s helped us create work that feels very true to us as a studio and our values.
We’ve developed methods and practices that help us always put people first in our work.
EM Can you highlight a major challenge the studio has faced along the way?
OK The studio has had a number of ups and downs over the years, but it would be hard to ignore the challenge that remote working has been for us as a typically very tight-knit and collaborative team.
This actually started for us before the pandemic, with our ECD (Jason) and CD (Jo) moving to Tasmania to start our Launceston office in mid-2019. We didn’t anticipate the challenges of having the creative team split, as well as Jason and Jo focusing on a lot of business development and set-up in Tassie while also running projects with the Sydney team.
We realised that there needed to be a lot more visibility and communication between our offices, so we moved to set up more digital working environments (Mural/Miro) and added daily standups to our routines. This was just in time, as we went into lockdown around six months later and were lucky to have some of these practices in place.
While these were helpful for us to continue to run projects fairly smoothly, one challenge from remote working that we’re dealing with today is maintaining our studio culture and look after our mental health individually. It’s very hard to replicate the positive, spontaneous and in-between moments of work over Zoom. I think we all collectively hit a low point late last year, and it became clear that we needed to actively help each other and work on ways we could feel more connected. We count ourselves very lucky to be in Australia where we’ve now been able to return to the office a few days a week, which has made a huge difference of late.
EM Did working from home have any positive, lasting impacts on the studio’s processes?
OK It’s definitely helped us streamline some of our processes and experiment with new ways to collaborate virtually. We’ve always had a flexible working environment, but this has stretched that definition even further. Where we’ve landed is a place where we can still run projects well while allowing people to work from wherever they feel most comfortable. Another positive has been being able to open up our team to new members in different cities or countries (within similar time zones) which we otherwise wouldn’t have had the opportunity to work with.
By creating more structure in the business we were able to help the team work better together.
EM You mentioned earlier that having no titles, a flat hierarchy and agile working methods didn’t really work for the studio. Why so?
OK Agile working methods are great for digital product or development teams, and having worked in a few of these, there is definitely value in the cadence and rituals that agile brings to building complex products. For us, we still use some of these methods (like standups, sprints and retros) but prefer more flexibility in our process – where we can be more responsive and creative to the challenges that come up throughout a project. As for flat hierarchy and titles, as much as this sounds a bit utopian, we actually found this wasn’t great for our younger, more junior team members. By having a lot of autonomy and responsibility, they weren’t always in a safe space to make mistakes, be mentored in a structured way or know who to ask for help. So by creating more structure in the business we were able to help the team work better together and give people the ability to grow in much more positive ways.
EM “Some of us used to run major, international branding studios.” What has the studio taken and left behind from those environments?
OK Jason and Damian, our two co-founders, both came from large, international branding studios before starting For The People. These environments might be considered typical of an ‘old guard’ of design and agency life – where the pace was gruelling, people were overworked, work-life balance was non-existent and teams were siloed. It was clear that this wasn’t in any way conducive to creating good work, and we’ve always looked to create a much more flexible and cohesive environment to work in.
Another aspect to larger agencies that we’ve tried to improve on is the relationships with clients and decision-makers in businesses. Typically for creatives, this might be managed through other people, and when we do speak to clients it might be through middle-managers. We try to have very transparent and open communication between our team members, at any level, and the leaders, founders or CEOs of businesses we’re working with. This allows us to get to the heart of creative problems and create very meaningful solutions.
EM If you could only show one piece of work, what would it be and why?
OK It’s hard to choose a favourite child, but for us, one piece of work that was pivotal for us a studio was the West Coast of Tasmania. It was our first large-scale community identity project and challenged us to create something very new for that sector; an open-source brand, free to use by locals in the region to tell their own stories and collectively shape a cohesive identity for the region.
Over the course of 10 months, we were deeply immersed in the community of the West Coast. This started with an intensive community consultation phase which has really set a benchmark for how we approach many of our projects now. In getting close to the people, we were able to understand what it truly means to be a West Coaster, and from there build a brand that was authentically them.
The brand itself is made up of many components and comes to life in a variety of ways – custom typography and illustration, unique photography and film, signage, as well as digital experiences like the badge generator. It’s rare to be able to work on a project that is expressed across so many mediums, and definitely put us and the brand to the test! But the way it responds and flexes, as well as its deep connection to the people at the heart of the community, is probably why it’s always going to be one of our favourites.
For me personally, it was a large reason why I came back to For The People. After the first few years of FTP, I’d left to pursue a career in digital product design. While that’s still something I love doing, after seeing The West Coast I had one of those ‘I wish I’d done that’ moments and decided to come back to work for the chance to work on more community and place brands.
We don’t value one skillset over another.
EM Much like West Coast, many of the studio’s projects utilise interchangeable typography, logos and illustrations – with no one element taking centre stage. What resonates about that approach?
OK If you ever work on a For The People project, you’ll at some point get very familiar with the term ‘flex’. We use it a lot to talk to how brands can be used in a multitude of different ways while still retaining their core identity. I think this is interesting to us for a couple of reasons.
The first is that it can make a brand more usable, which we particularly find for our community or place focused projects. There might be thousands of people using the brand for applications we haven’t ever dreamed of, so having a set of elements that are adaptable to their unique needs is really valuable.
The second reason is that having elements that are interchangeable makes for a richer identity. The repetition of one element over and over can be very one-note, but having many that can be dialled up or down depending on the need, adds a lot more depth. (It does often make things a lot more complicated for us when we’re working out a design system!) But I also think it’s fairly true to us as a team and how we work together – we don’t value one skillset over another and I love seeing the wide range of talents in our team shine in different ways through our work.
EM Does winning awards matter to the studio?
OK Ah, love the way you snuck in an awards question! It’s a tricky one and I think the industry is fairly divided. As a studio, there’s definitely value in awards from a new business perspective, as well as attracting talent. And yes, the recognition is always very nice. For the most part though, what drives us entering awards is the joy of seeing how it can really help build confidence in our younger creatives who might be just starting out.
EM Lastly, what would you like to see more and less of in the design industry?
OK Personally, I would love to see more vulnerability and transparency – from studios and individuals alike. Being creative is sometimes a very hard job (particularly in pandemic!), but when we’re more open about the reality of what our shared experiences are, it can bring us together. Which something else I’d love to see – less animosity and competition between studios and more collaboration. I had this idea the other day that it would be amazing if studios would do an exchange programme – where you could do a swap with someone for a few months to experience and learn in a new team. We’re so protective of our processes, talent or secret sauce, that I think we’re missing out on opportunities to do better work and be better designers.