Seachange’s Amanda Gaskin on finding a work-life balance, growing her team and learning to say no
Seachange is an Auckland-based design studio with a portfolio defined by conceptual simplicity, playful typography and an unapologetic embrace of colour. Founded in 2017 by Tim Donaldson and Amanda Gaskin, their small team work collaboratively with clients from all over the world; creating everything from identities and packaging to custom typefaces and advertising campaigns.
EM How did you guys come together to form Seachange?
AG Tim and I met at my first job as a junior designer, where, as he likes to recount, I seduced him, but really it was the other way around; we’ve been living and working together ever since. After a 10 year stint in London, we moved home to New Zealand and the decision to start our own thing was very natural – it was always something we’d talked about. I think we both naively thought that being our own bosses was going to be all about work-life balance and spending time with our kids. Ha, we couldn’t have been more wrong.
EM Why did you decide to leave London and make the move to New Zealand?
AG We ask ourselves that question all the time. We loved London so much and I personally feel a really strong connection to the UK as my mum was born and raised there. In the end, it came down to feeling like New Zealand was going to be an easier place to raise our children while starting a business (family support is so essential). It’s been five years since we moved home and we still talk about our London days like they were yesterday. It’s a bit sad really, we probably need to move on… it’s just that cities like London really get under your skin.
I’m so excited about the additional skill set that comes with hiring young designers.
EM How does Seachange compare now to what you thought it would become when you first started?
AG When we started we said yes to everything and anything. We did great work for little money, friends, and friends of friends all with the view to build our portfolio and brand. Now we feel lucky to choose our clients and pick the briefs that we want to work on. We take on clients that are mutually beneficial and create exciting products that we believe in. When we started four years ago we were working from home but we recently bought our own studio space which we’re excited to move into later this year. I also recently turned down a significantly large budget because the client was uninterested in moving their packaging to a more sustainable material. When I think back to when we started I’m not sure I would have had the conviction or integrity to say no to a budget like that. So in that sense, we’re very different.
EM Why did you decide it was the right time to get your own studio space?
AG I detest paying rent (who doesn’t), so when the opportunity arose to buy a small space in a building designed by Monk Mackenzie and developed by one of my best mates I begged the bank to let me buy it. It’s small, smaller than our current space but the layout has been highly considered. It will suit us perfectly for the next couple of years (if we stay a similar size) and our designers can walk to work, which they’re very excited about.
EM What do you see as the benefits of being an ‘intentionally small studio?’
AG Haha, we really need to update that line on our website. I think we’re actually moving away from being intentionally small and are more and more excited about slow growth. For the first three years, it was just Tim and I, which was great. We had total autonomy over everything we created and our overheads were low, but there came a point where we were saying no to too many exciting projects and realised that we needed to grow to be able to facilitate the workload. We have a couple of designers now and could probably do with a few more but we’re going to grow slowly and take on the right people. Training our designers properly is a big priority for us. I’m so excited about the additional skill set that comes with hiring young designers. They can do so many cool things like render, animate and code websites, all things Tim and I are really uninterested in learning at this stage in our careers. We want to create an environment where our designers can grow and learn but also contribute to the success of the studio.
We strive for a balance of strategy, substance and style.
EM How have you found the transition from it just being the two of you – wearing a lot of hats – to handing over responsibilities to others?
AG Tim and I are both naturally quite controlling so at first we did find delegating hard but you soon learn where your team’s strengths lie and you lean on them for that. We trust our designers immensely and give them a lot of responsibility. It’s super cheesy but I do think of our team as extended family members. We also work really hard to support their growth as designers. We spend a lot of time reviewing work, feeding back and mucking in when they need help. We also spend a lot of time drinking wine and ranting about design, so hopefully, they’ve learnt a thing or two from us oldies.
EM What do you think you’re particularly good at as a studio?
AG We try really hard to make work that makes sense and feels appropriate. We strive for a balance of strategy, substance and style and try to put ourselves in our clients’ shoes to understand what’s going to work for them. I also think we’re particularly good at having fun with our work, you can’t make every project playful but there’s plenty of serious design work in the world, so we choose to have fun if we can.
We trust our designers immensely.
EM And what are you trying to get better at?
AG Personally, I’m trying to get better at replying to new business emails, managing clients (we desperately need to hire an account manager) and remembering to pick my kids up from school (I forget them at least once a week). As a studio, we’re trying to get better at work planning and giving our younger designers enough time to immerse themselves in a brief and feel like they have time to play and explore. Keeping the stress levels as low as possible is a constant work in progress. It’s important to remind ourselves that it’s just design.
EM You mentioned earlier about the struggles of a work-life balance while running your own business. Have you got any methods or tools in place that help you do that nowadays, as well as manage the team?
AG We’ve tried everything to manufacture the perfect work-life balance and I can honestly say I don’t think it exists. We have some non-negotiables, like eating dinner with our kids every night – that being said, the minute they go to bed we’re usually back at the mac. We try to not work weekends but somehow we’ve just worked the last four in a row. Sometimes Tim or I will work from home, put our ‘out of office’ on for the day, just so we can have a clear run at a project without all the micro interruptions of being in the studio. We have lunch together as a team every Friday even though Fridays are always our busiest day. Quite a few of our clients are overseas and being in New Zealand, we’re technically in the future in terms of time zones, so we’re conscious about getting work wrapped up on Fridays to avoid weekend emails. I’m hyper-aware of burnout and always looking for new ways to tweak our routine and make our staff happy but at the end of the day every week is different and there are always new fires to fight. Some weeks are just insane and others are pretty chill, so when we get a chill week we try to drink wine and have a few laughs.
EM If you were only allowed to show one piece of work at a time, which project would you choose?
AG We’ve just redesigned the Designers Institute, Best Awards Annual for 2020. It was previously more of a standardised catalogue that was the same each year, so we’ve completely reimagined it. It’s a small and chunky purple block (736 pages). We’ve used printing techniques that are hard to achieve here in New Zealand, like edge painting. It’s section-sewn and opens completely flat. We wanted to create something that the design industry will be excited to buy, a book that feels like a keepsake. We also want our version of the annual to encourage other studios to put their hand up to design the book in the future. We don’t believe the annual needs to be the same year in year out. Books are labours of love but they’re also rewarding to work on, so hopefully, we’ll start a long line of beautiful and unique award annuals by the New Zealand design community.
We’ve also just completed two fonts. Pilot is an all caps display typeface inspired by aviation, vintage bomber jackets, pilot wings, airport runway markings and navigation equipment. Originally conceived as a stand-alone custom logotype as part of an identity project, PILOT we extended it into a fully functional display typeface complete with alternates, ligatures and custom glyphs.
MM Display is a typeface inspired by the fresh flora and fauna of Mexico, and developed as part of an identity for a Mexican pop-up taqueria here in Auckland.
Oh gosh sorry, you said one project only. I got carried away :)
Pilot is an all caps display typeface inspired by aviation.
EM What would you like to do as a studio that you haven’t been able to yet?
AG We’d love to take the team on tour. The last year has caused a lot of cabin fever which is always naturally exacerbated being from a country that is so far away from everywhere, so we’re scheming about an international trip once everyone is vaccinated.
EM Where would be the first place you would land?
AG Easy. London. I’d love to show my daughter where she was born and take her to all our old haunts. Taking the team to Europe though would be tricky. A long weekend in Melbourne or Sydney now that New Zealand and Australia have an open travel bubble is definitely more achievable.