Studio Thomas on settling into new spaces, working flexibly and their side project Guest Editions
For many of us, including design and branding practice Studio Thomas, 2022 has been a year of big change. With a new studio in Cornwall, and a bookshop/events space in London, Thomas Coombes and Thomas Austin are at an exciting and pivotal time for their practice. With plenty to both reflect on and look forward to, we spoke to the pair about the perks of running a small studio, alongside their publishing imprint Guest Editions, and finding the right approach to keep it all running smoothly.
PT Hi Thomas and Thomas! How are you doing?
TC Lovely thanks, and you?
PT Good thank you! For those unfamiliar with Studio Thomas, how did the two of you first meet, and what led you to launch a studio together?
TC We both went to university in Falmouth and lived in the same house, and again when we moved to London after graduating. University felt like quite a competitive environment and it wasn’t until after we left and moved to London that we started to explore collaborating. We had both begun working in the design industry – Tom A at Harriman Steel and myself at Fivefootsix – and were lucky enough to both have jobs that we enjoyed, but there was leftover creative energy to use in less commercial ways and our early collaborations were on things like friends’ record covers, gallery identities and show opening posters. I remember dropping paint from a giant basting pipette onto paper from the top of our stairs, then setting the paper on fire trying to dry it in the oven.
It wasn’t until five years later that we would take a leap into starting our own studio and it was myself and James Homer that first opened Studio Thomas’ doors full-time. James came from YES Studio as a developer and it was this intersection of design and digital that gave us the ability to launch full-time. We’re now more often working on the core brand design and physical outputs like packaging or brand environments, but we started with quite a bit of digital work, creating visual identities but also building quite complex digital platforms for companies working in art, photography and architecture.
The benefit of being more than one is that projects are a conversation.
PT How do your working styles complement each other? Do you ever get into disagreements?
TA Because we had slightly different routes to where we are now, we complement each other quite well. TA from a studio flirting with advertising, brand experience and retail design, and TC from a branding agency, we approach things slightly differently but have a shared belief in the process and the ‘thinking’ element of brand design.
Over the years we’ve identified our individual strengths for sure, and we play to them. A lot of stages we will both work on, but If there’s a piece of hefty print or publication design it’s heading over to TC, whereas if there’s a space or an experience involved then it’ll most likely end up with me.
Disagreements… hmm, the most serious are probably about sandwich fillings. But no, there’s always been healthy competition between us, but I think that’s needed in a way and adds to the motivation. Even though we named it after ourselves, we’ve never really wanted to be a studio driven by our own egos. It’s probably true we both want to be the one to come up with a good idea or solution, but will generally allow space for the other, or anyone else that is a part of the process. I remember reading about a design studio and the director describing how important it was to tell your partner when they did some bad work. I think honesty and communication are obviously key in running a practice, but how can you be certain your creative take is the right one? The benefit of being more than one is that projects are a conversation, and aren’t often the result of a singular vision.
PT Are there any habits, processes or beliefs from your early careers that you’ve learned to let go of as you’ve become more experienced and familiar with running a business?
TC I’m not sure, I think there’s a combination of factors. As a very small studio, we have to be both designers as well as business owners/managers, and it’s hard to be good at both those things as they require very different mentalities. I’ve always been more concerned with being a good designer and presumed if I was or we were, then the business would take care of itself, (this isn’t true). I would say lately there’s been a realisation that we have to be better at running a business, but as we’re not really wired this way it’s a constant effort to engage that part of the brain. There’s also a worry that if you successfully switch your brain over, you might kill your creative output.
In terms of the creative process, I don’t think there’s much that I have tried to get rid of, and I think there’s actually a benefit in retaining the mindset of an early career designer. Experience is good, but you also have to fight the tendency to take the comfortable route or lean into the set of references that are floating around your head, in order to create something new and unexpected.
PT How has 2022 been for you, as a team?
TA An interesting one! With me relocating to the South West and setting up a studio down here and TC moving spaces and combining the studio with Guest Editions, there has been some change in our working processes and day-to-day studio life. However, we’ve always had a flexible way of working together and wanted to make this enjoyable rather than a chain around our necks. We’re really happy with the projects we’ve been on this year and the studio output.
PT What are your studio environments like at the moment then?
TC There are two environments which have a satisfying contrast. There’s a new studio in Falmouth, Cornwall that overlooks the river. A peaceful environment but shared with a collection of other people that work in design and photography, so it’s a creative space that also offers the ability to collaborate and support each other.
There’s also a new London space that’s a part of a public-facing area in Hackney Downs Studios. This space has allowed me to fulfil a lifelong ambition of opening a bookshop and event space in combination with the studio. This shop is the home of the side project Guest Editions – a platform for publishing and design for contemporary photography – and adds a whole new dimension to the studio environment, which I love. Where previously you might work behind your computer for a day without human interaction, now people will walk in and have a conversation about a book or magazine. Obviously, this can sometimes be a distraction, but I believe it’s a healthy one, and turns the studio into a much more vibrant and social space and a part of a wider community.
PT What have you been working on recently?
TA We launched a rebrand for ‘Fieldwork,’ a Coffee Roaster in Melbourne earlier in the year. Alongside that there’s been a new brand and packaging design project for a company creating vitamin sprays, this will be launching later in the month and has been a really fun one to work on. We’ve also been working on a swimwear brand, continue to work with Dutch femcare brand Yoni and are in the early stages of working on an exciting rebrand for a local coffee roaster.
PT How do you divide your time between Studio Thomas and Guest Editions?
TC It’s changed a little over the last couple of years, Guest Editions required more time and investment in the early stages. As well as the imprint I opened the shop just under a year ago and this was quite an intensive process when juggling books that were launching as well as design projects that were on the go. The divide between Guest and Studio Thomas is now completely flexible, we’ve deliberately created a studio format that allows us to put in as much or as little time as is necessary or desired. We don’t have full-time staff and we no longer have rigid expectations of each other in terms of time spent sitting at desks. This means we can focus energy where it’s needed and also go with what’s inspiring us. I think this is the most human approach, it allows variety and means the studio can adapt to specific projects as well as each of our lives. This is an approach that’s grown fairly organically and I hope it means that we are building something that can shift and change and ultimately be there in the future, avoiding the boom and bust pattern of many creative studios.
I don’t think there are many people who do their best work after 5.
PT What would you like to see more and less of in the design industry?
TC I guess the reason we set up Studio Thomas was to create a space where we could work in a way that feels right for us. Generally, that has meant working in a flexible way so that we can respond to each project on an individual basis. We started a four-day working week a long time ago and I believe this means there’s more energy available in those four days, I’d love to see more of that in the industry and working culture in general. We have other things we like doing with our time and I think it’s a shame when you come across working cultures where there’s an expectation for staff to live and breathe design, 12 hours a day. We all have different energy patterns but I don’t think there are many people who do their best work after 5. The benefit of running a small studio is that you can be honest about that and leave… it’s a cliché, “go for a walk” but that’s often when an idea or solution will come along. So four day weeks for all!
PT What are you most looking forward to next year?
TC This last year has been a real year of change – new locations, launching new projects like Guest Editions and getting used to new working processes for Studio Thomas. For me I’m looking forward to settling into this current setup, hitting a stride and seeing what comes our way. Hopefully, this will be more new and exciting projects – we have a couple in the pipeline already – as well as developing the clients and projects we have in the studio already. We’ve just started a new working relationship with Honest Burgers and it’ll be fun to see where this takes us. I’m also excited to build on the potential that combining a creative studio and a publishing imprint provides, pulling on a network of contemporary photographers to add value to brands through art direction and visual content. Also borrowing from all the things you learn when producing and publishing books, and being able to offer this service to brands and businesses who want to produce something physical and in print.