Sun, sea, and studio milestones: Studio Kiln on navigating their first year as a creative business
Tucked away in Cornwall, Studio Kiln are a creative practice bringing brands and their stories to life. Having reached their one-year anniversary as a team, it was time for Charlie Hocking and Nathan Smith to celebrate and reflect on the satisfying (and sometimes bumpy) path so far. Alongside the launch of their new website, they share the realities of setting up a studio outside of London, and the refreshing perspective that comes with working by the sea.
PT Hi Charlie and Nathan, how’s life in Cornwall?
CH Hey Poppy! Life in Cornwall is great thanks. Falmouth is a fun place to be and you’ve caught us in the middle of a sunny patch, which always makes things better.
NS Hello Poppy! Good thank you. One part familiar to when I was working in design elsewhere; one part slower-paced, fish/chips and getting in the sea.
PT Sounds lush! As you’ve recently reached the one-year milestone, I have to ask, how does it feel?
CH In all honesty, I haven’t really been able to acknowledge that milestone properly. Our first birthday crept up on us really quickly and it feels as though we’ve had our heads down doing our best to keep things moving.
If I do take a moment, then the overwhelming feeling throughout all of this is pride. I couldn’t be more proud to be building something like Kiln in a place we’re so fond of. It sounds silly now, but growing up down here, I honestly never thought it would be possible to do this outside of London.
Other than that, I think I mostly feel tired!
NS Well – I’m jumping on the bandwagon with this celebration really as we started working together in January, so it’s ‘happy six months’ for me. That said, I’ve been in the same studio space the entire time, so I’ve seen Kiln develop from an outside perspective. For one, it feels crazy that it has already been that amount of time! Otherwise, it’s a mixture of relief and exhilaration. Relief that we’ve survived the one-year mark in testing times and exhilaration for the future, as we’ve been lucky enough to work with some lovely people and have some exciting avenues for the not-so-distant future.
We like to think that our location brings something different creatively.
PT How did you mark the occasion?
CH It was supposed to be with the launch of our website, but predictably that got delayed so we’ll pretend that we started the studio in July rather than May and head down to the barrel for a pint.
NS Yes, presumably a delayed pasty and a pint.
PT Can you summarise how the first year has been for you? What was it like building a studio and finding clients in Cornwall?
CH The year started brilliantly. We had a number of creatively fulfilling brand and digital jobs come in and we were making enough money to work on studio projects alongside our commercial work. However, some poor planning and some terrible luck meant that we found ourselves in trouble quite quickly. That wasn’t fun to go through, but I’m pleased we learnt that lesson early on and thankfully we’re out the other side now.
When we started down here, I was a bit apprehensive about advertising where we were. With the type of work we wanted, I presumed people wouldn’t take us seriously. However, from a client’s perspective that’s proven not to be the case – they either don’t care or they’re actively excited that we’re somewhere different. There’s only been one time when we needed to travel for a project and it took about two days when it could have taken two hours…
NS It’s been a bit of a whirlwind, to be honest, and, fortunately, in a positive way. The majority of our clients are actually outside of Cornwall, which has happened organically with work coming through our connections, friends or word of mouth. We’re quite happy with this balance in how things have netted out, as we like to think that our location brings something different creatively for these clients and that we bring something a little different creatively to our location.
As well as finding the work, what made this year more fast-paced has been figuring out our processes and approaches, whether that be creatively oriented, business oriented or people-oriented. With setting up something fresh, there’s been a heavy amount of foundations to build!
PT What were your highlights? And what were the biggest challenges?
CH Highlights – winning new projects, creating things we love and are proud to share, meeting fascinating people around the world, having total autonomy over our work and having complete strangers tell us they like what we’re doing.
Challenges – freelancer’s day rates.
NS My biggest highlight has been all the collaborating we’ve done with great people, both in terms of the clients and also the incredible bunch of independent creatives we’ve had the pleasure of meeting and working with.
For me, most of the challenges have surrounded the business and financial side of the equation. We’ve been finding a delicate balance between creatively challenging ourselves on projects right now and keeping on top of the new business to make sure we can continue to discover creative challenges in the future.
PT What led to Nathan joining as a partner?
CH Nathan and I met when he joined the shared workspace I was in. We were aware of each other's work and had mutual friends from our time working at agencies in London so we got on quickly.
I was coming up against my limits running a studio on my own and I was keen to find new ways of working. Whilst we both understood branding, Nathan had a broad digital skill set that I didn’t. I was always impressed with how he worked and what he produced but importantly, his values aligned with mine and he wanted to build something ambitious in Cornwall too.
NS We quickly learnt that we both had similar aspirations and views in terms of founding a studio and what it should represent. Working alongside one another, we not only got along as mates but started (accidentally) contributing to each other’s creative practice, pissing one another off by chipping in on ideas or critiquing things. Through this, we learned that we were creatively compatible and, beyond that, we both brought a slightly unique perspective to one another. To crudely categorise this, Charlie has experience in approaching projects from a brand/motion perspective whereas I come from a more brand/digital perspective. It felt like our collective experiences were a good combination with one another – similar enough to be complimentary but different enough that both our minds wouldn’t be batting around the same four walls.
I’m definitely more humble now that I realise how difficult running a business is!
PT How are your day-to-day responsibilities shared between you?
CH Creatively we both have equal involvement and oversee everything together – especially on branding projects. Nathan will often pick more digitally focused projects and I tend to do more of the motion but we are always keen to learn from one another so we mix it up when we can.
NS On the creative side of the studio, responsibilities are equal and tend to be shared in a couple of ways. Foremost it’s relationship-based. We fortunately both have previous collaborators who get back in touch about new ventures. In these cases, the person who is closest with them tends to lead the project. Secondly, it’s by sector. We both see ourselves as multidisciplinary but in cases where the work is exclusively motion-based or exclusively digital-based then we tend to decide project leads by that. In all of the cases above, we still very much take a collaborative approach, coming together at various parts of the project as we believe that alternate, fresh perspectives make better creative outcomes. Sometimes the less you know about how it’s supposed to be done, the better.
PT Do you think your approach and mindset have changed at all since launching Kiln?
CH I’m definitely more humble now that I realise how difficult running a business is! We’ve also had to become more adaptable to a wider variety of projects. Whilst that can be daunting at first, you soon realise how enjoyable it is to mix things up.
NS I’m not sure how my mindset or overall approach has changed but I feel like I’m constantly learning, developing and challenging myself on all fronts, especially due to the pace thus far. The majority of these developments have been in the areas I probably would have said were outside of the design process in the past. That and how to juggle a million things without melting.
PT What do you like to get up to outside of the studio?
CH For a little while the studio took over and that seemed to be all we did! Now that the days are longer and warmer I’m getting in the sea more for a swim or a surf. Nathan and I both know how demanding this industry is and one of the intentions behind Kiln was to find a better work-life balance. We live in a pretty unique area of the UK, so it’s important to make the most of that when you can.
NS Yes, as Charlie said. Without sounding like a Cornish stereotype, there is a lot of getting in the sea, being around it or sitting by it.
PT Can you tell us about your new website? What did you want to achieve?
CH We’ve always thought of the site as an opportunity to create another piece of work for our portfolio. We had been getting a number of website commissions and we thought that the site would be a perfect opportunity to show how we approach digital design. We wanted to strike a balance between something that felt familiar whilst introducing a few things we hoped people hadn’t seen before – or at least hadn’t seen used in that way. The navigation is something we’re particularly proud of for example.
NS We wanted the site to be an opportunity to introduce ourselves in a digital space in a more personal way, as well as open up the means in which we are able to express our ideas and share what we’ve been up to. Beyond that, we wanted the site to feel more alive, responding to people as they navigate through it, and capturing a little bit of our spirit.
We want to continue collaborating with clients who challenge us.
PT And congrats on reaching the funds for Waterbeing! Any updates you can share?
CH Thanks! Waterbeing is now finally finished after three long years. We’ll host the full film on our site at some point, but for now it’s doing the rounds at some festivals – most of which take place later in the year. Making time for personal projects like Waterbeing is something we’re keen to do more of. That particular one was a huge undertaking, so I’m enjoying taking a break from it for a little while…!
PT Do you have any plans in mind for the future of Kiln?
CH We’ve never been shy about wanting to grow the studio but lately we’ve been having more discussions about what the value behind that ambition is. First and foremost, it’s important that the studio continues to produce interesting and well-thought-through work. We want to continue collaborating with clients who challenge us and have equal ambition for brand and digital communication as we do.
NS In addition to what Charlie said, a lot of our current plans focus on how we can contribute to the design community in Cornwall. To us, that includes the people we surround ourselves with internally, our collaboration with creatives externally, and also our wider community.
Alongside working with great clients, we’re also keen to look at more self-initiated projects or new ways to challenge ourselves creatively. Whether that be through new creative projects, funding or through our own internal processes.
It’s all early days right now though, so we’ll hopefully share more in future.