We Design Confidence: Studio NinetyOne on building a studio across borders with a work-life balance
In the post-lockdown age, remote working practices are stronger than ever. And this is certainly the case with Studio NinetyOne, based in neighbouring countries England and France. We spoke with their Co-Creative Directors Sam Hextall and Sophie Azaïs; finding out all about their creative partnership, including how they optimise the remote studio setup and why their collaboration showcases their strengths.
PT Hi Sam and Sophie! How are you both?
SH Feeling great. Finally got through the winter and the numerous bouts of mega flu and feeling positive about the year ahead. A few exciting projects in the pipeline, it’s going to be fun.
SA Feeling grateful.
PT Out of curiosity, where did the name Studio NinetyOne come from?
SH Haha. Oh no, I thought you might ask this. It was simply the door number of the flat I was living in after university. I know it’s not very creative or descriptive but it seemed to work. As the studio took shape (it was just me at the time) it just seemed like a non-pretentious and honest starting point. Originally it was written 91 but Sophie and I decided to make it NinetyOne a few years ago. Typographically it’s nicer to look at, a lot more human, and a lot warmer.
SA To be honest we have often spoken about changing the name to resonate more with what the studio has become. We are not actively exploring options. I believe it will just appear to us one day, probably when talking about something else. Right now we are enjoying being Studio NinetyOne.
We make it a point to attend all meetings together.
PT How did you two first meet, and when did you decide to run the studio together?
SA I joined the studio five years ago as a middleweight designer. I didn’t know about the studio before but really liked their approach. After a few interviews, Sam offered me the job and it just clicked! A few months later I was made senior designer and so on. As the months went on we realised that we started to have equal weight when working on projects. One day, during a long drive back from visiting a client, we discussed at length the future of the studio. By the time we got back to London, we had agreed to run the studio together. It just made sense. I can’t remember who the client was but it must have been a very successful meeting!
PT What would you say your strengths are? And how do you complement each other?
SA I think our main strength is that Sam and I have different personalities.
The perfect balance. We are quite different in the way we approach things but importantly we have the same end vision. Over the last five years, we’ve fine-tuned the structure of our process to ensure that it takes into account and adapts to our unique individualities. A tailored framework to deliver the shared vision.
SH As co-creative directors in a two-person studio, Sophie and I have clearly defined roles but collaborate extensively across various aspects of our projects. While I focus on new business and strategic planning, Sophie directs her energy towards the creative side of things. However, we both have plenty of experience in each other’s roles and continually contribute to each other’s strengths to enhance a project’s quality.
For us, it’s crucial to maintain a deep understanding of the project and the client at every stage of the process. That’s why we make it a point to attend all meetings together, ensuring that we can offer a joint perspective and that no aspect of the project is overlooked.
PT Can you tell us a bit about your positioning as a studio? What does ‘We Design Confidence’ mean to you and your prospective clients?
SH We spent a lot of time deep thinking about positioning, it’s such a big topic in our industry. We wanted to avoid vertical positioning as we love the variation and freshness we get from working across sectors and in new spaces. We wanted to use our positioning to give an insight into our take on design, our stance.
The more clients we have worked with, the more we really understood what great design did for them. We realised that we weren’t handing over logos and guidelines, we were giving business owners confidence. Sometimes that’s confidence in themselves, sometimes it’s confidence in the business they have created and always it’s building their customers’ faith in their brand. This perspective has enabled us to sense-check the success of our projects in an interesting and tangible way. It’s a feeling, it’s brand charisma. When we design a brand full of confidence it doesn’t need to be constantly pushed by the founders, it pulls them forward, their pride in the business energises and inspires them.
It’s also helped shape us as a studio. We are confident in our beliefs, confident to be brutally honest with our clients, confident that just the two of us can deliver, confident in our setup and ways of working. Confidence is one of the most powerful gifts you can give a client, or anyone for that matter.
PT Whereabouts do you both primarily work from?
SH We have a base in London but, as a result of COVID, we both predominantly work remotely. I’m based in Cornwall and Sophie is based in La Rochelle, France. It’s been a real game changer for us and we are so lucky to be able to be where we really want to live. The acceptance of online meetings has given us this freedom and the quality of our work has not suffered.
SA I have been set up in La Rochelle for a year now in a studio space in a cultural hub shared with other businesses. Working from France, it was important for me to still work in an energetic environment, not alone at home. I feel so happy to have found such an international and cultural space in La Rochelle. It’s really enriching to be surrounded not only by creative people but also entrepreneurs, encouraging collaboration and knowledge sharing.
PT As a remote studio, how often do you see each other in person?
SH This varies. We can go months without seeing each other in person but we make sure that we use video calls often. We meet in London for critical meetings and at key times of the year, Christmas, etc. Now that Sophie is settled in France we also plan to meet out there. Another location in a different country and culture can only help grow the creative mind… the weather is pretty nice there too!
Work is like sleep... it has to be tailored to the individual.
PT How would you describe the day-to-day life of NinetyOne?
SA We work on French time, which ties in well as Sam has two small children. Shifting his day forward by an hour or so fits better with their needs. Some days when we both have clear and defined work to do we will briefly touch base first thing. Probably just a quick message on Skype. Other days we may spend a few hours on a video call workshopping a challenging aspect of a project which requires both of our skill sets.
SH The four-day week is just part of our experimentation with productivity. Work is like sleep, we can’t all go to bed at 10pm and wake up at 6am, some of us will lie awake for hours. It has to be tailored to the individual. There is a sweet spot for productivity and this, I believe anyway, is often undermined by forced windows of creativity and lack of the reward of ‘life.’ The mind is a tool which works best with space and freedom. When we take on a project it’s always on our minds.
We actually work seven days a week but the ideas develop as we mix them with real life, real experiences and real visual stimulus. Those ideas that develop over a weekend are nearly always better than the Tuesday 10am ideas. As long as you have a strong guiding process and can deliver quality work on time, then surely a richer, more flexible work-life balance is the way forward. We are less stressed, more connected and far more productive with this new setup. We are not sacrificing one thing for another.
PT What led you to choose Cornwall and La Rochelle as working locations? Can you tell us about your relationship with the areas?
SH I spent a lot of my life in Cornwall when growing up. A few years before lockdown my wife and I decided to make the move out of the city with our young kids. Our hearts were in Cornwall but it was a nerve-racking decision to leave East London and I worried about the implications on the business. We ended up moving a few months before COVID hit and suddenly the working landscape changed forever. It really was the silver lining on the cloud of COVID. It allowed the studio to strengthen without its credibility being undermined. Cornwall is a wild and natural place that can facilitate really deep thinking. Our strategy has improved since the move. Many of my strongest ideas come during a surf or a swim in the sea. The kind of work we do doesn’t happen by staring at a screen or being trapped at a desk. Cornwall is also full of incredible businesses and a lot of talented young entrepreneurs with great energy. There are things really starting to happen here and it’s nice to be a part of its future.
SA I love London so much but I always knew that I would come back home to France at some point. I remember during my first interview, Sam asked me where I envisioned myself in five years’ time – I remember replying something like “having a house in France with my own screen-printing workshop.” Five years later, here we go, I am back in France, soon to have a workshop (hopefully!) and co-directing a studio across borders!
Being in London, you get the creative vibe from every corner, always surrounded by beautiful design and strong identities. Living out of the city, it’s important to find inspiration elsewhere. With direct links to London and Paris and just a few hours to my family, La Rochelle is a good balance. It’s a cultural and dynamic city while still being of a human size and surrounded by beautiful nature to escape and get inspired.
PT Which projects would you say best represent you as a studio?
SA This is a tricky one. I believe that all our projects represent us but in unique ways, specific projects highlight our specific characteristics. As Sam mentioned above, we want to avoid getting trapped in one sector, which means all our branding projects are really varied in their scope, style and output. We often bring a fresh take to a sector and try to see opportunities others have not. We want all of our client’s brands to be a success story. Every project gets our full attention at every stage so we hope that it’s actually the consistency of quality across our entire portfolio that represents us best.
SH I love Sophie’s point about consistency but I also think each project on a timeline shows an evolution, a maturing of thought and approach. We take ourselves more seriously now but also, at the same time, less seriously. We have become more grounded in what we are doing.
So perhaps it’s the next project that represents us best… that excites us. The unknown possibilities, the creative challenges, and the opportunity to make a meaningful impact on a business. The next project has the most developed and refined version of the studio guiding it forward. We are always learning from the past, but also fascinated by the future and the unknown. It’s this willingness to push boundaries and explore uncharted territory that truly embodies our studio’s ethos.
PT How do you think the studio will evolve in the future? Do you have any plans to expand?
SA Our hope is to be able to grow our set-up in France and in Cornwall, with more than one person working in both countries and be able to expand locally. We don’t envision the studio to ever be more than 10 people, we always liked working as a small team. We will grow at the right time and with the right people, we are curious to see what the future holds.