Interview: Graphical House

Graphical House is a design studio in Scotland.

What is your design background?

We have a diverse and slightly unconventional background in terms of design. Between us we have two Degrees in Graphic Design, one in Interior Design, one in Architecture and one in Photography. Historically we have a mix of employment experience too. The three founding partners all met whilst working at Graven Images, a Graphic and Interior Design Consultancy based in Glasgow. Daniel and Colin moved on ISO Design and Third Eye Design (now Marque Creative), respectively, for a while before the formation of Graphical House. Whilst Graeme remained at Graven Images. Aside from the variety of our qualifications these initial years provided a wide range of experiences in working with all kinds of media and all kinds of clients, this has definitely been invaluable in the development of Graphical House. Gabriel joined us straight from Cumbria Institute of the Arts after spending some time on placement. After completing his Architecture qualifications Tony spent a short time working for the Scottish Arts Council before founding Skratch Design, which he grew and developed for ten years prior to the merger with Graphical House in 2010.

How did Graphical House start?

The initial idea to start a company was borne out of a desire to have more control over the kind of work we were producing and the kind of clients we were working with. We also had the sense that we had topped out in terms of our positions within the companies we were working for, there didn’t really feel like there was much scope to move forward. Our motivations for running our own company have always been very clear and really quite simple. To produce high quality, effective work for clients who appreciate and value it. And to enjoy the process.

We started the company in stages to ease the pressure of finding clients and earning cash. Daniel began working under the Graphical House name and was joined six months later by Graeme then Colin another six months after that. So really we formed over the course of a year and a half. Slow and steady is definitely our approach. Our aim is to expand slowly and retain direct contact with the work we produce as a company. Gabriel joined us in 2006 and was a obvious choice. Since then we’ve had a couple of people who’ve come and gone but retained a working relationship with us.

Then in late 2009 we approached Tony (Skratch Design) to see if he would be interested in joining forces. We’d known him for some time and admired his work and felt like a merger would make a lot of sense for us both. Thankfully he felt the same so the new Graphical House was formed in January 2010, and so far all is going very well indeed.

Do you remember how you landed your first client?

Our first Client was The Lighthouse, Scotland’s Centre for Architecture, Design and the City. We had an existing relationship with them from previous projects completed at other companies. They approached us to pitch for a signage project in the building. Studio Mariscal in Barcelona had designed the original signage solution for the space but it wasn’t working terribly well. However the board felt it was important to retain within the building as part of it’s ‘original features’. The problem was to design a system which would allow optimal understanding of the difficult space without clashing with the existing signage, which was essentially just decorative.

The pitch was against 4 other companies and thankfully we won it. This lead to a long and very worthwhile relationship with The Lighthouse which went on right until the building sadly closed in late 2009. As a client directly involved with the design industry and with a deep understanding of the value of design The Lighthouse enabled us to produce some of our best work which then attracted many other new clients with similar values.

What inspires your work?

It’s almost impossible to answer this question in a specific way. I think we are inspired by many, many things. As a group we all have an avid interest in all things creative and cultural, political and industrial. Design, art, film, music, architecture, literature, people, places… It’s hard to think of something that doesn’t influence us in some way. I would guess that is true for many designers. However I think it’s important to note that inspiration doesn’t necessarily come from a positive source. Often inspiration comes from seeing something wrong.

Do you have a specific approach to projects? Or does it depend?

Again this is tough to answer. Essentially we do and we don’t. We specifically treat each new project on its own terms but our overall design ethos tends to inform how we go about producing an effective response to the project. This is driven by a desire to arrive at the best possible outcome for all concerned. Exactly how that happens is often dictated as much by the client as by ourselves. This is where the relationship with the client becomes so important. These conversations are essential to the design development

What do you feel is right/wrong with the design industry?

The main problems with the design industry seems to be to do with it’s perception rather than the industry itself. Of course though, the industry is entirely responsible for how it’s perceived. In the UK we have one of the most innovative and creative design industries in the world, however we are maybe, ironically, not that good at communicating that fact. Designers tend to be secretive and protective, almost defensive of their work, (it’s easy to see why sometimes though). As an industry we need to represent ourselves better and take a more united approach.

From a very early age in the UK we are not presented with Design as a specialist, stand-alone subject. It is often bunched together with others, Art & Design, Craft Design & Technology. Design is an absolutely fundamental part of everybody’s day-to-day life and yet it often goes unnoticed and unappreciated. The rare occasions that the subject does enter the public awareness are in situations of controversy, Olympic and Commonwealth logos for example. And in those situations the lack of understanding and education amongst those commenting is staggering and very saddening.

If design was a more deliberate part of our lives from an earlier age then as a nation we would understand it better, appreciate it more, use it more effectively and be even more successful at it.

Graphical House is a highly decorated with awards, is that something you look to do, or is it more of a “if we win, we win” type of thing?

Awards are tricky. On the one hand they are largely a subjective affair that has no real meaning other than to generate income for whatever magazine of organisation is running them. On the other hand clients are often impressed by them, plus it’s nice to get a prize from time to time. We would never produce work with the idea that ‘it might win an award’ But if we have made something that we think is particularly successful, we enter it and see what happens.

How do you feel Scotland fits on the British design landscape?

Sometimes the assumption is that Scotland lags behind the rest of the UK a little. But in my experience that’s not the case. The industry is smaller up here and budgets tend to be tighter so things can be a little more difficult. However this can often lead to a more a innovative and tenacious attitude.

Traditionally the design industry is London-centric, however there does seem to be a bit of a shift towards the North. Certainly in Scotland we have a lot of largish consultancies who produce big budget, corporate work and compete on a regular basis with firms from the rest of the UK and Europe. But, as with the rest of the UK, the more interesting and innovative work is produced by the smaller firms, with less of a salary bill. At Graphical House we produce a fair amount of work for clients outside of Scotland, including mainland Europe and London. For the most part the distance isn’t an issue, it also has the bonus of cutting down on endless, pointless meetings!

Over the next few years the UK will be looking very closely at Scotland in the build up to the Commonwealth Games, which, as mentioned earlier, have already run into some design related controversy, about which I’m sure opinions are divided. Whatever your view, the next few years present an important opportunity to do some great work and demonstrate the quality of the industry in Scotland, not only to the wider International audience but also to Scotland itself.

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