Studio Sutherl& is famed for stripping back an idea to its very essence, with impressive results. Rosie Hilder discovers how the team of two do it
Studio Sutherl& reveal how to keep design simple yet effective
Studio Sutherl& has a knack for coming up with ideas so simple, you wonder why no one thought of them before. But it takes a lot of work and ingenuity to create such beautiful simplicity, and the award-winning studio – voted number one in the UK Studio Rankings last year – consists of just two people.
Recent projects include rebranding longestablished children’s brand Start-rite shoes, (which won a D&AD Wooden Pencil), reworking the identity of Agatha Christie Ltd (shortlisted for a Brand Impact Award 2018), and creating a visual identity for the new Museum + Gallery in St Albans. But how does such a small studio manage to outshine the heavyweights, and produce work that’s so consistently outstanding? We spoke to founder Jim Sutherland and designer Rosey Trickett to find out…
How did you start working together?
RT: It was a case of perfect timing really. I was trying to work out what my next step should be and I met Jim to get some advice. The week we ended up meeting Jim’s only designer had just gone freelance. We had a great chat and he gave me a lot of helpful advice on my portfolio and what sort of studios might be right for me. Then a day or two later he got in touch and mentioned that he was looking for a new designer and if that was of any interest we could talk about it more. Of course, I jumped at the chance, and it was incredible when he kindly offered me a job.
JS: It was beautiful serendipity.
What different skills do you bring to the table and how do you work together in practice?
JS: We both work on all the projects, we talk a lot and discuss ideas back and forth. We both often work on a number of projects concurrently and in tandem, it’s very open and collaborative. With so many projects on, I feel it’s a question of balance between focus and distraction – where possible I often go off and start new things in the midst of the current project.
RT: I made a career change to graphic design from photography so have some different reference points to bring in, which I think affects my work in some ways too. I love street photography so I carry a camera with me all the time and this has helped me to make interesting little observations I may not have otherwise
As Jim says, we both work on all projects and we are always working on and discussing multiple projects at the same time. When I started, I found it tricky to adjust to this level of multitasking but now I really enjoy it. I think talking about lots of projects at the same time is great as the learnings from one feed into another. Plus, it keeps it interesting as there are always things to be done so when you need a break from one project you can move on to another one for a bit, then come back to it with fresh eyes.
Do you often disagree on work? If so, how do you deal with that?
RT: We agreed from the off that it was best to be completely honest, so we have very open discussions. If we disagree, we will say so and then discuss it and try both ways out, but more often than not we tend to agree on projects.
JS: Most of the time, we develop
ideas and thoughts together – and we generally discuss them as we go. So by the time we come to really debate the final routes and options, we seem to be very aligned in our thinking.
You work on an awful lot of projects. How do you manage your workflow?
RT: It can get pretty intense as there’s only two of us and multiple projects going on at the same time that need a lot of care and attention. I think we hit a maximum workload earlier on in the year where it got a bit crazy, but it all eventually balanced out.
JS: I find this the hardest part of the studio. We nearly always have too much on – mainly because I say ‘yes’ too much. I get very excited about the potential of almost any project, but I just need to control the flow a little better. The lovely thing about having so many things on is that they spill over into each other, and that makes all the projects more rich and interesting.
How do you keep coming up with new ideas? Do you ever worry about running out?
JS: Of course you worry about keeping fresh and original – it’s a constant concern.
Often the projects themselves are unique so the solution can be as well, and there are always more ideas out there – it’s a question of finding them. That’s a question of knowing where to look, and what paths to take. I think the best work occurs at the edges of the studio, when you’re out and about, sitting in the pub, on a train, on a plane.
A lot of Studio Sutherl&’s work focuses on tactile products that make interesting use of print techniques. Can a solely digital project have the same stand-out appeal?
JS: I do love tactile print, especially in such a digital age. But of course digital projects can engage on an amazing level. Ideally you want to work on projects that can do both. For example, the Somos Brasil project is a lovely piece of physical print, but it combines with an app where you scan the images and the people start talking to you in Portuguese – it’s magical.
RT: I hadn’t done a huge amount of print before working at Studio Sutherl& and it’s been such a joy to do more of it. There definitely is something about the tactility that brings something special. Plus, we get to work with Boss Print a lot and they do everything with so much care and enthusiasm, which definitely helps. That said, I think you definitely can get the same result digitally and it’s something we’ve been talking a lot about doing recently. It’s a bit out of our
comfort zone but that’s exciting and encourages us to do better with something new.
Is recognition in the design industry important to the both of you?
JS: Recognition is lovely, obviously, especially when you work in a small isolated studio, but fundamentally you need to concentrate on the work itself.
RT: I think the most important thing is doing work that you feel proud of and if it gets recognition and awards then that’s brilliant, as it shows it’s made an impact on other people too.
You’ve designed over 50 stamps for the Royal Mail. There are clearly challenges to working in such a small format, what are the benefits?
JS: It’s a dream project. You have to try and distil a subject and idea down to the simplest and smallest of elements. It’s hard, but so rewarding – and you get to post yourself letters with your own stamps on.
Do you know immediately when you’ve found that sweet spot of simplicity or do you need to take a step back?
JS: I love creating work that looks effortless. Often it’s a question of removing layers until you’re left with the fundamental idea. I think it’s the question of a simple idea – even though the execution itself may be layered and complex.
RT: Working with Jim is a masterclass in saying more with less. I love the challenge of keeping things simple. It’s always tempting to keep adding but it takes real self-determination and confidence to strip things away.
Your ethos is to ‘find the joy in each project’. Do you think it would show in the work if you didn’t enjoy a project?
JS: I believe that the more joy you put into a project, the more joy that comes out the other end for the audience. In the same way as when you hear a piece of fabulous music where you can tell the musicians have enjoyed the playing. That doesn’t mean you don’t have to work extremely hard, but then I don’t view it as ‘work’. Life is too short to spend any time not enjoying what you do. We are so privileged to work in this sphere.
You only work for people you like. How can you tell this at the beginning of a project?
JS: I do think you get a gut feel when you meet people: do I want to spend time and energy with this person? Do they want to do an amazing job? I think it’s essential that you work for the person in charge and build a trust and rapport with
them directly. In doing this, it’s far easier to learn what’s desired and meet those expectations.
What’s next for Studio Sutherl&?
JS: I’m delighted with the studio and how it’s developing and we have no plans to expand. I don’t think you’re ever where you want to be, but as long as you’re going in the right direction, and enjoying the journey, then all is well.
I would like to keep flexible and nimble. For me, small is beautiful. And then we can build teams for specific projects. I’d like to do more three-dimensional work, such as signage and exhibitions. I’d also love to do an amazing digital project of some kind.
Finally, do you have any advice for small studios who’d like to up their game and work with more high-profile clients?
JS: Do every project in front of you superbly – that’s the best new business I know. For me it’s the work itself that is the key, everything else comes from that. Immerse yourself in the visual world and feed your brain – it comes out in the work. And finally, work incredibly hard and never do it for the money.
Above: Studio Sutherl& created a new identity for Agatha Christie Ltd, which uses a ‘c’ and ‘?’ to form a new ‘a’ monogram.Below: Somos Brasil book spread: a collaboration with photographer Marcus Lyon. The project maps the ancestral DNA and stories of over 100 Brazilians via a book and digital app.Opposite, above: A new identity created for St Albans Museum + Gallery combines simple yet effective images with an equally tasteful wordmark.Opposite, below: Rebrand of 230-year-old Start-Rite shoes, created using a watermark using the feet of the brand’s iconic twins.