It seems like only yesterday that two of us handed in our notice at a small design agency in Clifton Village to start up blu inc. Liz, my business partner-to-be, and I both knew we were pretty decent at this graphic design malarkey, but our time at Milton Alexander Design Associates had also taught us a fair bit about how to run our own show.
Our boss, Roger Milton-Goodhead, was a fantastic guy on many levels. Among his accolades, he managed to blag the use of a print press owned by The Salvation Army to produce the infamous Oz magazine in the mid-70s; he made and subsequently lost a fortune – twice. First through specialist-breed pig farming and then stained-glass installations on P&O ferries; he would book Concorde to hit New York of a weekend; he drove a swanky, old-school Range Rover and, being a champion of office smoking, he was partial to a pack of Dunhill Menthols during work hours. But Liz and I weren’t sure quite how sustainable this lifestyle was on the income of a small design agency. On reflection, it was vital ‘business experience’ (in the way of do’s and the odd don’t) for us both at the dawn of starting our own agency.
That was 20 years ago this August.
blu inc started out in a loosely converted old garage on the legendary Moon Street (home of the defunct but wonderfully sweaty Moon Club) in Bristol city centre. The Blue Mountain Club at one end, Lakota at the other, and us slap-bang in the middle. We were at the back of Stokes Croft, tucked away from the main road, with our neighbours being experts in the art of cut-and-shut and local homeless people using our doorway as a pissoir.
From Moon Street via a grand Georgian town house in Brunswick Square, we are still ahead of the curve in avoiding the ‘fashionable’ areas of Bristol.
This was before the gentrification of Stokes Croft; it was also pre-beards, pre-flat whites and well before any kind of hipster jive talk. We had a 56k dial-up modem hooked up to one of the computers in the corner of the studio, which we fired up twice a day to the delicate sound of pshhhkkkkkkrrrr-kakingkakingkaking-tshchchchchchchchcch-dingdingding. I clearly remember receiving our first PDF file via email: I was gobsmacked that a piece of design could look as it was intended to in print, all wrapped up in a tiny file that could be sent to and read by nearly any computer in the world. Shut the door.
Since then we have completed nearly five thousand projects and worked with over a hundred different clients; websites are now less about the fold and more about social feeds, and our internet connection is on a then-unimaginable 24/7. Shut the door again.
From Moon Street via a grand Georgian town house in Brunswick Square, we are still ahead of the curve in avoiding the ‘fashionable’ areas of Bristol; we now revel in the oomska of Bedminster and our current neighbours are a demolition company and a sauna offering specialist activities for grown-ups. But we are still a small, close-knit team, now working out of a studio in an old fire station close to the city centre. We are still graphic designers, which means that we will design anything from an old-fashioned business card to a complete corporate identity; from a simple holding page to a full-on, bells-and-whistles website.
As statistician Professor Edward R. Tufte once noted, ‘Design cannot rescue failed content’.
I realise this might sound as if we are trying to cover all bases. And you’d be right to think that. All the bases we cover are ‘designed’. A decent graphic designer can design for any sector and any size of organisation (resources permitting). If the client–designer relationship is based on trust and respect, and you like each other, then that’s all you need to start. After that, there’s the obvious, like working to budget and hitting deadlines, and producing good-looking, relevant work. The reason I mention this is that, very occasionally, a client will turn round and say, ‘I didn’t realise you designed logos as well’. Part of our job is to educate existing and potential clients about what we do, and what we can ‘design’. If in doubt, just ask us.
There are areas of creativity that we can’t cover which occasionally fall within the remit of a project. That’s why we have spent years building relationships with a team of people who can help turn a good-looking piece of creative into something that not only works visually but also reads well and is based on some sort of research. Words are overlooked all too often. I know that attention spans have been slashed and that time is tighter than ever, but there is little point in launching a website, sending out an e-shot or mailing a printed brochure if it looks amazing but reads like a bored schoolchild’s homework produced under parental duress – as statistician Professor Edward R. Tufte once noted, ‘Design cannot rescue failed content’.
We’re a dedicated team who enjoy what we do. Of course, we don’t always have all the answers, but we will work really hard for you.
So we have photographer Sean Malyon; illustrators and animators Adrian Barclay and Bjørn Lie; wordsmiths Writers; translation experts Brightlines; editor and proofreader Helen Birkbeck; printers Typoretum and Taylor Brothers; marketers Skookum, and David Abbott for all things internet (who occasionally pumps out a mean screen print too), plus Microsoft templates by Tim ‘Auburn’ Roe. Many design agencies would want you to think that all these skills are part of their full in-house service: a sprawling agency offering. Generally, they are not. Employing people full-time who are skilled in these areas can be costly and even counterproductive. We bring in experienced and talented people as and when the job requires. The key to this is that we oversee and manage this process so that you don’t have to. We have this down pretty pat now. Trust us. You are more than welcome to pick your own or go direct, but the wheels can fall off very quickly if you don’t have the experience to deal with a whole bunch of unruly creatives.
We genuinely like most of our clients. And I think that most of our clients like us – although there is no legitimate research to show this.
We’re a dedicated team who enjoy what we do. Of course, we don’t always have all the answers, but we will work really hard for you. Above all, we get results for our clients (see what they say about us), and we have a solid track record of working with environmental, not-for-profit, social enterprises and charitable and third-sector organisations. We have also carved a niche in the tricky world of design for public engagement. We’re not entirely sure how this happened, but we’re thankful for the work – it’s varied, interesting and lively!
Of course, we work with lots of other types, and sizes, of clients and organisations (see our client list). Some require super-attentiveness for minimal cash; others have healthy, sensible budgets for big jobs. We’ll tackle almost anything; it’s all graphic design work for us. I think that’s one of the reasons we are 20 – we like to keep it varied. Twenty years have also brought the privilege of being able to choose whom to work with and what projects to take on. We genuinely like most of our clients. And I think that most of our clients like us – although there is no legitimate research to show this.
If you want to chat over an upcoming or potential project, or you’d just like to have an overview of what stuff you have now and how it might be improved, drop us a line. A visit in person is always recommended – Temple Meads railway station is just round the corner (we can come and meet you) and we’re only a five-minute light canter from the city centre.