"My advice, plan your career... it's important to have a sense of vision."
Ever wondered what a career in Design & Branding would look like? I chat with Colin Goodhew, Creative Director of Lucid Brand, about his career path, the highs and lows, the ups and downs. The things he wished he'd known before starting his own business and why the man with the hairy mole wanted him for Singapore. You can see the full interview on our Instagram page.
S: Thank you for joining me! So, how did you get into branding & design in the first place?
C: I went to a good school but it wasn’t really good for me and I came out with some pretty poor results. The only thing I could do was draw, and the other thing I liked at the time was motorbikes so I went to the careers officer and he said to go off and be an Illustrator. So, I did a City & Guilds course and became an Illustrator. After about two or three years doing that, I realised I could do more. Then I read a book by David Ogilvie about advertising, which made me think great, I want to go into advertising, earn lots of money and have lots of fun. I signed up for a degree course at Maidstone College of Arts in Advertising & Design, (I didn’t realise this at the time but Maidstone and Norwich were the best courses in the country for Design and I was very fortunate to go there) but in the first year the head of the course came up to me and said, ”Col, you’re not really an advertising kind of guy, you’re a designer. You should change at the end of the year and do Design”.
S: What made him say that?
C: The first year is really interesting, they give you a set of tasks to do. Each task is a component of being a designer or communicator, but they’re isolated. As a course it’s very conceptual…they wanted people to think about how they communicate, why they communicate, how they can create an interesting message to create impact and use wit. One brief was to design a poster for a film director and I designed a black screen with the title running off at the top and his name scrolling off at the bottom, like at the end of a film. The head of course came back to me and asked where I’d seen the idea. I said nowhere, it just seemed like a good idea to me. It wasn’t until a few years later, when I was leafing through something from Coleman or Pushman Studios and saw that they’d done exactly the same thing. These, at the time were the Gods of Design, and my solution had been the same as theirs. So obviously the head of course had picked up very early that I could put together ideas to create something new (hence the push towards Design). I put everything I had into it. Every task they set me I worked really hard to do and I had a vision of where I wanted to go. So, lesson number one, work hard.
In the second year, you all do a placement. I’d heard of a company called The Partners who were the UK's no. 1 Design Consultancy at the time, they were just everywhere. Their work was stunning, beautiful, clever and witty. Maidstone had connections with this company and three of my friends were going up for an interview for a summer job so I tagged onto that. I put my portfolio together, showed them my work, and they offered me a 2 week placement. They gave me some tasks, like organising paper and things first, and then I worked on Boddington's beer to design a pale ale label. The guy I was working for asked if I could come back after my holiday for the rest of summer, which I did and I worked really hard. I really, really enjoyed it. This place was just a hub of creativity and at the end of the summer one of the partners said there would be a job for me when I left college. I thought, wow, that’s cool and what came out was something I really understood and enjoyed. I love designing things, the rest of it can go away, the money, the politics, the looking after your time sheets. If I could just sit down and design things I’d be really happy, but life isn’t like that. I remember a year in and reading a magazine survey on where graduates wanted to work, and The Partners came top of the list. So that was my springboard. It was a very creative environment. But, you don’t do great things by yourself. You do great things with other people, whether that’s with a client or other people on a project to bring together the right copy or photography to create something which is which is good. During that time, I won a stack of awards, including the Grand Prix of the Consort Royal awards which was really nice.
S: To get that kind of recognition, that’s not something that everyone achieves.
"Great work isn't about getting awards, the focus is on improving business. That's the fundamental difference you make."
C: It’s not, but it’s stems from that environment and the great team of people. Also the direction you have from the partners themselves. The awards are great, however, there is a bit of nepotism about it and the same names crop up time and time again which concerned me. I also realised that great work isn’t about getting awards, the focus is on improving business. That's the fundamental difference you make. And from there… (he laughs) I made a mistake - I didn’t go to the summer party one year which was deemed not a good thing, and I found myself in not the best position.
I moved on to a very different company called Samson Tyrrell which was all about the commercial and the bottom line, which was different to The Partners. I spent two or three years there before I moved again. This time, it was not a good career path but I didn’t realise that at the time.
S: What was it about them that made you think that?
C: Again, they were very commercial but they didn’t have that star value. When you work for The Partners or Samson Tyrell, people respond to you in a very different way. The third company, based in Wimbledon, were doing good work but it wasn’t a spring board up to the next level. They had a good solid client base though.
S: What were you working on there?
I worked for companies like Royal Mail, Shell, BP, Eurotunnel, TSB doing corporate guidelines and brochures, all big corporate names up in the middle of Covent Garden. It was a great company to work for, socially it was brilliant. Then one day after working there for a couple of years this chinese man with a big mole (and the longest hairs growing out of it you've ever seen) turned up. DIA were part of the Lopez Group which had connections to Singapore. This guy wanted to set up a Design Agency there and use the DIA brand name. The boss said no but asked if anyone wanted to go over there to set something up with him, and I thought that sounded interesting! A business manager went over there first to assess the opportunity and then he asked me to join him. He set the company up and I went in as Creative Director. We started with a student and a graduate, and within two years we grew it to six to eight people maybe more. We were doing work for the big banks, food manufacturers, exhibition design, government and Singapore Airlines.
S: Was it just companies based in Singapore or was it for other companies elsewhere in Asia or China?
"Choose the right business partner. All success is team work."
C: At that point it was only companies in Singapore. Nigel, the business manager, did a really good job. He was a business man and that’s something I’m not. He pulled the clients in and I did great work. That meant we got more clients and it kind of spiralled up but by the end of two years I’d worked myself to the bone, was burnt out and homesick. I’d asked for Board Directorship to move up to another level which I didn’t get and the bonus didn’t materialise, so I decided to go home. Nigel carried on and opened up a company in Malaysia, China and Australia and he’s done enormously well. He’s possibly one of the most articulate men I know about brands, he is phenomenal. So, lesson number two is not just work hard but also choose the right business partner. All success is team work!
S: You were saying about having good people that you can work with in a team, you also need people that you can trust. Do you think he was the right person to go out there with?
"Plan your career."
C: The business wouldn’t have been a success without him. I would never have done what he did and I could have stayed there. If I’d had my eye on the future more and understood…Well, if we roll back a bit, school didn’t give me a sense of vision and because I was at a grammar school and didn’t work very hard, I always felt like I was failing. I didn’t think about a career as a career, I was a designer. I didn’t think about growing a business and the fact that Nigel would go on to create four or five other businesses or that if I’d stayed I could have gone to Australia or Malaysia. I didn’t have a vision about that. Was he the right guy to go out there with? He had insight and his background was in design but he was very much a business manager, so the experience wouldn’t have been the same. So, in some ways yes because the business grew and I had a great time, in some ways no because he got what he wanted and I didn’t. We never had that 'we’re in it together' bond. So, lesson number three - plan your career.
S: Aside from the past year, what’s the biggest hurdle you’ve had to overcome in your career so far?
"Don't get arrogant... don't think you can work without other people. Always maintain your friendships. Some of the people I worked with went on to become global businessmen."
C: The biggest thing, which is a really simple thing actually, is don't get arrogant. Don't think that you're important, don't think that you can work without other people. Always maintain your friendships. Always try and take an objective point of view about something, don’t make decisions based on emotions. During your life, you will work with people who are really good. They might have personality quirks, you might not like the way they dress or some things they say, but keep in touch with them. Give them some wiggle room because everybody moves on, everybody grows and the people I was with at Samson Tyrell which I didn’t really maintain much contact with went on to become global businessmen who run big organisations... and if I’d have maintained those friendships and put some effort into it then that would have been a really good idea! It’s much more difficult after a five or ten year hiatus to ring somebody up and say, “Hi, it's Colin here, got any work?” (he laughs).
S: So keeping your friends close is good idea?
"Mind your manners, be nice, be kind, be thoughtful."
C: Yes, keep your friends close. There’s no such thing as enemies (well maybe one or two) but very few and far between. Be friends with people. Mind your manners, be nice, be kind, be thoughtful, think about other people and help them. Giving is really important. I learned that later in life - not at the beginning! If you help people… just help them. The more you can do that, the better.
S: It is important, especially at the moment. Each of us have different qualities or skills we can use to help other people in small ways, and that creates momentum in the people that you've helped, to do the same for other people because it's a nice feeling isn't it?
C: Yeah, and why do I help people? I don’t know, it’s because I can. I don't expect anything back from it. It’s the right thing to do.
S: Although you often do get it returned.
C: But it’s not what you’re looking for, it’s not a favour based thing. Often, when I help people it’s through design and I love designing, so it’s not much of a chore.
"Know your weaknesses."
There are other big learnings as well, you’ve got to know your weaknesses. I know I'm a designer, not a business person and I'm not great at new business so if I start the company again to grow it, I’m going to get somebody involved who is good at business and can bring in new business. I’ve got to fill that gap.
"Manage your money."
Another thing is to manage your money, it doesn’t always last. About eight years ago I decided to grow the business. It was just me at the time and my nephew, so we worked together and at a point we were doing really well. I put money back into the business but at some point it would have been a good idea to take some out and put it into the house or a pension! When Brexit came, all the money I'd made, I lost. So get some good financial advice as well about how to run a business.
S: You've spoken about your biggest hurdles and we touched on Brexit. Explain a little bit about what happened with your company.
"I started my own business, grew the client base and things were going great guns. And then the stock markets crashed."
C: In 2008, I’d come back from Singapore and decided I was never going to work for anyone else again. I was tired of working the stupid hours and coming away with nothing, so I freelanced. And because I had a good portfolio I freelanced with some great companies. Again, I worked hard and it was no trouble. Being a freelancer is really enjoyable, because when you freelance you go and work in a company do some design work and then you leave, and that's it. There are no problems. There are no ongoing political issues. Once you’ve done the job that’s required of you, you move on to what’s happening next. I would mostly go back to the same companies but I didn’t have the same emotional investment, if that makes sense? So I did that for a while and then suddenly one of the clients' I’d been working with said to me, "We want you to do our annual report." At that point, I’d thought about starting my own business, so I said yes. I started my own business, waited for my own clients, grew the client base and things were going great guns. And then the stock markets crashed.
The trouble with design as a business is that it’s subject to the winds of financial fortunes, so when the market goes down, and this is the third time its happened with (the banking collapse,) Brexit and Coronovirus, people don’t spend money on the things that they don't think they need. Although, they really do need marketing and design to get them out of that. In 2008, I had a studio near Borough Market and money coming in – a good income, and the markets crashed. Work dried up overnight. I had a few clients doing bits of work but not enough to maintain a studio, and I was employing people so I had to let them go. It's not a nice experience and again something I should have learned from the first time. It all collapsed down and I built a studio in my garden which I’m working from again now.
"I was determined for the same problem not to happen again. I got some strategists in to work with me to create a development plan for the company. The idea was to take the business to another level... you've got to be very careful about your strategies."
Brexit was another one of those things for me. After 2008, I was determined for the same problem not to happen again. I got some strategists in to work with me to create a development plan for the company. The idea was to take the business to another level. I had five people working for me, and the idea was to grow the business by going for bigger clients because I was convinced by the strategists that I had everything (he laughs). So I did, but I was based in Epsom and when I started chasing those bigger clients, they were looking for companies in London and I was up against the big boys. My small business didn't fulfil that profile. And so, the problem with attacking bigger clients, is that they don't come along too often. I invested a lot of time in chasing a new client and if the client came off then great, if not you’ve invested four or five months of work, of your time, into nothing. So, you’ve got to be very careful about your strategies.
I was confident Brexit wouldn't happen because it was a stupid thing to do (from my point of view), but I didn’t realise the disillusionment that people had in the country. I woke up the next morning (after the vote) and I was in shock. Of course, I knew at that point that things were going to change. We hit a period of uncertainty and as soon as you hit that the market contracts, straight away all those people in creative industries suffer…and I did. The pipeline I had, just stopped. I had £30k - £40k worth of brand identity work due to come in from one client which didn't happen. I was left with four staff who I was desperate to keep, but I couldn't. I kept them too long, spent through my reserves thinking things will get better but they didn't.
S: It's not something that happens all the time but it is a major event, an external factor that affects the market generally. A political event is not something that maybe small businesses would think of necessarily in terms of what's going to hit you.
"When the market contracts like that, there are still companies that need work, there are still companies that want to grow their businesses and still need new branding. You just need to move your sights."
C: You should plan for it, because it happens every ten years or so… the 1990s, 2008, 2019. Knowing those things, you have to be prepared for what happens when the market changes, when new competition comes in and when legislation changes. When the market contracts like that, there are still companies that need work, there are still companies that want to grow their businesses and still need new branding. You just need to move your sights away from the big companies to the small companies. I didn’t have that plan.
S: The latest event being Coronovirus is where you started to look at how you could help small businesses develop their branding strategy. That’s where you jumped in and offered to help us and used the model from Strategyzer which was really useful.
"I thought I ought to know more about brand strategy, how to find your values and audience. My plan is to take that understanding of bigger companies and bring it to small companies."
C: It was quite complex though, wasn't it? When Covid hit, I understand brand, brand communications, how to create language that people like, but I thought I ought to know more about brand strategy. I spent the first six months delving into brand strategy and how to build a company brand. How to communicate values, how to find your values, how to find out the audience you should be working for in order to target those. My plan is to take that understanding of working for bigger companies, that knowledge of brand and bring it to small companies. Another element to being a designer is the ability to see the benefit of your work. If you do great work for smaller companies and see them grow, you see that you've done something that works for them and achieves what they want... then that’s a real pleasure.
I'd much rather be in that place where I’m still doing good work, still get paid for it, still earning a good living out of it but where I can help people. I've been fortunate in the past, to do one or two projects which were which were really beneficial. I did a ‘Clean Your Hands’ campaign for the National Health Service. That started off as a, “Hey Col, we’ve got this job do you want to have a look at it?” to "It’s going to run across England and Wales". I did the posters that were in every hospital ward, which had the intention of saving lives from reducing cross infections. It was a great project to work on. If I can do more things that help people, that would be great.
S: I think what you’re saying is that your personal satisfaction comes more from helping people now, than when you started out, in terms of the kudos.
C: Yes, I started out thinking I was going to work for a big agency earning lots of money, building a reputation for myself and have my own big agency in London. I was incredibly ambitious. In design terms that's what I thought it was about, but in reality it’s not is it?
S: When you get older and a bit more experienced and have that insight into what's important it does change. I think most people would say that.
"I created an environment where if anyone made a mistake then I wanted them to hold their hands up and say I made mistake."
C: For me at the start, I had the vision of having a nice agency and I wanted people to enjoy working there. I wanted that environment where people work hard because they want to work hard and they enjoy what they’re doing. I've worked in both environments, I’ve worked where it’s great fun to be, a great place, enjoyable and fun and I’ve worked where they’ve cracked the whip and you’re under a lot of pressure and very, very hard hours. The interesting thing is the results are more or less the same. Both ways can get good work. You know, famous companies who put the designers under enormous stress to get where they want to go, and there are other companies that just do nice work as they enjoy doing nice work. They both end up doing beautiful work and have good clients but one group enjoys themselves and for the other group it’s just sheer hell. And I didn’t want to create a company that was sheer hell. I created an environment where if anyone made a mistake then I wanted them to hold their hands up and say I made mistake. That way, we can do something about it. You can completely screw up and I don't mind as long as you tell me about it because then I can fix it, but if you don't tell me about it, I can't.
S: People and organisations can learn from their mistakes more than the successes in a way.
C: It should be a pattern for society, where you make mistakes, apologise for them, say sorry about that I won't let it happen again if I can help it, and what do we do to fix it? We as a society seemed to have moved away from that.
S: While we're on the subject of what you’ve learnt over years, what advice would you give to people that are thinking of a career in design or branding?
"Even if you get a lousy grade at Uni that doesn't mean to say you are defined by it."
C: There are several things. If you come out college with a portfolio, you’ve got a set of work that doesn't necessarily define you. As you move forward, you can polish and hone that and improve what you’ve come out with. So, even if you get a lousy grade at Uni that doesn’t mean to say you are defined by it. If you go into any company, or do work for people, then just do the best you can, always. Be thoughtful, considerate and get on with people. There's no place for arrogance. You can learn an awful lot from people if you just ask them. Or say, “I haven’t got a clue what I’m doing”, or “no idea about this - anybody got any ideas?”
"Build connections and remember people."
So, the first thing is actually work as hard as you can at college and make as many friends as you can there. Talk to tutors, build connections so when you meet people make sure you remember them, or if you go on a course with a Creative Director of a big company there keep in touch with them, or send them stuff. When you’re working, keep your nose clean and don't muck about. Keep an eye on the market and on what other people are doing.
Always keep in touch with new technology and the way creativity is going. It’s gone down a very simplified route now, so messages… because people's attention is so immersed in content, you’ve got to really hone it carefully and concisely. So, in two or three words, you can say what people want to hear and need to hear.
"Try new things. Don't be frightened of doing something wrong, it's about differentiation. As you move up continue to look for insights into things."
Be experimental, always try new things. If you have a crazy idea and showing it to somebody terrifies you, just show it. Don't be frightened of doing something wrong. Show it to the client and say, “I’ve got this idea, it's really good, isn't it?” and they might say, “What the hell is that?!” or they might say, “Actually, yeah I quite like that.” It’s about differentiation. As you move up the scale, continue to look for advice. Continued to look for people that give you insights into things, who broaden your horizons.
S: I think that's great advice. I wish I’d taken people’s offers of help more. If people want to help, then take them up on it! I think part of it might be about being fearful and a bit scared about doing something that you're not necessarily comfortable with, or that lies outside of your current experience or comfort zone. A lot of what holds people back I think, is being a bit frightened.
C: Yes confidence. I’ve got a huge amount of that, enough to slush around in bucket - but you're right. And when someone says something to you just take a pause and think about it - think actually what does that mean? Okay… so if I do that, then what happens? Why don’t I try that? There’s a great film with Jim Carrey in which he says yes to everything, and it all works out well. I think there is actually a lesson in there.
S: What can we expect to see from Lucid in the next 12 months?
"The business model going forward is to work with other independents and to grow a network of people to work with and possibly be more socially committed as well."
C: The employment model didn’t work very well for me, but for three or four years I had a great studio and we really enjoyed ourselves but it’s an incredible commitment. I had a £20k to £30k overhead. The business model going forward is to work with other people who are independents and to grow a network of people to work with. To share our knowledge and abilities and move forward and get paid what we want to get paid, doing great work for any company that needs branding or communications. My portfolio is very broad and because I'm solutions based. People come to me with a problem, and it could be the NHS or a construction company, it’s all the same… to solve a problem. So going forward is working for smaller client companies and work with other people on parity, and managing that virtually. They could be located anywhere, in Spain for example, I don't mind. I think people are more open to that now. Building a group of people who can work together. Possibly, more socially committed as well. There’s this thing called B Corp, it’s a premise where companies ‘do good’ basically (balancing purpose and profit).
S: How did you come across that?
C: Through a friend of mine I worked with at Samson Tyrell, who works in Islington, a chap called Paul Barlow, another really good designer. I bumped into him a couple of years ago and it focuses on ways companies do good. There’s a process involved in becoming a B company, you don’t just get a sticker. You have to have a values system, you have to look at the way you work with the ecology and benefit society going forward. It would be nice to move in that direction but for a small company to do it’s quite an effort. Paul did really well. I think he has six people perhaps maybe bigger now, but he managed to navigate through that process. He was a small company and has come out the other end so give me four, five years and perhaps I can go for that too.
S: I might get more details off you about that because it sounds quite interesting. I think I might know somebody else that might be interested in it as well.
S: One last question from me! If you weren’t in Design, what would you be doing?
"I like working with my hands...at times this job is incredibly stressful and building something is a real pleasure."
C: I’d build sheds for a living (he laughs). I’ve got two which I’ve built. I wanted a shed to work from, couldn't find one on the marketplace so I bought some wood, created a plan and built it. It took me four or five months... but it’s quiet, it’s comfortable and it's warm and I really enjoy doing it so perhaps I could that a bit more. I like working with my hands. At times, this job is incredibly stressful and running a business is incredibly stressful and building something which isn't related to solving communications problems, is a real pleasure. Coronavirus has been a bit of a blessing for me because I still work, just not so hard and I’ve taken time to learn some stuff as well. I have a thirst for knowledge still.
S: It has been a really useful time, in all sorts of ways, because it's forced people into that situation where you can't just carry on as normal. You have to re-think about what you’re doing and why you’re doing it.
"There is more than work."
C: I feel guilty, I think it should have been more challenging for me but since I’ve worked for myself in the past, it hasn't been. And in fact, I want to get out of being a hermit and meet more people, so coming back to working in the shed hasn’t been a difficult move, but I do realise there's more to life than sitting in the garden studio, working. There is more than work.
Find out more about Lucid Brand here www.lucidbrand.co.uk