By Joanna Rowlands

This month marks Uniform’s 20th birthday, and to celebrate we pinned down the company founders Nick Bentley and Nick Howe to find out what’s changed since they started out and what they’ve learnt along the way.

The Uniform office is an oasis of calm above Liverpool’s eclectic and vibrant Bold Street. The entrance can be found next door to Greggs, the purveyor of many a fine post-Christmas do breakfast. We’ve cornered them in Uniform’s timber-lined boardroom complete with a temperamental air con system and resident roof seagulls, who helpfully never fail to make their presence known during an important conference call.

The boardroom, with its Eames chairs and impossible-to-keep-clean glass table, is testament to the founders’ background as product designers and their dedication to design aesthetic. It’s Friday afternoon and we’re about an hour away from beer o’clock so spirits are high, the Nicks are perched awkwardly on high stools, ready for the onslaught of questions...

So tell us a bit about Uniform...

Nick Howe (NH): We are a creative company, with two main offers - visualisation - which is very focused around property and architecture and design and innovation - more broad strategic, creative services where we work with a variety of well-known brands in a range of different sectors.

Nick Bentley (NB): I’d add that we’re approachable, friendly, multicultural, ambitious and creative.

And how has Uniform evolved since you set up the company?

NB: It started with three of us in a pretty shabby office not too far from here, and at that point the whole aim was for us to be product designers doing furniture and lighting design.

NH: Launching our own collections, making loads of money, being famous. It didn’t pan out did it?

NB: No, but then we transitioned into interior design, broader creativity and visualisation. We got into 3D quite early on and that became a particular passion of mine. We’ve grown a lot in the last 20 years, particularly in the last 10, into an agency that offers broad set of creative services but we’ve retained a link to our product design roots through our innovation programme.

NH: We’re still rooted in creative thinking and problem solving with a product design mindset but the business has evolved based on the needs of the clients and the sectors and services where we saw opportunities over time. We focused on building one part of business, got it working well and then invested in the next part.

Uniform is 20 this month...when you established the company in 1998 what were the biggest challenges you faced?

NB: Getting to work on time, fighting a student hangover… Nick H had graduated but Pete and I were still in our final year, so balancing college work and real work was a challenge.

NH: Keeping Laurie awake during the day... He was our first intern, and is now one of the shareholders and Creative Director. We talked about a photo we found earlier, a picture of myself, Nick and Pete, who was the other original founder, in our backyard. At that time we were working out of our kitchen. We’d had to decamp the whole office to my house because the roof was leaking in the office so we couldn’t work there for 2 weeks. That was the kind of environment we were living in for the first couple of years. It was just as Liverpool was starting its renaissance, and the regeneration of the city centre was happening so there was loads of interesting stuff going on and we were part of that wave of creativity and opportunity in the city.

NB: When we first started one of the goals was to launch a range of furniture and to make a name for ourselves within the design industry. We’ve taken a winding journey throughout the years but that was certainly one of the challenges in the beginning.

What have been the most significant moments in Uniform’s history?

NH: I don’t think there was one big significant moment where everything changed, more lots of smaller moments where we took a slightly different path or focused on one particular thing. In the early days, it was projects like designing a warm sake dispenser for Simon Woodroffe, the founder of Yo Sushi, for his second restaurant. Yo Sushi wasn’t even really established back then, and we were bringing product innovation to him through design.

NB: Our first article in Design Week, at the time that felt like a pretty significant moment.

NH: We were in their ‘Ones to Watch’ in 2000.

NB: We became recognised within the industry for creating some pioneering methods in terms of architectural film and animation, applying some of the VFX previously seen in commercials and film to architectural animation, which at the time were typically a lot less narrative based.

NH: And that kind of work led to us winning projects like the launch film for The Shard back in 2008. And then I think probably a big strategic and structural moment for the business was when we hired Tim, our Exec Creative Director of Design and Innovation. We brought him in to build our design capability in brand and graphic design off the back of a visualisation and property-focused business.

NB: Moving to our current space was a pivotal moment, it allowed us to really expand the creativity we can offer.

NH: We created a space that was designed for the way we want to work, how we want to build a culture and a way of working for clients. Our earlier office was a fairly bland office space with desks and a meeting room space. Moving to this space was about creating the right environment for creativity and innovation to flourish.

NB: And that focus on innovation as well, that was a key point in time, we knew that differentiating ourselves by focusing on the future would help us stand out, and goes back to using product design thinking to solve some of the challenges we face.

How has creativity changed in 20 years?

NB: I think it’s got much broader, people used to specialise in just one thing, whether graphic design or brand, but now we see students leaving university and their skills are much more varied.

NH: I think the big shift is the broader, world perspective of design, particularly if you think about the rise of companies like Apple for example, and how design is intrinsic to that brand and their product. The general public’s understanding of design and the value of design has increased, and therefore our clients value it much more now than they did 20 years ago. It was a marketing cost 20 years ago, and now it’s an intrinsic part of the business strategy and an asset, so there’s definitely more appreciation of the value of design in business.

Do you think clients have changed?

NH: Yes, definitely!

NB: I think clients expectations have gone up but maybe that’s a reflection of the kind of clients we are working with now. Clients, particularly in visualisation, want things very quickly, deadlines are tighter and they are being squeezed by their clients, to deliver more.

What technologies did you use when you started?

NB:  A phone, the Yellow Pages, it was pre-internet wasn’t it? Pretty much, and a fax machine.

NH: We were sending our artwork to print on floppy disks and CDs, we had one computer in the corner with dial up connection.

NB: We were using Quark Express and Max 2.5 was just out. And a drawing board!

NH: Yeah, and a drawing board.

NB: Pens and paper, colored markers.

NH: To be honest, we didn’t even have mobile phones in the first couple years.

How has the tech you use changed over the last 20 years?

NH: I think creativity and design are still the same, it still comes from the same foundation. I still want to get a piece of paper out and sketch something before I jump onto a computer, and I still want to explore things in three dimensions by making models. One of the things we did when we moved in here was to have a workshop space where we could do all that stuff properly again. We can do physical model making in there or we can hack bits of electronics together, we can 3D print, and it gives our designers access to the tools to think in different ways and explore design in a more rounded way.

In terms of tech, the pace of everything has changed significantly, so 20 years ago we were putting artwork on a floppy disc, phoning a courier who would take it to the repro house, then we’d get a physical proof back to check. Now it’s instantly transferred via email or dropbox. We’ve been moving into immersive technologies like VR,  and the pace of that change is crazy, there are new technologies coming out every day.

NB: Back in the day, the holy grail of visualization was photo-realism, that was what everybody wanted to achieve and it was a challenge in those days to get there. Obviously, now that’s much easier to achieve so it’s not about how realistic is, but much more about the emotion and narrative that we capture in our work, to convey our client’s vision.

NH: It also required very high-end equipment (that we built ourselves!) and lots of rendering time back then! Days! Whereas now, most people have that capability on their phone, to some extent.

NB: But it’s interesting that the main pieces of software that we use and fundamental technical process is still essentially the same.  

NH: The rules of doing image work - good composition, good lighting, good colour - they aren’t any different.

Who’s been your best hire?

NB: That’s an awful question!

NH: I’d say Nick Bentley, haha! I think it’s very difficult to say just one person, we’ve made good hires along the way and we’ve made a few bad ones as well, but I’m sure every business does.

NB: Laurie Jones? First official hire?

NH: I think bringing in people with the right attitude who have come in and we’ve given them the opportunity to carve out a niche, grab hold of something and create something more, bigger, better is where we’ve had success and that’s all about attitude for me.  

NB:  Yeah, it seems that people who have been really ambitious and who have challenged us hard to push the company forward are the ones that have made the biggest difference.

What was the best decision you ever made?

NH: I guess the best decision we made is setting the company up because if we hadn’t we wouldn’t be here now. In hindsight, we could have gone and worked somewhere for five years and made all of our mistakes somewhere else, which might have been a benefit. But if we got into that mentality we might never have set up. We didn’t step out from uni with a big vision for setting a company up - we just wanted to do great work with interesting clients and stay in Liverpool, because there was a buzz about the place at the time. We almost fell into setting the company up through circumstances of winning projects, enjoying what we were doing and not being able to work out a better way to get paid than through having a business.

NB:  Buying the first studio space was a really good decision because it gave us a lot of stability, and meant we were able to leverage investment against it over the years. Taking some of those loans out were scary decisions, but they gave us the investment to grow. Taking the decision to diversify the business at that real low point of the global financial crisis in 2007-8 was another good decision, broadening the sectors that we worked within.

What are your biggest challenges now?

NB: I think leading a team of 60+ people, with different ambitions and such a broad age range, that’s quite a challenge. When we had a small team or 10 or 12, we spent a lot of time in the pub together and knew everything about each other, but that becomes much more difficult as a team scales.

NH: I’d say one of our biggest challenges is retaining and enabling the culture that we wanted to create when there were three of us in a room - constant innovation, never doing the same job twice, always aiming for bigger and better things. With 60+ people you have to work a lot harder at it and it takes a whole new set of skills as a leader to enable that than it did as a founder in the early days. The other aspect is the commercial side of running a company at this scale, which we’ve effectively learnt on the job. Neither of us have ever worked anywhere else properly, apart from summer jobs, and so those business skills, strategic thinking about where the business goes next, is something we learnt over time and put a lot of effort into. You’ve got to always keep learning.

NB: Taking scones off a conveyor belt in a factory didn’t prepare me for the challenges of running a business.

What couldn’t you live without when you started the company?

NB: Sayers pasty shop downstairs

NH: Baa Bar

NB: Pound a bottle in Baa Bar, with a shooter!

NH: That is actually where we set the company up. It was the floor below our first office. We had a couple of beers, thought it would be a good idea and that was it, we all shook hands.

NB: Having a lot of energy was essential. We were frequently working late into the night, on deadlines that we probably shouldn’t have agreed to. I have a particular memory of the first article in Design Week. Pete and I drove down to London through the night, with the CD of the content for it ready for the print deadline the next morning. It’s things like that that you need energy for.

NH: We were at an age where we had no real responsibilities and had that mix of young naivety and optimism. We could put 100% of our energy into it - that was a big part of why it was a success in the early years.  

NB: We also couldn’t have done without the fax machine that we used to fax all of our drawings to our suppliers. Before email!

What does the future hold for Uniform?

NH: We are going continue to do bigger and better things, keep innovating, keep pushing everything we do creatively, maybe not grow so rapidly over the next 5 years, but create better work for great clients.

NB: It’s all about having ambitious creative challenges and pushing ourselves to do better work.

Do you have any advice to people starting their own business?

NH: I’d say just get on and do it. You’ve got to put 100% of your energy into it.

NB: It’s hard work, but it’s very rewarding. In those pre-internet days when we started there wasn’t the information about starting a new business readily available and I think now there is a huge amount that people can learn by looking online.

NH: But there’s a sense now that anyone can start a business and it’s easy. There’s a common misunderstanding of the level of energy, passion and drive that it takes to get something off the ground. Spot an opportunity in the market and be the best at what you do. Some of the things that we didn’t understand early on were around people. As you begin to grow a business you’ve suddenly got to manage people and as product designers fresh out of a design course, I don’t think we really understood how important people management was, even just the basics of HR, and we just had to learn that.

NB: Work with people who are ambitious and who push you harder. Work with people you like.

What’s your mantra?

NB: Pick up the phone! I jokingly say that, but I am very serious about it. When we first started, we would always be on the phone, it was a major tool because email wasn’t really a thing. You learn a lot from speaking directly to people whether that’s a face to face meeting or over the phone - you can understand their challenges more. You understand how their business works and it helps to inform what your design solutions might be. So my mantra is pick up the phone and speak to people rather than sitting behind the email - it’s a much more personal connection.

NH: Mine is more about just cracking on with things and a bit of that JFDI attitude. If you’ve got an idea let’s get on with it, let’s see if it works. If it doesn’t at least you’ve tried. Launched or published is better than perfect, get things out there and iterate, start using it and evolve it as you go on rather than spending months and years trying to get something absolutely spot on to then realise it’s not right.  

Would you do anything differently?

NB: Lots, probably!

NH: Yeah, probably, lots, but we wouldn’t have learned from the mistakes that we made which has made us what we are today, so yes and no in equal measure, I guess!

NB: Learning from your own mistakes is so much more valuable than learning from case studies. You certainly don’t forget the bad mistakes you made, whereas you don’t remember other people’s mistakes.

What would you say to somebody who wants to join Uniform?

NH: I’d want to know their motivations for joining Uniform. Have they got the right attitude? Are they ambitious enough? Do they want to do great work and can we provide the environment for them to do the best work of their careers? I think Uniform provides an environment where people can do the best work of their lives. I just want to make sure people seize the opportunity, really push barriers, live up to our values and the ambition we have for our business.

We finish up there... Nick H is itching to get away, the spectacular Royal de Luxe giants are visiting Liverpool this weekend and, regardless of the road closures, public transport disruption and general chaos that will undoubtedly ensue, everyone is very excited. This is their third and final visit to Liverpool so no one wants to miss them, especially not Nick… 20 years on the Nicks are still passionate about Liverpool and don’t do things by halves.

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