Common Curiosity

Common Curiosity

by Paul Felton & Alex Woolley

Producing ‘design by inquisitive minds’ new studio Common Curiosity is a collaboration between Birmingham based Paul Felton and London located Alex Woolley. We spoke to them both about how you go about starting a studio many miles apart, and the importance of community…

Hey chaps, how’s things? What’s big in your worlds right now?  

Hi there, things are good thanks. In terms of what’s big in our worlds…

Paul: Aside from graphic design (of course), the three things rocking my world right now are Ruben Neves and the Wolverhampton Wanderers FC revolution, Cloudwater Brewery and Strangers Things.

Alex: Other than hearing about the rise of the mighty Wolves, I’m really into the Netflix series Mindhunter, The Infinite Monkey Cage podcasts, and geeking out about my upcoming visit to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.

Paul, you’ve lived & worked in London for many years at top agencies, how does living and working back in Birmingham compare – and how do you find spanning the two cities Alex?

Paul: They are both great cities to live and work, London has been (and still is) a fantastic city for me, I wouldn’t change moving there at all, the experiences I gained and friends I met there will stay with me for life, and of course I would have never met Alex and formed CC without that time there, but I always had a feeling of ‘coming home’ when I moved back to Brum.

In terms of comparisons, Birmingham’s design scene is obviously on a smaller scale than London with less studio’s and a few less events, but it’s equally as vibrant and I’ve found it to be a really close knit, open and welcoming community. The Birmingham I left 11 years ago when I moved to London, compared with now, is unrecognisable. The city is full of excitement and opportunity these days and has a real swagger to it, a great independent culture and exciting new things opening and going on every week. For us as a studio it’s great to see and provides us with heaps of exciting potential projects to try and get involved with.

And the joy of being in a smaller city means it’s easier to get your name out there and you’re not constantly competing against 10/20/30 other studios for each project or client as can often be the case in London. That said, London is still a huge source of inspiration and work for us, we’ve tended to find we’re working with more start-ups and smaller companies in Brum and surrounding areas and larger more established companies in London. But having a base in both cities is proving really valuable for us.

Alex: I see it only as a positive, I get the best of both cities, and having a base in both simply opens up the inspiration and opportunities that they have to offer. The Birmingham scene is great, and Paul always has a new cafe, bar, restaurant or pop-up to visit whenever I’m in town, and we’ve been fortunate enough to get involved in a few of the exciting new things to land in Brum.

This year I’ve been to more events in Birmingham than I have in London, so it’s definitely thriving and there are some great things on the horizon, namely the Birmingham Design Festival — a pretty ambitious project taken on by a host of talented Brum folk.

Travel is obviously a part of our studio now, but the links between London and Birmingham are so quick and regular, and normally cheaper than an Uber trip in Central London! I’ve always enjoyed a long bus ride or train journey, it’s a great excuse to dive into the sketchbook and get some quality thinking time in, so you just make the travel work for you.

A lot of people are curious how we manage being in two separate locations, especially brainstorming and the sharing of ideas etc. We always ensure we’ve got enough face-to-face time especially at concept stages. Plus we’re both from very social studio backgrounds so always keen for a “meeting” over a pint. But when we’re in our respective cities we’re in constant contact on FaceTime or Slack, which helps us work in a really fluid way, sharing ideas, reference, grimacing face emojis or a gif of Obama dropping the mic.

You set up on your own here initially Paul, and now you and Alex have formed a small studio working at distance – can you tell us a bit about your journeys over the last few years to reach this point?

Paul: Me and Alex met whilst working at Purpose a few years back, I was there for 8 years — I started as a junior and was Creative Director when I left. I left a bit unsure of what was next career wise for me so I freelanced for a year and started thinking more and more about starting my own studio. Myself and my girlfriend had also been thinking of moving back to Birmingham, for a multitude of reasons, buying a house, closer to family etc, so I felt the two could naturally coincide. But instead of it being a well formulated plan, me setting up initially was a bit of a mix of circumstance and things falling in to place unknowingly really. Towards the end of my time in London I had starting to turn my attention to more personal work but found it hard to fully commit with freelance commitments. Then, although the move back to Brum was always on the cards, it ended up happening very quickly in the space of 2/3 weeks due to family reasons and all of a sudden I found myself in new(ish) city with no work or employment.

Through sheer coincidence a long time client of mine from Purpose — Royal Mail, got in touch with a brief, at the same time I got recommended to another client who needed a fairly large scale rebrand. So all of a sudden I had enough work to sustain me for 2/3 months and decided to just take the plunge and start working solely on my own projects and see how things progressed. Thankfully the work kept coming, mainly through word of mouth and plenty of luck. I was going almost a year and got to the point of being too busy and needed some help, which is where I went groveling to Alex for help.

Alex: After four and a half years at The Partners I moved on to join Purpose where I met Paul. Four and a half years later I was working as a Design Director with a fantastic team and some brilliant clients, but I was getting itchy feet and ready for a new challenge. Similarly to Paul, I jumped into freelance as I wanted to experience how other studios worked, as deep down the end goal has always been to start up a studio. MultiAdaptor were kind enough to let me through the doors, and were great at allowing me to work flexibly, taking the odd day off to help Paul with some other projects. As the weeks went on I needed more and more time to commit to the projects with Paul, and before we knew it we were talking about whether this could work as a studio setup.

Gone are the days of needing a huge studio and an established brand to secure great clients – you’re already working with Google, Royal Mail and D&AD – an enviable client list! What’s the secret?

Paul: We’d love to have some magic formula, but to be honest a huge element has come down to good fortune. I remember reading a few books when I was first setting up looking for the magic answers to getting new work, and seeing so many responses of a similar nature — luck, recommendations, word of mouth etc etc — initially it made quite frustrated reading, but now being 2 years in, I have found it to really be the case.

If I could try and pin point anything we’ve found it’s come down to two things — which aren’t exclusive to running a studio by the way, they should be a prerequisite of your career in general — firstly it’s to work your absolute socks off to create the very best work you can for you clients no matter what the challenge. I like to think by giving our all to create great work, going above and beyond and sometimes over delivering at the expense of hours and costs, has not only helped us maintain clients so they give us more work, but has also led to them recommending us to other clients. Secondly (and very bloody easy one to do) is just to be nice, after all nobody wants to work with assholes. It’s easy to put all the recommendations we’ve had from other designers/studios/clients to sheer luck, but in truth they have all come as a bi-product of us being enjoyable to work with and having done good work for those people, so for me Anthony Burrills ‘Work Hard & Be Nice Poster’ pretty much encapsulates our entire new business strategy. Plus Alex will testify how terrible I am at saying no to things!

Alex: I think for any studio startup, getting the work is the scariest thing. And that’s why not having a formula can be a pretty terrifying prospect. But, like Paul said, almost all of our work has come off the back of previous work and recommendations. Really caring about what you do goes a long way, and can be a surprising differentiator. Good work often leads to more good work, and they say you’re only as good as your last project, so it’s important to always keep the pressure on to make the next one great, as that’s likely to be your next ‘in’ to a future project.

We also have a host of other studios and individuals to thank, namely MultiAdaptor, Studio Sutherl& and Supple Studio among many, who have been nothing but supportive, offering help, advice, and recommending us for projects. It’s been great to see how the design community has been so generous.

You’ve thrown yourselves into the scene here, speaking at Glug Birmingham, rebranding local institution I CHOOSE BIRMINGHAM and now you’re an integral part of the BIRMINGHAM DESIGN FESTIVAL team. How important do you think it is to plug in to your local design community, and has that changed over your career?

Alex: I think it’s always rewarding to get involved in any way possible, no matter how big or small. It could be as simple as going to talks, judging awards, being part of events, or meeting students. The people you meet along the way are what makes it worth it, the discussions you have, and the ideas and knowledge that gets shared. The creative industries are full of the weird and the wonderful, so any chance or excuse to spend time with it will always be worth it.

Paul: It’s hugely important, but it’s not something we do for any particular business gains, we just love our job, our industry and being part of what is an amazing community of people, and not just in Birmingham, but also London and increasingly other parts of the country. For me, other than some time commitments, there aren’t really any down sides to plugging into these communities. By doing it, you get great project opportunities, meet the best local talent for when you need collaborators, freelancers or staff and opportunities come along through interacting with these things, a prime example being offered the chance to help shape Birmingham’s first design festival. I think when you’re starting out too the connections you make at these things can become invaluable, we’ve had projects land as a direct result of the connections we’ve made through these events and communities. And not just work but things like desk space, advice, recommendations and even just a group of like-minded people to pop down the pub with on Friday night and let off some steam.

Anything exciting on the horizon you can tell us about?

We’re just finishing off two really lovely projects for Royal Mail which are top secret but out in April next year and we’ve also designed this year’s Year Pack which is out in the next few weeks, all a huge privilege for us to be involved with. We’re well and truly living the dream with one project as we’re in the early stages of working on an identity for a new craft beer bar in Brum! We have a new identity bubbling away for an exciting theatre space in Birmingham. Lots of weird, wonderful and varied projects on for our Odd Sock client, our Cuddly Toy client and Google Campus, plus of course Birmingham Design Festival is well and truly on the horizon and we have a few ideas bubbling away for that in terms of events, one we’re super excited about (which also involves beer, surprise surprise)!

Luke Tonge

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