Below is an interview with the team at Thomas Matthews, a communications design studio in London, England who focus on design solutions for the built environment and social change. They are celebrating their 20th anniversary this year.
Happy 20th anniversary of Thomas Matthews! How’s everything going in London?
It’s been Hot – we had an unprecedented heatwave this Summer… now winter is creeping in!
On the studio front Sophie, Leah and the team are busy working on an exciting design out ocean plastic pollution project, re-branding one of London’s historic cultural destination (not sure we can talk about it yet…so watch this space) and branding Jordan’s Royal Science Society amongst other intriguing projects.
It’s also September which means London Design Festival! Alongside a load of talks that Sophie is giving – our new exhibition designed for ROCA is opening; ‘The Data and Life of Great Future Cities’. This exhibition explores how we seek to understand the cities we build and live in and is a homage to one of our favourite books by Jane Jacobs.
We’re pretty big fans of your studio. Can you tell us how Thomas Matthews got started and what it offers to its clients that unique from other studios?
The two founding partners, Sophie Thomas and Kristine Matthews met over a polystyrene cup of coffee in the café of The Royal College of Art, London. Both were studying communication design there and shared an activist mindset and a passion for applying their creativity to highlight environmental challenges. Their first collaborative project in 1997: ‘What Comes Around Goes Around’ (involving displaying a week’s worth of those used and thrown away plastic cups in a gallery whilst setting up recycling in the college and selling mugs as an alternative) set the tone for TM projects to follow. Shortly after graduating the duo set-up Thomas.Matthews and began working…like all the best studios- from the kitchen table, creating projects like ‘No Shop’, until their first big commission landed: designing the on-site identity and wayfinding for Doncaster’s ‘The Earth Centre’. That was 20 years ago.
Our clients have been varied and international, which makes our day jobs busy and exciting. We have built immense knowledge around sustainable design principles and effective communication. Our clients come to us for the positive impact that comes out of sustainable process, creative integrity, and dynamic crafting.
Why is it important for more studios in London and beyond to adapt your mission of positive social and environmental change?
It was recently Earth Overshoot Day – so a good question to answer! Design has a huge role to play with everything we use and consume on a daily basis. Over 80% of a product’s or an initiative’s environmental impact is pre-determined at design stage. Communication design plays a pivotal role in behaviour change from global campaigns to effective labelling and the more aware and knowledgeable we are as designers, consumers and citizens, the better the world will be.
When we started there was little talk of businesses being run for social good, the focus was on growth. Now, thankfully we hear about kindness built into business models.
Everyone we talk with that focuses on sustainable design had an epiphany at one point in their lives to steer them towards the topic. Did you have a life changing moment similar? What was it?
Sophie: Having activist parents that brought us up demonstrating for peace and justice makes it hard to doing anything else! My early influences were Peter Kennard and protest posters. From there I began to understand the power of creativity and communication to convey messages that weren’t about selling more stuff.
Leah: Design as a practice has always been about solving problems and what larger problem do we face than our current global outlook. No epiphany needed!
Alexie: Snorkelling in the Red Sea at the age of 8 and seeing all the incredible coral, then doing the same in Sardinia at 12 and just could not compute why it was all white…
Tamara: Not sure if you can call it a “life changing moment” but the main reason why I applied for my grant that brought me to the UK, and subsequently Thomas Matthews, was because I was fed up with the design industry and I wanted to understand what “sustainable design” was. I’m not sure I’d be a designer if I could find a more ethical way of applying my creativity, but if feels great to do things right in an industry that never gave much back.
You are part of something called Useful Simple Trust. Can you talk more about that and why you belong?
UST is an Employee Benefit Trust we established in 2008 and more recently has gained the status of Social Enterprise: an innovative business model where all those that work here effectively own the businesses, have a say in the future plans and benefit from the profits made. We’re a collection of business brands who are united by an optimistic and environmentally aware mindset… to blaze a sustainable trail in the delivery of the human environment. The trust companies specialize in architecture, structural and civil engineering, sustainable development, design education and communication design
In your 20 years of experience, what is your biggest challenge with designing for positive social change?
There have been a lot of challenges along the way (20 years is a long time!)
We have had challenges relating to being a female headed business in a predominantly male environment. In some ways it’s amazing how few women do the long run in this industry but in other ways it’s not so surprising.
The current challenging economic landscape is tough, especially as a key aim for the trust is to create space for research and explore more. So much uncertainty with Brexit…
Things that have not been as much as a challenge as people expect is the way we integrate sustainable practice into our projects. Everything we work on has had consideration in some form. We are realists, we work with what we have, but always find better solutions from an environmental and social perspective. It’s built into all the team’s design thinking so it is second nature to us all.
What are the key issues you feel designers specifically will have to face going forward considering our current political and environmental climate? How do we overcome them?
We will all need to do more with less.
– A more saturated marketplace combined with economic instability will force clients to cut design budgets yet require more demonstrable results from the creative process. Designers will need to innovate to survive and embrace the technology that is changing the global landscape.
– Diminishing resources will increase the need for designers and consultants to understand and apply circular design thinking principles across all industries.
Increased environmental pollution and climate risk will eventually (hopefully) force governments to require that waste be designed out of our systems… as we know ‘waste is a design flaw’.
We all fall back onto what we know but this may not help us in the future where we move into unknown territory. Having a grounding in the craft of design with an understanding materials and knowledge of your audience gives you a very good starting point for finding new and appropriate solutions.
What advice or inspiration can you give to other designers who want to do the great things you do? Any good resources or tips of the trade?
Invest in your craft skills/creativity
Know your materials
Build your network
Question the brief and the norm
Guide your clients
Don’t stop all of the above. Keep learning.