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Getting intrinsically strategic with design practice The District | #CompanySpotlight

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The District is a design practice that works in all aspects of brand strategy and visualisation. They work with, in their own words “interesting people who have an ambition to do interesting things” and specialise in “thoughtful, beautiful work that has guts and changes minds.

We caught up this week with Alun Shooter, Creative Partner at The District, a man who believes that “Strategies do not exist until they are visualised” and that “design is intrinsically strategic.”

How was your company born and where are you based?

Our studio had humble beginnings. We were conceived when myself and creative partner Matt Bagnall worked together in the same agency. We loved each other’s work and thinking and armed with passion and naivety we gave birth to The District in a shed in my garden in Cambridge.

We have moved twice since then and dallied with roaming (What Clerkenwell’s calls hot-desking) which Covid put pay to, and have remained in Cambridge. It’s a city that is actually full of envelope pushing and precedent breaking, so an interesting and creative place. 

What was the biggest challenge to the growth of your company?

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Matt and I are obsessed with quality and with difference. I suppose the hardest part of growth is to find likeminded creatives who share this ideology. Not to say we haven’t had some brilliant people over the years, we have. It just took a while to find them.

I find it a huge compliment that we have taken a few people straight out of Art School and worked with them for a number of years before they have headed off to amazing studios like Studio Blackburn, Two Times Elliott and Superunion

Which was the first huge success that you can remember?

I suppose winning the pitch to redesign design behemoth Design Bridge’s website was a proud moment. And it was incredibly flattering that we were appointed because the incredibly talented and generous Graham Shearsby felt we were the agency to ‘get in his head’. It was a very involved and enjoyable project and we were collectively thrilled with the outcome.

What’s the biggest opportunity for you and your company in the next year?

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Gosh, that’s a tricky one. It is difficult to pick one thing, but we are excited to be back out meeting amazing people having endured a couple of years sitting on our sofas accidentally on mute. Perhaps someone reading this wants to give us our biggest opportunity in the next year?

Can you explain your team’s creative process? What makes it unique?

We have a a multi-stage process which works through four phases UNDERSTAND, THINK, CREATE. DELIVER. It can be scaled up or down, for example the UNDERSTAND phase may be just a good deep chat over a beer or it could be a series of focus groups and complex stakeholder workshops. Whatever this phase looks like not MUST happen. For us understanding is everything. As for what makes it unique, is anything unique? 

How does your team remain inspired and motivated?

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I think it is just in them. Frankly there are easier ways to make money than working in the creative industries, but our team love it. Clearly taking inspiration from other studios we admire, at design conferences and design museums but also we enjoy things outside design. Music for example is a constant source of inspiration and joy for us.

How has COVID-19 affected your company?

I guess like everyone it initially felt like we had fallen off the edge of a cliff. Everyone was, quite rightly nervous to commission work as the very nature of their organisation was questioned.

We have worked with an amazing orchestra Britten Sinfonia and I vividly remember a time when they weren’t even sure if they would ever perform to an audience again! Thankfully we are through the worst, and as I have already said getting off zoom and out meeting face to face is huge.

In terms of what we have learnt and how it has changed how we operate, there is one obvious way. We now work in what has been coined a ‘hybrid’ way. We have loved getting back to the studio to work collaboratively, but hours and days are flexible, and when the task is appropriate we work remotely.

I am sitting at home now looking across the park on which I live, and it is an incredibly positive environment. I am fully clothed.

Which agencies do you gain inspiration from? Do you have any heroes in the industry?

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Gosh there are lots of amazing agencies out there. I suppose it tends to be the ones that have remained deliberately small and are still driven by the work rather than becoming huge global beasts.

I love the work of Spin, Graphic Thought Facility, Bibliotheque, but also Two Times Elliott, Studio Blackburn and I used to have great affection for Love and Music in Manchester. I think Graig Oldham is incredible, particularly with respect to how he uses design to voice political opinions. And there are loads more besides,

What is one tip that you would give to other agencies looking to grow?

It depends if you mean grow as creatives or grow in size. If it’s the former, just stick at it. Don’t let people dilute what you are doing. Keep the faith. I believe design to be strangely meritocratic. Which us great. If it is the latter you are speaking to the wrong person.

How do you go about finding new clients/business? (Pitching, work with retainers, etc.)

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We pitch, and invariably come a respectable second. We have no retained relationships. The bulk of our work comes through recommendation and honest and open communication. There is a huge human component too. Our clients become our friends. And let’s face it life is too short to work with people that you don’t like.

What’s your one big hope for the future of the industry?

I hope it becomes more inclusive. I still believe it to be heavily biased towards white middle class males. Which is holding back its potential.

Do you have any websites, books or resources that you would recommend?

A previous designer and friend of ours Elliott Moody runs The Brand Identity, which is an amazing resource. It comes back to my earlier point. This is something born out of a love of design. Commerciality is merely a bi product.

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