Communication design studio Thomas.Matthews will celebrate its 20th anniversary next year and mark a new chapter in its life that started to take shape in 2016. Last summer, the London studio moved into a new space in The Clove Building, tucked behind the Design Museum’s previous home on the River Thames.
The space is still very much a blank canvas, yet indications of what TM want the place to feel like are already visible – and founding director Sophie Thomas is keen to see how the environment will help the team to create great work. Sustainability has been at the heart of TM’s design projects since 1998 and the approach has filtered through into the new building: there’s a well-stocked research library, a workshop and materials library and evidence of ‘re-use’ throughout the main space – an old lightbox has been reconfigured as a lunch table, for example.
Environmental and social integrity are key to TM’s work and its definition of what constitutes ‘good design’ is displayed on the studio business cards: “Appropriate, sustainable and beautiful”. Its approach to projects for clients ranging from NGOs and charities to museums and cultural institutions has also aimed to offer new solutions and change old habits through creativity. After 20 years, this is still a challenging area to work in but, as Thomas explains, it can be an extremely rewarding one, too.
Creative Review: Since 2010, TM has been part of an employee benefit trust called the Useful Simple Trust. The five companies in it, based here in The Clove Building, are owned by over 80 beneficiary employees. Can you tell me about how that structure works and what it gives you as a studio?
Sophie Thomas: It’s like the John Lewis model but different because we don’t have shares. We have split profits, we have a holding company – Useful Simple Ltd – a trustee board and an operations team running the day-to-day and then there are the beneficiaries. It gives us two things: the opportunity to work with some really interesting people – I can go and have a conversation with someone working in the sustainability consultancy team, they can do life-cycle analyses [and] we can joint pitch on jobs. It [also] makes us part of a bigger thing, so we have more friends, we have more fun – and we have bigger opportunities for spaces like this. And we have collective support teams, so there’s a safety net.
CR: Was the recent move an opportunity to start again with an office space? How do you make sustainability integral to the office?
ST: [We] really push the sustainability side of things, even [in] the way we run the office [and] the kind of materials we use. It’s quite healthy, challenging [you to think] about what’s good and what isn’t. It comes down to budget as well, but in the end a lot of it was about re-use and re-appropriation and knowing what we’ve got. And there’s a good lesson in that – we had stuff in storage from past trade shows, tables [that we use] in the library. These are our old chairs, they do the job, but that’s the interesting thing: the aspiration to change them or adapt them? You need to decide what you can live with and what people [will] perceive when they come in. It’s quite a raw studio at the moment, it needs its personality put in, but the way you use a studio is very different to the way you ‘think’ you’ll use it.
CR: You talked to your staff about what they would need from the environment – what conclusions did you draw from this?
ST: We had a whole survey done [that] looked at how people work in the best way and how they use their time within the day. Effectively, it’s looking at when are you working best, how do you optimise time, do you actually need to be sitting at a desk? It was really interesting – surprising in the sense that we come and work at desks! Which is why we have spaces like the library and the workshop – the document helped us to understand what kinds of work requirements people needed, it also justifies the percentage of ‘hot desks’ we needed, and how people worked at home. We also spent a long time with the b beneficiaries – looking at what kind of spaces we needed.
CR: Last year you released your own project, Never Turn Your Back on the Ocean, and have said that you still like to keep your hand in with the creative work at TM. Would you say you encourage your staff to develop creative interests outside of the studio?
ST: When you start a [design] business, you do a degree in design but actually the further on you get with the business, the more ‘business’ you become. The last four years I’ve done two and a half days at TM and the same at the Royal Society of Arts; and there I was very much involved in developing workshops and ideas, getting creative people to think differently. And after that I got to a point where I really wanted to get ink under my fingernails again. I think it’s really important [to encourage it]. Two of our staff, Tamara Piña and Jack Bardwell, did a self-initiated exhibition in Spain, for example – about proverbs and how they translate over. The one thing I try and encourage the most is how they bring that into a TM project, if they want to. How you can feed it in, if you do a lot of photography or filmmaking.
CR: You launched The Great Recovery initiative in 2012. Can you tell me about that and how it relates to the idea of the ‘circular economy’ and current thinking in design that’s environmentally-conscious?
ST: We’re currently in this really strange position where – and it’s a norm of [the] global economy – that we take stuff out of the ground, our raw material, and we make it and process it into a product, assemble it, brand it, sell it to people – they use it and they chuck it away. It’s a linear process. So what has been discussed and investigated is how you can join those two ends back together – you’re effectively keeping the value in the loop in society for as long as possible. I always go on about toothbrushes, there’s a rucksack of material, about a kilo that goes into making a disposable toothbrush and the majority of that is lost in the production and the manufacturing. So you can lose about 90 per cent of the material weight, before it even gets into the shop. We have to start thinking about how design can help, because design is part of the problem. A lot of recycling at the moment is about crushing [something] and making it into road aggregate, for example, but we’re talking about making sure that value gets back in and becomes another raw material for designers to use again.
Imagine that anyone who writes a brief for a designer just put a sentence in that said, ‘Consider the second and third life of this product’. You would have a completely different approach to stuff. A ‘third life’ means that you actually have to think about [how] you keep that value for the second time. [If something goes] straight to aggregate or is merged with a resin, then you’ve lost it. But if you pull up the value a second time, subsequently you can go into third, fourth and fifth life, it’s a very different way of thinking. But it’s really interesting for the designers to think like that – you start to really understand the lifecycle of your product. The real, whole life of it. And then when things like technology come in – ‘intelligent’ products that tell you that they’re not failing yet, but that they’re going to fail soon, like a lightbulb – [this] means you can get to it, fix it, or change the parts before it fails and that will extend its life. Things like that are already starting to happen.
CR: Are you working on anything outside of the studio that responds to this thinking?
ST: Something I’ve always wanted to do is be a ‘garbologist’ – a waste anthropologist. There were some brilliant studies done in the US in the 1970s-90s by William Rathje who, with his students, would do crawls of landfill sites in America to work out how the processes were working and to see what habits [were emerging]. They found that things don’t degrade in landfills sites; they’re not hot enough, they’re not exposed to oxygen. So this idea that we’re throwing things away, we’re not – we’re burying historical layers of very bad habits. So I’m fascinated with it. My friend challenged me … to record all the things I buy that I don’t necessarily need. I’m recording the ‘need’ versus the ‘want’ and also things like how much knowledge I have about [a product], what I think is in it, where I think it was made, how long it will last – what I do with it afterwards…. I don’t know what I’m doing with it yet, but if you can have something that will help you understand need and want, what has gone into a product and how much material is behind it, more often than not you’ll say you don’t really need it.