Last week saw the thrilling debut of our Behind the Scenes event series, where we poke and prod to uncover the secrets and stories behind successful creative work. As part of the event we interviewed Kevin Palmer, co-founder of Kin, an experiential design studio founded on a multidisciplinary approach to projects.
So who is Kevin Palmer?
I’m a designer at heart…. And a designer in the classical ‘making things’ sense. Although I run the business, I’m still very hands on: drawing, storyboarding, sketching, coming up with ideas & concepts.
So, a designer first and foremost, yet I’ve had to become a businessman since starting Kin Design in 2008. It’s been a really enjoyable experience but also incredibly hard. When you run your own business you go through some tricky times and have to make tricky decisions. They don’t always turn out to be the right decisions… but these mistakes tend to turn into the real learning process. You can keep failing as long as you learn from that failure and try not to fail at the things you’ve failed at before.
This is the conflict I juggle with in my professional life: focusing on running a successful business while at the same time remaining creative and enthusiastic about the work we do.
Outside of work, there are a great many more ‘me’s. I’m a father, a husband, and a musician. I play the congas in a ten-piece funk band and would say music was my first love. I do a bit of DJ-ing and love that people are returning to the beautiful art of vinyl. There’s something special about playing physical records. Our funk band nods to this with our name: The Live 45s. We cover records that were originally recorded on 45rpm vinyl discs.
What helps you manage such a busy schedule?
Since having kids I’ve lost the ability to have a lie-in. So I’m up at 6, 6.30 every day whether I want to be or not. I start the day with 15 minutes of yoga, eat a decent breakfast and try to run to work twice a week. I realised a few years ago that getting the balance between staying both mentally and physically well is actually really important in maintaining your creativity and avoiding burnout.
At my previous agency we would pull really long hours and stay up really late to get the work done. I wasn’t eating or sleeping right and was taking work far too seriously. Work consumed everything and it was starting to make me ill. At around about the same time my first child, Ella, was born and that really reset the focus of my life.
Together as a team in the office we tried to get a bit fitter and trained for the very first Nike 10k. That got me into running. I started to lose a bit of weight and it became a bit addictive. Then a great yoga teacher at work taught me running and yoga combined. Now, I try and eat right, sleep well and exercise enough. My job demands a lot of creativity from me and I simply can’t sustain this if I’m as unhealthy as I used to be.
At what point did you decide to be a designer?
At school I was stuck in between science and art. I loved biology, space, astronomy but also drawing and art. Ultimately, I followed the latter route, starting with two years studying Graphic Design at Maidstone College of Art, then secured a place at Goldsmith’s infamous Art & Design course. This was a real turning point for me as I met some incredible people that shaped my professional career.
Who inspires you?
Saul Bass immediately comes to mind, especially his title sequences for Hitchcock films. Back in the day, on-screen type had to be produced in a low-fi way, rather than computerised.
Typography’s a big interest of mine, inspired early on in my design placement year at Counterpoint in Bristol. John Jeffry, now the founder of Bibliothèque but then a designer at Counterpoint, taught me all about the beauty of type. Proper typography, typefaces, quote marks… I could go on.
Martin Conreen was my tutor at Goldsmith’s and introduced me to a multidisciplinary approach to design. He advocates combining skills in making, programming, on screen, print work and physical production in design. He encouraged me to produce my final year piece – an installation for an arts cinema – that played with the connection between doing something physical (people put their hands in a bowl of water to reach a touchscreen) and something digital (to create typographic animations, seen through diffracted water). Martin encouraged me to work with designers, developers and animators, an inspiration for our multidisciplinary approach at Kin.
“The more you can break out of a pigeon-holing mentality and take inspiration from different disciplines, the better. To make great stuff you need to get a broad range of skillsets involved.”
Another spark for me was working at Imagination, a fantastic company where I spent ten years learning my trade. They came up with the term ‘brand experience’ before any of the ad agencies were talking about it. Gary Withers, the founder, came from a theatre background and knew how to combine storytelling techniques from theatre with business and brand experience.
They would take a corporate brief and give it the theatre treatment… immerse people within a story. This worked for anything from huge auto shows for Aston Martin, Ford or Land Rover, to something like the Dinosaur Exhibition at the Natural History Museum.
Why did you start Kin Design?
I started the company with my co-founder Matt Wade because we both wanted to do more meaningful work. We were both frustrated with corporate projects and really wanted to produce work that meant something to people and educated, rather than simply pushed products. Matt and I had worked together at Imagination before he became Design Director at Moving Brands, so between us we had a lot of experience and a decent number of contacts.
Who helped you along the way?
We had our first opportunity with SHM, a business consultancy focusing on leadership training. They organised large strategy workshops for bluechip companies and needed a design partner to help them deliver world class presentations. We ended up producing all the branding, animations and motion graphics for their first event with Unilever, which gave us our first pay cheque and allowed us to move forward. They gave us space in their studio and even bought us our first laptops. We owe them a lot in getting started.
This was 2008. How did you survive and grow?
Matt and I launched the company at the start of 2008 when things were still going swimmingly on the global financial stage. After our first successful project with SHM the work just started to come our way as we reconnected with previous clients and colleagues. When the recession hit, halfway through our first year, it was less of an issue for us than for larger agencies with complicated account management structures. We actually benefitted from being a small, pared down operation that could react quickly to client’s needs. Our design team were in direct contact with clients, making us more agile and cost effective than bigger outfits.
So, from an attic room in Farringdon, we grew a team of likeminded creatives who could do multidisciplinary work. We started a workshop on one of the floors below, then a design studio on another then made a meeting space. The physical side of actually making things naturally came through the projects we won. We outsourced production initially but gradually learnt to do it on our own. We still work with specialist freelancers and pull a team together depending on each project, comprising sound designers, lighting experts, projectionists, specialist animators, robotics engineers, whatever is needed.
What’s so special about your workplace?
We think about the work space like another employee. Just like another valuable asset. Creating a nice work environment speaks about your creativity and hopefully inspires people coming to work.
We’re all on one floor now and consciously put the design studio and workshop together. Normally, you’d separate these two noisy, dusty and quiet spaces. But we wanted the making and designing to be all one space. For designers to feel free to move between the two, for there to be no boundary.
Sometimes, when the chop saw goes, it can get messy and distracting… but we’re doing smaller maker projects now – with Arduino, making smaller prototypes. We want to be able to instantly get the feel. Working with clay, plasticine, 3d models. Hand crafted, hand techniques… rather than turning to the computer straight away.
What’s the main lesson you’ve learned?
Learning to say no! Turning stuff down that you feel isn’t right is really hard but necessary. You get requests that initially tempt you – interesting projects or the ones that’ll make you a lot of money – so trying to figure out which are the right projects to pursue is key. It’s important not to overstretch the team, to overpromise or to swamp the studio.
That said, I will always go for that initial conversation and take a judgment from there. You never know where an interesting conversation is going to lead and something else may come from that first meeting.