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Michael Smith, Founder, Cog Design

6 min, 40 sec read
10:30 AM | 22 July 2016
by Adam Oldfield
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A designer by training, Michael Smith founded Cog Design, straight from college, in 1991 and has managed the development of the company ever since.

Michael takes the lead on large-scale branding or complex communications projects and provides a creative overview of all of the studio’s output.

Beyond the  studio, Michael is an occasional lecturer in branding and design, a board member of the National Campaign for the Arts, and a regular contributor to design journals.

We spoke with Michael about his career so far - what he’s learnt by setting up his own agency, project highlights, advice for breaking into the industry and more.

Briefly describe your career path

I kind of avoided the path and walked straight into oncoming traffic.

I left Croydon College in 1990 with an Higher National Diploma (HND) in design (do they still do those?).

I wasn’t confident enough to imagine myself as a designer in an agency; I’ve always been in awe of people who can start work at nine, be creative for four hours, stop for lunch and then turn it on again for the afternoon. I’m not talented enough to do that.

So I started working for myself. I worked really hard at it, designing club flyers and t-shirts for bands in the evenings and cold-calling potential clients in the day.

A music promoter commissioned me to design a poster for a concert at the Southbank Centre. And that got me noticed by someone who commissioned a year-long series of tour posters and leaflets. And that led to other work and more connections until suddenly I was too busy and I had to employ someone.

And when I next had time to stop and think, Cog Design was a grown-up company with an ever-growing monthly salary bill.

Between then and now, I’ve also co-founded (and subsequently stepped away from) a successful arts marketing agency, The Cogency, which is thriving without me. And I started a digital agency Dotcog which we’ve now absorbed back into the main Cog Design brand.

As well as my day job, I’m a trustee of the National Campaign for the Arts; I’m helping them to reinvent themselves so watch this space for a new website and brand in the coming months.

What’s it like running a design studio?

I’m Cog’s creative and business leads which requires fairly frequent arguments with myself about where to invest our time and resources.

I like to think of myself as a creative Producer (in the sense of a film Producer). It’s my job to create an environment where others can thrive and excel.

I make sure we have enough work coming in, that we do that work to the highest standards, that we have the best talent in the studio, that we treat people fairly and demand the highest standards of them in return.

I work long hours; I’m in the studio from 8am til 8pm most days, and I’m usually tinkering with some work stuff (like interviews with FutureRising) into the night and into the weekends.

What's the Cog Design working culture like?

It’s a cliché, or maybe a truism, that we are a team.

It’s tricky for me to tell exactly what we’re like because I’m at centre of it all (and I don’t have any experience of working anywhere else). People tell me that it’s a relaxed, friendly and open place to work; everyone is generous of their time and happy to help each other out.

We are extremely disciplined about the admin (time-sheets, invoices, naming conventions for files etc). We want the systems and structure to take care of that stuff so we are freed up to be creative in our work.

"We have a competitive photo of the day competition that we call Everyday Cog, and a monthly cultural outing... Cog Nights."

Our clients are in the cultural and heritage sector. Budgets tend to be tight so we all have to work hard and be as efficient as we can. The flip side is that all of our clients are lovely and the work is really fulfilling.

It’s not all nose to the grindstone: we have a competitive photo of the day competition that we call Everyday Cog, and a monthly cultural outing that we call Cog Nights. And we’ve got a wildly over-stocked cupboard of tea, coffee and biscuits (and gin on a Friday afternoon).

How could someone land a job at Cog Design?

Start by being sure you want to work here.

We’re a small team with a very specific client base; our work is multi-faceted across all forms of communication design so you’ll be doing branding in the morning, websites in the afternoon, and typesetting an annual review all the next day. That kind of multi-tasking, working directly with demanding clients isn’t for everyone. We love it but you might not.

If it is for you then write to me (email is fine too). Be enthusiastic and brilliant. Be empathetic; imagine what it’s like for me to receive your application and approach it as a project. I look forward to hearing from you.

What’s been the most fulfilling project to date?

We’ve worked on some amazing events and with some remarkable people. I think the most fulfilling (or the one I will remember the most) was probably the branding and publicity design for Antony Gormley’s One & Other project. It was a living portrait of Britain, where members of the public were each given an hour on the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square. It ran 24hrs a day for 100 days. We did all of the branding, communication and publicity design, and I was lucky enough to be one of those chosen to take a place – such an amazing experience to become part of Britain’s art history.

Do you have any advice for students/graduates thinking about setting up their own business?

The stuff you think is difficult is much easier than you might expect but the other stuff is much harder than you can imagine.

The business side is simple; you just need to consistently bring in more money than you spend. You don’t need fancy accountancy and there’s actually a lot less rules and bureaucracy than you’d expect (at least until you employ five people when a raft of important legislation kicks in).

The people side is much more complicated. Think carefully about whether you want to be have employees. People are unique and infinitely complex, learning how to manage and motivate people (many of whom have a different outlook on life) takes a lifetime to master. At least I assume it does, I’m far from getting close.

If you weren’t in design what else might you be doing?

I was struck by a conversation I overheard between Michael Wolff and a group of young designers, a few years ago. He questioned why creative people want to work together - surely if we brought our creative thinking to other industries we could make a bigger impact than working in design silos.

I love untangling knotty problems and and making things ordered so something along those lines would satisfy me, whatever the industry.

Lastly, if you could share a desk with anyone from the past, present or future, who would it be?

I know I’m supposed to name an obscure hero or tell you how inspiring it would be to share space with someone amazing. But I’m not sure it would be.

I admire two types of people: those who have trodden their own path with little concern for convention; and those who selflessly devote their lives to others. I enjoy them from a distance but I think that first group would be insufferable to be around all day, and I’d be wracked with guilt and introspection around the latter.

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