Ben and paul


Ahead of International Design Day our co-founder Paul Austin shares thoughts and insights on what it means to run a creative agency in 2024, learnings along the way and the ever-important role design continues to play in our rapidly changing world.

A portion of this interview was run in The Times on April 26th 2024.

What is Made Thought?

Made Thought is an international creative studio and branding agency. We work with some of the world’s most iconic and meaningful brands – both old and new. We are a company of 80 – spread across two studios in London and New York.

I think our core purpose is to use the currency of creativity to deliver change for brands and the world in which they operate. In essence, we elevate brands by helping them deliver a profound sense of change. That change can take many forms. It could be to culturally move a brand forward. It could be to commercially add value to that business. Or it could be to help the brand think deeply about its place in the world.

Historically, a branding agency would involve itself solely with the corporate identity of a brand - its logo, its colour palette, its typecase, and even its packaging.

But today people look to branding agencies for something deeper. They want a partner to help them identify the strategic changes they need to make to their business and the world. This can be everything from developing a sustainability strategy, to creating a visual personality for a brand, to developing a broader creative horizon that takes the brand forward.

If I were to look at the wide collection of our clients, all of them require this profound sense of change. They need a path drawn out for them to follow and then the creative execution of that plan to go out to the world. Yes, we create beautiful things. Yes, we are in the business of desire. But actually, the purpose with which we do that is to affect positive and lasting change.

What clients do we work with?

We work collaboratively with clients from a broad selection of categories. We work with lifestyle brands, luxury brands, tech brands, cultural brands, beauty brands, fashion, and even real estate companies.

All of them have one thing in common. We work with brands who have a shared appetite for the very best quality of creativity and progressive thinking.

So often we work directly with founders including Stella McCartney or Paul Smith. These are people who have the same entrepreneurial enthusiasm that we have. They understand what risk means. They understand what it means to take a big creative risk and do something completely different. They know that sometimes you have to deliver work that is provocative to create real cut-through.

I think that's the one thing that binds the majority of our clients - whether we’re working with a client in New York on an amazing real estate project or partnering with a beauty brand in South Korea. They all want to creatively push the envelope to do something that makes them stand out, feel different and behave differently.

Our work is not just about execution or design. Our work is about deep strategic thinking. We do a lot of work with our clients, helping them really identify who they are, what their brand pillars are, what is their essence, what is their kind of mission, and what is their vision. We help clients capture what they are, and crucially, what they are not.

We ask the right questions to elicit the correct creative response. What does the client want their brand to feel like? What does the brand need to feel like to a consumer or its audience to evoke the desired reaction? I think we are very talented at getting to this core identity pillar.

And how did you get into the world of international design?

As a studio that's never really done much in the way of marketing, the vast majority of our output has been from word of mouth. We live in a world now that is essentially borderless and we attract clients from all across the globe. The world is getting smaller and our challenges are more international than ever before.

I think international design is something now that is increasingly important because brands are very much dealing with a global audience. Brands need to have a global perspective. Naturally when you work in a certain region that piques the interest of other businesses within that network - a global network very quickly forms itself after this as you develop new relationships around the globe.

COVID taught us a powerful lesson of how to communicate without having to be in the same room and the technology we embraced makes working on an international level far easier. But also, it’s responding to the need of the brands themselves. Brands need a global response to markets. Yes, there are regional nuances but at the core the brand needs to be very defined at the centre, regardless of where it shows up in the world.

Continually developing our global perspective aides us in delivering this creativity across borders. We have our studio in New York, which is bringing a different perspective to the London studio. It's the combination of those sort of international characters, that is fostering the work that really fuels an international spirit.

What does the typical day involve at Made Thought?

I spend a lot of my time with clients really understanding what it is they're trying to achieve. Myself and Ben Parker, my partner at Made Thought, are both still actively designing in the studio, but much of our day now is ensuring that we're having the right conversations. We're thinking in the way that we think will bring the most success to the clients. It’s a conversation, not just with the client, but also with our own team. And it is that discourse that creates consistently excellent work.

We always say we're only as good as the client because if that conversation is natural, if it's energetic, if it's spirited, it results in better work.

I also spend a lot of my day mentoring the creative teams in the studio, critiquing work, pushing them and making sure they're really exploring the full potential of a project. That's an important thing. It’s that mix of a client facing role and working with the studio to make sure that we are doing the best we can, for the challenge that is being presented that is always central.

What kind of qualities do you need as a leader in design and any specific qualifications?

I don't think you necessarily have to have qualifications. I did a BA in Visual Communication Design, but I very quickly went out into the working world. Once I finished my BA, I was offered a position in a studio with someone who I respected very highly within the industry. I jumped at the chance to intern there and that turned into a job after I graduated.

To be a leader in design I think you need to be brave. I think you need to have the courage to communicate to clients what you really feel they need to become. You need to have conviction in the work. There are lots of creatives that will present a whole range of options and aren't necessarily as invested in the one that gets chosen. At Made Thought we will often present a single concept to a client with absolute conviction because we feel we've thought so deeply about it and obsessed about every single detail.

Another quality for me is not just understanding the brief, but just understanding with the team and having that human approach to the work. At the end of the day, all of the work we create, is interacted with by humans.

But to succeed in design you also have to be progressive. I think it's our job to always push and always challenge convention - always just try new things and be at the forefront of new technologies.

At Made Thought we've never thought that we've known all the answers. We are always searching and probing. We are always trying to make things better and do things better. That was the same when it was just myself and Ben in the room together to now when we're 80 people spread across two offices on the other side of the world. For me that progressive spirit, that sort of relentless pursuit of excellence and real meticulous quality of craft are all qualities and ingredients that go into really strong successful work.

What are the best things about the job?

I can look outwards and I can look inwards.

If I look outwards, the best thing is we have fantastic opportunities to meet lots of interesting people, whether that's founders or people employed by established brands. We get to meet and experience a whole gamut of different businesses and different categories and different crafts and different industries they work in. One minute we can be working on a hand-built piece of Hifi, the next working for an amazing art gallery that's looking to expand globally. I never quite know what the next challenge will be and that keeps your mind sharp. That keeps you interested.

I look inward to the people that work at Made Thought. Seeing young talent, seeing new minds, and new ways of thinking is incredibly fulfilling. It's a huge privilege to be in a room full of genuinely creative minds that share your passion for good design and the problems that design can solve.

What are the most challenging?

This could sound perverse, but actually sometimes being successful is the most challenging thing you can face. You can be victims of your own success. We've fought for a great reputation. We constantly set ourselves a very high bar. But maintaining the bar that we've set ourselves is never easy.

We make our own lives difficult but to the benefit of the work and to the benefit of the people we do the work for. I also think staying relevant is challenging. I'm very proud of Made Thought having existed now for 23 years. Keeping its core essence of just simply doing great work for great people, with a very simple, very clean approach that just champions craft, champions great thinking and stays pure.

Whether two people or 80 people, there’s a challenge of ensuring that we maintain the core DNA of the studio and with scale not becoming diluted or not too commercial. I believe we’ve done incredibly well - it's always been at the front of our priorities. It’s kind of who we are as a studio.

What do we want people to feel about us? I mean, that's our brand at the end of the day.

Why would you recommend the job to others?

All of the reasons above. I think it's a huge privilege to feel that you've in some way never done a day's work in the sense that if design and creativity are a passion then being able to use that as your career is incredibly rewarding.

The intense variety, the energy of the creative industries, particularly in the UK, are certainly some of the main reasons to recommend the job. Does design have long hours? Yes, sometimes it's stressful. But that's all part of the fun.

I think the advice I would give if you're going to enter design is give it all your energy and creative spirit. You reap the rewards for what you put in. It's certainly an industry or a sector that has got huge amounts of opportunity, particularly in the UK, and that can be across tech and all of the advances at the moment. That doesn’t mean it should be seen as an easy ride. There are huge demands put on creative businesses by clients. The world is fiercely competitive. So, get ready for it. Strap in.

What are the key challenges in design going forward?

The obvious answer to that question is AI. But I’m going to put that down as an opportunity. I think everyone's running around with their hair on fire saying AI's going to replace us all. I'm not sure what the impact that AI has on true human creative thinking. I think it is yet to be seen.

The big challenge though, which is kind of connected is that the world is moving so fast that creative culture and branding is moving at a relentless pace. The challenges of design are innovation, still maintaining that freshness but actually just keeping abreast of the pace of change and the pace of progress and ensuring that the brands we work for are remaining relevant and innovative.

From a design perspective, one of the challenges that we are constantly aware of is we've got to stay ahead of the curve. But I see very little challenge in design other than the challenges you place on yourself, because I think that strong creative spirit and if that's what you love then there's always opportunity in any project, for any challenge.

How can design affect real change in the world?

One key element of the work that we take very seriously at Made Thought is our duty to be responsible. We've banned the word sustainability at Made Thought because it feels a bit of a buzzword. We call it responsibility. The fact that any brand, any organisation or company that makes something has the responsibility to behave in as good a way as they can to create as little waste, is powerful. Brands have a duty to be responsible towards the materials they use and the pressure they put on our planet.

As designers, we're at the forefront of that because a lot of the decisions we make have a direct impact on the real world, particularly from a waste perspective and a materiality and energy perspective. The one thing that we can do apart from creating things that are more beautiful or more functional is we can help actually solve some very important challenges the world faces through intelligent thinking, well executed design and a very responsible approach to delivery.

Fortunately, international design can have profound long-term benefits for the world. What a gift.