401 Richmond St. district, at the intersection of Richmond St. and Spadina Avenue. Built in 1899, this 200,000-square-foot building originally housed the Macdonald Manufacturing Company—a long-defunct business that produced elaborately lithographed tin containers that remain a favourite of collectors.
Not surprisingly in a city that often appears indifferent—even hostile—towards its past, 401 Richmond eventually came to be viewed as a relic of Toronto’s industrial era; it almost met the wrecking ball before being purchased by its current owners in 1994.
In the two decades since, it has become a hub for the city’s creative community. Its owners reportedly hand pick tenants, with preference given to businesses aligned with the arts. There is not an accountant to be found.
A regular stop on the city’s annual “Doors Open” event, every aspect of the building seems to evoke its late 19th Century origins—the impossibly high ceilings, the wood floors that creak appealingly when walked on, the exterior walls covered in a thick mantle of ivy.
It is here on the fourth floor, suite 430, kitty-corner to Wickwire & Brooks (specializing in cognitive behaviour therapy) that one of Canada’s newest design firms, Jacknife, is quietly contributing to an ongoing trend in the design community: the rise of the multi-disciplinary agency.
Jacknife’s main entrance looks like it is the setting for an upcoming episode of Antiques Roadshow. There’s an old dressmaker’s dummy; an organ of indeterminate vintage with a “DANGER” sign propped on the music stand; a shelf unit featuring a stuffed rodent of some kind that apparently once featured in a beer ad; old glass bottles 21 designedgecanada.com Sept/Oct 2013 and tins that once contained products like “Essence of Pepsin,” “Rexalls Hair Tonic” and “Velvet Pipe and Cigarette Tobacco.”
Juxtaposed with the modern-day office trappings of iMacs, designer chairs and the cappuccino machine, this mishmash of styles is like a metaphor for Jacknife itself. It is the result of a recent merger between three Toronto-based design firms: AmoebaCorp, Oxygen Design Agency and Apparatus Inc.
The name (and yes, it is intentionally misspelled) was chosen both as a nod to the principals’ outdoorsy lifestyles and its namesake’s reputation as a handy, multi-purpose tool.
Practitioners of the multi-disciplinary approach espoused by Jacknife—and they are a growing number in Canada—say it offers clients a one-stop solution and makes their studio less vulnerable to shifts within the industry by creating new revenue streams. It also provides a more fulfilling professional environment for designers.
“Make me work on print brochures for a month and I’ll go crazy,” says Jacknife partner and creative director Mikey Richardson over the steady rumble of traffic below. “It’s always been a cultural thing for us to want to try and build and take on new challenges. We’re combining that personal interest with what is probably a good business idea to try and diversify.”
Clad in khaki shorts, with shaggy almost shoulder-length hair, black-rimmed glasses and the obligatory (though small)tattoo on his inner forearm, Richardson is practically a poster child for the 21st century design executive. He is also a keen observer of the changes occurring within the design community.
His original company, AmoebaCorp, specialized in brand identity and renovation, with a client list including Tetley, ING, Mitsubishi and HBC. Until recently, it was majority owned by Toronto creative agency John St. (Richardson and his partner Mike Kelar bought back their 70 percent stake shortly after John St. was acquired by global holding company WPP late last year).
Oxygen, meanwhile, specializes in what Richardson calls “campaignable” ideas for clients, such as a retail-based campaign with in-store elements. Its client list includes Coca-Cola (handling an employee communications program), Toronto’s SickKids Hospital (it worked on its “Do the Happy” campaign) and Adidas (“Every day is training day”).
The wild card in the merger was Apparatus, an industrial design firm whose CV includes designing several iterationsof the Kobo e-reader, as well as work for clients including Red Bull and skiwear manufacturer Salomon.
In a way, the creation of Jacknife wasthe crystallization of an informal working relationship that often saw the three companies come together around various design projects before spinning off in totheir own orbit.
“We were finding we were doing work together anyways, but it was always a loose relationship,” says Richardson. “We always thought that just for our own happiness we’d really like to work together more—we’re good friends and loved the way we worked together. We just thought let’s formalize it, because clients were kind of asking for some of that stuff: You’re good at X, can you deliver Y for us?”
The phenomenon is not new. It is being driven, experts say, by increased client recognition of the importance of good design in all of its permutations. In a 2011 paper entitled “The Blurring of Design Boundaries,” Paul Rodgers, a professor at England’s Northumbria University, alluded to the cross-pollination occurring within the design community.
“This is a world where designers can be asked to work on the packaging for a new hair shampoo one day and the next be developing the interior for a new range of luxury sports car,” he wrote. “…This is a world where design projects regularly consist of teams that coalesce for a project, dissolve and reform with different personnel and expertise.”
Ian Haughton, founder and creative director of the London, U.K.-based design shop Handsome Brands, which recently opened its first international office in Toronto, says there is a land grab taking place in design, fueled in part by creative agencies that are seeing longstanding revenue streams like TV starting to dry up.
A friend at a London ad agency recently confided to him that the firm has been talking with a retail client (he won’t say which one) about doing brand identity work, even interiors and store layouts. “Of course, they’ve got no idea how to do them,” says Haughton with a laugh. “But it really does seem to a certain degree that advertising is trying to do lots of things. If they’ve got a client and they [have an opportunity] to do the branding they’ll try and do that too.”
It is the heightened competition that is contributing to the rise of multi-disciplinary shops, says Haughton.
There can be some potential drawbacks to adopting a multi-discipline approach, however. Aren Fieldwalker, who co-founded the Vancouver-based multi-disciplinary shop Glasfurd & Walker seven years ago, says that clients may perceive a prospective agency as lacking expertise in the one discipline they require. “We may not know which clients we’ve lost,” he says.
Yet the rise of diversified services doesn’t appear poised to slow anytime soon. Revenues for Canada’s graphic/communications design industry surpassed $1.3 billion in 2011 according to Statistics Canada. Adrian Jean, president of the Society of Graphic Designers of Canada and art director for Toronto-based i2 Ideas & Issues Advertising, says continued revenue growth indicates that businesses are recognizing the value of design across multiple disciplines.
Multi-disciplinary design shops have been on the rise for some time says Jean, but it is smaller shops (typically employing two-to-five people) that are embracing the multi-disciplinary approach. It enables them to take on assignments that would previously have been the sole purview of larger studios, he says.
These smaller shops often employ designers with a broader range of interests and skill-sets, he says. Designers with experience in different but complementary disciplines, such as web design and mobile UX design, are attractive to small shops looking to become more competitive and productive, he says.
“As more smaller shops pick up more diversified talent, the shops themselves become more diversified in their client offering,” says Jean. Richardson believes that Jacknife’s multi-disciplinary approach has alreadyincreased its appeal to clients. “We’re already finding some traction in going to clients and trying to cross-sell what we do,” he says.
Last year, for example, AmoebaCorp was approached about doing some identity work related to the rebranding of Centre in the Square, a performing arts centre located in Kitchener, Ont. Under the Jacknife banner, it subsequently brought in Oxygen to do what Richardson describes as “a deep dive” into other aspects of the business, such as the website, ticket sales, etc.
More recently, Centre in the Square began discussing custom furnishings with what was formerly Apparatus. “These are all things we would have talked about and helped move along as AmoebaCorp, but we wouldn’t have actually done the job,” says Richardson.
The most tangible benefit for design firms built around a multi-disciplinary approach is the ability to generate more revenue. Jacknife was planning for a simple tripling of revenue in the wake of the merger, but Richardson says it is “much further ahead” than originally planned.
“It could be luck—you just never know,” he says. “We’re still in early days of seeing the phone ring because of the new name, and a lot of work is carrying over from before, so it’s really hard to say right now. We feel we’re getting traction and some ofthat cross-disciplinary work.”
Unlike Jacknife, Glasfurd & Walker was originally conceived as a multi-discipline design shop. Launched seven years ago by Australian designer Phoebe Glasfurd and Vancouver native Aren Fieldwalker, it offers a full array of design services including identity system creation, brand design, publication design, exhibition and built environment design, web, packaging and product design.
Fieldwalker and Glasfurd first met while doing branding work for broadcast television clients in Sydney, Australia. Both had grown tired of the single-minded focus of their employer. “For certain clients that screamed expertise, but ultimately it turned into a stale creative process which in the end detracted from the quality of work the agency produced,” says Fieldwalker.
Fieldwalker describes Glasfurd & Walker as “a decidedly boutique shop,” with four full-time employees. While annual revenues are modest (between $350,000 and $450,000 a year), the agency works with clients as far afield as New York, Los Angeles, Shanghai and Sydney. “Taking this approach has not proven detrimental to our creative and economic development as a studio,” says Fieldwalker.
“Ultimately it’s really about diversity creating interest,” he adds. “The reason we set up the studio was to do everything we wanted to do that we couldn’t do while working for agencies that were very specific in what clientele they took on.”
Last year, Victoria-based roaster/coffee house Fernwood Coffee approach Glasfurd & Walker about designing a new logo. A subsequent strategic audit of the business led to the agency overseeing a top-to-bottom overhaul of that brand that included not only a new logo, but new packaging, new interior signage, a new website featuring e-commerce capability and marketing collateral.
“The scope went from a logo to every conceivable touch-point that a successful, internationally renowned company needed,” says Glasfurd. “If we were only focused on identity work, we’d have no idea how to get packaging done, or web, or e-commerce.” “Our approach to branding is to try and create something with a bit of permanence that can be interpreted for a long time to come, whereas the advertising approach seems to be more campaign driven. It’s a different way of thinking.”
Time has proven that a different way of thinking can yield significant benefits. It’s how what was once a dirty, noisy factory in Toronto came to be transformed into a tranquil hub of creativity.