Pause For Thought

07.02.2020

Lately, I’ve been thinking about thinking. Here’s how it all started.

Almost every weekday morning, I walk down the hill from home to the Baxter and Bailey studio in central Brighton. It’s a lovely walk, downhill all the way (and consequently less lovely on the homeward leg). It’s a half hour window to get my thoughts in order before diving into the emails, phone calls, catch-ups, discussions and demands of the studio day. Every morning for the past week, I’ve walked past the same flyposter. It appears to be promoting a gallery show and it says this, in glitchy and distressed uppercase typography: KEEP MOVING, STOP THINKING.

The poster achieved exactly half of its stated aim, in that I did indeed keep moving. But what it failed to convince me to do was to stop thinking. In fact, it did the opposite. And what it made me start thinking was: get off my case, glitchy typographic poster, we need more thinking not less. In fact, other than perhaps JUMP IN THIS POOL OF LAVA or POP YOUR HEAD IN THIS JUICER, I can’t think of many all-caps commands more guaranteed to keep me moving very fast in the opposite direction whilst thinking very hard.

All of my design heroes (and I’m guessing some of yours too) are thinkers.

KEEP MOVING, STOP THINKING is all very well if you’re running away from bees or the Terminator. And whilst it’s true that in this industry we call design, the ability to move – to develop, to evolve, to move forwards towards a solution, to relentlessly pursue an idea – are all vitally important attributes, what we really need are thinkers. The best designers are thinking designers. All of my design heroes (and I’m guessing some of yours too) are thinkers. Some are conceptual thinkers with one foot in the fine art or craft camps. People like Alan Fletcher, Tibor Kalman, Jim Sutherland, Vaughn Oliver or Paula Scher. And some are more commercial thinkers, always with an eye on the brand or the system. People like Michael Johnson, Michael Beirut or Margaret Calvert. What unites this disparate bunch of genii is a thoughtfulness in their work: they make brainy, deep work that means something to them, their clients and their clients’ audiences.

And whilst I’m as easily seduced by a beautiful aesthetic as the next fickle designer (ooh, just look at that fluoro spot colour and foil detailing), the design work that really delights me is the stuff that’s clearly been thought about. When I see thoughtful, clever or intelligent work, the reaction isn’t quite ‘I wish I’d done that’, it’s more ‘I wish I’d thought of that’.

When we founded Baxter and Bailey five years ago, we decided straight away to build a thoughtful business. The first thing we did, before buying a Mac or a chair or a bookshelf or a bag of coffee beans was to sit down for a day in a borrowed Covent Garden meeting room and design a thoughtful business plan. We thought hard about client sectors that we already enjoyed working in or had good track record in, and we actively avoided sectors we didn’t like. We thought hard about mistakes we’d made in our design pasts and made firm commitments not to repeat them.

When thinking about and writing this business plan, we also tried to ensure that the design business we were creating allowed us to be thoughtful outside of the studio too. Dom and I were both already dads by this point and consequently were becoming experts in dad jokes, dad dancing and were in danger of developing an irrational fondness for fleeces. So we committed to think hard about ways in which our business could be ambitious, brave and brilliant whilst allowing us to be good parents too. We were keen not to fall into all of those classic design studio shabby habits: habitual late hours, weekend working, neglectful parenting. And whilst this thoughtful approach doesn’t always work perfectly – I’m typing this on a Sunday afternoon – we’re giving out-of-hours thoughtfulness our best shot.

In more recent years, as the studio has grown, this thoughtful approach is still embedded in our DNA and informs how we look out for great new designers. We’re firm believers that good designers are thinking designers. I’d go a bit further, and say that designers who think deeply and widely about their work are already strategists in the broadest sense. They think about how the work meets the brief, how clearly it will communicate, how well it marries up with the brand strategy or aims or ambitions. And, if they’re really good, they’ll think all of this and make it look brilliant too. And if they’re nice people with excellent taste in biscuits too, we’re sold.

Maybe it’s time for a flyposting campaign of our own. I can see it now: clean, clear, bold and brilliant all-caps typography. Not a glitch or a distressed texture in sight. And the copy line? KEEP MOVING BY ALL MEANS, BUT FOR GAWD’S SAKE THINK!

Matt was invited to write this piece for issue 275 of the excellent Computer Arts magazine.