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Advice on Managing Your Own Studio: Adam Robinson

When you've just made up your mind to open up a new studio and niche it on sustainable products, there's a lot of steps to follow. Get some great insights on how it works, follow the design director of Plus Minus Design: Adam Robinson, as he shares the beginning, vision and development of the Sustainable Strategists' studio.

Thomas Eales, Adam Robinson and Henry James

At Plus Minus the three directors have all had a long standing interest in design and the environment. Myself and Henry met early in our studies at Leeds University, actually in the lift up to the studio on the first day and quickly realized that our complimenting skills, my own in leadership and product development and his in creativity and communication made an exceptional strong partnership.

The inspiration for Plus Minus came from a period of travel in North America and study at Carleton University. Here we met Brian Burns who not only inspired us to question the current values of consumerism and product design but gave us the knowledge to make a difference.
We returned to the UK and the University of Leeds to complete a Masters in design where we met the third and final director Thomas Eales. Thomas a new and essential dimension to the team acting to both question some of the environmental principles we employee to ensure their value and as a moderator between myself and Henry when we regularly disagree about design decisions!

The final decision to incorporate Plus Minus Design was an easy one. We had the inspiration, we had the innovation, and we had the knowledge. Most importantly though: we had a unique and valuable commercial offering that could offer considerable value to clients.

Who Are the Sustainable Strategists

We needed a name for something that we believe is a completely new concept in commercial design. There are, of course, tags such as "eco-design" or "green-design" that could easily of been used, however we believe this already pigeon holes people into thinking of environmentally friendly, high costs and a little "hippie".This is not what we offer. We subscribe to and promote the fact that sustainability has three core aspects. First and most importantly, finical sustainability as any design, eco or not, will never be successful without being profitable. Secondly: environmental sustainability, the importance of which is becoming more and more abundantly clear. And finally, social sustainability, the design for improving society, an aspect which is often over looked but just as important as what is the worth of a health world with we cannot all enjoy? What we off then are innovative products that not only minimize our client’s environmental and social impact but also, ensures our clients meet current and future legislation, reduces production costs through increased efficiency, increases marketable features and generally raises their profile with consumers. We believe this is more then just great design, this is great design coupled with business strategy for sustained growth!

Managing and Process

The design environment is so distinctly different from the stereotyping business environment. Design productivity can rarely be defined in quantity. We can often spend entire weeks coming up with many ideas that get rejected for the idea that we came up with in the initial meeting! Regardless of what people say, sometimes the first idea is the best.

The hardest part of managing that process however is deciding where the cut off point is. What idea is that winning idea? And how long should you keep searching and perfecting before the cost to the client out weighs the value you can add. To help, we employ a stage gate process where ideas are regularly reviewed against pre defined stakeholder requirements and weighted in regards to importance. The best ranking ideas are taken forward and further explored until eventually a final idea is arrived at. Sometimes however it’s about going against the systems and trusting your gut feeling!

Well I arrive to the studio between 9 and 10 inevitability followed by Henry our creative director exactly 30 minuets later regardless of when I arrive! It’s actually quite impressive how punctually late someone can be! From then we really let the day evolve as required, we find its best to keep only a lose structure to the creative process to ensure we have the flexibility to explore ideas as and when they originate. There are of course techniques we employee to stimulate ideas when required and evaluate designs for commercial viability, however I believe the best ideas come often in the most unexpected situations. For example one of our most successful designs to date was original sketched out on a soggy beer mat.

The Tough Market

There’s no point in lying, it’s a hard market, sustainable design is still a very immature industry and there are 10 people who say your barking up the wrong tree for every 1 who supports you. It is however also a rapidly growing industry and one which will become more and more essential for all businesses as legislation and consumer demand increases. If you are passionate about making a difference, there’s no where better to be.

To be honest a lot of our work has come through reputation and word of mouth. We do however employee a few key tactics we believe are essential to not only connect with clients but ensure we remain top of our game. We are actively involved with education both in research and teaching. Not only is this very engaging but also ensures with a quickly changing industry our knowledge remains the latest available.

We are continuously developing our own innovative products like the solar pebble to demonstrate the commercial possibilities of sustainability and our own innovation skills. And we openly share our knowledge through social media helping us both spread our message and support sustainable design worldwide.

Our core vision is to lead the design and manufacturing industries into a more sustainable future. We truly believe that despite what some environmentalist demands – mass de-materialization – that our consumerist society is so securely embedded in our societies and economies that a reduced impact through reduced consumption is a close to impossible solution. Instead we suggest continuing what we are doing but simply improve our products and processes.

More of the same but better! We offer our clients the opportunity to product new innovative products responsibly. Eventually the goal is to have global offices in all of the bog design centers and employee a large time of passionate and high talented designers to continually improve on our clients’ products. The aim is to develop a sustainable design culture at which point we’ll be out of a job I suppose!

At Plus Minus we live by a saying from a person who inspired our entire business “it’s just good design”. Sustainability is not complicated or expensive it is just about making the right choices that are beneficial and profitable for everyone including the environment.


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