After 7 successful years working in our London Studio, last year Sam Cutler had the very exciting opportunity to move over to New York as Creative Director to build the creative arm of our growing Studio over in America.
Once he got a chance to get his feet under the table (just!) we sat down with him to find out a bit more about what makes him tick, his passions, and his experiences so far from working and living in North America…
Hey Sam! OK, let’s start at the very beginning – how did you start out in design?
It goes back to my Nan really. She was an exceptional still life painter (2 examples of her work below) as well as a pretty decent potter. Sadly her father never allowed her to go to Arts School so I think she channelled her creative side through me. I think that’s partly why, from a young age, you could always find me drawing and making things with my hands.
I eventually made it in to Manchester Metropolitan to do my Art Foundation. Looking back I have such fond memories of that year – experimenting, being pushed to think differently, and always taking a conceptual approach to my image making. It was a fantastically creative environment and it was during this year that I began to fully appreciate Graphic Design. Like most northern cities, Manchester has long line of creative thinkers from the music scene and Factory Records, to past alumni such as McQueen & Heatherwick.
Despite growing up in Manchester I was actually born in Cornwall, and so I took the chance to escape the city for a while and joined Falmouth University to study for a degree in Graphic Design. I could go on and on about the merits of living and studying by the coast but, in short, Falmouth was the perfect place for me as the course blended big ideas with an appreciation of the realities of the industry. I quickly discovered, after my initial foray into the real world, that this was a sensibility that many other young graduates lacked awareness of.
Where was your first job out of university?
Initially I moved back to Manchester and took a role as junior designer in a small agency called Dinosaur. The work was really varied, from restaurant branding, to Asics key visuals, Co-Op print collateral and even a re-fresh of their identity.
However London was calling and, after a period of couch surfing during a placement at Turner Duckworth, I was offered a full time position at HGV (sadly now closed), which was then run by Pierre Vermier. I’m sure Pierre won’t mind me saying that he was a tricky character at times but, along with the senior designer Tommy Taylor (Alphabeticalstudio), I learnt the foundations of simple, bold ideas and beautiful execution.
What lured you to Design Bridge?
I was ready to progress my career and work on bigger brands. I interviewed three times at Design Bridge, over 7 years ago now. It was post-recession and a lot of agencies had laid people off or gone out of business, and many designers decided to go freelance – I decided to do the opposite. I joined Design Bridge as a Middleweight Designer and it’s been a whirlwind ever since!
How would you describe yourself as a Designer?
When I came to Design Bridge the agency was very well known for packaging design. I wasn’t a Packaging Designer then and I don’t call myself one now either. I prefer the old term “Commercial Artist”. That post-recession period brought in a wonderfully varied and diverse skill set to the studio and I think that, as a result, Design Bridge now offers the highest level of Brand Guardianship around. Not only are we quite good at it, we’re wildly passionate about it. I love the idea of steering a brand onto a path of self-discovery and ultimately greater social meaning and financial success. Strategy, Art Direction and wordsmithing are close to my heart and I see these as essential skills for any designer in 2017.
Tell us about some of projects/clients have you worked on?
I’ve had the privilege to work with people like Graham (Shearsby, Chief Creative Officer), Tim Perkins (Deputy Group Chairman) and Tim Vary (Creative Director) on really varied accounts – Smirnoff has been a large part of my time at DB (including our award-winning work on Peppermint Twist), but I have also worked on all sorts of other projects including Facebook Awards, KFC store re-design and menus, Guinness brand world, Cadbury innovations, and most recently the inspirational Brooklyn-based charity, Restoration (more about that soon).
Something close to your new home.
Yes, New York is the latest chapter. Design Bridge New York opened in 2013 and I’ve been quite heavily involved in the work since the beginning. For the past 2 years I was travelling there every month to lay the groundwork for opening up the studio side of the office – that’s a lot of Frequent Flyer miles and a LOT of plane food!
It’s an amazing city. You step off the plane and there’s an energy to it. It’s similar to London but bigger and louder – for some people perhaps a bit too big or a bit too loud, but for me it’s just about right. I love it!
The opportunity to grow the team and help drive the success of the business alongside Kasia (Bannon, Senior Vice President) is a little like having my own start-up, but with the security blanket of a bigger agency, and the knowledge and talent over 400 people across our other 3 studios – Singapore, Amsterdam and, of course, London.
While we’ve brought over a few familiar faces from other DB Studios who already know how we work, it’s crucial that we also bring in the best local talent to work with us. The USA is an immensely large country and, whilst it can all seem very comfortably similar to London on the surface, there are all sorts of cultural nuances that we need to be aware of. So we’ve been looking at ways to access the incredible pool of raw, exciting local talent to keep me on my toes! We place a lot of emphasis on our agency culture and invest in fostering talent. We do this really well in the UK, and I’m immensely proud of how many grads and juniors we’ve grown into senior management across DB. I’d love to continue this tradition in New York. Success to me would be looking back in 10 years time and still seeing all the faces that were here with us from the beginning, plus the new faces who will continue to be with us long into the future.
What are you looking for in your new team?
One of the things that I believe we are great at doing at Design Bridge is taking a brand that may have become a little tired or dusty, uncovering what originally made it great, and making that relevant again.
We always say that we make famous work for famous brands – like Cadbury and Hellmann’s in the UK – and in New York our philosophy is no different. We want to work with those iconic American brands, and we want people who can help us think differently, think big, and push the boundaries for those brands.
Have you noticed any differences or similarities to working with British and European brands and markets compared to those in the USA?
Design really seems to be on the corporate agenda in North America at the moment, and that in itself is incredibly exciting. You are seeing big corporations poaching people from more traditional creative industries, and vice versa – so there’s a bit of cross-pollination of senior figures in charge of the big multi-national brands, which is great for our industry.
More and more clients want to win design awards now, not just agencies, and this is even forming some of the briefs coming through the door. The lines are blurring a bit. It’s a fast, exciting and huge market to work in. The fear of getting it wrong is palpable, but that has only served to fuel my focus and determination to get what I know is right for the brand out to market.
In terms of cultural nuances, there’s a tendency to be a bit bigger, a bit bolder, a bit more literal in the US maybe, but that is by no means a bad thing. It can almost focus your thinking – knowing that you really need to cut through in such a busy world.
And, of course, you have lots of interesting cultural, socio-economic and political dynamics to consider – growing minority populations, gentrification, nationalism, Trump, the list goes on… Being aware of different cultures is key, and you really need to be on the ground to truly get your head around it to make sure that you produce the most effective work. As an agency we immerse ourselves in the cultures we design for and we never just design for design’s sake – it’s always rooted in a thought, an observation, a missed opportunity.
We work to connect people with brands, to be engaged by their packaging, believe in their voice, feel drawn to and instantly understand their place in the world. If they don’t, then we haven’t done our job. All those stages of digging deeper, thinking, debating, linking it back to a truth, they all happen before we ever put pen to paper.
Have you spotted any American brands doing this well?
One that has been winning a lot of awards is JKR’s work for Budweiser. Not only is it beautifully crafted, it really works in North America. I go to watch the local NFL game and Bud Light is everywhere. The branding is big, bold, colourful and hard hitting – it ticks all the boxes for that occasion. At the end of the day, it’s just a beer, but you can tell that they’ve really got under the skin of the consumer and executed something that truly resonates with them beautifully.
What has surprised you most about you move over to New York?
On a completely practical level, looking for apartments to rent! Let’s just say that Manhattan living is rather small and leave it at that. We do miss our lovely house with its leafy garden back in Sydenham, south London.
Have you found any favourite places so far, particularly for creative inspiration?
This city is bursting with inspiration but yes I do have a few favourite spots. The Museum of the City of New York is a personal highlight, Dia:Beacon is another, but I find the best way is to simply walk everywhere and soak up the everyday sights and sounds of the city. New York can be loud, dirty, beautiful, bold, secretive, serene, bitterly cold and gorgeously glamorous with every turn of a block.
What are you mostly looking forward to in the near future?
From a professional point of view, building my team and helping Design Bridge grow. I set myself a personal challenge of working abroad by the age of 30 so, although I’ve missed it by a couple of years, it’s nice to finally make it happen!
This city is a global cultural hub, just like London, and a place that sets trends all over the world so I’m incredibly excited to really immerse myself in that.
If Design Bridge New York sounds like your kind of place then check our Careers page for the latest opportunities to join Sam, Kasia and the team in NYC.