Studio profile: Something Splendid

Published:  April 15, 2011
Studio profile: Something Splendid

I’m not quite sure what to expect when meeting James Yencken and Jonathon Bellew, designers of the current Melbourne Fringe Festival identity and partners-in-crime at design studio, Something Splendid. All I know is that earlier in the week they asked to push our interview back half an hour because they were going to the Fringe Festival the night before and might be a little worse for wear. Awesome. This is sure to be a cracker of an interview.

Coffees firmly in hand, the boys greet us on the second floor of an old ironmonger’s factory in Fitzroy. The building’s quiet facade and unassuming doorway is deceiving. The completely open plan floor buzzes with activity and accommodates a bunch of design studios; however, it was the boys themselves who poured their hearts, souls and hard-earned cash into the renovation. It’s a nice, bright, lofty space with an AstroTurfed balcony, in anticipation of summer evening beers. It wouldn’t be a bad place to work at all.

Yencken and Bellew met at Monash University a few years ago, Yencken, being a multimedia student and Bellew studying photography. They crossed paths when Yencken switched to visual communications and hit it off immediately. Cheekily, the good mates collaborated on their final year projects, with a plan already in place to start their own business.

“Somewhat controversially, we collaborated on some work that was supposed to be solo university work and we did it together because we were starting a business. The last few projects we did, we engineered to slightly real clients, or we worked for friends or we did a couple of real products,” says Yencken.

It seemed a mighty big risk to start a studio while finishing off their degrees. One day, when chatting to his mentor, Stuart Geddes (of the legendary Chase & Galley studio), Yencken mentioned he was thinking of starting his own studio. He asked Geddes why he didn’t bother getting any experience before opening his own studio. Geddes replied, “Yeah, I probably should have, but I didn’t… you probably should get some experience.”

Ignoring Geddes’ advice and turning down internships and fulltime jobs at high-profile studios, they instead made the decision to take the plunge into the deep end and open their own business. Something Splendid was born and the rest is history. With little experience, either as designers or business owners, did they ever regret walking away from what they knew were safe, secure careers working for other studios?

Bellew says he believed they were doing the right thing. “It always seemed natural to go into business. Because there was no decision as such, or planning, it just happened. We don’t have that much time to worry about things; you just go along with it.”

“It’s really tough, running a business,” Yencken continues. “It’s really tough being a small business and doing it with little experience. You make some tough mistakes and we’ve learned some tough lessons. [But] the feeling you get when something goes right, like you pitch for a job and you get it. And it was just two people and your idea and you did it. There’s nobody else. It’s so creepy how excited you feel. If you’ve had a bad few months and something goes right, it just carries you on.”

Owning a small business has, like most things, its fair share of ups and downs. “When you’re running your own thing, you feel it more,” says Bellew. “You feel much more attached to the ups and downs. You get so much more out of the ups.”

The boys usually work alone on their projects, without the help of any additional staff. This, it seems, is a key factor in their working relationship. Their dynamic, built on their solid friendship, is tight and well-oiled – they can be brutally honest, knowing they won’t hurt each other’s feelings. Their creative process, they say, has developed over time and it would be difficult for someone else to fit in with that dynamic.

Though at times work may be quiet or the money tight, often it only takes one job to buoy the business. “It only takes one successful pitch to erase six months of slogging through it. I reckon it’s the high five after you do a pitch that is the most amazing moment you can have,” says Bellew, “and everything feels right because you’re doing your own thing.”

In a city renowned for its thriving and close-knit design community, doing their own thing has been a crucial factor in the success of Something Splendid. Though there are plenty of boutique studios, actively trying to stand out can be detrimental and, says Yencken, “you’re already failing”. For them, standing out is less important than remaining true to their work, which “is what got us here so far,” according to Bellew. “As long as you’re doing justice to your work and putting [it] out there for people to see, the rest should, in time, take care of itself… if you ever do a job for the sake of getting noticed or getting more work, you’ve been misguided.”

In light of the fact that there are quite a number of studios in Melbourne, the boys find the community supportive rather than competitive. There’s a real sense of friendship among studios, which, in turn, feeds the spirit of the industry and the quality of work produced.

“We’ve built a small community of people, who technically we could say are our competitors, but they don’t feel like that. There’s always lots of work going around, we don’t feel like we’re in competition at all,” says Yencken.

Bellew agrees, pointing out that there are plenty of jobs that will always go to the most suitable studio. As each studio “puts [their] own spin on things, it’s almost like you can see a job come in and know who would do the best job and get the most out of it… who’s got the right feel for it”.

According to the duo, every studio has a ‘niche’, but has the rise of the internet had a negative impact on the design industry, especially in terms of originality?

“There are definitely lots of scumbags out there, taking advantage of it and big ad agencies stealing YouTube ideas and redoing them,” says Yencken. “It helps and hurts the same amount,” adds Bellew, “but if you’re not designing for an audience, you shouldn’t be a designer. I read design blogs less now than I ever have, I think there was this feeling at the start that if I don’t read blogs, I won’t keep current or I won’t know what’s new. I realised that’s maybe not such a bad thing.”

The Melbourne Fringe Festival is one of their biggest and most satisfying projects to date. In 2009 Something Splendid was involved in the entire redesign of the festival’s identity and branding. Aware of its reputation for being an ‘alternative’ arts festival, the boys enjoyed being a part of the festival’s rebranding and were back on board again this year to build on the success.

“They’ve been running for more than 20 years and have this really low profile, particularly among other arts festivals. Fringe had this thing where they were always wacky,” says Yencken.

Adds Bellew, “I think over time, the festival has moved and they needed to bring the public perception along with them.”

They told the festival’s organisers that their corporate identity needed to be “fun and creative, because that’s what you are,” and every year, the brand needed to “turn up the volume and go crazy.” According to the boys, they simply upped the ante and “made it more”. This understanding of what was needed to allow the festival to push forward is what won them the job.

Today the boys are, rather modestly, basking in the glory of their successful Fringe campaign. This year, Something Splendid was given an ad space in the festival guide, but when it comes to marketing and self-promotion, the boys are very reluctant to ‘big up’ themselves. Though they’re proud of what they do, they go to great lengths to let it be known they’re ‘just two guys in Fitzroy’ and not some big soulless agency. “I don’t want to champion our work too much. Someone’s going to read it and think ‘wankers’,” says Yencken.

As a parting question, we ask Yencken and Bellew what that one thing is that makes them love what they do and makes them want to come to work every single day.

“I guess that it’s ours,” says Bellew, thoughtfully. “I think everything we’ve done so far, we’re only here because of all our own stuff. I think it’s the ownership.”

“The fact that the business is still there, that it’s still going,” adds Yencken, “…there’s a pride there, and also the determination not to fuck it up.”

All images copyright Something Splendid.

From desktop magazine.

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