In seven years, this versatile design outfit has gone from ambitious duo to 16-strong studio with global influence. Julia Sagar discusses the rise and rise of ilovedust
Building a truly global reputation from scratch is never going to be easy, but multidisciplinary design studio ilovedust (iLD) has taken the challenge in its stride.
Nestled on the south coast of England, the team count Nike, Kidrobot, Coca-Cola, Levi's and Pepsi among their bulging client list, and have successfully tackled everything from branding and web design to customised sneakers, bikes and vinyl toys. Not bad for a studio that started life as a couple of designers knocking on the doors of local businesses asking for work.
"Ben [Beach] and I met while working at a T-shirt company," begins co-founder Mark Graham. "We were both graduates with a hunger for design, but this was being knocked out of us by being asked to copy brands we loved - it was pretty soul destroying. We made the decision to start freelancing for friends, and looking for work. I left after a month and Ben not long after."
And so began iLD, with the duo taking the plunge in May 2003. "The early days were very difficult," he admits. "By the time we'd found a small studio and bought computers, we were already in debt."
The pair worked seven days a week, submitting work to "as many people as possible" and ploughing their earnings back into the studio. "During year one we never took home more than £500 a month, and that becomes very hard, especially when some friends are earning more in a day."
Commitment and passion, he stresses, are essential when you're starting out. Issues such as financial backing, the right equipment and a good location are all important - but it's sheer focus and dedication that will pull you through the hard times.
Building up the studio took time, hard graft - and lots of coffee. "We got lucky. We started working with Marks & Spencer after about a year, and the work really lifted us financially. It gave us a taste of real budgets," he says. With a website for UK indie band Ash and continued work for M&S beginning to bulk out the studio's portfolio, iLD's client base slowly grew. "After a year we signed up with a rep in New York, who took us on and started to filter bigger and bigger jobs to us."
iLD's philosophy is simple: produce "really great work", and work hard. "Once you've got a good client, it's important to keep yourself in their thoughts," Graham explains. "We never ever missed a deadline - we worked 20 hours a day for weeks to make sure we could get repeat business. That, paired with really great work, is a great combination to build on."
It's a good ethos, and one that seems to have worked - the studio is certainly no stranger to repeat business. Take its relationship with Nike: asked to work on the Levi 501 x Jordan limited edition package, iLD found itself in at the deep end, with only a week to get the ideas down and sent to the client.
"The brief was fairly loose - there were a lot of 'make it cool' phone calls. We were very lucky that they bought into our ideas for the project," Graham laughs. The job went swimmingly, and the team formed a good relationship with the Nike creatives. "We started to pick up more work, and understood the client's needs more and more."
The benefits have been two-fold: not only did the project push the studio towards a new, more sports brand-oriented audience, it has continued to prove popular with clients, helping to cement their faith in iLD. "It doesn't come much bigger than Michael Jordan and Levi 501s," he grins.
That was back in February 2008; since then iLD has gone on to collaborate with Brand Jordan to create six different versions of the iconic Jordan shoe - another monumental project that any studio would be delighted to land. Originally asked for one shoe in one colour, the number was upped to six as the project progressed. "It was a real compliment to us and to the design process," says Graham.
Laser-cut illustrations cover the shoes in strong narratives featuring key moments from each season: "It's a story. Each design is based on Michael Jordan winning one of his six Championship rings. We spent hours researching the pinnacle points of his career, from MVP to Space Jam, and from his relationship with Charles Barkley to his very first car - nothing was missed."
It was crucial to work closely with Brand Jordan, and the two teams fed off each other to develop different ideas. "We did a lot of back-and-forth with the guys at Nike to make sure the graphics fitted in the right areas," he says. "Working on prototype pictures and sketches was at times slightly difficult because we only had a side-on facet, yet were covering a 3D object."
They got there in the end: not only were their designs used across all six of the shoes, but a limited edition gold-on-black tee was also made available from NikeTown stores all around the world.
Jumping in at the deep end is an approach typical of iLD. As Graham says: "Being safe will only get you so far. I'm always one for going head-first into some jobs. It's good to be out of your depth at times - it pushes you on, and it tests your character as well as your design skills."
"It's about taking risks at the right time," adds Beach. "We constantly try to evolve as a studio, be it experimenting with new styles or adding to the disciplines we work in."
This ideology is part of the reason why the studio boasts such a varied portfolio, carrying its 'crafted design and narrative illustration' aesthetic across many different media. Recently, for example, the team created a bespoke design for a pair of the ever-popular Eames LCW chairs. Working with Eames was something the Southsea crew had long dreamed about: "We researched the company a whole bunch and stumbled upon a great conversation between [designers] Charles and Ray, which seemed perfect for us to interpret in a graphical way," explains Graham.
"We also looked into the year the chair was built, 1946, and came up with loads of relevant facts and figures: it was the year the CIA was formed, the bikini was invented - and these things, plus a look at the design and fonts of the era, paved the way for the piece."
Created using Illustrator, varnish and "lots of patience", getting all the icons to fit and look right once applied to the chair was challenging, he admits. "We wish we'd done another two - they'd look great in the studio!"
So how did iLD progress from small start-up studio to multidisciplinary design boutique? "It crept up on us to be honest," admits Graham. "We were looking at getting an intern in, and Johnny Winslade came to help from a local university - he was our first employee."
Today the studio is a 16-strong team. "We have an accountant now, and took on a studio manager about a year ago now. Ben and I were already doing 18-hour days. It got to the point where we didn't have enough time in the day to design and handle accounts, organise holidays, travel, chase payments... we were trying to be all things to all men."
He continues: "I wish I could tell you that we had a brilliant plan and a strategic attack - but it was just hard, hard work and having a team of talented and hungry designers who know that for every cool job we do there's a not-so-cool-one that makes it possible. It's really that simple."
Fortunately, iLD has done a lot of cool jobs. Its bespoke track bike for Tokyo Fixed Gear saw the team choosing a top-spec Figmo Stealth aluminium frame, and designing an all-over pattern. "We'd done a few custom bikes previously, but were determined to do something that pushed past just cool parts and colourways, so we worked closely with a few companies to get an all-over design that took the bike a step forward," he explains.
iLD's design had to work around a number of "welds, kinks and holes" on the frame, and the team found themselves doing a lot of paper-cutting and mask-making in Illustrator to ensure the pattern felt seamless.
"It's genuinely a rideable bike with great parts, and a great wad of madness added in for good measure. You either love it or hate it," laughs Graham.
But it isn't just the cool jobs - it's the collaborations themselves that have contributed to iLD's meteoric rise in the design world. It's through teaming up with other artists and designers that the studio has spread its name so successfully. "We've been working with Nike, Kidrobot and Nooka for a few years now, so we seem to have something new popping up every few months. We always like to be involved in new ideas and work with people we love. We write for some cool blogs like High Snobiety as well."
They've moved studio twice along the way - to the neighbouring town of Emsworth in search of a space they could grow into; then back to Southsea in 2009, after eventually outgrowing these new premises as well. Last year also saw the launch of an additional studio, this time in London for iLD's new animation team.
"We opened it in the capital to attract the calibre of animators and designers with the experience that we needed," explains Beach. "This side of our work is expanding very fast, and it made sense to be in London. We're extremely excited - this is going to be a really important part of our future."
Do they have any hot tips for anyone looking to take their studio to the next level? "Employ the right people," Beach advises. "We always say to new staff: 'Make yourself indispensable to us in three months, and you'll have a full-time contract.' Making sure you have a good accountant, or accounting advice, is important too. If you don't know when your tax is due, it's easy to run into problems."
For Graham, it's simple: "Take risks, and always take the worst-case scenarios into account. But if you feel it's right, just do it."