Founded in February 2011 by Jeff Knowles and Nick Hard, formerly art director and senior designer at Brody’s iconic Research Studios, Planning Unit has hit the ground running
“My Grandfather ran a design studio called Planning Unit through the 1960s right up until after I was born,” explains Nick Hard, one half of Planning Unit. “They used to work closely with Knoll furniture. I always loved the name and their work, so it made sense to resurrect it.”
Hard, along with co-founder Jeff Knowles, set up the reborn Planning Unit studio in February 2011, after a long stint as colleagues at Research Studios. The name choice is a perfect fit, since taking a classic and giving it a contemporary twist is a particular speciality of this young studio. With an adaptable style and a rapidly-swelling international client base, we earmarked the duo as the perfect collaborators for Computer Arts Collection’s very first Studio Project.
Although the pair first joined forces professionally when Hard joined Research as a senior designer in 2005, they had also known each other while studying at the University of Salford in the 1990s. Knowles went straight from university to Research as a junior designer, gradually moving up the ranks to become art director.
Hard, on the other hand, started his career at London-based Form, working there for five years before joining Research. Their stints at both globally respected studios have influenced the partnership’s work immensely: “They’re totally different companies, each with a totally different approach and visual style,” reflects Hard. “I learnt loads from each. There’s work I’ve done that I never would have if I hadn’t spent time at both places.”
The idea of setting up a studio together had been brewing for a while before the pair made the big leap. “We’d been talking about it for around six months,” remembers Hard. “We’d both reached the point where we had a lot of freelance projects we worked on in our own time – enough to know we could set up a studio without having to survive on just bread! I think being a designer is like being a footballer – you have to hang up the boots and go into management at some point.”
Having worked together closely on many projects at Research, they knew each other’s skills and approaches inside-out. “It was a logical step really, we weren’t going in blind,” Hard continues. “We have different design styles and ideas, and also different personality types that fit together too. For example, we find that if one person gets super stressed out about something, then the other one won’t.”
One key lesson they both took from their time at Research was a hands-on approach to every aspect of the design process, having been, in their words, “thrown in at the deep end” from the beginning. Knowles explains: “Whatever project was going on, you had to work on it from day one. There was quite a flat hierarchy, and so many varied projects going on, so there was no set formula – you just got stuck in.”
This experience took away any of the mystery surrounding running a studio and ensured that setting up on their own felt like a smooth transition from their previous roles. “We’ve had to learn the business side of things, of course,” Hard tells us. “But at Research we had to do every part of the process ourselves – from liaising with the printer to working with the client. So setting up as Planning Unit wasn’t tricky.”
Their extensive time working with clients directly at Research, rather than handing over meetings and discussions to a superior, has particularly stood them in good stead. “If you were working on a project then it would be you that had the relationship with the client,” explains Knowles. “Looking back, to them it must’ve seemed really weird, having a 23-year-old flying in to give a presentation,” he laughs. Hard adds: “One thing we learnt was to be as honest with the client as we can. Work with them to get what they want, rather than try to force an opinion on them.” Knowles agrees, saying: “We always try to be humble and respectful of them, and they do really appreciate that. We’re all about building up good client relationships, and many of the people we’ve done work for have actually gone on to become good friends of ours.”
This approach has meant that the pair are finding clients return to them time and again whenever they need a small project worked on, building up to bigger commissions. “There’s a saying: don’t go in for the whole loaf of bread, go in for a slice at a time, and eventually you’ll have the whole loaf,” says Knowles. “And that’s how we’ve approached building up Planning Unit.”