Ash O’Brien is the co-founder of Two of Us, a graphic design partnership based between two British cities, Birmingham and Brighton. Since 2015, Ash has been working with his partner Ian Caulkett creating design that is effective, original and, above all, honest—across education, technology, fashion, music, the arts and other sectors. Ash recently spoke to our Shillington London and Manchester campuses from his home in Birmingham to share some of his knowledge and insights with us and tell us more about how Two of Us came to be.
We caught up with Ash after his lecture to talk more about what he calls honest design, what it’s like working across 176 miles and some of the amazing work him and Ian have created. Keep reading to find out more!
Tell us a bit about your creative journey. Your passion for your work and how you discovered or nurtured it.
Firstly (and not to be contrary) I struggle seeing myself as creative.
I think I have the ability to solve complex tasks and visually communicate them.
I admire the creativity of my girlfriend and my business partner, but if someone asks me to decorate something or make it look pretty—good luck! This has all come about by realising what I’m good at and being honest about what I’m not so good at. Once you discover what you’re genuinely good at, you want to put it to practice and are excited about what it can lead to.
You started Two of Us with your partner, Ian Caulkett, 5 years ago, back in 2015. Why did you decide to start your own business? What were/are your founding principles?
Me and Ian were not satisfied in our previous roles at different agencies and—after doing a few small projects as a duo—realised how well we worked together. We also saw an opportunity for a less traditional studio set-up. One where we (two friends) were in control of our destiny, so we could do things our way and collaborate with others in specialist areas if and when the projects required it. We wanted all aspects of the business to be about honesty: from the name of our practice to the relationships we built with our clients.
You refer to the work you create as ‘Honest Design’. What do you mean by that?
Maintaining that principle all the way through the process. Having a partnership means we have many different roles other than designers, but it’s those other things; such as the conversations we have with clients about our experience, abilities or understanding their positioning, where we really champion honesty. This then impacts the design work we do.
I genuinely believe honesty isn’t practiced as it should be in business. At least from my understanding and experience anyway.
You and Ian live in two different cities—Birmingham in the West Midlands and Brighton on the South Coast respectively—what effect does this have on your work and the way you work?
It’s hard to say as it’s always been that way. We rarely work on a project at the same time and tend to throw things back and forth. Maybe if we were in the same physical space this would be different. I like it that way though. We’re pretty blunt with one another if we think something isn’t working — which is probably easier when you’re not face-to-face.
Can you share a couple of projects that you’ve worked on over the past 5 years? We’d love to hear about your processes.
Cool! I’ll talk about two very different projects: a rebrand project and a zine.
Buto was (having been bought out recently by another company) an intelligent video hosting platform which helped organisations engage, retain and build their audiences using online video. The visual identity is based upon a 30 degree angle; synonymous with ‘play’ buttons and isometric grids. Using the 30 degree angle in an upward trajectory evokes positivity, giving the perfect visual metaphor that encapsulates Buto’s personality, and the impact the platform has on clients’ video content and statistics. The 30 degree angle guided all components of the visual identity. We like to think the new identity played a big part in helping the founders sell the company (half joking).
Our good friends (and client) Provide produce and sell zines which are put together by a different contributor each issue. They let us loose on their seventh issue and we were tasked to celebrate Birmingham. We wanted to highlight Birmingham’s abundant diversity and present the beauty that can be found within juxtaposition.
The pages are a photographic study and observation completed in one day, of the various textures, colours, materials, architecture and typography found around Birmingham.
I think there are a few zines left actually, and can be purchased here.
And is there any exciting projects that Two of Us have coming up that you could share with us?
We don’t have loads going on at the moment. We have a few projects we’re yet to share that we’re pretty proud of and another that we’re working on some applications for. We’re also in talks with a client about updating a visual identity we did for them five years ago (our first Two of Us project) which is interesting. I guess it’s to be expected when you’re a few years in.
On top of this, back in 2018, you played a founding role in the first Birmingham Design Festival. Can you tell us about the festival and its aims?
Sure! So we started getting things underway in 2017 as there was a lot of planning involved. I was one of the founding members and I was approached by Daniel Alcorn to see if I wanted to be involved (thanks Dan).
The aim was to create an accessible festival that celebrates local, national and international design, whilst shining a light on Birmingham.
I like to think we achieved this and am pretty proud of our accomplishments.
After two hugely successful festivals, the 2020 edition (like everything else) was cancelled. What does the future look like for Birmingham Design Festival?
Yeah it’s such a shame as the team had been planning since the 2019 festival. There were a lot of great things in the works. I actually stood down myself in late 2019. It was a really hard decision to make, but wanted to focus on other areas of my life. I do speak to the team often, as I’m good friends with them and see lots of updates on social media. They’re always planning behind the scenes and they’ll be back with a bang next year (hopefully).
Do you have any unexpected tools of the trade? What are the absolute necessities for your creative practice?
Probably not that unexpected, but it’s absolutely crucial to always understand a client’s brand before doing any visual work.
Don’t be afraid to ask ‘simple’ questions. You’ll be surprised at how difficult it is for some clients to answer the really basic questions—which is crucial if you’re being tasked to visually communicate something.
How and where do you find your inspiration? Which other designers, artists or creative people are you loving at the moment?
I think I mentioned during the talk about how Daniel Eatock had a pretty big influence on me early on in my career. He helped me to understand the joy, power and humour of taking a conceptual approach to design.
I’m really inspired by the content I read and consume on a daily basis.
I’ve always got one book on the go and it’s usually not design-related. I’m pretty big on philosophy and recently stumbled across Jack Butcher via Twitter, so enjoying his words.
What do you wish you knew when you were starting out as a designer? And is there any advice you can give to our graduates who are just starting out in the industry?
Successful design = great concepts + great execution.
Concepts often endure, but execution dates and is contextual. Practice both in equal measure and if you’re still weaker/better at either, you can partner or collaborate with others to make the outcome the best it can be.
What do you think makes a successful design portfolio? Any particular dos or don’ts?
Think of a portfolio as telling a story about who you are as a designer—not by being visually consistent, but through the way you approach projects and solve briefs.
Can you give us five words to describe yourself and your creative style?
Honest, silly, wordy, typographic and inquisitive.
Anything else you would like to add?
All my thoughts and opinions (and everyone else’s) are based on personal experiences (and knowledge). If you follow a trodden path — it doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll emulate the success of others.
You have to find your own voice in this world and it evolves over time.
What I (or others) say can be used to educate others, but the individual part is what’s most important and this takes time to realise and develop. So enjoy the journey and don’t be too hard on yourself by assessing things purely based on the outcome.
Big thanks to Ash for joining us at Shillington London and Manchester to share his and Two of Us’s story and his knowledge with the students, and for talking to us afterwards. Make sure to keep up to date with what Two of Us are up to through their website and Instagram.
We’ve hosted some of the world’s top creatives, design studios and advertising agencies at Shillington. Check out more interviews from guest lecturers.