Interview with Sam Hextall, Creative Director of Studio NinetyOne

Studio NinetyOne was founded by Sam Hextall fourteen years ago as a one man freelance studio and has gone from strength to strength ever since. Now a three person studio, NinetyOne is small but perfectly formed—working with everything from small start-ups to established brands. We invited them in to talk at Shillington London after spotting their branding at a new restaurant near the campus, Three Uncles. Sam and NinetyOne’s senior designer, Sofi Azaïs, talked us through their background, portfolio and processes.

We chatted with Sam afterwards to discover more about how Studio NinetyOne began, discuss some of the quotes he offered in his lecture and learn more about the Three Uncle’s branding.

You founded Studio NinetyOne in 2005, originally as your own freelance project. Why did you choose to freelance and open your own studio? What did you set out to accomplish?

I didn’t really chose to freelance, it’s just the way it unfolded. I had no formal graphic design training and actually studied product design at Central Saint Martins. It was tough to get work after graduation and I became a barman to pay rent while job searching. My boss at the time needed to re-brand and asked me if I knew anyone. I figured that the same principles of product design (questioning form, function, colour and materials and only add what is necessary) could be applied to graphic design and took the job on…it was me winging it really, but luckily the project turned out to be a success—he’s still a client! I continued making cocktails until I had picked up enough graphic design work to make the jump to a full time freelancer. It grew very organically and I then chose to operate as a one man studio so that I could pick up bigger projects, I guess some clients were more willing to spend their money with a studio, less risk for them.

In your guest lecture, you offered the quote “Look, think, feel and then create” when explaining how you approach design. Can you explain this to us?

I think I read this somewhere and have since tried to find out where it came from as it only exists as a scribble in one of my notebooks—I often jot phrases down that make me really think. It is a phrase I spent a lot of time thinking about. The ‘looking’ and ‘thinking’ part is the strategy part of any project, the critical first stage. In the early days I would then go onto the creative concept stage but there often seemed to be something missing… I later found that, without this ‘feeling’ stage, projects would fall flat, lose their edge, be unoriginal or hit a dead end. If you really understand a project (and you really should before you start designing) then your project will always be honest and true. This feeling for us is a bit like the eureka moment, a moment when your confidence in your creative direction shoots through the roof, it’s a weight off your shoulders, you just know it’s right. All the thoughts and ideas fall into place. Now, If we don’t ‘feel’ it then it’s back to the ‘looking’ and thinking’ part, until we get it.

You’re now a studio of three people—yourself, your senior designer Sofi Azaïs and designer Leonardo Pellegrino. What are the benefits of being a small studio?

I like working with a small team, it’s manageable and really fun.

I have an amazing team and we can be powerful, we can do almost anything if we all put our heads together. Everyone brings something a little different to the table but we seem to all share a very similar vision.

It also makes the client experience very personal and clients feel valued, they always get the A team, because there is no B team.We plan to grow, but the team will never get out of control.

Can you tell us about some of the projects Studio NinetyOne has worked over the past fourteen years?

A lot has happened in that time. We have an eclectic group of clients from so many different sectors so it’s always difficult to pick.

I’m always interested in breaking into a new sector, your mind is unbiased and it’s the best opportunity to bring a fresh twist.

Our first restaurant was Bar Douro and the client had total faith in us even though we had never worked on a restaurant, it was a great project to be part of. Also some of our best work has been with clients with very little budget and we love working with startups. Every project has something interesting about it, we love learning about and becoming experts in a sector we know nothing about. It’s one of the best parts of this job, you learn so much.

We were really struck by your branding for Three Uncles, a Cantonese restaurant. How did this project come about?

The clients were actually running another small chain of restaurants, one of which happened to be the neighbour of Bar Douro, another client of ours, and we were recommended. They dropped us a line and we started working together immediately.

Can you tell us about the research you undertook for the project? How did you develop your initial concepts?

We heavily researched Hong Kong, its street food scene and the Siu Mei style of food. Some really interesting themes started appearing and then reappearing and we knew we had a solid  starting point—we started to ‘feel’ the project. Repetition was evident everywhere on the streets of Hong Kong and in many aspects of Chinese culture and this became the key theme. This tied back into the product as the roast meats are repeatedly chopped and stacked in-front of the customer before it is served. The concept they ultimately chose is built around a logo created by stacking and repeating the name. Simple but effective and nice and honest, purely derived from good old-fashioned research and thinking.

Tell us more about the final concept? We’d love to hear about the name, colour scheme, typefaces, icons and anything else!

The name Three Uncles was chosen because ‘Uncle’ is a term of respect in HongKong and there were three partners in the business. They were also planning on presenting three main roast meats which they would treat with the upmost respect to get the very best flavour and source from the best suppliers. The Duck, Pig and Chicken where as much the Three Uncles as the three founding partners.

The simple two tone colour palette was influenced directly from Hong Kong street signs, graphics and shop fronts. We created three illustrated icons, one for each meat, which were directly influenced by the Cantonese typeface we selected for the project, PingFang. Because of this the icons ended up being so unique and honest, a really lovely part of the brand system. Introducing neon lighting and eclectic tiles into the interior reinforced the Hong Kong aesthetic and half tone images created from the founders’ personal family archives nodded to nostalgia, tradition and culinary pedigree. The founders of this restaurant are the real deal.

Did you come across any issues whilst designing for Three Uncles?

Designing in a non-native language is always a challenge but using Chinese characters made it even more interesting.

The client helped fine tune the process often drawing intricate characters on scraps of paper during meetings. They were very generous with their knowledge and were passionate about the food, history and culture. It was a really fascinating process and very, very enjoyable.

Would you be able to share five pieces of advice with our students and graduates?

Be confident and be yourself.

Create honest work.

Be experimental and play with ideas.

Value yourself and your skills (Don’t work for free).

Work with nice people and be nice to the people you work with.

Finally, give us three words to describe yourself and your creative style.

Considered, optimistic and honest.

Huge thanks to Sam and Sofi for coming in to Shillington London and talking all things Studio NinetyOne and Three Uncles to us—and thanks to Sam for sharing even more with us in his interview. Make sure you keep up to speed with Studio NinetyOne 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.

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