Studio Aad’s, Scott Burnett and Johnny Kelly enjoy working with ‘nice people who do something with a bit of heart and soul’. They have worked together since 1998 and after a brief stint in the fashion industry with Angry, they set up Studio Aad 13 years ago and haven’t looked back. Well only to talk to each other!
Continuing with our studio trips around Dublin we called into Scott to ask him about the beginnings of the studio and about being the very first OFFSET speaker way back in 2009.
What were the beginnings of Studio AAD?
Myself (Scott Burnett) and Johnny worked together in Image Now from 1998-2000. We set up a company called Angry, while we worked there (which was a t-shirt brand), Angry started taking off so we did that for 5 years until the fashion industry chewed us up and spat us out, but it was an exciting and fun experience while it lasted. Along the way we were doing the odd design job together and so Aad sort of stumbled to life.
Aad actually stands for Angry Art Department. It was an in joke back then because there was so much graphic design produced for Angry on an annual basis that my job really seemed like the in house designer for Angry. This isn’t really something we freely admit to, mainly because Angry is so long ago now that people just look at us funny. We’ve talked about changing it a bunch of times to something more intentional, but we actually like that it’s a bit weird and not slick or snappy.
Studio Aad is a design studio, working on quite a broad spectrum of projects. We help our clients give shape to their projects, from as fundamental a level as they’ll allow us really. We have a client who we’ve worked with for years. He’s always trying to work out where we fit – are we ’above the line’, ’below the line’, a ’360 agency’? The notion of a design agency seems lost on him. But any time he’s got a job, idea or objective that he can’t work out where it fits or how it might work he comes to us. And that’s exactly the kind of job we want as a design agency, helping people figure out tricky situations, highlighting ways they could tackle it, developing plans and systems, making content and then delivering everything that’s needed to make it work. This means we find ourselves working on identities, films, websites, digital products, content, campaigns, print, environments. Which makes for really a interesting work life.
Who works in Studio AAD today?
Myself – Scott Burnett, and Johnny Kelly. We started the company 13 years ago. I head up the creative stuff and Johnny the production and business aspects. Kevin Horan is our digital director, Brian Heffernan – senior designer. Designers Rory Bradley and Stacie Heffernan. We’ve had Georgia with us for the last 3 months but she’s heading back into 4th year in LIT. Aleks will be taking her place in about a week, she’s heading into 4th year at IADT in a few months.
Do you think clients come to you with a certain aesthetic in mind? How would you describe the aesthetic?
I don’t think so. At the very beginning we had people come to us because we had the Angry brand, but that was for an attitude rather than an aesthetic. And that started falling into work that felt like advertising, or being commissioned to produce something that made brands ’cool’ for a millisecond. So just when the recession started we made a decision to stop doing any of that type of work, any of that really lucrative, quite easy to produce work… In a lot of ways I think our company really started from that point forward. We learned how to run a design business in really hard times and started the process of getting clients for the way we thought rather than to make things that looked nice/cool/trendy.
I’d like to think we don’t have an aesthetic. But the truth is its impossible to escape the way you make things. All my favourite finished projects from the last couple of years have been made by other designers in the studio because I’m just really bored with my own biases. However as I said I don’t think clients come to us for an aesthetic but for our approach. I’d describe that approach as responsible, thoughtful and constructive. We do a lot to really understand our clients situation and make sense of it. This highlights areas where we can really make a difference and clarifies particular challenges that we can try to fix and ultimately we’re always trying to make something that is of real value to them, things that are useful in their day to day running of things.
What is your process when starting a job?
We start with a couple of long conversations with the client. We liken it to the process of taking apart an engine and understanding all the parts so that we can then find ways to put it back together so that it works better. There’s quite a long period before a client would see any visual work. After the first meetings we produce a project overview that takes all relevant project information (which can be a lot in some complex jobs) and presents it in a really concise, clear manner. This provides a solid foundation for building on. From there we clarify the core idea that drives the project, the structural model that helps people understand it and a strategy for managing these. This then forms a plan for outputs, this is really about defining starting points for creative exploration. After all that is done, revised, clarified, agreed, then we start exploring how it might look.
What work of yours stands out among all others?
Not sure how I’d even begin to answer this! There’s no project I’d highlight as ’the best Aad project’. We’ve a number of ongoing relationships with clients like Fringe, Dublin Dance Festival and DCU that I feel are particularly fruitful. Personally the occasional tiny, done in 4 hours project I work on tends to be the ones I enjoy in a selfish way. And then there are a number of studio projects that I love because they allowed us to explore interesting ideas in new ways. Think I managed to side step that question completely!
Are there any personal projects that you work on outside of work that aren’t commercial? If so is there an easy balance? We always have projects on the go. We usually have some sort of studio project ongoing. Last year we did a year long photography project called ‘Where We Are, releasing a book each month by an Irish photographer. Each featured one project of theirs that presented different sides of modern Irish life.
I was also involved in a project called MakeShapeChange last year. Ali Grehan from pivot dublin asked Johnny Kelly (the animator, not my business partner…) to make a film about design, and he got me involved to write it. The brief was to make a film that would illustrate the value of design to kids without using any language, so that it would be universally understood. It was a year in the making but did really well when it launched and has since developed into an educational project in schools across dublin.
We’re also founding members of 100 Archive which has been a great project and I’m involved on an ongoing basis as part of the steering panel and editor of the blog.
Almost all of our personal or studio projects are quite entrepreneurial in nature, right back to our Angry days. They’re usually experiments in culture rather than experiments in form or material. We’re excited by ideas about how we fit together as humans, this is true of our studio output too really.
You collaborated with OFFSET and a whole bunch of creatives for our Transform Your City project in 2014. Do you enjoy collaborative work?
Yes, at a basic level, collaborating with a photographer, illustrator, film maker on a project adds so much to it. There’s also an ongoing drive to make projects that other creatives can be part of. Very often when I’m asked by someone like OFFSET to contribute or be part of a project I’ll try and come up with ideas to get more creatives involved. Part of it is laziness but mainly it’s just being excited about other peoples creative talents and seeing what they do when you give them a weird brief.
You were a main stage speaker at the very first OFFSET in 2009, In fact you were first on stage, how do you remember your OFFSET experience?
I was very honoured to be the first ever speaker at OFFSET, although I’m pretty sure it’s because you guys figured no one would be there yet. I considered myself the warm up act for the real speakers. I was pretty nervous, although the venue was much smaller than the Bord Gais Energy Theatre (was it 300 person capacity?) So god knows how nervous I’d be on that stage! I’m pretty sure I was the only main stage speaker where the audience asked questions directly afterwards. It was pretty weird so I think they knocked that on the head right away.
What’s next for the studio?
To continue working on weird projects, complex situations and not knowing where we’ll end up pretty much. I’d like the studio to grow broader, in terms of the types of projects, clients, team and collaborators.
Thanks Scott and all the Studio AAD team!