Reflections on being an entrepreneurial designer: the industry years

To date I have spent my working life traversing the worlds of design and entrepreneurship, involved directly in the process of venturing and supporting the development of new entrepreneurs all fuelled by my expertise in design – and specifically in graphic design (covering branding, editorial design and information design) and interaction design. What follows is an autobiographical reflection on the relationship between design and entrepreneurship in a number of roles (including co-founder, founder, senior executive, manager, designer and researcher).


The motivations for many entrepreneurial exploits are often borne of life-forming or life-changing moments: such as economic destitution, failure or health crises. Mine are rather more mundane and everyday. Whilst it is the case that as a new-born child I lived in a caravan park and my parents began their lives together with limited means, this in itself was not the only motivating factor in becoming a designer. Growing up in Devon then Cornwall in the UK, I actually intended to be a footballer or a pilot. When I had an eye test at the RAF recruitment centre that revealed I did not have the requisite 20/20 vision, I instead settled on my other passion outside of football – design. (If I’d made it as a footballer I always promised my Mum I’d buy her a hairdressing salon).

Although I had ambitions to become an automobile designer partly because of my father’s infectious interest in cars, I was actually more fascinated by the printed word – in typography and layout. In the 1980’s, this was undoubtedly fuelled by record-cover designs from Peter Saville for New Order or Neville Brody’s work for The Face magazine and when I was asked to design a poster for a local office services company I ignored convention and cut and paste elements of type from a number of sources (including those from Art of Noise record sleeves, copies of NME and some old home style magazines). This was my first design project where I recall a small payment.

The west country was not the place for a teenager keen on becoming a designer. Not much happens in Cornwall. When I’d ventured to London and Shropshire to interview some designers for an O-level project (including architect and lighting designer Shiu- Kay Kan), I was exposed to a fascinatingly busy world of designing and manufacturing and I wanted to be part of the hustle and bustle. I’d seen first hand the role that designers had in fuelling innovation, watching lighting products come off the assembly line or being prototyped in the workshop. Cornwall’s remoteness was the catalyst for my departure to study at Bournemouth & Poole College of Art & Design (now Arts University Bournemouth) then University of Portsmouth.

The entrepreneurial student

Partly out of necessity and partly out of a drive to be a successful designer, when I studied at Portsmouth I engaged on a number of projects directly with industry. Even within academia, there was a strong entrepreneurial spirit which was not manifest in purely economic terms; it was socially and culturally-centred in a Thatcherite era of retail and heritage industry boom. I was tutored by spatial designer Patrick Williams (who I’d encountered at Bournemouth) and to who I owe credit for recognising my abilities and accepting me on the BA(Hons) Media and Design programme at Portsmouth. The Bachelor was headed by Professor Ian McLaren who, as a typographer and educator, has had a distinguished career beginning at the Ulm School, working for Braun, then Otl Aicher on the 1972 Munich Olympics1.

As a student, I was appointed to be a junior designer on the Crafts Council and Osmiroid-sponsored touring exhibition of lettering and calligraphy The Spirit of the Letter and – during Ian’s absence – designed the exhibition layout, catalogue, posters and private view invitations with fellow student Terence Flaherty (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Working late on The Spirit of the Letter exhibition catalogue, using traditional glue to paste up camera-ready artwork. Friend and colleague on the project, photographer Chris Golya is pictured to the left looking on. Terence takes the photo on my 35mm SLR. Image Credit: Terence Flaherty
Figure 2: Black and white photograph of The Spirit of the Letter poster on the London Underground. The exhibition toured the country, starting in Portsmouth and ended at the Crafts Council Gallery in Waterloo Place, London.

During work on this unpaid project, we were offered free board and lodgings with one of our other tutors – Dy Nyzlopy – for the entire summer. As a reward for an outstanding professional job, balancing the demands of the exhibition curators (including the late Jeremy Theophilus), sponsors and printing firms, the three of us were offered summer placements the following summer at internationally-renowned studios. Terence headed off to Studio Paul Mijkensaar and I headed to Total Design, both in Amsterdam in 1990. (Chris headed to a Milanese animation studio where I was originally headed due to my grasp of new desktop colour Apple Macs).

My work on The Spirit of the Letter and stint at Total Design drew attention to my abilities to work in professional contexts. I was asked to join the design team on redesigning the visitor entrance to Portsmouth D-Day Museum (led by Patrick Williams) and, with a peer on our course (James Raffill), was asked if I could design a signage system for Portsmouth Historic Dockyard Trust (Figure 3). We charged enough for our work to tide us over financially for a fair few months although I don’t recall the final consultancy fee.

Figure 3: Wayfinding signs for Portsmouth Historic Dockyard. The entire sign system was designed on the Macintosh SE and with A4 printouts which were tiled to create full-size mockups. Design and image: Philip Ely

Our professionalism, reliability and focus on the end result had stood us in good stead. On returning from nearly six months in Total Design – then the most revered graphic design studio in the world, headed by Ben Bos – I was selected to work at IBM as a designer to help fuel the development of products and services in their European Personal Systems division. Whilst this delayed the completion of my degree, it provided me with further experience of working on real-life industry projects.

Working for Big Blue

At IBM, my design capability and experience of working with emergent Apple technology gave me creative license to work directly with technologies yet to make it to consumer consciousness. At the time, 1990-91, IBM was playing catchup to both Apple and Microsoft who had captured the consumer imagination with their easy-to-use desktop interfaces. Working alongside fellow student designer, Sarah Green (nee Gransden) I designed a number of new interfaces for IBM’s personal computers – the PS/2, VP/1 and ThinkPad – and worked with new ‘multimedia’ PCs which had begun to incorporate video, sound and higher-resolution colour graphics on their OS/2 and the Windows operating system.

Whilst Sarah spent much of her time designing demo material to show the capability to clients in the retail and marketing world (e.g. Waitrose), I worked on exploring the creative capabilities of new video overlay technologies (resulting in one patent application), authoring software and working on new low-energy, portable computing devices. There were no Apple Macs in the building and our designs relied on experimentation within the limitations of mainly DOS-based (command line) interfaces. We coded with IBM AVC (Audio Visual Connection) and stretched the limits of the authoring tool with the use of semi-transparent overlays, animation sequences and ad-hoc user testing.

Figure 4: Start-up screen for the first generation multimedia-enabled IBM ThinkPad. Design and Image Credit: Philip Ely

During my time at IBM, I met a number of ‘IBM-ers’ (staff) who had intentions on starting up their own spin-out companies likely to serve the burgeoning multimedia production industry, enabled by the CD-ROM and audio-visual chipsets. At the end of our one-year tenure at IBM, Green and I were invited to join a new venture – Infoteam which aimed to design and produce digital support material for the promotion and use of future IBM products. The collaboration was short-lived and, after returning to university to complete our undergraduate degrees, we went out to work in ventures of our own.

Real start-up venturing begins

I joined the newly-formed start-up First Business Computers in 1993, another spin-out formed by two ex-IBMers – Chris Pressley and Andy Hill. Based in Richmond, Surrey, we very quickly developed a profitable business on the back of my multimedia design expertise. With my own IBM connections and track record in delivering innovative interactive experiences, we secured a 5-figure commission for the promotional CD-Rom for a new generation of low-cost desktop computers. Applying the Paul Rand ethos of “only the slightest suggestion of stripes says IBM”2, I designed the CD-ROM which was produced in multiple languages to cover the European, Middle East and African markets. We hired fellow-Portsmouth graduate Will Currie as designer whilst I took on a role as Creative Director.

During the early period of First Business Computers (FBC) the pre-Internet desktop multimedia revolution had seen the sudden growth in so-called ‘multimedia’ and ‘interactive’ agencies and production houses. Companies such as The Multimedia Corporation, AKQA and 3T productions (amongst many others including Warner, Philips, IBM and Apple) were all investing in ‘hypermedia’ products and services as publishing ventures or for corporate clients. We made a foray into the cataloguing of databases onto CD-ROM and designed the KPM Music Catalogue for use by advertising agencies and other library music clients. (This work eventually led onto a project with KPM’s owner, EMI). It was another 5-figure project which fuelled our growth, but importantly cemented our links with the music industry.

Chris and Andy’s sales experience had a profound impact on my identity as a design leader. They had both sold large mainframe computers to banks in the City of London for IBM and were resolutely focussed on deal-making. In meetings with prospective clients, their sales techniques of high-energy pitching and customer-centricity was complemented by my credentials in design and production. I sat in many meetings in awe of their salesmen’s charm, wit and powers of negotiation. It didn’t always result in a commission, but it was a hedonistic period of wining and dining for business and the ‘art of the deal’.

In 1994, FBC evolved into two distinct businesses, funded by Telstar Entertainment Group, which included the UK’s largest independent music distribution, recording and games publishing business. Telstar Video Entertainment had been responsible for bringing Trivial Pursuit to the home VCR market in 1995 with it’s VHS version of the bestselling board game following the CD-audio version release earlier in 1994. UK readers may well be familiar with the ubiquitous ‘100%’ series of Telstar music compilations.

Two companies were (eventually) formed from FBC: MARS – Music Archive Retrieval System; and then Telstar Digital Marketing. MARS was based on our earlier work on developing music databases on CD-ROMs, selling a comprehensive online music storage and retrieval system using pre-Internet technology. In the transition period between FBC’s closure and the creation of Telstar New Media (TNM), I was invited to join another startup The Brilliant Agency now forming on the back of the growing interest amongst advertisers for multimedia and Internet-delivered content.

Another start-up

The Brilliant Agency was the initial brainchild of advertising model-maker, Chris Wills, who as Metro Models was a well-known figure in broadcast- and billboard- quality prop-making. Based in Hackney. East London, we had commissioned him on the IBM ValuePoint project at FBC and my expertise in multimedia design had spurned a conversation a couple of years later on the creation of a new venture. With FBC in transition and a feeling that the music database system business was likely to overshadow the multimedia design arm, I joined Chris in getting Brilliant off the ground.

I joined Brilliant as Head of Design with promises of eventual equity if our venture looked like it had commercial legs. On the back of our industry connections and production expertise, we quickly secured decent sized contracts. I brought with me a contract to design and build Telstar Records plc’s first website as they expanded their music business to sign new artists of their own and begin growing music publishing revenue.

Soon after joining Brilliant, Chris sold a portion of the business to IT services company Business Systems Group (BSG) down the road from Hackney where we were based and close to the slowly emerging hip part of London – Hoxton Square. We’d hired Will from FBC and another Portsmouth graduate who had the ‘IBM experience’ – Simon Parbutt. Between us, we created a screensaver for the Nissan Micra, a training package and identity for a Nissan IT system for use in their Sunderland manufacturing plant (Nissan2000) and had started to make a name for ourselves. But things were about to change.

After Chris sold part of the business to BSG, my trust in him as a partner began to fade. Whilst we secured a commission from BSG itself for an entrance-hall touch display showcasing it’s business, we seemed to have stagnated. The idea of working within the confines of an IT services company providing uninteresting work did not appeal. Whilst we were still developing our portfolio (and credentials) we were engaged on a couple of ‘applied’ design projects on behalf of BSG for Chase Manhattan Bank, for who we designed slide presentation material a few months before. Visiting the newly-installed trading floor at Chase, we attempted to leverage some value for our design expertise and started a pilot project to improve the interface design of a Unix-based brokerage system. There was little scope for creativity and even less interest in our design expertise. In the alpha-male world of stock trading, ‘soft’ concerns over legibility were hardly a cause for concern.

Familiar faces, new venture

Now that FBC had evolved into MARS and Telstar New Media (TNM), I was more than happy to receive the call from Chris Pressley to rejoin him to create TNM. Backed by Telstar Records, we were in startup mode like our time at FBC. I designed the new Telstar New Media identity (see below), a flatter, leaner version of Telstar’s three-dimensional spinning planet. Given we were now working in the music industry I took on the title ‘Producer’ and we started the business in a small studio near a residential block in Barnes where emergent label Wildstar Records (a joint venture between Telstar and Capital Radio) was located.

Figure 5: Business Card for Telstar New Media. Design/Image Credit: Philip Ely

The growth in the business was rapid, securing up to six-figure sum projects from the likes of Citroën, Jordan Grand Prix, Silk Cut Sailing, Gallaher Tobacco, Universal Music UK, The Box Music Television, TDK and Pfizer. Business was driven by Chris, a sales manager, a Telstar board director and myself. Growth was so rapid that our business model dictated that we strategically and creatively led projects and handed over production to another new company in the Telstar group, CTV Productions in St.John’s Wood, not far from Abbey Road Studios which we also used on a couple of occasions for production capability 3. We based new media producers at the CTV location and I spent a lot of time between Barnes and St.John’s Wood. CTV had also recently hired a couple of designers who worked on our website projects for Universal Music – including Olof Schybergson who went on to become founder and CEO of Fjord (now Accenture Interactive).

There is no doubt that the years 1996-1998 were the most dynamic and enterprising years up until that point in my career. Not only was business booming (we secured over £1m worth of business designing screensavers, CD-ROMs and websites) but the production capability grew and the quality of our work improved project-by-project. Our business model relied on a core team (TNM) ‘outsourcing’ certain components of projects (whether this was QuickTime VR photography for Citroën’s car range or back-end coding for CD-ROM content), using both our Telstar group companies and studios or working with emergent talent in central London. One beneficiary of this business model was Digit London, headed by Daljit Singh, who eventually sold the business to WPP in 2005 and went on to become executive director of Conran Singh and is now Chief Design Officer at ANNA Money.

As TNM grew, so too did the MARS spin-out and we moved into larger office premises in Fulham with them. I was spending more and more time in the production studio at CTV. Living in Belsize Park, this usually meant a morning commute to Fulham and then another journey back across to St.Johns Wood which was not far from Belsize Park. I was becoming less and less involved in business development and the MARS business was taking both Chris and our sales manager time away from TNM. Telstar New Media became Telstar Digital Marketing and then – and this is where human memory shows its weakness – I recall the company then becoming STARTLE (though I have no recollection of how or why). Around 1998 – following the successful creation of the Jordan Grand Prix Screensaver – Winner Edition (coded by Rob Corradi and produced by me), I was head-hunted to join another music startup in Harley Street.

Venturing into the music streaming business

I’d had a one-to-one at the home of the Managing Director of Global Music Network, Phil Wilson (now CEO of Virtual Jigsaw) to discuss the chance to join a new streaming music service aiming to take on Amazon and Napster – the digital music disruptor. With my experience of designing and producing multi-label, multi-artist websites for clients of Telstar, this seemed a perfect opportunity to join what seemed like a revolutionary start-up. This was at a time when the dotcom boom was in full swing and, with backing from executives from Intel, a central London location on one of the most expensive pieces of real estate (Harley Street), and a ‘golden handshake’ (£5000) from the founders, what could go wrong?

I joined Global Music Network ( with the brief to develop the brand and user experience to be part of the initial (local) leadership team. The executives were relatively invisible as Phil ran the operation in the UK. I embarked on an immediate programme to garner audience feedback on the brand which I knew to be unconvincing, unmemorable and unlikely to stand out in the increasingly noisy streaming and online retail market. GMN was focussed on premium jazz and classical content, signing distribution and content deals with labels and artists.

Operating above a dentist who served some the UK’s business leaders and actors (Sir Derek Jacobi was one I spotted), GMN’s office was a peculiar place. In an old Georgian building, with a slightly ramschackle appearance inside, it felt not too dissimilar to other start-ups I’d been involved with: a chaotic environment, with a sense of temporary, ‘cobbled togetherness’. Hi-tech in a low-tech, peeling paint environment where your workspace was clearly an old bedroom with fireplace, lushly-carpeted steep stairs, and a distinct smell of antiquity. It seemed at odds with the idea of a dotcom startup ready to pioneer in the music industry. In reality, this company was as conservative as it’s environment. I recall classical music producers, composers and writers visiting the office as content deals were struck and new artists and labels were signed up for a streaming/online CD store.

My role, as Brand Director, was to consider the brand (naming and visual identity) and the user experience. We embarked on a series of user research studies, commissioning an internet market research company to conduct the fieldwork and analysis. In the meantime, I headed off to New York to work with our jazz writer, Bret Primack, as he recorded a series of video interviews to be used on the jazz section of the site. Bret – known as The Pariah on his own website (now known on YouTube as The Jazz Guy) – hosted me as we followed some of the finest musicians as they rehearsed and performed in Elton John’s rehearsal studio (replete with three grand pianos) and the famous Blue Note Jazz Club in Greenwich Village.

Feedback on the brand identity from the user research was clear: did not resonate with audiences. It was unmemorable as a name, its identity (a poorly designed hand script created by one of the tech leads) did little to present ideas of quality and connoisseurship that audiences (users) wanted. Even retaining the nomenclature and trying to design a version of the brand that evoked the brand values we were aiming for did nothing to persuade the executive team that a change was required. Indeed, when new ideas were recommended to improve the interface design (in particular improvements to the Real Audio SMIL player – which synced still image content with streaming audio), these were resisted by the tech lead who the executive team (of technologists) fully supported. Despite both Phil Wilson, my and others’ attempts to instigate important changes to the brand and the user experience, the service became more cluttered and was already looking dated 4.

Three months into the contract and with a sense that the whole venture was going nowhere, I took another call from Chris Pressley to join yet another dotcom venture and quit GMN.

The dream of the dotcom boom

In early 1999, Granada Media had made a strategic move into the online space. As analysts in the City of London looked on at highly-inflated valuations of internet companies, other brands that we still may recognise today continued to grow – Amazon, Yahoo, Netscape and AOL (America OnLine). Granada’s plan was to launch an internet service provider (ISP) that brought together it’s well-known media assets (including Coronation Street, Emmerdale, This Morning) with growth leveraged by it’s Granada Group siblings – Granada Rentals (the high street TV rental business), Forte hotels and Little Chef roadside restaurants.

The new start-up was reportedly funded by £20 million of backing from Granada as it attempted – like many other stock-market listed companies – to show its investment in internet-enabled business to the London Stock Exchange. I joined the new venture – G-WIZZ – alongside it’s CEO, Julian Turner, Chris and Mark Brandon. We were a 4-person startup, funded by Granada Media, tasked with launching the UK’s most content-driven ISP. We were given share options in the emergent business, through Granada Media.

In the space of three months we expanded to a team of approximately 90 people. Whilst work was divided between us (with Julian as lead) – branding, front-end production, business development, back-end development (including internet infrastructure provided by British Telecom), partnerships and more were often shared between us; or at least we were each involved in these aspects at some point during a day or week.

Given the scale of operation, there was a long list of design and tech partners, with liaison between ad agencies, digital agencies, software developers, network engineers, TV production teams and sales teams. I was largely responsible for the branding and the user experience, and – alongside Chris and Julian – selecting the digital agencies that were going to build various components of the service. We commissioned 3i (the design company not the investment company) for branding; Lateral, Digit, Bell Media for various websites and built our own in-house team. I hired Mark Leeks and Richard Last as design leads and went on a tour of final year degree shows in London, Birmingham and Glasgow to hire a team of designers who hailed from Norwich University of the Arts, Bournemouth, University of the Arts London and other leading art & design faculty.

G-WIZZ takes shape

Responsible for the brand, I worked closely with 3i to develop the final identity for G-WIZZ which was to feature on broadcast television, online and in print. It was important to build the brand identity early, so that other agencies could work with it in the development of content and advertising. We designed both animated and static versions, with a distinct cyan colour which was colour-matched across media to maintain it’s vibrancy, whilst ensuring it remained within the limits of acceptable broadcast colour ranges 5. The final identity (Figure 6) was designed to give a sense of movement even in the static version.

Figure 6: Static version of the G-WIZZ brand identity for use on-screen (online) and in full-colour print. Image Credit: Philip Ely/Granada Media
Figure 7: Pre-launch home screen featuring the newly designed G-WIZZ identity. This version was designed in-house, before the final version was launched in late 1999. Image: Philip Ely

The G-WIZZ brand identity project culminated in the delivery of a comprehensive brand manual and examples of applications [insert samples here]. It included a distinct sonic branding which were applied to the TV advertising (accompanying an animated ‘G’ television and ‘WIZZ’ ‘swoosh’). Any use of the brand identity – including in billboard advertising and TV commercials, merchandise and online – was to be authorised by me.

Figure 8: The final version of the G-WIZZ home page, animated in Flash. The final interface incorporates the sonic branding applied in the TV advertising campaign.

Christmas Launch of G-WIZZ

When G-WIZZ hit computer and TV screens on Christmas Eve, 1999, expectation was high. Although we were all conscious of the recent devaluation in competitor ISP, Freeserve (which had lost £150 million in one day following it’s £1.5 billion valuation on floatation on July 26), we were confident that the combination of Granada Group’s retail, catering and hotel businesses and our television-on-the-internet proposition would be enough to set us apart. Once our CD-ROM was freely available in stores across the country and the TV advertising kicked in over Christmas (supported by Coronation Street and Emmerdale ‘talent’) we were sure to be a success. As we relaxed over Christmas, tethered to our mobile phones in case of any major infrastructure failures, I sat and saw the brand I was in charge of widely covered at peak-time TV viewing.

Internet on the telly

User take-up of G-WIZZ was slow. Users were still not entirely sure that the Internet was a place for them. During user research of the G-WIZZ portal, prior to launch, some users were unsure about the costs and speeds of download (at the time many internet users were still using dial-up modems). As both Freeserve (later bought by Wanadoo and eventually Orange) and BT launched broadband services, Granada too began to prepare for the future. In 2000, it struck a deal with US-based set-top box company, PowerChannel, which provided internet access to be displayed on television. (it is easy to now look at internet-enabled televisions and set-top boxes as an inevitability, but we were some 15 years ahead of the adoption curve with PowerChannel).

Once again, I was responsible for the brand identity and user experience and, after commissioning Carter Wong (Philip Carter) {Figure 9} to design the identity under my supervision, PowerChannel in the UK was born. The business model was simple: the £20 million Granada investment in PowerChannel was to drive the rollout of Internet-TV set-top boxes, given to end users for free in return to completing a monthly consumer survey.

Figure 9: The PowerChannel identity. Designed by Carter Wong; Executive Creative Director: Philip Ely Image: Philip Ely/Granada Media
Figure 10: Extract from the Brand Guidelines for PowerChannel, showing the incorporation of the Granada brand. Image: Philip Ely/Granada Media; Design by Carter Wong

The set-top box (STB) itself took some time to come together. Each STB came with a keyboard and we designed an overlay for the function keys to give users easier access to essential services. In return for sharing their data, users could be provided with links to retail offers, access exclusive content and email friends and family from the comfort of their armchair. The underlying technology fell into production issues and – I recall – the US company who had promised so much had failed to deliver to the expectations of Granada.

The emergence of an internet-led joint venture

In parallel to the PowerChannel startup, Granada was looking for the next ‘clicks-and-mortar’ idea – a business proposition that brought the best of high-street presence with the online world. The context here is the historic $182 billion AOL takeover of TimeWarner in January 2000, which resulted in a frenzy of activity as Granada sought out headline-making deals to satisfy its shareholders. A ‘war room’ meeting was arranged between the top executives in the TV production arm of Granada and Chris, Julian, myself and others representing the newly re-badged Granada Broadband.

My memory is hazy, but I do remember we explored a number of ideas between the online and broadcast teams on the 15th floor of Granada’s London base at ‘LWT Towers’ on Southbank, London. (Granada’s spiritual home had always been Manchester where its largest TV franchise, Coronation Street, was based). It was a memorable meeting, resulting in somebody (I think Chris, Julian and I) suggesting that Granada do precisely what AOL did by buying out a much larger company: in our case Boots.

I do not know the details of the conversation between Granada Media chief Charles Allen and the Boots CEO, but we doubted that Boots would entertain a reverse-takeover. Instead, a new internet/TV/retail hybrid as a joint venture was announced. Once again, I was responsible for building the brand and starting the initial development of TV-enabled content which would act as a content draw to health and wellbeing products and services provided by Boots. I led another three-way paid pitch process between local design agencies and 3i got the gig this time round. Variations on both naming and identity which I had briefed, included ‘Tickety-book’, ‘feelgood TV’ and ‘’

Figure 11: Initial concept presented to me and the team at Granada Broadband by 3i. Image: Philip Ely/Granada Media

We developed concepts for TV shows and internet content, including a healthy food programme and food brand, a peer-to-peer wellbeing service and food replenishing service (see slideshow below).

Above: A range of design sketches emergent from the design team at Granada Broadband. Creative Director: Philip Ely. Image: Philip Ely/Granada Media was finally chosen and by October 2000 the new portal to health and wellbeing TV content and Boots products was launched (Figure 12).

Figure 12: Granada Broadband and Boots’

During my time at Granada Broadband, my team and I built Granada Broadband’s intranet and I became a design advisor to the Granada Group. Following the ultimate failure of G-WIZZ and PowerChannel, and the internal political moves taking place at Granada (where the TV executives clearly demonstrated their power and influence over the direction of the company), Julian Turner stepped down. Granada Media eventually merged with Carlton after de-merging it’s TV assets and merging its hotel and retail catering businesses into Compass Group and Granada Broadband was headed by Simon Shaps, previous Managing Director of Granada Creative. As more and more TV execs came into the Broadband business, I was made Controller of Interactive Design at a time when (Lord) Melvin Bragg was Controller of Arts.

As Controller of Interactive Design I began to have oversight of the production capability across Granada-owned TV franchises – Yorkshire in Leeds, Tyne Tees in Newcastle and Granada in Manchester – but as Carlton and Granada merged, soon I was visiting Meridian Studios in Southampton too. I felt valued, but our startup pioneers were slowly drifting away as Granada slowly evolved into what we know today as an integrated network of regional broadcasters under the ITV umbrella (the UK’s second-largest broadcaster and number 3 on the remote control). We were no longer in start-up mode and the adrenalin flow of building businesses was beginning to subside to be replaced by a highly political environment. The dotcom bubble had truly burst.

Headhunted to join Design Bridge

Soon after assuming the role of Controller of Interactive Design, I was head-hunted for a role as Director of Digital Media at international branding consultancy, Design Bridge. My task – to grow a new division of the company on the back of the growing interest amongst FMCG brands for all things digital. Design Bridge has been responsible for creating many of the UK and Europe’s well-known brands, both on the supermarket shelf and in business. They were, for example, responsible for the UEFA Champions League ‘star ball’ brand, the creation of Maison Blanc and were constantly commissioned to redesign well known brands from the Unilever portfolio. When I joined, they had offices in Amsterdam, London and Singapore.

The CEO at Design Bridge at the time was David Rivett, who I met on a couple of occasions as we mapped out a strategy for developing the new division. I quit Granada on good terms and began to build on my experience working on big brand projects and in the startup world to provide Design Bridge with credentials in the digital domain.

It was tough initially, although I remained positive. The dotcom bubble really had burst and there was a general cautiousness about investing in digital initiatives. We were commissioned on a couple of startup projects, helping develop the brand for Clearspace (a cloud-based service before cloud computing became a ‘thing’) and work with General Motors on developing a new on-demand service extension of their OnStar satellite and distribution service.

What made life at Design Bridge particularly hard was the removal of David as CEO soon after I arrived. Despite leaving Granada partly because I was beginning to get dragged into ‘office politics’ (something we expect of large organisations), little did I expect a much smaller company like Design Bridge having quite so many factions.

David had been my sponsor and supported the growth of the Amsterdam office under the leadership of MD – Steve Osborne. Although Design Bridge was (maybe still is) family owned, when speaking to senior staff in the business there was a sense that we were the ‘new wave’ of young directors ready to take over as the wise heads moved on. How wrong I was.

One by one, the team that David had assembled (including me) were slowly squeezed out of the business. revenue targets for the digital media team had been deliberately set low when we set out, in full knowledge that this was a slow-burn venture and that the goal was longer term integration of digital into the core business. I built up a strong production capability (hiring a Producer in the form of Chris Hartley) with a nimble roster of digital design freelancers who could join in on projects. The business model was not too dissimilar to the one we adopted at Telstar – lean, on-demand production fronted by senior creatives in the digital team jointly with the creative directors in the branding and packaging teams.

We produced some good work: website for wine brand Sacha Lichine on the back of new bottle labelling; web design for AEP Energy in the US; the General Motors’ OnStar project; pitch work for Unilever’s Lipton Iced Tea brand; and website for a new Glanbia Foods cheese product for children’s lunch boxes. We produced a promotional video for a Unilever and Nike joint venture (then a top-secret project that actually never came to much) and we were slowly building our credentials. But too slow for our Executive Chairman and Chairman who, with David’s departure, had made it clear that it was them and – not the young turks that we had become – who were in control of the business.

In hindsight, I should have been less adventurous when the offer to join first emerged. I should have asked more questions. But David was reassuring and, with a wonderful mentoring approach to leadership, could see the potential in me. He and I knew that I was not a salesperson but I knew the business and I knew how to build nationally-known brands in the digital space. Out of my hands, the execs hired a sales lead for the digital media area who, whilst dynamic in some respects was still perhaps too scholarly for business development. Given that I was strategic and production-focussed, this combination did not make for a very successful venture.

When I pitched to Kraft Foods, Pripps Blau and Meta Tissue in Stockholm, Sweden with ideas about how they could use digital media to leverage their brands, I had made a good impression. However, I began to question why I was doing this. Steve and I had collaborated on a workshop in Amsterdam for the Dutch Eredivisie (premier league in football) and we had a good working relationship. We discussed plans together on making a new kind of Design Bridge ready for the digital age. But clients weren’t ready to spend the money and – if they did – were using their advertising networks or in-house teams.

The whistle-stop visits to clients in Stockholm sealed the deal. I returned to London, still under pressure from the DB Board and decided to resign. I spent three months on gardening leave and the year or so at DB was over.

Going it alone

The travel to and from the DB offices in London was taking 4 hours out of my day. If I’d lived closer, perhaps this would have worked out differently for all of us. With a new child on the way, it seemed the best thing to do during gardening leave was to consider what came next. Pitching to a toilet roll manufacturer to encourage them to employ digital sales techniques to bolster toilet tissue sales did not seem to me to be where the future of digital media was. The combination of long hours and unrewarding projects are factors that many employees face daily. Whilst the salary was good (I was probably earning twice as much as my peers both at Granada and Design Bridge), money alone is not enough.

Whilst money isn’t enough to motivate many (job satisfaction, personal development and a sense of purpose is), when earning money is a necessity, outlooks change. Reflecting on what came next, I took a call from my old boss, Julian Turner (ex-Granada) who was working with a technology infrastructure company on a project for mobile telecoms brand, Orange. I was invited to a meeting with a senior director at the company to explore how to leverage my expertise in branding to help the team win a contract. At that time branding projects followed methodologies that were specific to a particular design agency; there was little research at the time that I was familiar with (in 2001) that explained any universal design process model for brand creation. Through my leadership on projects in London working with many agencies – The Partners, 3i, Carter Wong, Design Bridge – I noticed how each had developed their own process model for creating compelling brands for their clients.

Although Julian’s colleagues were looking for useful insights, their hopes of finding a branding science in me were unfulfilled; I helped in the bid but in a very small way and – as far as I know – they never secured the contract. In the meantime, I started a brief venture with one of my former hires at Granada – Mark Leeks. We created a new venture – ThreeTV – as an interactive consultancy with the goal of working with UK media brands. We created a website and started to spread the word about our venture but with Mark based in Leytonstone and me based in Hampshire (with a son due in September 2002), we were headed in slightly different directions.

Moving into academia

During my time as Controller of Interactive Design at Granada and then later at Design Bridge, I had become more and more interested in consumer/user research. What had struck me about the business leaders who had started these companies was their no-bullshit, evidence-based and informed approach to design and the user experience. One in particular, Mike Bloxham – founder of Netpoll UK – always gave assured presentations to clients and colleagues alike and he had a calm, intelligent delivery. I had encountered too many instances during my career as a design entrepreneur up until now where design decisions were based on intuition and not on evidence. As the number of internet users grew, an interest in human-computer interaction (HCI) and interface design was beginning to turn what was once a domain of experimentalism and ‘anything goes’ 6 into an applied science. As much as I respected Jakob Nielsen’s early work on web design, this shift to the ‘scientific’ also brought with it an interest amongst clients, competitors and managers in what end users were doing and what they wanted.

Whilst many corporate web designers would acquiesce to the Nielsen diktat of navigation bars being across the top and left of a web page, other designers – including those at Telstar, Granada and Design Bridge – were happy to challenge the emergent norms. However, we were all alert to the requirement to design with end users in mind. Understanding what people liked or struggled with on the designs we created was an aspect of the process that had fascinated me ever since we commissioned user research for GMN and then later Granada. Research and an interest in design process drew me closer to the idea of working in academia; to learn, research and reframe my way of thinking in design which had – up until now – relied too heavily on tacit, incomprehensible (at least to clients) and seemingly unstructured methods. In short, I wanted to become smarter at how I designed and help others achieve the success that I had (up until now) experienced in industry.

During my Granada years I had made visits to (and reviewed graduate portfolios) from the UK’s top design schools. Now I wanted to work for one. In parallel with the development of Novari, I applied for a role at The Surrey Institute of Art & Design (SIAD) for a Senior Lecturer in Graphic Communication (Digital Media). After interviews in Farnham, I was appointed into my first academic role. A new chapter had begun.

Click here for what happened next.


1 Ian is featured in Mark Holt’s Munich ’72. The Visual Output of Otl Aicher’s Dept. XI and has provided insights into the design of the Olympics cultural programme and of the work and teaching of Otl Aicher in Markus Rathgeb’s Otl Aicher published by Phaidon in 2006, writing an introductory chapter and section on the cultural programme posters (pp.6-7; 92-95). Ian is also a signatory to Ken Garland’s First Things First Manifesto of 1964.

2 Rand, P. (1993) Design, Form and Chaos, Yale University Press: New Haven & London, p.134

3 CTV had production studios in St.Johns Wood and an outside broadcast arm which had been broadcasting since 1983. A brief history of CTV (which we knew first as Carlton Television, then CTV Facilities Ltd when Telstar bought it and then eventually Corinthian TV Facilities) is available here . CTV was driven by Barry Johnstone who drove a hard bargain on our productions.

4 You can see a snapshot of the website on the 12th December, 1998 on the Internet Wayback Machine at:

5 The broadcast regulator limits the broadcast of certain colours which are considered too bright for television viewers. Just as subliminal advertising (which inserts brief, almost unrecognisable images into edited footage (see Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange) is banned, so too are certain colour combinations that might be damaging to the viewer.

6 The pioneering spirit of early internet ventures and the agencies that served it was best manifest in work I did with Lateral, Digit and State Design respectively. Lateral was well known for its clever use of the ‘Error 404’ message that web users often encountered when they typed in the wrong web address or found a broken link. They persuaded Levis to sponsor error 404 pages across the internet, which they used to promote the ‘Flat Eric’ campaign which raised awareness of Levis Sta-Prest jeans. Both Digit and State Design – young graduates who turned their ‘multimedia’ expertise into cutting-edge design studios – were resolutely anti-science.