Inside The Studio: Carter Wong Design
Design is at the heart of everything we do; we’re a business set up by designers always seeking out the very best creative ideas for our clients.
- Phil Carter, Co-Founder of Carter Wong Design
Carter Wong Design is an award-winning design consultancy that has been a player in the design industry for nearly thirty years. This month, The Dieline had the pleasure of interviewing Co-Founder, Phil Carter, about their different take on creativity, clients, and why small is big.
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Left: Phil Wong, Founding Partner; Middle: Sarah Turner, Managing Director; and Right: Phil Carter, Creative Director
Congratulations on your forthcoming 30 year anniversary. Tell us how it all started.
When Phil Wong and I met back at Norwich School of Art in 1974 we always knew we wanted to start up our own venture. After leaving the Royal College of Art, and honing our skills working for such greats as Marcello Minale, we took the plunge and opened our studio in 1984. Then it was just the two of us. Now almost three decades later we have an amazing team of ten with myself, and Phil, at the helm, and Sarah Turner as Managing Director. It’s amusing to think we’ve been around for so long – we feel just as passionate about what we do today, as we did the day we started. We certainly don’t feel thirty years old.
How has Carter Wong evolved over that time?
Size has never been important to us. We could easily have expanded, brought in more teams, moved into larger premises, sold out to holding companies – but that’s not what we have ever been about.
Design is at the heart of everything we do; we’re a business set up by designers always seeking out the very best creative ideas for our clients.
I like to think that we’ve proved over time that our clients prefer that model. We’ve created and implemented some of the most iconic and globally recognised brands – from the Unilever Ice Cream Heartbrand to the Formula 1 logo, from here, in this compact West London mews studio.
Carter Wong have created two of the world’s most recognisable logos in their 30 year history.
The ultimate interactive company sign, and one that the neighbour’s kids can use when we’re not letting off steam.
Keeping our studio small has allowed us to be responsive and perfectly tailored to every project, and yet maintain a tight and cohesive creativity. We still have the capability to roll out massive projects – this year’s global launch of Cornetto being just one example. In our opinion had we expanded we would have lost that control, and maybe forfeited our originality. We like to think that gone are the days when clients go to a large consultancy just because a project requires a global delivery.
Creative inspiration can happen at any time, however we find that time spent relaxing in ‘our local’, The Mitre helps.
Explain Carter Wong’s creativity
We are a design consultancy that is design-led. Simple as that. Yet we understand the strategic side – our packaging projects would never stand the test of time on shelf if we did not. Of course design has moved on since we started, and clients need to be reassured that their designs will work. But we are pleased that we’ve always had clients that value the importance of the creative solution, who look for inventiveness and imagination – as well as something that is going to be a commercial success. I guess we’re lucky that our clients have the vision and courage to explore projects from a different angle. Strategy is all well and good but unless the creativity is there a pack is simply not going to get noticed. And certainly we’re seeing a new shift back towards creativity – a return to proper values centred around craft and skill.
So do you have a creative philosophy?
We’re not one of those consultancies that has a massive mission statement displayed on a wall for clients to see when they walk in the studio door, or for its team to abide by every day. We don’t need to put what we do down in words – it’s just who we are, our personality, and how we go about every day in the studio. We like to think creativity runs in the blood, and it comes through in everything we do.
What we are proud of is that we thoroughly enjoy design, and that comes through the work. We are dealing with serious clients with serious budgets (most of the time!), but there has to be an element of relaxed enjoyment: if you can’t be excited by a project then you’re just never going to inspire the client. It may sound obvious but clients want to work with a team that is enthusiastic about their brands.
Right: Recycling packs destined for Tulip bulbs for howies T-shirts fitted their soul and brand positioning literally to a T.
How do you approach a project?
At every single stage of the design process we’re looking for opportunities. It’s about having a vision, and in turn firing the client’s imagination.
We don’t just take a brief and do it – we will always try and go beyond and deliver something the client wasn’t expecting. The most creatively rewarding projects are the ones where the idea snowballs.
howies is a great example. Here was a client with a brief to repackage its premium quality Merino Wool Base Layers, yet instead of showing the product on pack we showed its ripped remnants on barbed wire: a brave move for a client to show its brand in action and a nod to how sheep’s wool snags out in the wild. And then there was the howies’ organic cotton t-shirts we packaged in recycled tulip bulb bags, complete with mesh window for the bulbs originally to breathe, but our T’s to be seen – a different take on the standard box.
Having used abandoned wardrobes on the T-shirt packaging it made perfect sense to push this concept even further when commissioned to look at POS.
For a new font designed for howies we’ve had each character and numeral hand-carved out of a wind-fallen Chestnut tree in Wales, home of the company.
So inspiration comes from many sources – we always aim to look at a project from another perspective, and deliver a different solution: for instance the discarded wardrobes that featured on the tulip bags – the ones that skaters and bikers use as ramps – we turned into a POS display for the brand. Each wardrobe was created by a collection of artists, typographers and the like with one by our studio to portray an assortment of howies’ beliefs close to their heart, from trashing Junk Mail to bemoaning the decline of Sparrows in London’s parks. Taking on self-initiated projects is a big part of our creative culture here at Carter Wong and hosting open studio parties spreads the word.
By being howies' brand guardian we can keep a constant overview on a day-to-day basis and respond immediately with suggestions and different ideas. Just this week we’ve had some 40 bough blocks of Chestnut tree delivered to the studio; we’ve had each of these carved with a character or numeral in a font designed specifically for a new howies’ print project.
You seem to be a happy and relaxed team. What’s the secret of creating a positive working environment?
Working in the design industry has never been a 9-5 job – but we work hard to ensure there’s a proper balance. We make sure we all get out and aren’t holed up in the studio late at night but instead have time for a pint in our local, The Mitre to discuss ideas. If you don’t have a life outside you can’t bring anything of any interest or relevance to the job. We need our designers to go out and experience life, go to the cinema, theatre and exhibitions, which we’re spoilt for here in the Metropolis. Only by having open eyes and minds can you then bring a fresh perspective to design. I personally make a point of trying to get out most lunchtimes to go drawing which literally gets me looking at things differently, especially if I’m caught up trying to crack a creative brief. We encourage our team to look at new things, use their imagination and create ideas not necessarily related to a project. For instance, we’ve got a lot of keen cyclists here and we’ve recently just produced a small book on bike headbadges that we launched here in the studio one evening a couple of weeks ago with all our clients, colleagues and collaborators invited. We have some of the best creative minds within these four walls so it would be mad not to encourage them. The studio itself is an eclectic place. We’re not into putting up our work or showing off our award certificates. We’d much rather it was a place of interest, with paintings, artefacts and bits we’ve discovered that we find fascinating – somewhere that inspires our designers, and sparks up conversations with our clients. We now have a couple of the howies’ wardrobes in our reception – which always acts as a great talking point. Better than a wordy mission statement we like to think.
Tell us about how you work with your clients
At the moment we’ve got such a great and eclectic selection of clients. Fortunately we don’t have clients that like to design themselves. They get us, and trust us to get on with the job. And we’re here to give them something different that excites them. Take Ocean Trawlers – a major global deep sea fishing company and their premium ‘fresh frozen at sea’ brand, Atlantika. They are the main suppliers to fish and chip shops in the UK and asked us, after we designed their identity and packaging, to produce a consumer facing campaign. They were brave enough and had the vision to move away from the brief, and with our encouragement they allowed us to flex our creative muscles. So instead of the usual poster – stuck on a wall in an unforgiving environment – we designed the ultimate customer takeout – the fish fork, literally designed as a ‘fish’ fork. This came complete with identity and website link, and dispensed from a counter box shaped as one of the company’s famous trawlers.
Always looking to push a brief, a poster project became a memorable piece of POS instead.
In designing the industrial outer packaging for Atlantika it was paramount to us that these new packs stood out in a crowded warehouse comprising a sea of white and brown cardboard.
We always do our homework. Café Direct is a great example. We moved away from the cliched visual language in Fairtrade coffee packaging – the beautiful landscapes, the sunsets over Kilimanjaro, the photo of the grower, and explored instead what exactly made the Café Direct brand unique. They are the only Fairtrade coffee brand that knows each and every one of its growers by name. So our challenge here in the studio was how to show that person without using a photo portrait on pack. Our idea was to show the growers’ individual tools to represent the process of growing. It provided a different perspective and gave the brand a visual language that was utterly authentic. Of course it helped having a great client who got us out into the fields of Uganda and Mexico to look for these tools and photograph them. We would never have found the beautiful bird shaped cocoa machete, while sitting here in our London studio.
Avoiding well worn coffee packaging cliches we instead opted for a range with a unique concept, core to the brand’s beliefs.
Do you have a favourite recent packaging project?
Biogreen is a brand we’d always wanted to work for, and we got our chance last year when we were asked to recreate the brand, architecture, identity and packaging for the company’s yogurt based drinks range. It was one of the projects that started life on paper – redrawing the iconic Edna the leaping cow and font by hand, and creating the fruit ingredient illustrations using potato prints cut by us in the studio. It’s now a brand that’s gone on to bigger things, with new Lassi ranges introduced and over 335% increase in supermarket sales - thanks largely to the memorable and unique pack design – and some creative foil blocking.
The use of a jewel-like metallic foil on the Biogreen packs focussed consumer’s attention on the brand’s new identity.
For a good colleague whose husband had ambitions to set up his own micro-brewery, we first came up with a name that alluded to a traditional English saying for ‘everything being excellent’. This naturally led on to the format of the label, being a strip of four tickets that, with some judicial positioning and scaling up and down, enabled the brand name and brew variant to share the same facing. Simple traditional glass silhouettes continued the perforations between each ticket.
Having named this new micro brewery, the label design naturally took the form of a run of four tickets wrapped around each bottle.
One that got away. An innovative approach to applying deodorant by way of a new applicator design called for an innovative design solution for a brand with two names in different global territories. By using the X, common to both names we created a strong brandmarque that worked not only for each of the many variants but most importantly as a global icon for the brand.
One that got away. The X icon we created for these packs enabled it to be effortlessly used worldwide across both brand names.
What exciting new projects can you share with us?
It’s been an incredibly busy year, and we’re delighted that our redesign of Cornetto has just been launched globally. We created the Unilever Heartbrand some twenty years ago, so to revisit ice cream for Unilever has been a joy. In many ways it was the dream project. It’s an unmistakeable shape and the redesign plays on that: the cone becomes the logo allowing, in affect, Cornetto to own the cone. To then oversee its implementation across a myriad of applications from London to Shanghai is incredibly satisfying. It’s jobs where you create a future icon that everyone likes to enjoy – that’s what makes it worthwhile being a designer, and being part of the Carter Wong team.
Given the iconic cone shape of Cornetto, our new identity for the global brand virtually designed itself. Now they can rightfully claim to ‘own the cone.’
With our distinctive new logo ‘owning the cone’ there’s no mistaking Cornetto in a busy freezer cabinet now.
Where do you see yourself in the next 30 years of Carter Wong?
Well, if I still have the stamina and enthusiasm I'll probably be here, at the grand old age of 88 doing what I love best. However, realistically, if I could combine that with my equal love of painting and sculpture I'd be a happy man. Should I change my mind in the next 30 years I'd like to think that the other Phil and myself have at least left a legacy worth continuing and in the same creative spirit that we set the company up with.
As experts in your field, where do you see the next innovation growth in packaging?
A tricky one this without my crystal ball to hand, but I believe that with the continuing growth of online shopping, brands represented in that medium will have to shout louder, stronger and simpler and inevitably in 3D to get noticed on screen. At the other end of the spectrum there will always be a place for packs with a tactile quality so I could well imagine the introduction of new innovative materials being a progressively big thing.
What is the best lesson you learned from 30 years of successfully running a studio?
Enjoy yourself and it'll show in the work.
A special thank you to Phil Carter for his time and dedication and his staff for making this Inside the Studio feature possible.