Inside the Studio: Pearlfisher

With only 24 hours left of my London life, I came across an invitation to tour the West London-based office of the award-winning Pearlfisher. Most likely known by Dieline readers for their impressive roster of packaging design clients, Pearlfisher seems to have touched every product I had been admiring on the British shelves for the last 6 months. The cute Cadbury Dairy Milk Buttons, the new beauty brand Cheeky with it's fun illustrations and the fancy packaged Lurpak, slow churned butter. Their office is located in a historic, converted school building that felt quintessentially British to this American girl. As I approached the entrance I saw memories of the building’s history – “graffiti” near the front doorway. Not spray paint, but school kids names carved into the red brick wall to mark their moment in time. But all that history was left behind as I walked through the front door and stepped into a bright, contemporary space with high ceilings and a gorgeous reception area. It was a space filled with the energy of vision, innovation and design. 

I was met by Chloe Charlwood, the Senior Marketing & Communications Manager, and my tour kicked off. The building has four floors, two of which are dedicated entirely as studio space for the different teams of creative thought leaders. As I walked around peeking over shoulders I noticed the wide range of different skill sets each employee was bringing to the table (or their computer monitors). There were mock ups and print outs of new work launching, and I even saw some yummy samples from that big Cadbury client of theirs.

While seeing the buzz of “work in action” is inspiring, nothing could top the excitement of Pearlfisher’s in-house gallery space and its current exhibition. Titled “JUMP IN!” the vast and open gallery room has been transformed into a ball pit. With 81,000 white, plastic balls filling up the large space, Chloe encouraged me to do just that – JUMP IN! And, of course, I did. The concept behind the exhibition is that play can bring extraordinary results for creative thinking. It is a celebration of creativity and the positive human connections made through the power of joyful play. JUMP IN! was open to the public and Chloe told me that the response was amazing, making a huge impact and even garnering international headlines. I think it’s a true testament to the unique spirit of Pearlfisher’s founding partners and the successful design business they have built over the last 20 years. 


Dieline readers, we have been so lucky to have one of the Founding Creative Partners and CCO, Jonathan Ford taking time out of his schedule to give us his personal insight into Pearlfisher and answer the question “Where did the name come from?”

Jonathan Ford

Founding Creative Partner & CCO

What inspired you to start Pearlfisher? What did your career path look like up to that point?? 

At school I wasn’t good at anything much other than art and with the exception of my art teacher Mr Pope, all the other teachers said I “must try harder”. Therefore, Art School and Graphics became the natural choice for me. On graduation with first class honours and distinction in 1984, I joined Michael Peters, one of the most award-winning and pre-eminent design studios of the time. There, I found myself surrounded by design greats – many who have shaped the world of brand design ever since. Over eight, rock ‘n roll inspired years I worked my way up to Creative Director of Michael Peters NYC and it was those years which were probably the most influential of my career. I lived and worked through the 80’s Boom and into the 90’s bust economies, the subsequent Michael Peters bankruptcy and resulting buyout and formation of what has now become Sterling Brands in NYC. It was during this time that I reunited with Karen Welman and Mike Branson and it was a combination of a rejection of a lowering of creative standards, a meeting of inspiring and like-minded individuals and having a vision for a design business, that culminated in the decision to join forces, go it alone and start our own independent design agency, Pearlfisher, in 1992.

Why 'Pearlfisher? Who came up with the name? What is the meaning behind it?

I should probably start by saying that while branding and naming is what we do for a living, it is probably the most difficult thing to do for a client let alone yourself. It’s so damn subjective! During a creative brainstorm we started to talk about our vision and at this juncture in the design industry, everyone typically used the partners’ names to form the new agency name. We knew that we didn't want to do this but it was Mike who used the analogy of the Japanese pearl fishers who dive to source the world’s finest pearls. This was metaphor that totally summed up what we were setting out to achieve in a design context – to find the gem in every brand - and how we wanted to set ourselves apart from the competition.

What is Pearlfisher's philosophy? What makes you different? 

Our philosophy is that all great brands, no matter how big or small need two simple aspects: Truth and Desire. Whilst truth remains constant and connects product with humans needs, it is design that helps create the fickle nature of desire and which evolves constantly. Indeed great design creates change for the better – it solves problems, connects, seduces and transforms. 

What makes us different is that although we are one company, we operate as three separate, but totally connected, teams – Futures (sees change), Strategy (focuses change) and Design (makes change) - that enable us to design change with purpose. 

About the team, how do you keep the teams in both offices (New York and London) inspired? (And on a side note, it seems like you guys have a ton of fun, I saw the summer roof top pool party!)

Continually nurturing a creative culture is THE reason Pearlfisher has flourished through thick and thin.

This starts with the three founders – Mike, Karen and I –  and is a fusion of our personalities and experiences. We are not your usual clichéd studious or academic designer types, nor are we the suited and booted brigade. Whilst we pride ourselves on our track record we have the eyes of children and we like to play, work hard and have a great time with people around us that are savvy, talented, great communicators, stimulating - and who are better than us! That is our employment policy in a nutshell.

A creative culture from top to bottom breeds empowerment and energy throughout the teams, all of who get affirmed through their results, not through who they are.

In our London studio we have a fluid gallery space in which the team can work and in which we house both our own and external exhibitions to continually challenge and inspire thinking and creativity. This ranges from bringing in an old letterpress machine for our team to use to answer the brief, “What is creativity”, to transforming the space into a ball-pit filled with 81,000 white balls to explore how play impacts creativity. We also host inspirational talks from experts in very different fields, from record-breaking transatlantic rowers to neurological experts – enabling us to find inspiration from different places and people. 

Importantly, at Pearlfisher we champion risk taking and not being held back by our fears. Ironically designers can be the worst at stepping outside the ‘known’ look and feel for what has gone before.

When hiring designers, can you share with our readers what do you look for? What is the one thing that has to stand out?

As mentioned before we have certain evaluation criteria but getting not just good people, but great people, is the hardest challenge of all. We look for the best designers, those that have cultural antennae’s sticking out of their heads. These designers have the ability to pick up a multitude of signals wherever they rove and somehow make sense of the white noise to make something truly clear and original out of it.

And, as I said above, we champion risk takers. Those that challenge, discover and dream – and in doing so create change that makes the world a better place. 

Can you give us an example of a really bad client experience.  Was there anything you learned from it that is a rule you play by now?

Yes. A few years ago we were working on a complex multi-country design that was being centrally managed by one person whom we thought had the authority for managing change to get to a common solution. It turned out that, despite the presence of a unifying creative brief, they didn't have that authority and were weak in presenting our work. And so the country manager sharks, to whom design smelled like fresh blood, went in for the kill. Ouch. You can just imagine it. “Vee like blue!”, “Oui like yellow!”, “We like stripes!”, “Nein!”, “Non!”, “No!” 

We ended up with a wall splattered with design and a few bruised egos thrown in for good measure. But actually we have successfully managed many of these types of projects. And we have always found that those people in marketing, design or management who anticipate the doubters, cynics, fearful and the plain conniving - and who set out on a clever change management strategy as part of the process - are the ones we have most success with. They value design and know how to get a result and it doesn't matter if they are a small company or a corporation. They know that design is about change and that change can lead to effective results.

My team and I had a pretty big chat about this particular project. It’s fair to say there were a few frustrations aired, but we were trying to see if we could learn from this experience so we could avoid it again in the future and help our clients achieve the original design 


Written by Jenifer Tracy

Jenifer Tracy is the owner and Creative Director of JENCO CREATIVE, a boutique graphic design studio founded in 2007 in sunny Los Angeles. Jenifer’s work has been recognized as smart, effective and inspired and has won multiple awards. Having worked with a diverse range of clients from the  Got MILK campaign to Mary J. Blige, Jenifer has a relentless desire to create quality work that expresses her client’s personality and vision.

On a personal note, Jenifer splits her time between Los Angeles and London, is a French Bulldog enthusiast and a “cute shit” collector. As a designer with a deep love for pretty packaging, Jenifer is thrilled to be blogging for The Dieline, a site she’s been a fan of for years. Jenifer spends her spare time dog walking her frenchie Pippin, getting her nails done and napping. She’s also known for being a big loud talker and laughing a lot.