Allies Design


Allies Design is one of the leading creative design agencies in Britain, creating packaging, branding, websites and identities for artisanal food companies such as Brindisa, The Ginger Pig, La Fromagerie, Villandry, The Hungry Guest, Wild Beef and Kitchen Italia. We asked its founder and Creative Director, Susanna Cook, to tell us how her company came to be created and how she achieved such a prestigious client list. When we asked where the design talent came from, Susanna also asked her colleagues, Vita Cameron and Maeve Bargman to answer. The remaining story of Allies Design is written by Susanna, who also shares her love of food and advice for anyone thinking of starting a career in creative design.

So, where did all this talent come from? Is it nature or nurture?

Susanna Cook: Art was undoubtedly my favourite subject at school as it was where I felt my most confident and it was natural to follow my heart on to an art foundation course. My inclination towards graphic design was expressed from a young age through a keen collection of packaging, contemporary and antique, started as a child. Studying graphic design as a degree and then going on to work as a graphic designer still feels like a dream come true! My father is a great artist but his creativity was channelled into the family business of butchery.

Vita Cameron:I was fortunate enough to go to school when education and the arts and were truly respected and healthily funded. My secondary school, George Abbot, was then a specialist arts school, so our creative and expressive department flourished with talent and enthusiasm. This foundation course in the arts {textiles, graphics, fine art and photography} enabled me to follow all four subjects at A-level providing me with the strong portfolio I needed to study graphic design at Falmouth University where the tutors are second to none. Their teaching, care and belief ensured my passion and commitment was continually stretched; encouraging me to enter awards and helping me find confidence when I had none. I come from an incredibly academic family, however I would not have been in the position I am today without the continual support and faith of my mother who, even before I could talk, took me to London’s art galleries and exhibitions. I am very fortunate for the education I have received.

Maeve Bargman:Throughout education I have felt completely in my element during Art & Design classes and was happily shocked when I first discovered I could have a career where being creative was at the centre of it. Going to Falmouth University was the best decision I have made to start my career as a designer. My family is artistic in different ways, my grandfather on my mother’s side was a great performer and on my grandfather on my father’s side was an architect. My mother and grandmother have both got a great eye for beautiful things and displaying them nicely. My mother says I get my artistic gene from my father who used to be an industrial graphic designer, but I think a little bit comes from each of them.

The story of Allies Design by Susanna Cook, Founder and Creative Director

When I first started my business I came from a partnership with two interior designers. I had built up the graphic side of the business and the majority of the graphic clients moved with me. I had started my career in a large design practice where I worked on my favourite area, food packaging. Working with interior designers meant that my design world opened up to retail design and the combination was a good starting point for Allies Design.

My heritage in high street retail and butcher’s shop, from my father’s trade, was the inspiration for my thesis on the homogenisation of the high street. It coincided with my father retiring early and closing his businesses as the march of the supermarkets was transforming high streets as we had once known them. I herald the current return to the high street!

Having worked on big brands for many years, where design input is generally in small, incremental tweaks, I felt a strong yearning to work for independent retailers and producers. I wanted to work with businesses where an individual or individuals owned the business and were still wholly active in it as the heart and driving force.

Anyone at The Food Bugle Lectures in March 2012 will know exactly what I mean, having heard Trevor Herbert of Hobbs Bakery, Chantal Coady of Rococo Chocolates, Monika Linton of Brindisa and Stacey Hedges of Hampshire Cheeses talk about their businesses with such love and focus. I had my favourite food retailers where I shopped and most of them I wanted to work with. I knew I could make a difference to their business and therefore they became my target. We are very proud our reputation has built from the difference we did and do make to each of our clients every day.

The beauty of working in a small team is our close involvement on all projects. I tend to be briefed by our clients and will then share with the others. The thinking and the initial concepts are worked on collectively, but once designs are honed in the individual whose design is favoured will take responsibility for creating the presentation visuals. As the project develops through to artwork everyone will still be involved in commenting to ensure we create a design we are very sure of collectively.

An initial discussion with the client could inspire a scribble in my notebook as we chat, or simply an abundance of notes, absorbing all that the client shares in the conversation. These notes will in turn become part of the briefing internally within Allies. We then have the great pleasure of exploring and filling our studio wall with appropriate and inspiring images, spider diagrams and notes, which will be fine-tuned to a number of mood and diagram boards. These are often presented in front of our initial design concepts. After presenting our initial design concepts to the client and obtaining their feedback, we develop the designs, considering the typographic, illustration and photography details and often briefing our suppliers at this point. We also consider the reach of the design, for example, showing a packaging range on shelf or an identity across a number of elements. Only once the client and we are completely happy the design is fully answering the brief and its objectives do we proceed to artwork. Then the all-important client sign-off takes place and then we are in a position to hand the project over to the printers.

Independent retailers and producers are very different from big brands and therefore are less likely to have guidelines, and in many instances we have created the guidelines for them, although these are more fluid than most. Our mission is to visually portray the essence and character of a brand as if it just comes naturally.

We always immerse ourselves into the client’s world and their product to fully absorb everything we can about their beliefs, objectives, methods, point of difference to ensure we can translate this information into a meaningful, engaging and relevant design solution. If these truths come through then ‘the little guys’ will naturally stand out from the rest.

The recession has definitely brought about change. I believe and hope it is a growing trend that there are an increasing number of consumers who are seeking honesty in the information given. Consumers want to understand the provenance of food more, to know what is in it, where it really comes from, (not where it was packed), how the animals were treated, what it gives us nutritionally etc. The image of an honest brand is perhaps homely and simple in its presentation, but to portray the information one needs considered design, clear visual hierarchy and an open personality, which may also be propped with illustration or photography. I see this as clarity and positivity.

Other designers’ work which inspires me tends to be from outside my field, although the interiors of food shops around the world are an endless draw. I am forever excited by Carlo Scarpa’s architecture, John Rombola’s energetic sketches, Irving Penn’s still life shots and the freedom of Marije Vogelzang’s mind. I admire Julian Roberts’s work at Irving & Co work and I am thrilled to be featured alongside of Julian on this website. My forever favourite designers are Abram Games, Alan Fletcher and Paul Rand.

I do appreciate and take great pleasure in food. Last year, thank you to a thoughtful gift from one of my staff, I started a small vegetable patch in my garden and extended it through a multiple of pots. It was fun to nurture and reap the rewards and I am continuing the fun this year. I do cook, but I am a simple cook who uses good ingredients and delights in a ‘whats in the fridge, garden and cupboard’ challenge! I am also very fortunate to have a close circle of friends who are either in the food business or are superb cooks.

My favourite places to go out to eat and drink are:  Moro, Morito, River Cafe, Koya, Brindisa Tapas, Fernandez & Wells, Racine, Market and Bull & Last. My favourite food shops are La Fromagerie(surely one of the best food shops in London?), Leila’s, a great general food shop with a superb, focused selection, St John’s and the E5 Bakehouse for bread, Wild Beef for fine and naturally nutritious beef, The Ginger Pig, Climpson & Sons and Monmouth for coffee.

My advice to anyone thinking of working in creative design would be to look around at their competitors and the market in which they are aiming to place themselves. What do they like, what do they admire, who is the best, what does the competition’s branding and packing communicate? Aim to understand the visual messages and what value they bring to the brand. Armed with these insights, investigate who designed the brands they admire and approach the design company or companies for a chat. Designers are generally a very approachable and open group of people, always keen to discuss design for good products. I believe a client gets the most out of a design agency if they develop an ongoing relationship with them, rather than using them for just one thing. Ask the agency for ballpark figures for each element they believe they need and explain up front if they cannot afford to invest in all elements at once. Work on a plan together to implement the project over time and as sales increase, progress with the desired design elements. An essential element is to spend time on communicating the message through free media like Twitter and blogs – they must share their story.

Further Information

Allies Design website:

Follow the team on Twitter: @AlliesDesign

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