Rachel Smith is partner of London-based creative agency & SMITH, a firm she co-founded with Dan Bernstein in 2007. & SMITH specializes in branding for hotels, food, and drink, working with companies like Liberty London, LUX* Resorts, Yo! Sushi, Dishoom, Shake Shack, and Ikor Resorts, to name a few. The team works out of their Stoke Newington studio, a light-filled space that’s acts as a white canvas for colorful artwork, plants, and creative ideas. For this month’s Where I Work, Rachel takes us inside to see the agency’s workspace while sharing about her work process.
What’s your studio/work environment like?
Our studio used to be a piano factory, so we have amazing light, huge windows, and very high ceilings. It’s in residential Stoke Newington, a pretty peaceful part of the world and we’re close to a beautiful park and the best local shop in London, I’ve just had a great ice lolly from there. After a good Friday tidy the studio can look pretty cool – but most of the time it’s a very ‘lived in’ space.
How is your space organized/arranged?
We have one long bank of desks, where most people sit. My business partner Dan and I used to be there, too, but we got evicted when the studio got a little larger a few years ago. We now hop between ‘the cave’ (our small meeting room), our main table, next to a designer, out and about, or at home.
How long have you been in this space? Where did you work before that?
Around 6 years. When Dan and I set up in 2008 we were in a small shipping container in Shadwell with a walk outside to get to the sink and toilets. This was definitely a step up for us, and we were so happy to get this space. At the time most of our staff lived within walking difference, which was a big plus.
If you could change something about your workspace, what would it be?
Eating lunch together is one of my favourite things, so maybe a slightly larger communal table. We can all squeeze round – but it can get friendly! I’ve come up with a few terrible ideas over the years on how to extend it – but it thankfully never happens. We do need one more meeting room, oh and a sofa to have a nap on would be nice. I used to nap on a sofa in our old studio in my ‘post working from home’ days.
Is there an office pet?
Nope, I’m not an animal person, I think I’m missing a gene, or I have a pebble for a heart. My studio mostly loves animals though – so I have said if anyone wants a dog, they can bring it in – but they don’t think I’m serious. They’re probably right, so they’ve made friends with a few local cats instead.
Do you require music in the background? If so, who are some favorites?
Yes, we love music in the studio. Our Studio Manager Aimee is a DJ, so she’s mainly responsible for our daily listening. She describes it as a mixture of ‘Soul, R&B, Yacht Rock, Disco and 90’s Nostalgia with a peppering of the 6 Music playlist’.
If it’s left to me, it’s 80/90’s pop, a power ballad or two and some 90’s hip hop classics – I’m very content being stuck in time. A studio classic is Private Dancer by Tina Turner for a Friday end of day, get it up nice and loud to finish the week. I also like to kick projects off with a relevant tune to get the team in the mood, although that did result in Christmas tunes on the hottest day of the year recently. Sorry Sam.
How do you record ideas?
I love an iPhone note or photograph. My iPhone and I are very good friends. It’s either that or any random bit of paper on my desk, which I then usually lose. I’m very messy.
Do you have an inspiration board? What’s on it right now?
We have three inspiration places in the studio, one for magazines, one for general inspiration and one place where Aimee puts up which is new and interesting places to eat, drink, or sleep. On it right now… see above!
What is your typical work style?
At the moment, it’s a bit tightly packed. I had a baby last year so I’m still working on the best work/life balance. I used to only work in the office and enjoyed home being a work-free place. In general, I’m always better much later in the day. We have flextime at work so you can be an early bird or a late worker, and the hours can adapt to suit you.
What is your creative process and/or creative workflow like? Does it change every project or do you keep it the same?
The key to starting every project is spending time with a client, experience the brand and carefully listen to what they are trying to do. No project can start without this.
After that it’s flexible depending on the project and team size. Ideally, we’d have full project briefing all together, then we like to physically immerse ourselves in the world (getting as much eating, sleeping, and drinking done as possible). Sometimes we have a focused team on a creative project for 48 hours – with no distractions.
There’s a midway crit and a presentation at the end to rest of the team. This is way before it gets anywhere near the client.
What kind of art/design/objects might you have scattered about the space?
We probably should have a few more. We have a cool Supermundane mural that he painted for us when we moved in. Oh, and I like our lightbulb Disco sign too, and a large female figure cut out of an illustration we did for a recent project.
Are there tools and/or machinery in your space?
There’s a large walk-in cupboard which has all of our cutting/mock-up equipment in, masking tape, spray mount, rulers, scalpels, etc. Our machinery is just our printer.
What tool(s) do you most enjoy using in the design process?
Scissors, paper, and a nice fat pen. Getting early ideas up on the board and getting busy with some scissors, pens, paper always feels good.
Let’s talk about how you’re wired. Tell us about your tech arsenal/devices.
Just lots and lots of Macs, a mammoth server, and a goliath phone system – all technical terms.
What design software do you use, if any, and for what?
We use InDesign mainly, then Illustrator, Photoshop, After Effects, Sketch, Pages, Numbers, and our trusty steeds Slack and Streamtime. Slack Attack has well and truly hit our studio in the last year.
What’s on your desk right now?
Normally a load of paper, full up A4 Moleskines, and old status reports/quotes plus a few random pens and my 20-year-old calculator that I stole from Pentagram – that calculator and I have seen some good and bad times. But, let’s be honest, I tidied a little for the shoot so you can now see some nice books and a clear desk. Use your imagination to make this look a lot messier.
Is there a favorite project/piece you’ve worked on?
Next year’s projects?! If I had to pick a few past projects, I think LUX* Hotels and Resorts work for the sector challenging ideas and our Art Direction work. Then Dishoom for seeing a project start authentically and getting on board with that journey early on with a strong focus on typography. It’s great to have seen Dishoom grow. Nothing is better than being given license to do great work for someone but then seeing the way that comes to life with the rest of the team’s hard work.
Tell us about a current project you’re working on. What was the inspiration behind it?
We’re working on a really exciting vegan ice cream brand at the moment. I can’t talk about the inspiration yet (as I’d have to kill you) but I’ve loved finding out more about that and also how people shop in the frozen aisle. We throw ourselves into each world and learn so much, this can then influence every project that follows in unexpected ways.
Do you have anything in your home that you’ve designed/created?
Look Up Pin badges and cards for my husband’s print company, a screenprint from one of his events, and a chair covered in my mate’s amazing Marwood fabric – but let’s be honest, I hardly designed this one. I bought the fabric, found the chair, and paid someone else to cover it!
I have many hopes for our house, painting ceilings bright yellow, walls in the garden a Yves Klein Blue, a sculptural polystyrene wall above the stairs, or a Sol Le Witt/Emma Kunz inspired coloured pencil wall mural. But alas, I have no time right now – so these things will all have to wait.