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Interview with Ben Brears, Strategic Design Director at Robot Food

Ben Brears is the Strategic Design Director at Robot Food, a branding agency based in the Northern English city of Leeds. Robot Food have worked some amazing clients—from huge global companies like Carlsberg and Cadbury to smaller businesses, like local brewery Northern Monk and printing company Awesome Merchandise. Ben recently visited the Shillington Manchester campus to guide us through some of Robot Food’s projects and deliver some invaluable advice to the students—including telling them to make sure they challenge everything they do.

We caught up with Ben afterwards to find out more about his and Robot Food’s background and get the let down on some of their amazing work. Read on to find out more!

Can you tell us about your journey to becoming Strategic Design Director at Robot Food? How did you end up there?

I went to University on a great course in an unfashionable part of the UK, studying Graphic Design at Staffordshire University in Stoke-on-Trent. From there I took the usual route into the industry—despite graduating headlong into 2008’s global recession—of a series of internships at different London-based agencies before finally landing my first full-time role some nine months after graduation, as the first employee of a then-startup agency called B&B Studio. A decade later, and I’m back in my native Yorkshire as part of the senior team here at Robot Food, helping define the strategic and creative direction for our array of clients.

It’s here at Robot Food where I realised my interests lay beyond just ‘what’ the idea for the creative was, but ‘why’ it was right, and helping define and articulate that too—really bringing the client along on the journey and involving them in our process and decision making, so that by the time we reach concept stage there’s no nasty surprises for either side!

For a while at Robot Food there were no job titles, but as the team grew larger there was obviously a need for more structure. But we’ve maintained the fact that there’s no hard boundaries on any role and that you’re in charge what you want your ‘job’ too be. We never had a ‘strategic design director’ role before, it’s essentially been created around me… which obviously gives me a lot of confidence, it’s an awesome sign of Robot Food’s faith in me and what I can offer, and is also simultaneously a lot to live up to!

What do Robot Food do? And, something that has always intrigued us, where did the name come from?

Robot Food is a strategic brand design agency, based in Leeds, a city in Northern England. We’ve built up something of a specialism in packaging and fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG), but ‘packaging’ isn’t really how we define ourselves; we work with people and brands with a vision, ambition and who want to embrace change.

I guess ultimately it’s about creating bold, brave, standout brands regardless of product or category.

The Robot Food name itself is something of a mystery. When Simon founded the company, he wanted a name that was a little different, that stood out from the pack and wasn’t just another collection of surnames or a loose allusion to creativity—Robot Food was the result of that. Well that’s Simon’s story anyway. What I do know, is that as an extreme sports fan, he definitely didn’t subconsciously ‘borrow’ it from a seminal trilogy of snowboard movies

Robot Food has worked with some of the UK’s biggest companies, but also some amazing smaller, independent companies. Have you got a favourite project you can tell us about?

It’s very difficult to pull out individual projects as favourites… I’m sure it differs wildly between everyone on the team. And honestly, I think that’s a testament to the work we’ve done over the last few years and the relationships we’ve built with our clients; we don’t hide projects away or only put our ‘favourites’ on the website — with Robot Food, what you see is what you get.

If we weren’t proud of a project we wouldn’t have done our jobs properly. We’ve been pretty vocal about not entering design awards because we believe it’s the results for our clients that count, not a trophy on the mantelpiece.

In practice this means we’re just as invested in the projects as our clients, because we’re only successful if they are.

You recently rebranded the craft brewery Northern Monk, who, luckily for you, are your neighbours. How was it working with a company so close to the studio? Did this help?

Working with Northern Monk was pretty much a dream project. It’s something we’d spoke about internally long before the project actually came up, and we were (all too) frequent visitors to Northern Monk’s refectory—given it’s roughly 50 yards from our front door. It meant when the project did come up we were already pretty familiar with the brand, their products, their attitude and ambitions, and their place in the local community. That obviously represents a huge leg up compared to working with a new, less familiar client but presents different challenges in that you’re not exactly objective in the process—so you have to try and filter out your own personal experiences to an extent and ensure you’re doing right by the brand and the consumer. In Northern Monk’s case this was really about simplifying and clarifying their brand first and foremost—ensuring it stood out as a bold beacon for great beer, much like their refectory here in Leeds—and then adding depth and helping tell the story of what makes each beer unique.

What makes a successful brand? What do you think is the most important part of bringing a brand to life?

Look, there’s a myriad of reasons why a brand can succeed. The thing is though, it’s rarely just about the visual. Consumers today are well informed and they’re savvier than ever—they can see straight through a shiny facade if there’s a dark heart beating inside. It’s why we work so closely with our clients to help define what their brand stands for and why it exists in 2019.

You can’t just paper over the cracks and expect not to be found out. You need to talk the talk and walk the walk. There’s no guarantees, no hard and fast rules.

But if you can get the what and the why, the visual and the verbal, the talk and the walk all together, then you’re off to a fantastic start.

Can you explain, to those who don’t know, what strategic design is? And what your job involves?

In the simplest possible terms, it’s about ensuring everything we do has solid reasoning and thinking behind it. Day-to-day that means helping translate all the top level strategic stuff—a brand’s values, personality, purpose, all that stuff—into what it means for design and ensuring what we create rings true. It’s not just putting ephemeral stuff out there for quick wins, because we ‘like it’, or because it’s on trend, but ensuring what we do is rooted in what’s right for the brand, the consumer and the opportunity. There’s arguably too much ‘stuff’ out there in the universe as it is, we’re not interested in contributing to that just for the sake of it. We want to create and work with brands that last and meet a genuine need.

What’s your favourite thing about your job or about working in design?

Every brief, every client, and every project represents a new challenge and a new opportunity to learn and develop.

We go into each project with fresh eyes and really push to get to the heart of what the brand stands for, what the challenges are and where the opportunity lies. How people think about and interact with brands has gone through massive changes in recent years, and we’re in a position to really help shape and redefine those brands and what they mean and represent in the future, that’s hugely exciting.

Could you share a few of your go-to creative resources that you use for inspiration? Or are there any other designers, artists or creatives you’re loving at the moment?

It’s easy to get caught up in go-to resources. If everyone’s scrolling through the same Behance projects and Pinterest pages then it just ends up with everything looking the same. We encourage the creative team to get away from the computer at the start of a project and not be limited by the references an algorithm has presented to them.

So flick through your books, go outside, visit a local gallery or museum—basically, do what it takes to make your point of view and frame of reference unique and then work to make that something really special and different for the project at hand.

There’s always a long list of illustrators, photographers, and creatives we’re inspired by and we’d love to work with, of course. The challenge is always finding the right opportunity and the right client to enable us to work with them.

Do you think it’s important to explore things that are outside of your comfort zone to grow as a creative?

Absolutely. Every client’s needs are different, and you can’t expect to turn out the same thing over and over again and have it work for everyone. We want to give the brands we work with a unique point of view—that means pushing them and ourselves to be brave, to stand out, and go beyond the ordinary.

Finally, give us five words to describe yourself and your creative style.

I’d like to think Robot Food don’t have a ‘style’ as such. But there’s definitely more of an attitude and point of view that informs what we create.

So let’s say: bold, brave, considered and (deceptively) simple. And hopefully, lasting.

Anything else you’d like to share?

There’s been a bit of a flurry of new projects go up on our site recently—so be sure to check them out. We’re also keen to get out into the design community and share what we do and how we think in the hope it can inspire the next generation of talent. If you want to hear more from Robot Food, you know where to find us!

Big thanks to Ben for coming in to Shillington Manchester to share his excellent advice with the students, and for talking to us afterwards. Make sure to keep up to date with Robot Food are doing through their website.

We’ve hosted some of the world’s top creatives, design studios and advertising agencies at Shillington. Check out more interviews from guest lecturers.

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