Mike Sullivan: Mister

by Kate Andrews | May 10, 2011

After working as both an Industrial Designer and Graphic Designer, Glasgow based Mike Sullivan went on to set up award-winning design agency, Mister. Although a young company Mister boasts an impressive client list that includes: Dazed & Confused, Chanel, BBC, Alfa Romeo, NHS, Adobe, VisitScotland, Sony, Hitachi, Toshiba, Panasonic, Edinburgh University & Discovery Channel. As well as running Mister, Mike is co founder of Creative Everyone, typetoken and precoded. We spoke to Mike this month to find out more about his journey and his work.

Can you tell us a little about yourself, and your academic and professional journey to date?

I trained and worked as an Industrial Designer for 4 years. It was a great start to my career; really getting to grips with user experience design and I think it has certainly influenced my current output. As a side I started freelancing and doing web and graphic design work for the company’s clients. The climate in the UK for product design unfortunately was taking a bit of a dip and I decided to change careers. So, it didn’t take a massive change of heart to change direction and start over as a junior designer.

I worked as an art worker / junior designer for 3 years. Working with a great team of experienced designers cutting my teeth on just about every conceivable piece of software. After that I moved into a graphic designer position at an agency in Cardiff and worked there for another 3 years. The agency serviced some great clients; from day one it was very rewarding and I certainly learnt quickly. I then moved to Glasgow to work for a digital agency. I was doing a lot of freelance work for them and decided to move and take a permanent role. About 12 months later I went freelance full-time and set up Mister. I could have stayed longer in agency work but really fancied branching out and setting up on my own.

What led you to go it alone and set up Mister?

Creative freedom. I think the realisation that I wanted to start up my own company was the day that I felt I would do certain aspects of the job / project differently. I had great times at all my previous agencies and learnt plenty, but when you want to do something, you have to do it. In house, agency work is great to hone your skills and develop relationships, but there comes a time when you just have to try it on your own. I was fortunate to have a lot of freelance work on so the leap was straightforward enough. It has proved to be a great decision.

It’s hard work but worth it. I get to experiment and push ideas. It takes time to grow but I can see the direction forming nicely and I’m really looking forward to the rest of 2011. Personally I’m starting to develop new skills and looking to implement these ideas into new projects. Long term I want Mister to be seen as an agency that can experiment and develop new ideas for clients. I think Mister has come a long way in a relatively short time and now it’s time to really push on to the next stage.

What is it like sharing a studio with another graphic designer?

It’s great. Best move I made from a design and business perspective. We get to discuss ideas, feed each other advice on projects and share great content we find. Greig Anderson (Effektive) predominately works on Brand and Print, and I (Mister) work on Online, Screen and Brand, so it works really well from both perspectives. We are also finding it is working well passing projects back and forth to suit are strongest skill set.

What was the hardest thing you had to overcome going alone?

Initially – gaining new clients. To make it easier in the early days I committed a lot of my energy to freelancing for other agencies. This helped financially and allowed me time to develop my ongoing client relationships. These days I still do a fair amount of work for other agencies, but it’s far more of a collaborative approach and I get involved from the initial client meeting. Setting up as a limited company and appointing an accountant really helped from day one. I had a tremendous amount of knowledge to call on and it really made the transition a painless one.

I think the biggest issue these days is keeping up with the wealth of new technologies that arise daily but I find that fun and certainly wouldn’t have it any other way. That’s what keeps design engaging – seeing what’s new and what Mister can do with these new tools. I have a number of new projects going live over the next few months that I hope will show some of these new ideas and methods off to their full potential.

Can you tell us a little about what you are currently working on?

A new PR site, new Magazine site, an exhibition guide, a tourist information website. An iPad Magazine, a few brand projects for design agencies and a suite of iPad games.

Based on your experiences and insights, how do you think the role of the graphic designer is changing?

Mike: Collaboration. We need to start working better as teams – brought together to answer briefs. I’m fortunate enough to work collaboratively with a number of individuals, both in the UK and internationally. What I find is that smaller teams can really push the brief. From experience, clients are engaging with this method of working and that can only improve the design output. The rise of collectives and assembled creative teams will answer the need to connect and collaborate across all design disciplines.

Who/what are you inspired by, and what is it about Graphic Design that motivates you?

I’m inspired by Le Corbusier, Bauhaus, Richard Paul Lohse and Armin Hofmann. Graphic Design motivates me as it offers the chance to enhance, change and provide direction.

How do you see the studio and work you do evolving in 2011 from 2010?

At present Mister is mainly focused on designing for screen and online, but I’m finding that I’m being approached to do more brand and print work these days. So one plan for this year is to develop the branding and identity design aspect the agency. I’ll be looking to develop both the off-line and online creative output for my clients. This will be split between collaborating and in-house.

Also I have a few mobile projects lined up for later this year and I’m really looking forward to that. To some extent it will be like learning to design for the web all over again but I relish user interface projects – to plan / design content and re-purpose it for various formats is exciting. Responsive web design is going to really take off this year.

So what’s next for you?

Another plan is that Mister starts to develop niche products (stand alone apps / projects and for client projects) and to be seen and as an agency that does ‘that’ well. Whether that is magazine, mobile, fashion, retail etc is to be seen but that is the direction. I think it would be remiss not to develop some of the projects and ideas into fully realised projects this year. I have a number of self initiated projects that are ongoing and I’m working with some excellent designers and developers on a few new ideas at present that will see the light of day this year.

It should be a great year. I’m working on precoded.com – Fully customisable WordPress themes for Newspapers, Magazines and Editorial style layouts and creativeeveryone.com updates for the coming year.

Based on your experience do you have any advice for anyone attempting to go it alone and set up their own studio?

Clients require proven results and good design will always shine. They want to see results and if you have the talent and drive – then absolutely go for it. Obviously there is plenty of news being reported about the financial climate and you have to be aware that it won’t always be plain sailing, but it is achievable. There is lot of information, funding and advice that are still freely available for start ups. You have to start sometime (if you inclined) so why not now. If you can make a go of it in the current climate then the experience and know how you have gained will be invaluable.


See more work from Mister at studiomister.com and follow them on Twitter @MS_Mister.

Designer and writer Kate Andrews was the original editor of Notes on Design blog, founded in 2007.

If you are interested in developing your graphic design skills, Sessions College offers a range of graphic design courses for students at all levels. Contact Admissions for more information.

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