Is it good fortune, or courage that help make a successful design studio? Most of us might believe it’s a mixture of both. But then what do you do with that opportunity opened up to you by your good fortune and courage? You do exactly what you want to do. That’s what.
Creative Director and Co-Founder at Sydney studio Theo+Theo Clare Théophane is a great example of getting the mix right.
“I started the company with my husband James,” says Clare. “We’ve always had this dream to have our own company, and after we started a family it became apparent that we’d have to start our own company to maintain the type of work/life balance we were after.”
Clare and James both have backgrounds working in big agencies, locally and internationally. Clare worked in London for almost six years: two years as senior designer at Heavenly Group; and three-and-a-half years as design director at The Partners.
In 2011, after amassing some serious design clout, Clare and James moved from London to Sydney. There, Clare worked with Interbrand, Re|, and Futurebrand, and James had a gig as Group Creative & Innovation Director at Saatchi and Saatchi.
“We both come from different sides of the coin, I suppose, in terms of our creative background,” says Clare.
“I’m very much on the brand strategy, brand communication background. James has more of a digital innovation and advertising background. We’ve always thought if we could bring the two together it would be quite a powerful combination.”
It seems Clare was right; Theo+Theo are doing great things.
Theo+Theo is a future-focused brand innovation and design company with a focus on creating brands, products, and services toward positive social impact.
“We want to work with products and brands that make things better in the world,” explains Clare. “So, the power for us in having our own company is that we’re not obliged to work on any project that doesn’t fit well with us ethically, or socially.
“One of the things we are passionate about is working with new clients who share our worldview. So, some of those clients might be from the environmental, health, or social enterprises, but also a range of start-up ventures.”
But, starting a business is hard — said everyone, ever. How do you grow your client-base? How do you find your niche? Sigh. Let’s ask Clare.
“Because I’d been working in freelance roles, it wasn’t the same as if I’d been a design director at one of the big agencies and had a relationship with a lot of large clients and then hijacked them, so it just grew organically,” explains Clare. “And in a way, I started running the company myself — just not under the name Theo & Theo — I just picked up freelance work and then that grew organically.”
There came a time soon after when James and Clare said, ‘OK! Let’s take the plunge’. So, James quit his job and they gave the company a name: Theo+Theo. One of the earlier projects they worked on was the branding for a start-up festival called Spark Festival — in itself quite a small project, but thanks to the quality of work they delivered for Spark Festival, T+T brought themselves to the attention the community of start-up leaders and tech leaders and that industry recognition brought them into the view of a bunch of their early clients like Stone & Chalk.
“Our supporters helped to align us to that Fin Tech and start-up industries, which helped us because we felt we were that type of company ourselves, so it made sense to work for similar spirits,” says Clare. “They had a similar ethos within their companies to what we were trying to do.”
Theo+Theo want their design work to elicit a change in behaviour at the individual and community levels — working with people, or brands, or government departments that are doing something positive.
“For example: we’ve done quite a lot of government work to rebrand the NSW Environment Protection Authority (EPA) — the state’s leading environmental regulator — and a couple of their programs like Bin Trim, which is all about helping businesses learn how to reduce waste and affect the environment,” says Clare.
“Love Food, Hate Waste is another program brand which is about educating consumers and small businesses about reducing food waste to have an impact on landfill and the environment.”
“We’ve done a bunch of work for the Office of Environment & Heritage and their program brands: programs like Saving our Species, which is attempting to secure threatened species of NSW flora and fauna; and Heritage Near Me, which is a program that empowers NSW communities to protect, share, and celebrate their local heritage.”
Theo+Theo also do work in the financial sector — about which Clare suggests readers might ask the question, “what’s that got to do with positive social impact?”
We’re glad you asked.
“One of these financial-sector projects is with a start-up company called Rhizome, whose founders are ex-APRA,” begins Clare. “They’re a company that is all to do with providing consultancy for the big financial institutions. They come in and help the big banks, and companies like them, identify the cultural and behavioural problems which are causing some of the big issues coming out of the royal commission at the moment.”
“When we started our company we really wanted to just provide/create an environment that was different to the environments that we come from. We wanted to try to build a studio culture that felt like peers collaborating, rather than a top-down hierarchy.”
“We started this company with a vision of keeping it independent. We want to grow it to a certain size. We want to maintain our ability to do the kind of work we want to do. When an agency grows beyond a certain size, the reality of the pressures of profit generation forces you into making decisions based on where you can make the most money vs anything more idealistic.”
“Part of what we like about having a small company is the ability to do more experimental things. So, last year we were artists in residence at TEDx, which was quite a fun thing to do. Doing things for the experience rather than for the money is something we’d like to maintain the freedom to do. For example, the project we did with Brainchild Academy: we partnered with them to build a brand that was not a traditional sort of brand — it was a bit of an experiment in technology. It was all about creating the shortest distance between the brand and the experience in the classroom — for which we created the technology that the children would learn from. They learned about coding and technology by using the tech that we created, so it was very much a community engagement experience.”
In addition to her design work for Theo+Theo, Clare also works with AGDA, Billy Blue, and UTS providing folio reviews and mentoring for students and graduates, including D&AD New Blood tutoring.
“The AGDA involvement this year has been really rewarding,” says Clare. “It’s been really nice to be part of. It makes you feel like you’re at the centre of the community when you’re doing the AGDA council work, seeing all the designers from all the other agencies and meeting international speakers when they come in, I’ve really enjoyed it.”
Thanks for giving so much, Clare