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Inside the Studio: Robot Food

by Theresa Christine Johnson on 10/23/2017 | 8 Minute Read

If you’re no stranger to The Dieline, then you’re no stranger to the edgy, bold work of Robot Food. The branding and packaging design agency has developed a portfolio of designs that are anything but typical, from the energetic look of Vocation Brewery to the cheeky Naughty But Rice (not to mention heaps of other projects). Robot Food’s designs stand out while still pulsing true to the heartbeat of a brand—and just as you might expect from a studio that consistently delivers energetic, unique, and kickass designs, the team is equally as cool.

Marshalls Mill, home to Robot Food, is a refurbished mill located in an industrial part of Holbeck, an inner city area of Leeds. In the past ten years, the neighborhood has undergone a significant amount of urban regeneration which, in turn, contributes to the innovative energy of the agency itself.

“Being in Leeds has shaped Robot Food,” admitted Simon Forster, Founder and Executive Creative Director who started the company back in 2009. “Leeds is the UK’s 3rd largest city and is experiencing phenomenal growth at the moment. It’s become the second financial district to London and has also grown as a creative and digital hub.” The city is an inspiring place to be, he added—you don’t have to look far to find people passionate about design, art, craft, and music.

The Marshalls Mill building itself is a prime example. There, other designers as well as architects, artists, filmmakers, game developers, and manufacturers have set up shop. It has opened up the chance for Robot Food to work together with them on projects, creating a dynamic vibe.

Two years ago, Robot Food was located in the same warehouse, but they only took up a portion of the room which was then blocked off by a wall. When they decided to knock it down, it wasn’t simply for more room to grow—it also gave Simon a say in the overall look and feel of the place rather than keeping them confined to a predetermined layout. The result is airy and well-lit, complete with a second meeting room, a communal kitchen (described as a “Game of Thrones style spot where everyone gets together”), and a corner for in-house photography and portfolio work.

For the team, it feels less like walking into the office for the day and more like going home, and the studio setup nurtures a creative, highly collaborative environment. With plenty of open space, people naturally talk with each other and bounce ideas back and forth. Everyone is encouraged to take part—ideas get heard with welcomed enthusiasm, whether they come from the most senior employee to the intern who started just last week. “We don’t try to pigeonhole anyone,” Martin Widdowfield, Creative Director, said. “We encourage anyone in the room that they can have input in the concepts and ideas that are created.”

Meeting over Skype with Simon, Martin, and Robot Food’s Design Director MJ, the team showed me every detail of their studio, walking a laptop around to introduce me personally to each and every employee. While the building and office certainly generate a particular energy, it’s clear that here, the people truly make the place. Touring Robot Food HQ feels less like wandering through a workspace and more like hanging out with friends at your local bar. Instantly, you feel welcomed by people who are genuinely excited to meet you and who possess a deep passion for the work they do.

And it makes sense. Robot Food prioritizes the people, not only as individuals but as a whole. The agency prides itself in doing as many things as possible as a group, so there’s simply not room for an incredibly talented person who has no desire to be a team player. Their process involves everyone pitching in to voice ideas, and that means everyone also has to feel comfortable enough to challenge those ideas. After all, this push and pull can transform a good design into something great, something noteworthy, something memorable. That’s why, as Martin explained, “A key part of the business is to make sure everyone gels well together.”

To keep their work current, Simon believes in keeping an openness to working with more junior creatives. In fact, he credits this with keeping Robot Food modern and giving them a constantly fresh perspective in their work. By operating in groups and pairing a senior designer with someone who may have started that very day, they avoid reusing the same old ideas time and time again.

Also, unlike other agencies who desire a Jack-of-all-trades when searching a new employee, Robot Food doesn’t shy away from candidates who have specialized skills. “We play to people’s strengths,” Simon explained. “If someone has a narrow skillset but they’re really fucking good at what they do, then we’ll take them on.”

This was exactly what happened with MJ, who joined Robot Food with no major brand or packaging experience in his portfolio at the time. But rather than viewing it as an obstacle, Simon saw it as an opportunity to apply that particular style to the commercial world in order to make something different. “A lot of work coming out of agencies is the same—they pick the safest possible option,” Simon added. “That’s not us.”

The expanded office is proof that Robot Food is growing, but they actually don’t desire to become a huge agency. “For us it’s about getting better, not bigger, so we don’t do volume roll-out or work to guidelines set by other agencies,” said Simon. “We focus on truly creative projects where we can really add value and make an impact.” Just as Robot Food values how their entire agency works together, they don’t sign on for every opportunity that comes their way. “It’s important to believe in the client team, their business opportunity, and the possible outcome.” By staying selective about who they work with, they can continue to find the projects that excite them and produce amazing results, whether it’s for a start-up or a global brand.

And while their work is certainly anything but ordinary, Robot Food knows that design is more than just creating something Instagram-worthy. “Don’t take us at face value. Yes, we like to push the norm and create bold, progressive work for people who want to do cool stuff—but it’s not just about what looks cool,” Simon explained. “For us it’s about getting under the skin of the target market and creating robust brands that have the kind of traction to completely change the game for a company. That’s what truly disruptive design does and that’s what delivers for the brands we work with.”

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