Interview
April 10, 2018
Customer experience

Fraser
Davidson

Design Clash & Cub

We've got some amazing news — we spoke with Fraser Davidson, co-founder of Cub Studio (I bet you’ve seen their amazing animation works). We found out how to start your studio if you are dreaming about it, how to measure design, the importance of popularity (or not?) and something more.

Here we go!

Fraser Davidson has nearly a decade of experience in the animation industry, having worked at Mainframe for 6 years before setting up the Sweet Crude collective.

He has won numerous awards for his animations and has worked with some of the worlds biggest brands.

His work with comedians on various projects has gained a great deal of acclaim and several million YouTube views. He is yet to decide how to spend these.

«Design» in 1 phrase

I guess generally speaking within what I do — «Design is the considered approach to aesthetics to communicate a message best».

Feedback + Critique

Well, It depends on the feedback itself. I think it's increasingly hard to find genuinely helpful criticism online. People tend to judge others work by reputation as much as actual quality, so I tend to distrust any web-based feedback.

If I’m soliciting opinion, I have a small group of people whose advice I trust and value and will normally approach first

Client feedback can, at times, feel a little arbitrary or affected by the internal dynamics of a project. With experience, you learn how to interpret the various motivations of clients, as well as intuit what underlying concern a particular amend might be getting at. Although you are permanently employed based on your taste and design sensibility, it's essential to have a process that incorporates and continually refers back to the overarching visual aims of the client.

Popularity

Social media, though a hugely valuable marketing tool, isn't a meritocracy, so its vital to not feel like recognition and the quality of your work are too tightly correlated. The algorithms that generate followers tend to favor already established designers, so there is a bit of a 'pyramid scheme' effect. Early adopters do better.

There is no denying that popularity often helps bring attention from potential employers and clients, so a following is indeed something we have always cultivated. Nothing is wasted, and many of our tests and odds and ends from the cutting room floor often end up on our Instagram feed. I think people like to peek behind the curtain and we are keen to share.

Is high appreciation of your works by professional design community important to you?

It’s nice, but it's important to remember they aren’t the ultimate audience for the majority of your work. We have the staff to pay, so project flow and budgets are always of most importance to us.

I get more satisfaction when someone who isn't as au fait with animation or is from a non-design related industry says that our work speaks to them

Obviously, we would all like our work to be respected by our peers, though.

How to measure Design?

Likes and followers = just marketing indicators? What indicators are true ones, how clients should define designer's level and skills?

As I said, it’s not that they aren’t indicators, Its that they aren’t an objective measure, nor are there any in a subjective field like design.

It depends on the client and what their preferences are. Regarding your value to a client, the main issue is the extent to which they trust you to do a good job and in turn the return business you generate from them.

So what is an objective measure of design level and quality — client's KPIs and sales numbers, designer's approach, creation methodology?

All above my pay grade to be honest. I guess sales are as objective an indicator as you are likely to find, but as you say, analysis of those numbers and the associated strategizing occurs before our involvement.

We respond to a brief as best we can, but our methodology and the heuristics we use are naturally biased. You play to your strengths while trying to give your client the best work possible. I think if we are honest if you're a hammer, most problems look like a nail.

I think the question is valid, but I think for designers like myself, it's customarily been asked and answered by the time I become involved.

Trends

I think we try to maintain our aesthetic take on everything, but there's no question a lot of character design influences us.

Often clients bring with them a lot of contemporary reference they like for a project, so that needs to be considered in the design process

Much of our style is brought about by new technology and the current plugins we have available for AE. These, as much as anything dictates the complexity and style of the work, we can produce.

Cub Studio

Cub is a boutique London animation studio. We create characterful, fun and engaging animation for global brands. From sporting institutions, social networks and banks to start-ups and everyone in between.

What is the most difficult in studio management?

  • Time management is hardest, whether it be people, clients, project deadlines. Timelines constantly slip, and it's important to address each slip and let clients know there is always a knock-on effect on the project.
  • That sort of constant communication and management of expectations didn’t come naturally as a freelancer. It took a lot of awkward experience to get to a stage where it no longer keeps me up at night. Ben, our MD now takes control of a lot of the direct dealings with clients, which also makes things easier.
  • It's certainly the issue that makes it hardest to work with unknown freelance animators. A person's reliability is as outstanding as their skill level.

Did you have issues with sales after you've started an agency?

We have been fortunate and have managed to balance this reasonably well.

With that said, there is absolute randomness to the flow of jobs and randomness is ‘clumpy.' It’s hard not to read too much into either a glut or shortage of work, though it often has very little to do with what you are doing to bring it in.

The boring answer is to try to develop lasting relationships by being reliable on all fronts. More than anything clients want to trust you can deliver and we have found a steady accretion of work off the back of productive relationships.

Other than that, we don't engage in a massive amount of active ‘sales’ work. We try to create in-house projects (Trump Facts and A Guide to American Football are good examples) that generate interest from potential clients.

How to start own Studio?

It's essential that you know what you want out of a studio. It's easy to take on staff because you start to find you are always over capacity with work. It can feel like a natural progression.

But managing this process will necessarily take time away from what you are doing and the more staff you have, the higher the proportion of your time that will be taken up managing others.

All but a tiny proportion of designers are in the field because they love the design

To maintain your ability to keep designing, you need to structure your growth in a way that allows this to happen.

In the case of Cub, Ben — the other partner is not a designer and deals with all management, production and HR issues. While this is extremely useful for me, it still necessitates that we grow to a size that can support full-time staff who aren’t designing.

Mostly it's a balancing act, and it's crucial to know what you want out of such a setup.

Design Clash

Are there any "creative disputes" in Cub while you produce new project?

A little bit, but if you're a creative director, you ultimately have final say. The company, being young was built on my work, so there is a slight expectation from clients that our style will have some of my looks and feel.

Despite that, I want to be surprised by our designers. I want to see solutions or ideas I wouldn't have thought of, but I guess my ideas act the final fail-safe.

Are there any "creative disputes" with clients?

Of course. I tend to find the best way to approach creative differences is to return to the brief and bring the conversation back to communication.

It's hard to argue for X stylistic point based on aesthetics alone. It doesn’t wash if a client is particularly entrenched. It’s always been most useful to say from a position of the ‘bright, colorful impact of a shot’ or strong ‘color branded message’ rather than ‘I prefer this particular purple' (as a very simplistic example).

That point can be conveyed by a producer on the client's side far better than a nuanced preference and can't as easily be dismissed. It's partly our job to make sure the client makes right decisions for their brand. We should be convincing with our opinions, and they should feel comfortable trusting us. If they don't and make (in our judgment) poor decisions, its a failure on our part.

Professional Fear

The usual stuff, I reckon — becoming irrelevant, failing to draw work and I suppose, finding that I don’t enjoy it anymore. At the moment we seem to be going well, we try hard to create work off our own bat that's original and fun.

That's always been the driving force within the business, so if we can maintain that side of things, continue to create great working partnerships with clients and work hard, hopefully, we can avoid any pitfalls.

Learning Design

Usually as and when the opportunity presents itself. Either for a particular aspect of a project or because something peaks our interest.

As an example, we have recently created a product for our clients that allows them to develop bespoke, data-driven visuals for social media. These are all rendered in the cloud and required quite a bit of new tech to establish.

While difficult to find the time, its been hugely beneficial personally and for the company to develop Moshare.

5 Designers

Grant Orchard
Master of simple design with characterful movement.
Joe Bosack
Friend of mine and designer of dozens of the logos of your favourite sports team. Again, someone who is able to do a lot with an economical amount of shapes and colours.
Aaron Draplin, Hey Studio, DKNG
In the same vein, I am a fan of these print designers for their bold and simple design.

Tools

We use After Effects and Cinema 4D to create 95% of all our output. A few of the better plugins we use are DuIK, Joysticks and Sliders, Limber and the like. These are mostly designed for character animation.