Design as a way of life

A conversation with Yoke — a creative agency based in Bristol who believe that earning a living shouldn’t cost the earth

Last month I took the bus to Bristol to speak with Jay Bigford, one of the 2 co-founders of Yoke-a design agency specialising in communication, branding, visual design and moving image. Jay read my previous post Ethical Design? and left a comment which sparked a conversation between us. I was thrilled to be contacted by him and suggested meeting in person.

We met at their office in Spike Island – a co-working space for creative businesses near the centre of bristol. After having a quick tour of the office and meeting the rest of the team I began what was meant to be an interview but had turned into a fascinating conversation about design and purpose, ethics, clients and money.

Yoke’s office at Spike Design

Yoke was founded by Jay and Alister Wynn who have been friends for as long as they can remember. Both used to work in advertising and felt there is more to life and to their career than selling cars and trainers. They dreamed of having their own business doing what they truly love and believe in.

In 2010 Jay decided to go on a 1 year trip to India where he had the opportunity to take a step back and observe the western way of living from a new point of view. Travelling gave him the space to look at his own environment with clarity and perspective. When he returned, Yoke was founded.

Ethical Design

Looking through Yoke’s portfolio and reading their blog, one can immediately understand that this is not your typical design agency. The guys are describing Yoke as ‘A creative studio driven by purpose’ and I was curious to know what does the term ‘Ethical Design’ mean to them.

Jay mentioned he feels very uncomfortable using this term as it can mean many different things to different people. “As soon as you start judging organisations from an ethical level it becomes too difficult and confusing.”

“For us, ethical design means working hard alongside our beliefs.”

“It is important not only having the good intentions but also backing this up with great quality work. We believe that marrying our ethics and our work allows us to go the extra mile for our clients.”

The Perfect client

Realising how difficult it is to define what ethical design is I tried to get a better understanding of the kind of clients Yoke would want to work with.

Yoke founders have a passion for sustainability, energy and climate. “We love to tackle communicating complex and somewhat distant issues and making them accessible and of meaning to people. If you can relate to an issue you are one step closer to reacting and changing because of it.”

“We want to work with companies who are after a massive change and not just after small tweaks in the system. We want to work with organisations who believe that we passed the point of pretending everything is ok — It’s not ok, we need a change now!”

One example of Yoke’s perfect client is GENeco– a groundbreaking company turning everyday waste into useful products and services. “GENeco are thought leaders, progressive and they are really passionate and focused on what they do. They are also pushing the boundaries of recycling and renovating waste into a useable product- which is aligned with our beliefs”

Project by Yoke for GENeco Sustainable Solutions


Can you stick to what you believe in and still make a living?

Lately I’ve been hearing of many designers who feel like they have to take on design work that doesn’t align with their moral believes and sense of purpose, only because they fear they will be left jobless. I wanted to know whether it is possible to earn money while doing good?

“We felt that lowering our expectations on material goods enabled us to be more free financially. The fancy car and big house are expensive and a hungry beast to feed, but if you can avoid these traps then you gain a certain amount of freedom to choose a new direction to work in.”

Realising he doesn’t need a BMW and a huge house freed Jay to focus on what really matters to him- working with the right clients on the right project while charging fair fees.

Having previously worked for big agencies, both Jay and Alister knew how much they charge and what is the kind of work they deliver.

“We wanted to create industry leading quality work, but for companies who are trying to do good. We currently do great stuff for what we see as a reasonable amount of money- enough to sustain the business at least. Our main goal is to grow the business around what we are good at and what we enjoy doing, saying no to work that does not match this criteria can only help us strengthen our offering and get better at what we do.”

Did you ever say no to a client?

Over the years Yoke have had to turn down potential work due to a misalignment of views and beliefs. There is no right or wrong, and one area that poses many dilemmas for them is the food industry.

“We believe that the path to a sustainable and healthy food system is via local and small scale production. Obviously this will only work if people change their consumption habits as this would not prop up the current rate and range of consumption, especially in the west. We once had an awkward and difficult decision when we were approached by an large American company who make food and nutrition supplements. Although their objectives and aims were true, which were to improve peoples dietary health, it felt to us like a patch to cover a problem rather than a solution. We would prefer to work in promoting a more sustainable way of eating, rather than carrying on as normal and supplementing your diet. This is a grey area which we had to have a deeper look at and see whether we feel comfortable working with them. It could’ve been a profitable project but it just didn’t feel right in our guts — pardon the pun.”

Do you see a change happening in terms of sustainability and waste?

“It really depends on the sector. The food sector seems to be a in a difficult battle. When working with the Sustainable Food Trust in Bristol we experienced their struggle in trying to raise awareness around alternatives to big supermarkets and the industrialisation of food. It seems like the trend is going more and more towards mechanisation and industrialisation of food, as cost is the main motivational factor to consumers. It seems that most of the discussion is around propping up the status quo in regards to eating habits, rather than expecting consumers to make changes to their existing behaviour.

The True Cost of American Food • Project by Yoke for the Sustainable Food Trust

“Generally speaking, waste recycling is a different story, the industry as a whole has approached a tipping point. GENeco realised they could change their sales pitch from an ethical to a commercial one. Now, instead of saying you’re making a positive change and helping the world by recycling, but not being able to compete on cost with less sustainable options, they can promote the business benefits… It’s now cheaper to be green!

Just before I had to say goodbye, I asked Jay if he has any tips for someone who is starting their own design business.

5 tips for design businesses:

1. Decide what you want to be doing, what you are good at, and what you can do really well as a studio — and focus on that.

2. Say NO to work that might take you off your path and don’t get distracted by quick cash.

3. Have a clear idea of what kind of team you want to have and hire the right people based on that.

4. Listen to your own advice!

5. Read the book One Thing I Know– a collection of thought pieces by creative leaders.

As I left Spike Island and walked by the beautiful river I took some time to reflect on my conversation with Jay. I felt overwhelmed, inspired, and a bit envious of their courage, persistence and success.

I realised that we all have a responsibility to take care of our environment and society and Yoke is a live proof that it is possible. I feel incredibly lucky to have had the opportunity to meet and learn from people with such a positive and impactful approach and I hope that they got you inspired too.

View of Bristol near Yoke’s studio

Ethical Design?

2 months ago I was contacted by a renowned design consultancy looking to recruit designers for their new London offices. I was flattered and thrilled by the new opportunity and couldn’t wait to become a part of a company that declares that ‘We focus on three major themes that define our future: Future Citizens, Smarter Living, and Healthier Lives’. Reading this statement I was positive that the design work they are producing would be responsible and ethical.

Claiming to ‘shape our future through design’, I was surprised to find out that the agency’s main clients were financial institutions and a large oil company. I wondered whether the design agency actually believes that banks and energy companies should be those who shape our future and if sowhat kind of future would that be?!

Taking a short while to think about their offer, I realised it would’t adhere to my believes and ethical principles and so i decided not to take it. Refusing the offer instigated a serious of important questions I had to ask myself:

  • What is ethical design?
  • Who is practicing it?
  • Can I make a living out of it?

Ethics’, google says, is a ’moral principles that govern a person’s behaviour or the conducting of an activity’. I realised I needed to define for myself what are those moral principles that governs my behaviour. The more I think about this subject the more I realise how complicated this topic is. I realised that ethical questions are usually loaded with contradictions and dilemmas that needs to be explored, discussed, and sometime remain unanswered.

In an Essay by Marvin BartelEthical AestheticQuestions for the Designer’ he’s listing a few important questions for designers:

How do we reconcile individuality and conformity? How do we reconcile tradition and innovation? How do we reconcile needs to consume with needs to conserve? What is proper role of single use and multiple use space in our constructed environment? Should we use materials honestly? Can we leave a place better than we found it? Who cares and how is caring learned? How important is aesthetics compared to function?

Using these questions as food for thought, I wish to embark on a journey exploring what is ethical design?

Each week I will focus on one company, organisation or group and try to see whether the work that they produce is indeed ethical as it promises to be.

This week I decided to focus on a project called 25m2 of Syria, a real Syrian home replica inside IKEA’s flagship store in Norway. For this campaign, IKEA teamed up with Norwegian advertising agency POL and the Red Cross.

In a statement POL said: The iconic IKEA-posters and price tags told the story of how people live. Lacking food, medicines and access to clean water.
Caught in the crossfire of Syria’s civil war. But most importantly: On every little tag we let the public know just how they could help.

My initial thoughts about the campaign were very positiveIKEA decided to use the store space to promote awareness and raise money to a crisis that is happening in a different part of the world. Rather than seeing it and reading about it in the media, visitors got a close, tangible look at a real war-zone home.

Spending some time thinking about it and sharing it with close friends I began having second thoughts about the good intentions of the campaign. Does IKEA actually care about the life and wellbeing of the Syrian people or is it just using the crisis as a cynical publicity stunt? After all, IKEA hired a marketing company to produce this installation. The immense difference between the bare concrete Syrian home and the shiny IKEA displays feels almost uncomfortable- making the divide between ‘their’ world and ‘ours’ almost impossible to bridge.

The main 3 concerns the campaign brings to my mind are:

1. Normalisation of crisis– is by placing a Syrian house in the middle of ‘clinical’ IKEA we are actually turning the war, pain and suffering into something normal? Something we shouldn’t be shocked by?

2. Harmful call to actionthe main call to action of the installation is to donate money to the red cross. Donating money is very important, especially for organisation like the red cross however, I’m wondering whether we shouldn’t also be encouraged to take more proactive action? Understand why this crisis started in the first place? Who is in charge of resolving it? How can we make sure something similar doesn’t happen again?

3. Mass media itemI’m wondering whether the campaign and it’s coverage in the media encourages healthy conversation around the topic or whether it is just turning it into ‘another click bate’ in our feed?

To summarise, I think this campaign is very creative and it will be wrong to label it ‘Unethical’ however, it is important to question campaigns coming from huge corporations. We must ask ourselves: what is their real purpose and motive, who is benefiting from it, and what is the social impact it has on the public?

I would love to hear your thoughts about the topic in the comments!