In the first of our interviews discussing the motivation and ideas behind new agencies, we speak to Mohamed Rahouma and Shamil Chauhan from Backpack Studios based in the North-West. They graduated from the Birmingham School of Architecture in 2014.
Studio Name: Backpack Studio
Interview Date: 22 May 2015
Location: BCU Parkside
Alessandro Columbano: Please describe your studio or company as a succinct statement:
Mohamed Rahouma: Backpack Studio provides graphic design or interior design services for new and existing companies, giving them a start-up feel to the work and that they are working with youth. That is our main target but we are not neglecting existing companies. We have partnered up with a photographer who has converted his studio into a design agency and we work with all his clients whilst we look to work with other new start-ups elsewhere.
Your Studio in numbers:
Date started: The idea was conceived in November 2014, but we officially started on paper in January 2015
Staff: 2 full time. We do have another friend who helps us out but he is currently studying for an MA at the moment.
Projects to date: We are working on 3 projects currently. Possibly 2 more. Completed – we have done 7. We have just completed one recently in a Manchester apartment block, working on the graphic artwork at the bottom of the foyer area and taking this brand to other apartment blocks the client has.
Location of office: Hale, Chesire.
Project locations: Greater Manchester mainly and then there have been 2 in London. With possibly 2 more in Birmingham.
Project typologies/sector: They are mainly private clients but a couple have been community based.
What were your motivations in setting up a new company?
Shamil Chauhan: for me it was the freedom of allowing me to expand on my own creativity – there were no limits and knowing that I could get my thought process out there to use them in a positive way.
MR: personally, at university level, I had my own way of doing things. I liked the way that I was in charge of doing things myself. Working in practice, [once graduated] I felt like I was fixing other people’s work.
What previous experience did you draw on to help set up the company?
SC: We always thought we wanted to run a studio one day but we didn’t know what we wanted to do at the time. My uncle is a graphic designer and ran his own place in Leicester. So after I had started to work for architecture firms, I went over to see him.
MR: There was myself, Shamil, Anoovab and Dhanesh always joking we should start our own firm.
SC: When you see it happening in practice – in real life – it gives you a bit more confidence to try it out yourself.
MR: Throughout the third year, we were always looking out for each other’s work, helping each other to try give ideas on how to do a particular renders for example.
SC: I think that was one of the biggest influences. That we had already worked together – we knew how we operated on design projects. I think it was the communication skills that we gained most from the university experience
What previous experience did you draw on to help develop the business of your company?
MR: Not much to be completely honest! It was literally ‘we took the risk to start it up’. One of the things we did early on was to walk around to ask for jobs. That is how we got our place in the photography studio (in Hale). He has now become a mentor to us for our business.
Do you think that mentoring opportunity, has cemented your process in any way?
SC: It made us look at things in a different way.
MR: it accelerated the process. We were working from our bedrooms at first. The first time we met him, he told us we’ve got to be out there speaking to people….
SC: and how we would approach our clients in a meeting, setting out the right questions that you have to ask, and how you would approach that kind of person.
MR: We just jumped into it. You know, we had only just graduated and our course is not the kind of course that gives you any of these kind of thing cos you are too busy trying to get the final project done.
Would you say you have always had an entrepreneurial or enterprising character?
MR: I think it is down to the ability to communicate really. To talk to people who you know/who you don’t. If you speak to them at least you know if they can help. It’s because of the number of different people we’ve spoken to that has got us here. But we are still starting….
What skills did you learn and what attributes do you think you have developed whilst undertaking your studies at a school of architecture?
SC: I think work ethic and work rate. That has really shaped us. Even if we were to stay or not to stay [in architecture], it really gave us the discipline to make sure you did everything to the best of your ability.
But any other skill specifically?
MR: Yeah presentation skills. When I started in first year I was always nervous presenting. By the time I got to third year, it was getting less and less.
SC: and learning about feedback. Taking criticism and how we can develop beyond that. Learning what it was for.
MR: I do think the idea of independence is what was vital. Up until college you don’t have that. But here, the learning is a more open collaboration in learning with your tutors.
Do you feel there were certain events, encounters or serendipitous moments that sparked your motivation or confidence in setting up a new company and carrying out your work?
SC: We started talking about this in March with our friends. It wasn’t taken seriously then but it was that time of the year when we just wanted to get out of it. It wasn’t until some freelance opportunity came up whilst we were working. We had difficult experiences whilst working that made us really think that we shared a common view of what we wanted to do independently and how to do it in our own way.
What have you learnt as a result of the process you have gone through since setting up the studio – both in terms of design, collaboration, and management?
SC: With design, I think it is about ways of thinking. We may have touched on it in university, but when we are dealing with a client you have to adapt yourself to their way of thinking. Whatever their message is, you have to show that in your design so it has to be relatable to them.
MR: Yeah I agree with that. Another thing is going through iterations, iterations of how this could do that etc. This is something that I had never experienced before. I did sciences at college so I had no idea about this process, In terms of going through a design I had to learn that here. One thing that I would say in architecture, that in real life, it’s a long process and a lot of iterations. That’s one of the reasons we go towards more of the graphic design work where we know we are in charge with faster turnarounds.
SC: That comes with management as well though. We’ve learnt how to deal with those kind of situations – its getting that balance right when to do a bit extra work or when a client is asking a bit too much from you.
MR: One of the tricky things we are still learning about is how long some things are going to take if we do it the best we can? But how can we limit it down to what the client wants compared to how much they are paying for? There are a lot of variables to it as well – even for a small task – so we just need to learn about it through more experience I guess.
Describe your studio activity in detail, expanding on the particular design process and principles you employ, and how you collaborate alongside various stakeholders in a project.
SC: Before any design work starts, we normally try to set a meeting with the client for, not just about the business, but to set a brief about themselves. Trying to find out about them but with a little personality as well. That is quite important.
MR: We want to know about what is their aim, what is their objective, what do they want to get across. Talking about a previous experience, at first we just worked on a design based on what we knew – but now we try to build up a picture with them. We’ll go back to them with a few ideas, narrow down the options and then fully experiment with those ones. These are the iterations we go though before making final edits for the client.
What is it about the start-up that you like to work with so much?
MR: They always have an open mind. They care a lot about what they are trying to do. We like dealing with people like that and the energy they put in. We want to give them a great thing so they are proud of the work we do for them. As they grow we grow with them. As a business model, that is what we will build on and reflect on our own company.
Being start-ups ourselves, at the moment, we’re realizing how hard it is so we can help them – we’ve been through it too.
Anything else specific to the nature of your working practices?
MR: We’ve produced two documents for clients. One of them shows the process we will go through with them and the other one shows all the different types of logo designs we can do for them, for example: an emblem, or a name type etc.
SC: It keeps them comfortable, keeps them involved and makes them think that these guys [Backpack Studio] know what they are doing.
Look ahead now, what are the future prospects and ambitions for your studio?
MR: What we really want is to have three main sections to our business; identity creation, online presence and physical presence – to make sure a brand and identity comes across in the environment that you want to create. Personally, we don’t want to just stay in this country but to do work abroad.
In terms of spacejam (www.Spacejamsociety.com) which is a key thing to our studio, it enhances our profile. We want to involve students more. We felt that was missing when we came out of university, we felt our portfolio wasn’t strong enough. The work at university was good but reali life projects weren’t there. People need them in their portfolio. We want to work on live projects so they can use them for their experience.
What is it about the portfolio that you felt you didn’t have?
MR: It feels like it was just your final year project. There was no other experience outside of university. Some students don’t get the chance to gain work experience – this should be involved at university level a lot more.
SC: Aside from the work, we found out from the interviews we had, is that employers want to know who you are as a person first and foremost. They know a lot of students can produce stunning visuals but unless you don’t fit into the character of the office, then it is more difficult to be accepted. That is achieved through more experience in part. University can definitely help in that aspect.
Finally, What is the shape of a future design agency?
I think its what we described – for us its about working with students more. Giving people opportunity from the start. What the SpaceJam events show is that it provides them with chances to make connections, those additional skills for the companies that they then apply to. It’s about having the network, having the portfolio, having the confidence. The network will grow by knowing people and making more connections. SpaceJams have that. We want it to get to a stage where we are opening a number of events and the students can start running them themselves to build their own society.
See our previous blog post on the first Space Jam they did with us here: