“There are unique moments that tend to form with a lot of collisions. You need to create a situation where that is likely to happen.”—Simon Taylor
Simon Taylor: Managing Partner, Tomato / London ENG
“there are unique moments that tend to form with a lot of collisions. you need to create a situation where that is likely to happen.”—simon taylor
What makes the Tomato process unique?
We have been together for 23 years, and we still have a lot of the original people. It’s not a very big group anyway. The collaborative process is all about having a conversation. We were set up to be an ongoing conversation for as long as we could maintain that. In a way, that probably best describes how we go about doing what we do. The conversation surrounds all of the projects that we do, and it develops. We are interested in exploring, looking, and searching for new expressions. One of the key things for us is we completely dropped hierarchy. We have quite a wide age range. It was unique because you don’t know how the situation will evolve, due to the lack of hierarchy and the different age ranges, and therefore different experiences. It became a very fertile ground because of that.
How are the teams put together for each project?
Tomato has promoted the idea that everybody should try everything. There are certain skills that certain people have that might be very relevant for certain projects. We want people to learn stuff as they are doing it. We are also concerned with how people’s skill sets overlap with each other, and we develop that working relationship. It is quite practical in that respect.
When I say, “skill sets,” I am speaking generally. There are specific skills, like an ability to draw or an ability to use programs, but there is an emotional context to that as well. Certain people communicate in a special way that might be required for certain types of clients. It doesn’t discount anyone ever, but if somebody has a particular skill and we see that it is necessary for a piece, they are really encouraged to get involved with that project. They usually want to get involved with it, because it’s good to exercise and develop those skills.
How does the Tomato space influence the design process?
We have always made a point of maintaining an open-plan office, so there really isn’t anywhere else to go. At one point, we had a really big office with five floors, so it was divided up. But now, we can basically work together in the same the room. That is useful because everybody knows what everyone else is doing, which feeds into what other people are thinking about. It allows communication to be very direct and instantaneous. We do email, but it is more of a face-to-face atmosphere.
courtesy of tomato
Everybody has a space. We tried the holes; it was a bit trendy for a while, going back a decade. It’s okay, but it is nice to know that you have your stuff around you. I’m a bit of a minimalist. I think it’s good to be attached to your area, but those areas overlap. We have these really big, long desks up against windows, and we can look out over the street. We all basically work in stations when we are doing computer-based stuff. Then we have a huge cutting table, which is adjacent to those desks. It works very much on that open level.
Do people develop concepts independently or within the group?
It really depends on the project. We did a big sculpture recently for the Olympic Park in London. The two people who worked on that, thought about it independently, pulled their ideas together, colluded on that, went away, developed some more, came back together, and then spent the next 12 months working closely on everything. I think that’s a natural flow. You can’t be sitting in each other’s pockets all of the time. You want to share what you are making and developing. It is important to get that balance right. People have to feel a certain amount of freedom to be able to do what they want to do.
You are going to have ideas coming to the fore in your mind, but you have to decide whether to share them or not. Ideas do come in collaboration, definitely, but I think you have to have a fairly fertile individual mind to make those things happen. That’s a crucial point to make in a successful collaborative team: the group is the main focus, but the individuals are allowed to have their own identity at the same time. I have seen a lot of groups fall down because they don’t really understand that. Ego plays a part; it is very important to recognize that and work with it. It is important because it can be a very destructive thing. Collaboration has to take on board these huge emotional issues. It’s not like you put your tools down at the end of the day and it’s done. You tend to carry it around with you, and it is important that everybody recognizes that.
Chalkboard Installation Provoking Interaction from Visitors
courtesy of tomato
Chalkboard Installation Provoking Interaction from Visitors
un movil en la patera, eacc, spain
courtesy of tomato
How does the team go about compiling work?
We’re not that prescriptive about it. We’ve never really done the show and tell thing. We offer it up when there is an opportune moment. When you’re working on a contractual commercial project, there are deadlines, so we make sure we reach keystone points. But when we are doing a project that is more personal without clients involved, it has a different pace and lifespan, and a different way of breathing. It’s quite a bit like music actually. It’s difficult to be that prescriptive of music, in my mind anyway. On the other hand, if we look at film work, which we have done a lot of, there is a necessity in certain points of that process to be very direct about what we need to achieve. That could be less of a solitary moment. That is more of a A to B to C schedule. Not always, but it has that factor, because you have a crew and they need to know what to do.
Are there certain mediums that you gravitate toward?
There are commercial projects that are fundamentally about an idea rather than a form of communication. The best way to do that is to sort out what the permutations might be, and what it might allow the audience to participate in. It’s quite possible that something might transcend its own purpose, and I think that is really interesting. It’s worth going at it as hard as you can to make it happen. These things are quite rare, but it can sometimes happen with commercials, or music, or even with things that you wouldn’t expect it to happen in, like exhibitions, where they are supposed be incredibly tight and not that free.
We did a job recently, for example, where we were asked to rebrand Okinawa, the archipelago south of Japan. What was really interesting, was that when we got there and met with everybody, they were asking us to help them define who they were, not just to the outside world, but who they were to themselves. It became a socially interesting project, and that got us really excited. It changed how we approached it. That made it an honest bit of communication, or an honest appraisal of the place and what it offered. Jumps like that put people on a different level.
What makes someone a good Tomato person?
We’re looking for inquisitive minds. You need to talk to people. We are interested in those things. It’s messy. We look for people with really great portfolios, and we hire those people to do what they do. Aesthetics can be developed. This idea of being inquisitive is something that has to come from inside somebody.
How would you describe the way clients see your work as a studio?
The best clients are the ones that sit down with us when we say, “Would you like to look at the brief again with us?” If they are receptive to that, it’s a good sign that they will be fun to play with. We definitely get a lot of people that come to us because they’ve seen or heard about Tomato, and they think that we would be fun to work with. Those are one-off situations because they want our experience; they want us to do our thing. They come to us for our process.
queen elizabeth olympic park
courtesy of tomato
It falls into one of three camps. One, you can actively go out and try to get a client. Another is when the clients just drop in. Then there are the ones that you meet in interesting situations. They are also looking for something, but they are not quite sure what it is, and they are open to more conversation. I have found that, over the past decade or so, clients expect to see the finished result before you even start it, which is slightly irritating. We don’t really like to be feeding ourselves; there’s not any point in doing that, other than for profit and money. But more and more, clients want exactly that, which isn’t great. But it’s the nature of the culture because of the way that we read information so easily in the media. We are used to seeing final results in an instant and it wasn’t always like that before. A client used to have to go to the library and search books, so they would have to have help in that process. But now, nobody has to do that. There is an expectation now to not ask for help. It’s a bit awkward, from a creative point of view.
When that happens, do you find yourselves trying to teach people about the process?
In one respect that can be quite helpful, because they know what they want. What’s a little bit difficult with that approach, is if you leap off too far, they want you to go back to the thing that you originally showed them. You have to be a little bit careful with that. I think it depends on the client, and if they are receptive to having a conversation, which is “let’s try and find what you really want and not what you see.” We try not to do that, because it’s no fun when you are competing with yourself, and it becomes a dead end.
Do the people within the organization have highly interdisciplinary skill sets?
Yeah, I think that’s important. It goes back to the interest in what we do. I think that people who specialize are fantastic in their application of what they do. It’s essential to what we do. We need to work with specialists that do one thing. For example, going back to film, if you want to work with the medium that has a particular way of using light, then that’s what you get. You choose to work with that for that reason. On the other hand, if you have someone who wants to work with one of us, we are going to take them somewhere different with that medium than what would be normal. It’s a hand-in-hand thing.
I think the people who are on our team are really inquisitive, which means they want to try out a lot of different things. That might include designing a bicycle, but what’s the personality and story behind the bicycle? Who is riding it? What does he mean in the world? What is it going to contribute to that culture of bike-riding? I don’t think it’s about distilling it; I think it is more about making it engaging and enigmatic. It should stand for something and it should be accessible. You need a balance between those two.
Do you bring clients into the studio?
People come in. We recently had a bunch of Japanese clients come all the way over from Japan and they came to our studio and sat down on a bunch of fatigued seats and stools. They had a cup of tea while our dog was running around interrupting them and wanting to play with them. I think it is important that clients see where and how designers work in the raw, so that they know what they are going to get to some extent. When the clients go away, they can imagine the designers and what they are doing. It’s nice when clients come in. They get to know us and see what we are all about. We don’t have a reception area or anything like that; we just open the doors and let them come in.
It’s beneficial for them to see us working in our space. Sometimes, you can even lose your job, if you’re not what they were wanting or expecting. You have to be careful with that, but I would rather let them know what they are getting into, than take them to a nice dinner. I don’t really want to do that. We are fairly open about how we work, and a lot of people seem to enjoy that as well. They don’t live in that world themselves or work in that way themselves, so they are often times open to what other people do.
What do they see in the studio?
It is a bit like a home. I think people get the idea that it is very communicative, and quite a relaxed world. That helps things happen and helps people make things that come to the fore. People get the sense of that when they come here.
How does your informal studio influence your collaborative process?
I’ve worked in very formal offices with notebooks around, but no energy, and that were devoid of any kind of positive cultural influence. It’s very difficult to feel comfortable in those kinds of spaces. It’s difficult to allow yourself to breathe. I’ve seen what the differences do. Sometimes, that occurs in ad agencies. They are designed to be like that. They are more like machines for making a certain type of product. I guess they do it very well.
What is the “cultural influence” that you are after?
What you need around you to maintain a fluid, ongoing thought process is a lot of positive influences that can take you somewhere or that collides with what you are thinking about. That seems to be how ideas come to the fore. There are unique moments that tend to form with a lot of collisions. You need to create a situation where that is likely to happen. We want that to happen, which is why we go for walks sometimes. The environment gets in the way. Books are an example of that. Films, music, looking at something else for a while—it’s like keeping a time machine.
It is a collision of things that helps you understand the work. That can happen very quickly or it can take forever. A funny situation happened recently when someone asked me to sit down in a café with them and come up with an idea. We were there for about two hours and didn’t get anywhere. I was beginning to think it was really stale, and I wasn’t really sure what was going on. Then suddenly, this idea came up, and later I realized it had been a combination of everything that we had been talking about for two hours. It just took that long to come together. It just happened in that moment.
We had been talking about thinking and making, and making and thinking. In other words, the process of coming up with something is done by thinking about what you’re going to do and then doing it. But it is also about doing something that makes you think about it. There is problem finding and problem solving. There’s also a joy in doing it. That’s important too, and that is a process.
commissioned by cosmetics company, shiseido
an audio-visual installation for their ginza gallery space in tokyo
courtesy of tomato
Can you give an example of that in a project?
Yes. We were asked to do a poster for an exhibition for Vimeo. We set ourselves the challenge of only using knives, or the act of cutting with knives, to make the poster. We had no idea what it would look like in the end. First of all, we had to learn how to use the knives because it wasn’t something that we were used to doing in that particular way. Secondly, we then had to take that new approach and make it into something that we could use as the image. We managed to create the image, which came out really nicely; looking back on it, it’s very controlled and clean. But it was quite chaotic in the way that we went about doing it. The good thing was that we were all new to it, and we had no idea what we were doing.
The clients know that they will get something, even though they are not exactly sure what they are going to get. They always get something good. They always get hard work. If you are a client and you have a deadline, you have to worry about the idea. But in my mind, it’s the only way to make a piece that nobody else would do. It’s a transitional piece of work that is going to speak about itself beyond just being another TV spot, or print ad, or logo, or whatever it is. That leap into the unknown is interesting for them, and us too, of course.