Abbas Mushtaq, Sam Lane and Sebastian Needler met at Leeds Arts University whilst studying BA (Hons) Graphic Design. After graduating they co-founded branding agency Alphabet in Leeds in 2016, and then relocated to Manchester in 2018. Their clients include JD Sports, CEV Volleyball, and global tech giants OnePlus.

Here’s what Abbas, Sam and Sebastian had to say: 

What do you remember about your time at University?

Seb - 'I think my favourite element of studying at university was the studio atmosphere. I feel we all inspired each other and drove each other forward. Going into the studio never felt forced, and it was somewhere that I think we all knew was the best place to be to have fun and be creative. My favourite experience would probably be the final year, as it was predominantly self-driven and I loved the freedom to do projects about topics I was passionate about.' 

What made you decide to take the leap and set up your own business after graduating, were there challenges along the way? 

Abbas - 'We all got on pretty well on our course, and collaborated on a few projects together in our final year, so I think we all in the back of our minds felt we could potentially start a studio together. We all went on to work in the industry, with Sam and Seb working at larger agencies in Liverpool and Leeds. I went down more of a freelance route. We managed to pick up a few solid clients, and when the University with Duke Studios was offering 6-months rent free space for start-ups we took the leap.

Starting a studio takes patience, and one of the major challenges is obviously getting work in and creating good contacts. For this reason, I feel getting industry experience before jumping in was crucial, as initially we managed to get more frequent work through contacts we made from freelancing and working in the industry. I also think reducing our overheads for the first 6 months or so was huge, so I would recommend to maybe work remotely, in co-working spaces or even a coffee shop to being with, until you can take the leap. Reduce all the costs you possibly can whilst your business is vulnerable in the first year or so. 

A major turning point for us was when we helped to brand and create the concept for Extrajet, a business venture for a new Leeds-based airline. It was our first ‘big’ project as a studio, in terms of deliverables as well as pay, and it started to get us noticed, bringing in clients within the UK and also internationally.'

image: extrajet courtesy of Alphabet. 

Image: The Confédération Européenne de Volleyball (CEV) courtesy of Alphabet. 

What does a typical day look like for you?  

Sam - 'I think our inspiration is different for every brief. What’s great about our job is that we get to learn so much about all sorts of different topics and specialisms as we’re always working with different clients from all walks of life. Each client that we work with has a very specific brand or product that we need to learn about in great detail in order to help them achieve greater success. Our process usually involves lots of conversations, meetings and workshops with our clients in order to really understand their beliefs, values, ethos and what makes their product unique and different to everything else on the market. We get to jump into a whole different world for every brief and we end up learning lots of interesting things about all sorts of things, such as Dog Food, Smart Phones or Mattresses to reference some of our current projects.

A typical day will vary depending on our calendar but we always like to have regular team meetings, usually at the start of a week, to go through the schedule and we always like to keep a strict time limit in the mornings for admin and emails so that we can block out real chunks of time in the day to be creative. We’re also quite big on work/life balance and ensuring that our physical and mental health is top priority, so we try to share the workload as evenly as possible and encourage normal working hours as well as an active lifestyle outside of work.'

Is there a favourite project that you have worked on?

Sam - 'It’s really hard to pin-point one particular project but I’d probably say the CEV Volleyball project was a real landmark for us and one that we all really enjoyed working on because of the size and scale of it. The Confédération Européenne de Volleyball (or CEV) is the continental governing body for Volleyball in Europe and we worked with them on a complete re-brand which spanned across 52 different countries and various different leagues and age groups. It’s not often that you get to see a brand you create get rolled out across large-scale deliverables such as Stadiums, Courts, TV Graphics, Athlete Apparel and Medal and Trophy Designs. So it was one of those long projects which went on for well over a year, but was really great to see the fruits of our labour when it was complete and out in the open.' 

Image: courtesy of Alphabet. 

Do you have any tips or advice for current students or recent graduates?

Abbas - 'The first tip I would give to students is simply just have fun, be adventurous and stay curious. Particularly in third year where you can essentially do any project you like. University is a special time where you don’t have to worry about client feedback, or budgets so I would say really push the boat out and do something daring and bold, and think of the bigger picture. Always ask yourself how far you can push the concept and idea. I know as far as applicants, we’re always drawn to the big bold ideas that are exciting and extend beyond print into the real world through large campaigns, apps, websites, and so on. Do websites for boring subjects when you’re being paid for it as a career, not when you’re studying.

The second tip I would give to students is to promote yourself as a graphic designer and seek out freelance work and projects whilst you’re still a student. Get yourself out there on social media and creative platforms such as Behance. It not only provided us a bit of a platform post-uni, but also created real-life projects for us to pursue in our third year whilst still studying, so it was a really good experience.'

Are there any future projects that you can tell us about?

Seb - 'We’ve got lots of ongoing projects with OnePlus at the moment which are super exciting. They are top secret right now so we can’t say too much about them, but we’re really looking forward to sharing them with you when we get the green light. In terms of the studio, we’re looking forward to continuing to grow our team and push the boundaries as far as we possibly can through our work.'

Header Image: photograph Tom Bird, courtesy of Alphabet