A graduate of graphic design from the University of The Arts London, Charlie Hocking has worked in the design and branding industry since 2010, most notably for global agency DesignStudio. But in 2020, amid the pandemic, Charlie left London to figure out the next step in his career.
In 2022, Studio Kiln was born with the aim of “bringing brands and stories to life”. It’s also a studio that approaches work “slowly and mindfully”, so Charlie and Nathan Smith can work on just a select number of clients each year, leaving time to pursue personal projects. Is this in response to a decade of working hard, climbing the ladder? Or to uncertain times? Or is it a chance to do more of what they love? We sat down with Charlie to find out more.
Let’s go back to 2020. You left London for a fresh start elsewhere. What spurred that decision?
I had been working at Design Studio for several years, and whilst I loved my time there, I became interested in exploring different types of work – particularly motion and film. After I left, I moved to Cornwall for a bit of space – both figuratively and literally – and to be closer to my family. I spent several months in the countryside, primarily working on our studio’s first animated film, Waterbeing, and picking up freelance design projects. Thankfully, working remotely at that time became so normalised that no one thought to question where I was, so with more lockdowns looming, I decided to stay.
You’d been working in the industry for a decade. Was burnout part of the reason for that move?
Perhaps a bit. I was certainly tired and overworked, but I was having a lot of fun and was proud of the work I was creating. If I was burnt out, then I’m content with the thought that it was by my own making – although I understand that others might feel differently. I left because I wanted to try working on different projects at a different pace. I wanted to see how other studios worked and their processes. Whilst we still expect high standards at Kiln, we don’t over-resource our team and make sure there is space to decompress after a project and talk about how we felt it went. Creating this space inevitably has a positive impact on the work.
How have you found life since the big change?
Initially, great! I was the cliched city escapee who waxed lyrical about how fantastic life was in the countryside. However, after about a year, I struggled to find my place here. I realised that I defined myself by what I did for a job, so when you meet others with totally different reference points, it can be hard to know where you fit in. I’m still passionate about what I do now, but thankfully I have found others who share that passion. I’m also reminding myself to enjoy other things in life too!
You set up Studio Kiln with Nathan Smith. How did you know each other?
Nathan and I were aware of one another through our time at different studios in London. He had worked with a DS colleague of mine, Sam Smith, on a really well-publicised project called ‘Me and EU’. He also knew friends at DixonBaxi and Wieden & Kennedy, all of whom had a relationship with Cornwall. We soon found out we lived around the corner from one another and ended up sharing a studio space.
Starting a studio together is no easy feat. It’s almost like a marriage. How do you make it work? What do you both bring to the studio?
Yeah, that’s a good question, and I suppose the truthful answer is that we’re still figuring that out. Our values and work ethic have always aligned. We get on really well, share the same sense of humour, have the same taste in design and the same drive to make Kiln work in Cornwall. It’s rare to meet people like Nathan in a wider design circle, let alone a much smaller one, so a bit like a marriage, sometimes you just know it’s a good thing, and you will be able to make it work.
From a creative sense, we both oversee everything, but Nathan leans more towards our digital projects, and I do more of our motion work. We cross over in the middle with brand design, so it’s a pretty handy Venn diagram of skills!
It’s been a year since you started Kiln. What’s been the biggest eye-opener of the last 12 months since you launched?
The biggest eye-opener is that this is a thing, it’s working, and people support what we’re doing. We spend so long with our heads down trying to make this work that we eventually look up to find a receptive audience; it’s the most amazing feeling.
Looking at your work history, does the industry need to change?
Our vision for Kiln is to build a contemporary, digitally-led brand studio in Cornwall. We never thought this would be possible when we were growing up here, as we always believed that a city – mostly London – was the only option. That has now changed, and we’re excited to see how living rurally can affect our work. We’ve spoken before about how similar a lot of work is at the moment and whether or not a correlation can be drawn between that and the relatively insular scene many agencies exist in. A greater variety of work from a wider range of people living different lives across the UK can only be a positive thing for the industry.
What has been the best way for you to find and win new work?
Thankfully we had a number of helpful connections that allowed us to get going. However, beyond that, we have mostly found new business enquiries coming from people who find our work on Instagram or, occasionally, Linkedin. The reality is that only a few of those enquiries actually get the green light, so we’re constantly talking about what we might be doing wrong and how we can improve our new business development.
What are your thoughts on 2023 so far… Everyone seems exhausted, but that could just be what we’ve heard!
Yeah, it’s been a bit savage, hasn’t it? Personally, I’ve experienced a really difficult year. I lost my mum to Alzheimer’s recently. Being close to her was part of the reason I moved back to Cornwall. Despite the struggles of managing a creative business, I always find strength and positivity with Kiln. It’s a happy place to be.
How are you finding Threads? What do you think of it?
Coincidentally, I just deleted my Twitter account this morning, intending to look at Threads. I can’t imagine having a personal account, but I could see Kiln existing there. That’s kind of all social media is to me now – just a way to promote the business. I can’t say I have strong feelings about it either way, but if it fuels a potential cage fight between two of the world’s most prominent billionaires, then I’m here for that.
Do you think the days of social media for creatives are over? Or turning into something else?
We’ve just released our new website. We’re incredibly proud of it and sweated over it for months to get it right. However, despite this effort, we could probably just exist with an Instagram page. It’s still the most effective way of getting your work seen, so I don’t see it coming to an end; you just have to learn to play by someone else’s rules. Perhaps that’s why we made our site. That’s one small corner of the internet where we can play by our own rules.