Adapt or Die

Posted by Kendra Futcher on 28.03.18

The snow was long gone and the crocuses had just started to peep through. It was one of those gatherings with a palpable buzz. We came to Arnolfini in search of beer and some stimulation – we came to the right place.

First up was the evening’s warm up act, the passionate and enigmatic signwriter Hana Sunny Whaler who had literally run away from the circus to be there. Hana’s love of her art was infectious. She opened our minds to the value of signwriting in today’s modern world, talking about it as a craft that sits somewhere between an art form, information design and folk art. After studying hand lettering at Falmouth, Hana honed her craft in Bristol, taking inspiration from traditional homes of signwriting such as the fairground and Romany caravans and creating beautiful signs for Hobbs House Bakery and The Acacia Floristry amongst others.

Now living in London, Hana spoke animatedly about the importance of unique hand painted signs bringing local communities to life by giving them personality and a sense of identity amongst the faceless brand names. Beyond the beautiful lettering (long admired by us type geeks) she hit home the point that these carefully crafted signs give voice to societies unheard messages and reclaim increasingly small public spaces.

Warm-up Act: Hana Sunny Wheeler. Photograph: Ben McCluskey

Next up were founders of London-based MultiAdaptor, a humble and down-to-earth double act made up of high energy Ben and Andy, with his amazing beard and quietly thoughtful vibe. Amazingly, their first ever public talk, this was very much an evening of candid storytelling and heartfelt honesty. Inspiring from the word go, we heard how the two partners went from meeting at Bournemouth Arts Institute in a tank top (Ben) and yellow beanie (Andy) in 2000 and worked on their first live brief to design some menus for a local club to setting up MultiAdaptor in 2005, aged 24 out of a cramped bedroom in a house share in Whitechapel.

Drawing on inspiration from the sentiment in Anthony Burill’s eponymous work hard and be nice to people’ poster and the approach of global branding powerhouse Wolff Olin’s, MultiAdaptor was born. From a cramped bedroom to renting desks in East London, they powered full speed ahead during the first decade producing vast amounts of work for diverse clients, peaking at a headcount of 25 during the busiest times. This high octane period of time (and classic start-up behaviour) was characterised by the gif they shared of the cat frantically bashing a keyboard next to a flashing psychedelic insanity’ sign.

In their own words, this insanity was down to eroding levels of blind resilience’. They were supercharged and thought they were invincible but in reality, they were too young and enthusiastic without a plan. Time to adapt or die.

After much soul searching and frank discussion, Andy and Ben set about defining the 6 key lessons they had taken from those 10 years of madness:

  1. Define your goal (branding in their case)
  2. Focus
  3. Learn to say no
  4. Play to your strengths (ideally different/​individual ones)
  5. Keep learning
  6. Get an external perspective

Ben Brookbanks and Andy West, MultiAdaptor. Photograghs: Ben McCluskey

This was a major turning point. Working closely with a mentor, they began to look at clearly defining their own space and making their mark within a saturated industry. Emotional resonance was born. Branding defined by positive experiences; communication that is inherently human, authentic, spirited, soulful and at times visceral. An approach that treats brands as living, breathing, feeling ecosystems characterised by a collective feeling about a product, organisation or service.

Today, MultiAdaptor’s distinct approach has been finely tuned and can be summed up in a simple equation: Empathy (understanding) = resonance (connection). Drawing on Maslow’s Theory of Human Motivational Needs and referencing the speaker Simon Sinek, they continue to evolve their thinking producing work that connects on a deeply human level.

We just had time for a whistle-stop tour of 3 powerful pieces of work that really demonstrate the duo’s journey from start-up to global branding agency. From the disruptive and positive vibes of Habito the renegade mortgage broker, the emotive idea behind the Makaton speech and sign language identity to the rousing spirit of Google Campus, a maximalist brand that nurtures the start-up spirit – all bound by what MultiAdaptor describe as the highest form of emotional resonance – purpose.

The best talks make us think, feel and want to act on what we’ve heard. This was one of those talks. Inspiring, uplifting and beautifully human, we were taken on a journey of youthful enthusiasm, huge learnings and great thinking. What shone through most of all for me? The power of good partnership.