Where design meets print

This month we’ve been chatting to Alan from WithPrint who kindly supports WEDF with beautiful printed posters for our talks.

What career path led you to where you are today?

I currently run a creative print company (set up in 1999), but originally started my own business as a freelance designer. I could draw quite well at school and always wanted to be a designer of some kind. I started thinking about graphic design as I reached my teenage years and used to cycle to the local cinema and collect the old film posters to decorate my room.

Although I enjoyed school it maybe wasn’t for the right reasons and I was… let’s just say, less focused in some lessons (I’ve since discovered that I’m dyslexic). So as my friends started going to uni I didn’t quite get the grades I needed to follow this path, but I felt that being creative was something I really enjoyed.

My work ethic has always been very strong. After sixth form, I worked in a few jobs and was offered promotions and managerial posts in both retail and hospitality placements. I didn’t pursue these opportunities but chose to go and work for a small local print company for free to give myself one last chance to work as a designer. A summer passed and I was working two bar jobs alongside my full-time (free) work at the print company and at the end of the summer I was taken on as their official junior designer.

Fast-forward 4 years and I’m absolutely zooming around QuarkExpress/​Photoshop and Illustrator (mostly self taught) and practically running this small print company (client facing, quoting and managing jobs). Meanwhile behind the scenes, I’ve self funded and completed two years of a Saturday HND course in design at Somerset College of Art and Technology (SCAT) where I’ve learnt how to defend and justify lots of the ideas I was generating.

I guess initially offering my time for free at that print company meant I wasn’t really valued so I started to explore the freelance opportunities available (outside of work). My first project was designing a brochure for the company my brother worked for as an electrical engineer. I commissioned a photographer and we took some dramatic night shots of their Bridgwater based warehouse and offices. It was a small brochure run but a project that netted me more than 1 months wages with just a few evenings work.

With these funds I brought a huge green and white Apple Mac and left the printers to start my own business as a freelance designer at 23. As I didn’t really have any customers I worked in the mornings at a local T‑shirt printing company, taking in artwork from big agencies and preparing this for their print process. What their previous artworker did in a day I was doing in 3 hours. Whilst there I worked on the original Gorillaz tees and did loads of projects for Disney etc, and I learned (to my surprise) that even the best designers from the biggest agencies didn’t have a clue about setting work up for print production. I considered it an advantage that I was gaining some amazing experience in this particular part of the print industry.

The great thing about starting a business meant that I could decide to take any opportunities that presented themselves. So after 12 months of freelancing for the garment printer and building up a small client list I got the chance to go travelling with one of my best friends for 8 months. So I sold everything I had (except my Apple Mac), handed my customer details to one of my friends (also a designer) and bought a round the world ticket.

For someone who had only had a family holiday abroad once before, backpacking was an absolute revelation and I was completely inspired by everything. I was moving around on a very, very tight budget so I needed to work whilst I was away and some good luck and my print knowledge found me an artworking job in Sydney a few days a week. I met some truly amazing people while travelling that I’m still friends with now, twenty years later. Some of these people would eventually move to London for work and once there, when they needed some help with printing, I was their first call.

Be prepared to work smarter (not necessarily harder) than the next — I’ve absolutely got to this point by working extremely hard and I’ve made a tonne of mistakes. I’m now investing in working a lot smarter and I can see that the results can be achieved more quickly.

Now back in the UK and developing my own business again I was beginning to become frustrated as a designer. Apart from these few London connections I found the size of the local customer I was winning was very limited. I was starting to print manage more and more projects so the design took more of a back seat, but I was also frustrated with the response from print companies. When I wanted to specify creative papers or finishes I was refused or forced to choose a more standard route. So I brought my first digital printing press and decided to make my own rules.

Fast forward another 7 – 8 years I’ve completely moved away from creating a design company and focussed solely on creating a design-led print business. Designers appreciate that I’m a designer too and everyone can see that I really, really care about anything I get involved with. My print knowledge and commitment towards producing beautifully crafted items has helped the company organically grow to employ 8 staff who are all incredibly knowledgeable. We own some of the best print machines in the industry and have moved to a beautiful converted piggery (that myself and my team converted, mostly with our own hands). We are now in a position where we can name drop dream clients like the Natural History Museum, V&A Museum, BBC, Disney, National Trust and Duchy of Cornwall, and we’ve worked with amazing agencies of all sizes, from all over the world. I’m incredibly proud to say that the work we produce is truly stunning and mostly it’s the work that those printers I originally approached didn’t want to consider.

Converting the piggery into the studio WithPrint have today

What advice would you give to someone wanting to do the same?

My main advice would be:

1. Don’t under sell yourself - wherever I have offered my time for free (to get experience) probably meant that I took the long way around.

2. Be prepared to work smarter (not necessarily harder) than the next person — I’ve absolutely got to this point by working extremely hard and I’ve made a tonne of mistakes. I’m now investing in working a lot smarter and I can see that the results can be achieved more quickly.

3. Enjoy yourself - this industry can be frustrating at times but where else can you draw, paint and play as an adult and get paid for it?

4. Always talk to your printer about a project well in advance — a really important one! We can book in any work we know about and it’s much easier to remove work from the schedule if it doesn’t come through (and bring other projects forward) than try and find room for last minute projects.

What inspires and motivates you?

My number one motivation now is my 3 year old daughter Florence. I’m mainly trying to work smarter so that I can provide a secure future for her and my wife and we can spend time together as a family (I still have some way to go to achieve this). My inspiration comes from being able to collaborate with the creative people I meet everyday. It’s incredibly satisfying to be genuinely learning every day.

What was the first thing you ever printed?

Well, I’m going to choose the most memorable thing I’ve designed. Relatively early on as a designer working for myself I got the chance to design some Christmas cards for Apple UK. I offered two creative solutions and the one they chose simply replaced the Apple leaf with a holly leaf in the Apple logo. 

And your favourite piece of work? 

I’m mostly a forward looking person and this means that my favourite piece is always the work that is running through the studio right now.

What do you love about your job…

As you can probably tell by now, I consider myself very lucky to work in an industry that I absolutely love. I’m surprised to find that I even enjoy most of the admin involved with running a business… But if I had to choose one thing, then I do love the smell of print.

And not like so much?!

I guess, late payments and delivery drivers that throw our work around can be a little frustrating. But genuinely nothing really bothers me that much.

What are you excited about in the future for WithPrint

Well, as I’ve already said, I’m always more interested in the future and I try to always move the business forward, so everything is an incredible opportunity. But some of the simpler developments that I have planned include a new website, plus digital fluorescents ink and invisible black light ink (which shows up under UV light) may be introduced in the next 12 months. We should finally commission our 2 colour litho press so that we can overlay metallic inks and special colours over our digitally produced sheets. Across our large format services, we have just installed a big CNC router and we may make some furniture / wall decorations with this. But mainly I’m working with a Non Exec Director to fine tune every element of the way the business runs. Next year we will celebrate our 20th birthday and that should be a milestone that I will use to kickstart a new stage of growth for WithPrint.