Interview with Jamie Kelly

1. When did you realise you wanted to be a designer?

I’ve always loved drawing and writing, being able to start with a blank piece of paper and create something unique has always excited me, and I’m a firm believer that no sketch or word is wasted, it’s all just part of the learning and experimenting process.

I have great memories of graphic design at high school, from creating logos to designing skateboards and snowboards, it was always the subject I looked forward to the most and was passionate about.

My love for graphic design as a discipline was really ignited when I visited my cousin’s university degree show, the combinations and use of type, illustration and imagery across packaging, editorial and brand identities were all incredible, and it was then I decided, ‘Yep this is what I want to do’.

2. How did you get started and what was the biggest hurdle you overcame?

My path into design wasn’t conventional. I studied Graphic Arts at LSAD, which I didn’t make the most of, even though it was a great school with great lecturers such as David Crow and Steve Hardstaff, amongst others.

After I graduated, I opted to go into a sales job, which was a really good experience but made it harder to then get a design role. My first agency role was with an advertising agency in Manchester. It was an eye opener in many ways, and I wasn’t even designing, which was the biggest hurdle I had to overcome. I’ve always been seen as someone who is client facing and people didn’t even realise that I was a trained designer, so I had to work hard to change these perceptions.

I worked on side projects for friends and people I knew, building up a portfolio that could support the fact that I was good at managing projects and with clients face to face. My first break came in Australia where I landed a ‘proper’ design job and, from there, I worked through a mixture of in-house and agency roles, up to creative director. I believe all experiences are good and having the sales job probably presented the most important lesson as it drove me to focus on what I really wanted to do.

3. What’s been your most successful way of getting clients?

Doing great work, for great people with great people. This has always been our ethos here at SUN. Getting clients is hard and it takes patience, but once you get a project in, you need to commit to that person, business and process one million percent.

We ensure that honesty, fairness and pride run through everything we do and everything we create, and this basically boils down to being decent people who treat people in the right way. No pretence or chasing the invoice, just doing the right thing by folk.

If you couple these aspects with doing an incredible job, then this builds your reputation, and more clients will follow. This does take time and, to be honest, is still taking time (and always will I guess), but in many ways that’s the exciting thing about running a studio; building a reputation that you can be proud of and that makes people and organisations actively want to work with you.

4. How do you get clients to stay with you and use you for more work?

We’re lucky that our first clients are still with us to this day, and hopefully they’ll still be with us well into the future. Being honest, fair and doing great work goes a long way to ensuring people stay with you and take you with them wherever they may move on to. If they enjoy working with you and you deliver great results, then that’s truly golden.

It’s also about building value. Are you valuable to that person and organisation, does the work you do together have a positive effect on that person, the organisation they work for and the people, customers and communities they serve? If you’re valuable (not just in terms of money) then they’ll stay with you and use you more and more. 

5. Do you ever have issues with clients paying late? How do you manage that?

Over the last 4 and a bit-years, we’ve been fortunate on this front. Yes, you get the odd missed invoice and then this can then affect payment runs etc., which then delays payment, but we’ve not had any major problems (I’m crossing my fingers as I’m writing this). We generally ask for a 50% up-front payment, which then sets a precedent and covers everyone involved on the project. Usually, we won’t start work until this has been paid, which is hard to stick to, but we have learnt by experience that it’s best all round to do this.

6. What does your typical workday look like?

We’re a small team, which is great, and we don’t have ambitions to be a huge agency. As exciting as being a large organisation is, I imagine it can make things complicated and stressful. However, our size brings its own pressures, and as the founder and CD I must do lots of other things other than being ‘on the tools’ so to speak. My typical day starts and ends with family, and I’m lucky that I get the opportunity to drop my kids off at school, do homework and take them to football etc. and be in a great working environment in-between.

Work wise (and this is a cliche I guess) we really are like a family too, and the guys here are special to me. I want them to go on to greatness, either with me or elsewhere, and I will facilitate this as much as I can. We get together every morning, we chat about what we need to do, and I fly between hands-on work and ideation, design reviews, mentoring as well as client calls, project status meetings, proposals and presentations. It’s fast paced, but I love it.

7. Any piece of advice/wisdom that you’d like to give the readers at This Design Life

Never give up and take something from every experience and use it to your advantage. There’s rarely a perfect route to your dream role or that great client, just as there isn’t to work and life happiness. However, if you enjoy the experiences, learn from them, and make them work for you, the journey will be fun and full of twists and turns.

Most importantly, use these experiences to make you a better, more understanding and kinder person, because at the end of the day that’s all that is truly important.

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Jamie is the founder and Creative Director of Studio Up North (SUN) – A brand strategy and design studio based in Lancashire. Jamie has over fifteen years of brand and design expertise after working with, and leading, agencies and in-house teams in Manchester, London and Sydney.

Jamie’s passion is for beautiful craft led design that is born out of a robust strategy and organisational purpose, but more to that, Jamie wants to make SUN’s clients and team smile, achieve personal and business results and transform the world for the better.

Interview published on: Mar 25, 2022

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