Spring is in the air and we’re back to Cardiff to meet with Vicky Beech, the co-founder and Managing Director at award-winning design studio Smörgåsbord. Despite the ominous greyness of the sky, the city seems bathed in light, and a sense of unhurried spaciousness and calm awaits us as we’re welcomed by Vicky, her husband Ben and their beautiful daughter, Heidi. Their home is indeed a delightful reflection of their joyous and serene lifestyle, and retains a true sense of smörgåsbord-ness, where every object seems at once essential and incongruous, showing that living spaces with small children coexist beautifully with modern minimalism in a playful and uncomplicated way.
In a homely ambiance punctuated by Heidi’s bursts of laughter and lively interactions, Vicky told us about how her journey into design and art direction unfolded and how she joined forces with fellow designer Dylan Griffith and started Smörgåsbord in 2008, a multidisciplinary design studio covering branding, strategy and content creation. Collaborating with visionary people and applying a rigorous and uncompromising thought process focused on conceptual purity, Smörgåsbord has built an international reputation working with brands such as Hyundai, Heineken, Nike, Kia and MTV, and most recently with the Welsh Government – for which they created a contemporary and multifunctional country brand.
As our get-together was drawing to a close, we joined mother and daughter for a walk around the neighbourhood, getting a first-hand glimpse into how Vicky juggles motherhood and the demands of a dynamic creative career focused on nurturing meaningful collaborations and facilitating Smörgåsbord’s organic growth with an eye on timelessness, sustainability and the circular economy.
For people who don’t know you, who is Vicky Beech? Tell us a bit about your background.
Co-founder and Managing Director of Smörgåsbord. I grew up in a small village in Derbyshire, I always remember from a young age I wanted to do something creative but was also super organised too. I went to University in Loughborough, which although was just a stone’s throw away I still decided to move out and test out my drinking skills.
My first day I found out I had to share a room with a Welsh girl (don’t worry, I’m not going to tell you a year by year story of my life) but actually this Welsh girl ‒ ‘Bethan’ is her name ‒ is the reason how I ended up in Cardiff 5 years later. So one could say that I was meant to meet this girl otherwise I wouldn’t be running Smörgåsbord today. Things happen for a reason.
So after 3 years at Uni, I moved to London and Bethan moved back to Cardiff – then after 5 years in London my then boyfriend, now husband, decided to move to Cardiff and within a month we were in Wales. I now call Wales my home.
What is your most vivid childhood memory?
Making dresses out of crepe paper and sellotape, then dressing up my two younger brothers in these. (Sorry Bros)
How did you end up in design and art direction? What was your journey like?
I always knew I wanted to either be an interior designer or graphic designer, I chose the graphic design route and studied Graphic communication. I knew I wanted to work in London, so moved to London without a job and slept on my friend’s floor for several months while I did work placement and hit the streets knocking on agencies’ doors. My first job was at a company called Bite (they no longer exist). I joined at an exciting time and they gave me incredible experience for a junior, working in Sweden – redesigning the Volvo Logo. Art directing Volvo shoots in South Africa – this is before CGI, we would shoot cars on a turntable and work with the designer to set the correct angle to shoot the cars (back then I knew nothing about cars, still don’t actually).
It wasn’t an easy journey from University, when I left I worked in factories packing Cadbury’s cream eggs, putting Kodak film cases into the cardboard boxes, worked in pubs and retail outlets BUT I was determined and never gave up. Any students or interns that work with us, I tell them my story – it's hard out there, I understand, and as a business owner it’s a similar situation getting new clients – never give up.
You founded Smörgåsbord nearly a decade ago together with Dylan Griffith. Tell us a bit about your collaborative relationship: how do you influence each other and what are your strengths as a team of designers and entrepreneurs?
I met Dylan at S4C in Cardiff – he was the Creative Director and I was freelancing in the Graphics Department. Dylan moved to Amsterdam in 2008 to work for MTV Europe as their Creative Director and it was during a trip to the Dam with a few other friends that we decided (5 Le Chouffe beers in) to set-up a company. Smorgasbord was born July 2008.
We grew it initially very slowly as we both had other jobs and he was in Amsterdam and I was in Cardiff. It was like having two jobs – we had many 2am finishes and then back to the day job for 9am. After a while we realised the only way to do it was to jump ship and sink or swim. So we both took the plunge and now 10 years later, here we are.
Dyl’s strengths are passion and sheer determination to never give up on something. We are both perfectionists and super organised (not always best as hard to stop), and I’m called the brand octopus – ensuring I’m over everything. It works well and I’m proud of what we’ve achieved and how we have grown over the last decade. Sometimes you need to take a step back more often to review.
Whether it’s a client / designer / copywriter / photographer – every relationship is important and you know when you connect. We’ve built Smorg on our gut feelings – sprinkled with strategy – you know when it feels right. Yes, it sounds cheesy but people are so important to us, each one of us in the studio are friends, we laugh everyday – I think you get so much more out of people when you treat them in the way you want to be treated.
Bugger I’ve just realised we need to organise a 10th birthday party. Time flies!
How would you define the Smörgåsbord aesthetic and its branding philosophy?
For us ideas are king. Before picking up a pencil or going near a Mac we research, question… and listen. We thrive on working with visionary people – free thinkers who challenge us with tricky yet fulfilling briefs. We don’t follow trends, we, in fact run in the opposite direction – most importantly we like to ensure a brand is timeless. Yes, you can update the content but a marque should be able to live for a minimum of 10 years.
Tell us a bit more about your role at Smörgåsbord. How do you select your collaborators and what range of skills and talents are you looking for when assembling a team of creative individuals?
My role has changed a lot in the last 5 years, I’ve gone from Designer to Managing Director – I’m not a fan of saying that as it sounds very corporate. I’ve learnt shed loads and I’m still learning. Every project we work on is different, so we like to cherry pick the skills to fit the project. We have a team of 6 full time staff and the rest are freelancers depending on the project. We work with editors, writers, animators, illustrators, photographers, digital designers, film directors to translators and it goes on. For example currently we’re working on a 120pp magazine, where we are doing everything apart from printing it ourselves – the studio is a tad small for that at present. This has meant 32 film & photo shoots across Wales in 3 months.
Smörgåsbord is working to deliver a new national branding for Wales. What would you say are some of the main challenges that Wales had to address in order to strengthen its visual identity and creative vitality?
Changing perceptions of a country isn’t something that happens overnight. The foundations were set on the strategy including the core objectives for Wales and this is something we and the people of Wales use as a checklist, whether a small B&B or a new investor:
— Elevate our status
— Surprise & inspire
— Reinforce positive perceptions
— Do good things
— Be unmistakably Wales
I’m English but having lived in Wales for 12 years, I now call it my home and my daughter is at a Welsh language school.
What are the major trends happening in the design and branding world at the moment?
It’s good to be aware of trends but one of the rules we have is that a brand needs to be timeless and therefore most of the time we run in the opposite direction from trends. Content is something required to support all brands these days, without this they have no voice.
Is there anything that you find frustrating about the industry? How would you change it?
Free pitching. Most of the time we don’t do this now as company policy BUT sometimes when something juicy comes along and hooks you in it’s hard to turn the opportunity down. You would never ask a plumber to come over and do half the job and then not pay them. Design isn’t always tangible, so sometimes people think ideas fall from the sky.
How could we change this? By all designers / companies sticking together and campaigning #nofreepitching. There you go, I’ll get a t-shirt printed and start an Insta account.
Why do you do what you do and what makes it all worth it for you?
I love the fact that with every new project or client we have to become a mini specialist about that area. Learning and challenging myself everyday. Also proud of the team of people that Dylan and I have working for us – I laugh every day.
What is the most important lesson you learned about yourself since starting Smörgåsbord in 2008?
To delegate, I don’t have to do everything myself anymore. Comes from being a perfectionist.
You are also the mother of a wonderful girl Heidi. How does being a mother influence you creatively and how do you juggle motherhood and the demands of a dynamic creative career?
Anyone with kids who work, know the juggle – those days when you’ve had a poorly child all night and still have a day of meetings to attend. Tip: coffee & loving what you do.
Heidi and I do a lot of crafty stuff together which we both love: cardboard boxes (or the wine box carrier – always good for a castle), tissue paper, string & pritt stick = Saturdays with Heidi.
What would we find in your wardrobe? How would you describe your personal style?
No empty hangers!
Style... I asked a friend this question who used to work in fashion, firstly she said “well I would say structured, clean lines. More often than not – bright. Strong prints and logos… I sound like a branding project.
You are also a dedicated runner. What are your favourite running routes in Cardiff and why?
Cardiff Bay – the barrage. When I’m training for longer runs like half marathons I like to run down there. Fresh sea air, usually a tad windy though.
What do you do or where do you go to unwind and get inspired?
If I have 30 mins to an hour – running, gym, spin.
A day – London. I know this sounds odd but when working in London I relax as I’m away from the day to day life stuff and can soak up the culture.
A long weekend – visit friends (once a year if lucky visit my friend who lives in Ibiza).
What was the best piece of advice you have ever been given?
Fear is either a tailwind or a headwind. You decide.
What are you currently working on?
Lots but we have a very interesting sustainability project about to start which I’m really excited about. Moving into the future we are looking to focus more on projects ‘doing good things’.
What does the future hold for Smörgåsbord?
We will continue to develop our own products with an eye on sustainability and the circular economy. We’re also nurturing collaborations where we take equity stakes in innovative (often start-up) businesses, meaning that we have a vested interest in the product as well as guiding the strategic and creative course of its brand. And of course more laughter and enjoying what we do.
What about your personal dreams and ambitions?
Do good things.
Laugh every day.
Run the New York Marathon.
Can you recommend us:
A book: Born to run by Christopher McDougall
A song: Lauryn Hill – “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill”. This album is my go to when I’m on my own in the studio early. Lots of good memories.
A film: Don’t look now
Thank you, Vicky for inviting us into your lovely home and the stimulating conversation.