At Baltic Creative we love to see the journey businesses take as they grow in our spaces. A great example of this is Hopeful – a design studio who started life as Design Integrity, spending its early days in one of our Single Sheds. 

A full rebrand later, the agency has emerged from the pandemic with a full team and a bigger space in 16 Jordan Street. Their new identity, as Hopeful Studio, better describes the work they choose to do. They describe themselves as “creative problem-solvers” who help brands help people.

The journey is even more poignant for Stephen Murray – Hopeful’s founder and Creative Director. Stephen started his design career working at a small agency in the same Shed he’d later occupy as a fully-fledged business owner. We sat down with Stephen to chat about the idea behind Hopeful, how brands can find their identity, and what makes a brand disruptive!

Thanks for talking to us, Stephen. Can you start by telling us about your background? 

After graduating from a graphic design degree at LJMU I got a job quite quickly in a small agency. I was about 23 or 24, and I was actually based here in one of the Sheds on the Campus. The work eventually died down so I left and went freelance. I did a bit of contracting in agencies such as Mando. That was really good because I worked on big projects for clients like John West and United Utilities, which helped build my portfolio. I then received an invitation by the Creative Director at Shop Direct (now Very) to help develop their group brand. We spent about six months building it and then I worked in their creative team on email and social media campaigns for Dyson, Reebok, Nike etc.

Stephen Murray, Founder and Creative Director of Hopeful Studio
At what point did you make the transition to start Design Integrity?

I’d wanted to run a business from a young age. It’s a close toss-up between business and design for me, but I’m probably more business-minded. In that first small agency, I had a lot of responsibilities and it gave me a flavour for running my own. In 2016, while I was still at Shop Direct, I registered the domain name for Design Integrity. My idea was for a boutique design agency with ‘integrity’ meaning to stay integral to your brand. I had spent five years with Very but knew I had to take the opportunity to leave. I’d won two clients so had enough revenue to get going. My friend who was based in the LAB at Tempest Building told me about the spaces there so I set up shop! I spent the next year networking and trying to find new clients.

Eventually you ended up back here in the Creative Campus. How did that happen?

Yeah, I actually grew the business in the LAB and employed two people, but COVID hit and they had to shut the whole program. I was working in the cafe here one day and needed a quiet space to have a meeting so you guys let me use one of the Sheds. I decided to ask if any were available to let and it turned out the same Shed I was in all those years ago was vacant. It felt like I’d come full circle, it was quite sentimental! COVID was terrible and we were living in a small flat with a new baby so I needed space to work comfortably. The Campus is so big and open so having the space was great after being isolated.

How did the idea develop to rebrand Design Integrity as Hopeful?

In the early years of Design Integrity, our clients were mostly charities and social enterprises. It wasn’t on purpose – it happened organically. The type of work we did was positive and uplifting so Design Integrity, as a brand, felt heavy and stuck in comparison. As a business, you’ve got to decide where to draw the line and what your target customer is otherwise you can never build momentum. We looked at our portfolio and the amazing clients we had. They’ve all invested in us and the relationships were always positive, with no pretence. It felt right to do more of that work, but we needed a brand to match our values so we landed on Hopeful.

You’re clearly a value-based organisation. How do you ensure your core values are embedded into the work you and the Hopeful team do? 

The best thing and worst thing about work is always the people. The last thing you want is people feeling uncomfortable or that it’s the end of the world if they fail. I think it starts with honesty and encouragement to make people feel valued and appreciated. We try to keep it light and fun, like we’ve been Go-Karting recently as a team. When you have that open relationship, it’s easier to give constructive criticism and push the work to a higher level because people know there’s no ulterior motive. Hopefully we’re like that with our clients as well.

Hopeful Team on a recent Go-Karting trip
You seem to have a good idea of your identity as a brand. Do you have any advice to brands who struggle to be authentic or find their identity?

It takes bravery, I think. You’ve got to be yourself and not benchmark yourself against other companies. It helps to start with the personalities of the people running the business. We did a workshop with an Alzheimer’s charity and there’s an obvious stigma attached that the disease only affects elderly people. When we did this workshop, all the team were young and energetic. They also had a sense of activism and were frustrated that young carers were overlooked. As a group they were quite loud, punchy and disruptive so we wanted to create a brand identity that represented them and included vibrant colours with energetic strap-lines. They haven’t stopped helping people or been disrespectful as a result, they’ve just been themselves.

The mistake I made with Design Integrity was being so rigid and thinking everything needed to be perfect. I almost put chains on myself to live up to that. I love designers who dot the I’s and cross the T’s (they’re the people I hire!) but the intensity of relentless minimalism doesn’t represent my energy. Now, as Hopeful, we can relax and have fun while doing good work that makes a positive difference.

You use the word disruptive a lot, what does that mean to you? Can you give us examples of brands you consider to be disruptive?

It sounds negative but it just means making a bang and going against the groove in a healthy way. Following your natural momentum and not apologising for it. A good example would be Monzo. The idea that a bank is colourful and playful is completely disruptive. It’s almost not allowed until someone does it successfully and then before you know it, NatWest are rebranding themselves as well. 92 Degrees is a good example of disruption locally. The idea of franchises on the high street are tired so now you’ve got more soulful independents who take care over their coffee and are passionate about it. They’re not interested in just churning it out.

What have been some of your favourite projects to work on?

Not everything we do is brand-related, we also do some fantastic digital work. Ultimately, we’re creative problem-solvers and our optimism sees us through. So, we worked on a network for shared living in the social care sector which allowed people needing care to live in the carer’s home. The Care Quality Commission say it’s one of the fastest routes to recovery and independence they’ve seen because the people needing care have the experience of living in a family home while still getting quality care. We’re now building a similar tool where young people struggling financially can home share with older people to tackle loneliness. 

Another highlight was the care recruitment platform we built. In 2020, COVID caused a problem because face-to-face interviews and assessments couldn’t take place. They had to recruit 150 carers so we were commissioned to build a platform and digitise the process. In the first phase they recruited 200 carers and ended up surpassing their goal. Being able to solve that problem is a real jewel in our crown. This type of work is so inspiring and, again, it’s why the Design Integrity brand didn’t fit anymore. It’s evolved beyond that. Obviously, we had to start somewhere but we’re lucky enough to recognise where the momentum is!

It’s great that you’ve used your experience to help people and support the healthcare sector. It’s probably not what you thought you’d do!

Definitely not! I’m still very new to this, I haven’t been doing it too long. Perhaps about 4-5 years. The most important thing for me is the team. We’ve been so lucky and I’m grateful to have such an amazing team. When I talk about our work, they’re the people doing it! They’re excited about it and believe in it. As the studio and the portfolio grows, you can see the team developing. We’ve by no means smashed it completely but I can honestly say, if the world ended tomorrow, I’d be really proud of what the team has achieved.

That’s lovely to hear. So, what does the future look like for Hopeful? Do you have any exciting projects that you can share with us?

We’ve developed a platform on Vimeo for Intelligence Squared who chair debates and live talks. That’ll be live before the end of the year as well as the new home share portal. We’ve also done Aquarate’s brand recently which is a really nice portfolio piece. We made the connection being based in the same building so did a whole workshop and developed the identity with them. We’ve worked with The Mind Map too who we connected with at Baltic Creative. We’ve got quite a lot going on!

Sounds exciting! Thanks for talking to us Stephen.

You can find out more about Hopeful on their website. Don’t forget to give them a follow on social media so you can stay up-to-date with future projects. 

Images (c) Hopeful Studio.