Sail Creative is a design studio founded with purpose. Launched in 2016 by Newcastle-based Mandy Barker, the “small but fierce” team of three has worked on an abundance of noteworthy, activist-led projects; the pandemic hasn’t slowed them down all that much either. Whether it’s storytelling work with refugees and asylum seekers; showcasing stories of the LGBTQ community; branding and creative for Jameela Jamil’s IWeigh platform; or a lockdown campaign for Northumbrian Water – “We’ve been busier than ever,” Mandy tells us. Here, Mandy opens up about the challenges of launching your own studio and how, especially with such a tight-knit team, collaboration is the key to success.

5 images from left to right; Newcastle Carers bus stop billboard, Sail's creative brochure, Mandy and Danni smiling, sitting on a high bridge, Jameela Jamil "Staying true to yourself" graphic, "Everything can change" multicoloured design picture

It's about testing and learning, and being vulnerable around the team; not just playing it safe.

Can you tell us a bit about Sail and what you do?
Sail is a creative and activist studio partnering with purposeful organisations including charities, disruptive start-ups and ethical businesses.

Through creative problem-solving, research, storytelling and collaboration we generate narratives, branding, campaigns and design, working directly with audiences including those with lived experience. Sail, and the team as individuals, are dedicated to social and systemic change, advocacy, activism and sustainability.

When and how did the studio come about?
I founded Sail after I left my agency job in 2016. I wanted to be an activist studio, and to do work I cared about for organisations that are making a difference. I didn’t want to sell my soul for my career, or be a ‘cog in a commercial business’; I knew there must be a better way. I wanted to be able to disrupt familiarity with unknown paths, and challenge myself by trying something new.

What were those early days like?
I had no money in the bank, no support, no ‘assets’ and no real ‘plan’. But that meant I had nothing to lose, and all I needed was passion and drive to make it work. I followed what felt right. I am in no way advocating this is the right way to do things, but for me, it worked. I suppose I am a natural risk-taker, I thrive on change. And if it wasn’t going to work, I would get a job. Any job.

Once the studio launched, we started the first two years picking up work and building a network where we could, doing pro bono projects for organisations we cared about and trying to make a name for Sail. Since then, we have worked harder than ever before but loved every minute.

How do you find the scene in Newcastle for what you do?
Newcastle is a brilliant place to live, have a business and be a creative. It’s small, very easy to get to know people, affordable and has everything you could want – a beach, the countryside and the city! I love it because it’s always been a bit of an underdog. It’s got enough grit and resilience to have amazing community, but still has opportunities and organisations that are making real change.

Because it’s small, it does make it hard to find quality creative roles. There aren’t many good studios, but more are popping up. We live in the North, but still work globally – LA and across London.

Were there any early projects that helped you develop?
My first project, Words Bare, was a self-initiated exhibition that showcased stories of the LGBTQ community. As a lesbian woman, I have faced prejudice and I wanted to challenge why this is still happening.

I started gathering research from other members of the LGBTQ community to showcase individual experiences collectively. The project was passion-driven, there was no money involved – just hard work. I worked with young groups, trans groups, older groups and collected stories online. I started turning them into typographic designs.

I had no expectations, but I booked an exhibition space in Newcastle which meant I couldn’t go back. Words Bare grew and exhibited across four years. It was so fun to work on because I believed in it; I got to positively challenge social views around gender and sexuality, whilst bringing a community together in a safe space. It helped me find new friends and collaborators, validated that other people cared about what I cared about, and gave me the confidence to really drive Sail in this direction.

This led onto Curious Arts, the North East’s LGBTQ arts festival. It was our first big branding project at the time, which was so great to work on. Four years later, and I don’t think Danni and I would have done anything differently. We are strong allies with Curious and still work with them regularly.

Another client was a human rights law firm, and the Lesbian and Gay Legal Association – there was definitely a theme and it was validating what I set out to do. The biggest thing that helped get us on the map, and will help anyone for that matter, is the network. People and supporters are your biggest asset. Say hello and make friends!

How do you feel the pandemic has impacted the way you work?
Covid has showed us that community is everything, it has made me think and shop more local, slow down and appreciate time. It’s highlighted that Newcastle (and humanity) is caring, connected and creative. Many people are thinking of new and innovative ways to support each other and community groups, which is both humbling and a beam of hope in this current time.

Our first lockdown project at the end of March was to create a self-initiated map of the city to help join the dots and highlight some of the amazing support that is being offered. We have also been working with refugees and asylum-seekers on telling their stories, so that the world listens.

Who’s on the team and how is it structured?
Danni has been with us since day one as a collaborator and is now a core part of Sail – literally a partner in change! With Kat as the latest addition to the team, we are a small but fierce team of three, and look to stay small so that we can be agile, say no to projects that are not right for us and say yes to ones that we believe in.

Between us we have such a deep skill-set and diverse thinking; Sail couldn’t be without the team. Being small also gives us the luxury of being able to collaborate with creatives, academics, scientists, community groups and more. It also shares the economic love! We don’t want to be a big corporation bound by overheads or processes.

What do you look for when you’re recruiting or adding to the team?
Bringing in new team members is always an element of personality and intuition. Can they bring something different to the team and challenge us in a different way?

I also ask how active are they personally, are they self-aware and do they have self-drive and motivation? Because you need that, when working on activist projects – especially in this climate. Emotional intelligence goes a long way in the design world. Keep this in mind, always. We have to want to understand people; be curious. Skill you can learn, attitude is intrinsic.

Do you take on apprentices or interns?
We do take on interns, but as we want to make sure interns get the most out of the role and offer our full support, and we only have so much capacity, we don’t have the time to do this as regularly as we’d like. We also have strong views about paying interns, we would never expect anyone to work for free and neither should anyone else.

As a whole, we are trying to build Sail as a safe space to learn, explore and make mistakes. It’s about testing and learning, and being vulnerable around the team; not just playing it safe. This helps us grow as creatives and generate the best ideas.

A lot of graduates and students go into a role thinking they have to be perfect (I certainly did) and this can really hold people back from learning and experimenting. Exploring away from a screen can help shine light on new ideas, but this is a change to what we are used to as a society – often we like structure and feel most productive sitting behind a screen, but it doesn’t generate the best ideas.

Sometimes just walking and thinking can uncover the best opportunities. I always want us, as a team and individuals, to push back if we want to try a new way of working, which we will always be open to!

What are your greatest learnings from running a studio?

You shouldn’t let perfectionism hold you back. This is a mindset shift that is hard to do but important; let yourself be open to failure. It’s often better to start something and see where you go, you don’t always need to know where you are going. Everyone gets ‘blank paper’ syndrome! Get immersive and enjoy the process.

The future will always be uncertain and he industry can be hard work. Just enjoy the ride – resilience is key. And if you want to make change, design activism is about being human, and doing things whilst they are relevant.

People are everything , so invest in your relationships. And trust your gut – it’s always right. You can do anything, you just have to be ok with being uncomfortable and make sacrifices for a while. The journey ‘there’ is the best bit (and that never ends).

What do you have coming up next for the studio?

We will be continuing our design activism by working with those who are making real change. This includes an immersive project challenging gender norms, a storytelling campaign with a group of Mexican women and the Cherie Blair Foundation and branding for a start-up making real change around plastic waste. Excitingly, I will also be starting a guest lecture role at London College of Communications on Advertising and Activism.

The future is more uncertain than ever, so our main plan is being kind to ourselves and each other, reflecting and looking after our wellbeing. Strength and solidarity!

First image - Danni sat smiling with her head turned to the left. She has a red bob and is wearing a denim pinafore with yellow tights. Second image - Kat smiling at the camera, she has long brown hair and is wearing a yellow top.

Danni has been with Sail Creative since 2016. Previously she worked at iAMi Creative, and graduated from Northumbria University in 2013.

How would you describe your role?
It’s extremely varied with a very strong sense of purpose running through everything I do. Before I worked with Sail I would have happily referred to myself as a graphic designer, but that title doesn’t seem to fit anymore, as my role has diversified so much over time.

What skills do you use most for your work?
My skill set has expanded vastly since leaving university. It’s funny, I don’t think you don’t truly learn how to be a graphic designer until you are working in industry.

At university you have the luxury of a long time to work on projects where you can really explore your creative freedom and find your own voice, but when you are in industry working for clients with tighter deadlines that’s when your skills really start to form as you have to learn to work faster and smarter. So you quickly become more efficient with software and learn to work under pressure too.

Stay tuned to read our full interview with Danni in the coming weeks.

Kat has been with Sail since February 2020. Before that she worked as a part-time intern with the company in 2019, and graduated from Loughborough University in 2016.

How did your role at Sail come about?
I spotted Sail on Instagram, and I was immediately engaged by their playful brands designed for third sector clients. There wasn’t a job going, but I wanted to meet the faces behind the work, so I designed a bespoke die-cut flyer with a personalised letter and posted it to Mandy. I met with the team, got offered an internship, and after, a full-time job.

What are some of your learnings since starting out?
Starting as a full-time junior in a small studio is a steep learning curve. There’s a lot to take in regarding software skills, artworking and deadlines – real-world stuff you don’t learn at uni.

Now, in my spare time I find myself watching Skillshare, reading design books and messing around in Illustrator. Also, check out the Logocore challenge – one to sharpen your artworking skills.

Stay tuned to read our full interview with Kat in the coming weeks.