Design Militia is a small but perfectly formed business based in Boxworks. It’s been creating brands and digital assets for clients nationally and internationally for over 10 years, and we spoke to its co-founder, Tim Smalley, to find out more about what it does.
Business age: As of 19th May, we’ll have been in business for ten years.
Number of employees: We’re a core team of two, both founders of the company. This is a conscious choice: we’ve always tried to keep Design Militia small and personal. Our priority is working directly with clients and not managing people; when we require additional skills, we draw on a pool of trusted freelancers. It’s an approach that’s worked for us so far!
Length of time in Temple Quarter: Two years, all spent in Boxworks. The company has always been based in Bristol, though – we’ve had offices in Colston Street, Christmas Steps and North Street. The city is a great place to network and share skills with other businesses.
What does Design Militia do? One of the hardest things about describing what we do is that there are so many phrases already out there and so little clarity about what they mean in practice: digital first agency, creative digital agency, web agency, digital agency… And they don’t seem to get to the heart of it, because inevitably we end up doing some print work on every job. What I would say is that we take ideas, brands and services and create websites, apps and new brands for them. This could be anything from a small tweak to a logo to starting from a blank slate and creating a whole new brand.
How did the business get started? I met Dan at university in Plymouth. We were both studying Digital Arts and Technology and, as part of the course, I was lucky enough to do a placement year with a big agency, working primarily in television and with high profile brands. In a sense, it was a dream job – but I quickly began to see that it wasn’t for me. The big nature of the brands meant there were constraints on what could be delivered, which meant a lack of creative freedom. I also had no direct contact with clients – it was all a bit ‘Chinese whispers’, and it wasn’t how I wanted to work.
It made me realise that what I wanted was to work on a more personal and independent scale. So Dan and I decided to start a business together when we graduated – and Design Militia was born.
We chose Bristol because of its reputation as the UK’s answer to Silicon Valley (outside of London). As soon as we won our first contract, we started renting offices – and the rest is history. We always fear it’s going to end, but it just keeps going!
Tell us about some of the most memorable projects you’ve worked on. What I love is working with people passionate about their businesses, making their ideas flourish in a visual way. For example, we did some work with a Polish couple who’d created a tea brand – when we met with them, they brought 15 boxes of tea to the office and we talked to them about it for over an hour!
Another memorable experience was working with outdoor clothing brand Rohan. We produced a digital version of their catalogue when the first ever iPad came out. It was exciting because it was something totally new at the time, and because they’re such a big brand. Their offices were amazing too: in their lobby they have vintage aeroplane chairs, so old they have ashtrays attached!
What makes working at Design Militia different from other jobs? We see our independent, personal ethos as one of our defining characteristics. Our office is also pretty special – when I say we’re based in the shipping containers by Temple Meads, it gives us a bit of street cred! People tend to expect us to have something crazy like a slide going through the office. We don’t have that, but we do have a swing…
What do you like about working in Temple Quarter? I love the community here. There are lots of great companies in Boxworks and Engine Shed and lots of events, like the legendary Christmas party, where we can meet them. An added advantage is that a lot of the local businesses are at a stage well-suited to our services – their businesses are expanding and they don’t want their websites or branding to be left behind.
We get a lot of casual enquiries just by being based here, people asking us to pop upstairs or to send over a quote. For example, we recently worked with Ignite Digital, making sure that their website was good enough to ensure they could be a serious player in their sector.
Of course, there’s also the great transport links. It’s great that it’s so easy and quick to get to London, and we both love being able to commute by bike to the office. The facilities at Engine Shed are second to none too.
How would you like to see Temple Quarter develop or change in the future? The main thing I’d like to see is more food establishments! We’re big fans of the Temple Quay Thursday street food market and there are lots of great places to get coffee, but it would be nice to have something a bit more permanent. I’d also like to see an improved Temple Meads station, with more facilities and more permeability.
What does Design Militia have planned for the future? We want to keep doing more of the same – staying independent, maintaining personal relationships with our clients and helping them share their passions with the world.
Describe the business in 3 words. Nimble. Personable. Creative.
Has this interview piqued your interest? You can find out more about Design Militia on their website.