Interview with Sophie Thomas

Over the past ten years, as director and joint owner of thomas.matthews London, award-winning communication designer Sophie Thomas has led and delivered a vast array of projects across the world. These range from the highly acclaimed “No Shop” campaign for Friends of the Earth in 1997 to the £15 million interactive Space galleries for the Royal Observatory Greenwich which opened this Spring.
Throughout the years of experience in the communication design industry, Sophie has strived to practice a number of core principles making sure they are instilled in those that work with thomas.matthews. These include working to a set of highly ethical and sustainable principles and bringing elements of humour and innovation into all the work.

Interview by Karol de Rueda
thomas.matthews is a successful communication design agency established in 1997 that believes in good design and sustainability. As a graphic designer, what motivated you to take such direction?
I have always said that as a designer, this is something that I have been always passionate about. I was pretty much the way I was brought up: to be quite political, very vocal about my opinions and to understand and have the knowledge about them. When I was doing my degree, that wasn’t part of my agenda so much. It became much more part of my agenda when I went to college to do my MA and I spent two years thinking about what I really wanted to do with my skill set. Then I started collaborating with Kristine Mathews. We found out that because of our complementary skills and our very similar life agendas, we could do something really powerful. Then, our work and lives started to enforce sustainability.
You have now ten years working with this sustainable philosophy. How hard was at the beginning to deal with clients and the new idea of creating “green” design. How difficult is to re-educate them?
For the beginning, the clients that Kristine and I wanted to work with were very much focused on sustainability, so, the first few projects that we did were very much based on who they were. As we started to grow with the practice, we came up with certain rules about our work like using post consumer papers, talking to our printers about how they use their processes, thinking about alternative materials as well. Those things became part of the way that we work.

But because we set the agenda in the first place with projects such as “No Shop,” or “What comes around goes around,” the clients came by themselves. What was harder for us was the fact that the materials we wanted to use were not necessarily available at that time, but now it’s much easy to say to a client: “use post consumer paper for this piece of print, it will save your carbon footprint” because actually now you can calculate your carbon emission footprint and also that paper has really good quality and there is not difference, particularly in price either. So it’s much easier for us to persuade our clients, to talk and to re-educate them.
We find an incredible variety of materials and different technologies out there, but they are not necessarily pro-ecology. Is this, in any way, a limitation for a sustainable designer?
I never have seeing that as a limitation. It has never limited our work in any way. What it does do is that it makes you think more naturally, more creatively about the solutions you want to present to the client. Also, designers become responsible to make suppliers to look for other materials and alternatives.
Once you decide to change your lifestyle and start to preach about sustainability, how do you deal with the public pressure in a world where is not always possible to be ‘green’?
It’s about degrees on what you can do, and making steps; what I intend to do in how I live and work. The two don’t have a line between them, so I go home and yes, I recycle my rubbish, I have a bicycle, I live in a very heat efficient house, but then I don’t want to go to work and do a very unsustainable practice. The two are connected, but you have to understand your limitations. Some things you don’t have the control over but there are other things you can do like putting pressure by writing a letter to your government. It’s about levels of degrees and the fact that we all are humans as well. Its hard though, we get a lot of criticism, but thomas matthews is very open about discussion so at least we can voice our argument.
A public voice that preaches about a cause needs to follow it. It’s a big commitment because you represent an image.
There are people who are incredible sustainable in their lifestyle. I try to be that. I am not incredible sustainable. I do the best I can, I try to be very efficient, I try to be sustainable to the level that I can be but what I aim to do is to try better that every time, set myself targets and then try to succeed step by step, because I live in a city and there are several things I can’t control in such place.
Is it important to create a sustainable culture, for example, in schools?
Its incredible important because the future generations of design I see them as social agents of change. Graphic designers have to realize this responsibility. If they don’t, or if they don’t understand it, they can’t change the way they work. People also have to understand that they need personal lifestyle decisions, what they want to fight for and what not. For me, sustainability is such a crucial issue and climate change is everybody’s problem; we have to start changing our patterns, the way that we do things. We all have to make radical changes to the way that we work, people and designers.
Designers and all professionals need to find a different way to work without the old wasteful technologies.
I can only speak for communication design as an individual because this is my area of knowledge, but yes, everything, everybody has something they should change and they need to develop. New partnerships and collaborations need to be set up between chemist and philosophers and biologist and carmakers, all these people that creates, all the industries, the corporations, the governments. All the design industries need to connect and find new solutions.
Sophie, do you believe in statistics?
It depends where they come from, but I believe in their power. When you look at them, for instance, somebody tells you we only have 99 months until the tipping point, your really don’t understand, but I believe in the visual communication of that statistic as a vehicle for telling people what is going on. They are very useful tools for explaining positions.
What do you have to say to those young graphic designers that are trying to work sustainable but they also need to make a profit?
I will say that there is not fight between the two. If profit is about creating wealth for one person, then there is no connection. But if profit is about creating a community of designers or studio where the wealth can be spread out and it makes everyone happy, then I think there is not argument between the two. There are not on a balancing scale. Our studio has been running for ten year and we don’t make massive profits, but we make enough to pass it on to everybody, to support the studio and support the fantastic work that comes out of it. We do sustainable design and it pays very well. I think if you don’t do it as a designer I think you will suffer because it is the future of design.
You have been around Fabrica for a couple of days now. Is there any suggestion for the people, the building, for everybody to follow and contribute for the green cause?
I think the designers here have a great opportunity, there are so many resources around them; library, technology, people with other skill sets, real life projects, so I am sure that students understand this privilege and they make the most of it. To Fabrica, I will like to see some of the ideas we have been working on, putting them to practice, because there are so many good ones in the 99 months project, which was very hard; it asked for a lot of concentration for five days and I threw so many devastating statistics at you. Its really rewarding for me to see how, now as a designer, you can use your choices as your tools.
Sustainability is getting there, to one of your everyday questions in how you design something and that is fantastic.