August 4, 2022
9 min read

The Play&Co Story | A Conversation with Founders Brendan and Karen Hutchieson

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Building a design agency from the ground up with a partner requires a certain combination of trust, grit, and resiliency. Since day one, Brendan and Karen Hutchieson have taken their name seriously - injecting a healthy dose of optimism into every project and client relationship. Consequently, they have developed an efficient, collaborative, and most importantly, user-centered design process with proven results. Here, they talk about how they ended up there.

How did you guys get into design?

Karen: I was raised on a fruit orchard in the country, where space fueled my creative spirit - I think this is why Brendan often likens me to the fictional character, Scout Finch from To Kill A Mockingbird. In high school, I won a costume design competition which strengthened my resolve to pursue a career in design. On graduating, I moved to Melbourne to attend Brighton Bay Arts & Design. Brighton Bay allowed me to explore a wide range of creative avenues, including design, art, and photography. On completion, I had a rich and diverse portfolio that opened doors to a number of University programs… I settled on the National School of Design because of its reputation for Industrial Design and location in one of the coolest pockets of Melbourne.    

Brendan: Creativity has always come naturally to me and I’ve always loved drawing. In high school, I shaped surfboards and sold them to friends. I always figured I’d go into graphic design, but during my senior year, a friend of mine opened my eyes to Industrial Design. His final art project was a sofa fashioned from the trunk of a 1970s Holden Kingswood, I was hooked! After high school, I spent a year surfing, working in a coffee shop and building my portfolio. The following year, I was offered a place at the National School of Design’s Industrial Design program. It was here that I met Karen, and a friendship was born!  

When did you guys first meet and what was your first design project together? Was this the moment you also realized you had a synergy when you combined your respective backgrounds and skill sets?

Karen:  Over the past 2 decades, We have been very lucky to have lived and worked together for a diverse range of companies all over the world. However, the first time we realized our synergies and combined our skill sets was during our tenure at Philips Design in Hong Kong, from 2006 to 2012. Brendan was the Creative Lead for the Headphone portfolio and I was a Design Manager. We worked together on a new range of headphones, later to be named ‘Citiscape’. I drove consumer insights and trends analysis while Brendan and his team drove concept design and development. We ran co-creation sessions with users in New York, London and Berlin. These sessions helped to validate some early concepts and spawned completely new ones! The resulting range featured several ‘new to market’ features that delivered comfort and style for street savvy consumers.  

Brendan:  Indeed. Philips Design was definitely our most formative experience. At the time, the Hong Kong studio was Philips’ second largest design studio globally… and we were respected for our ‘work hard / party hard’ reputation. It’s important to note that Philips Design was a world-renowned studio led by Stefano Marzano at the time, and many of our ‘tricks of the trade’ come from Philips. Additionally, Hong Kong was a hyper-cosmopolitan, cultural melting pot and the gateway to the world’s factory. All of this made us feel a little like design rockstars and proved to be a bottomless bucket of inspiration. At nights and on weekends, Karen even crammed in a Masters Degree in Design Strategy at Hong Kong Polytechnic. So, yeah… I guess you can say that this is where the magic started.

Karen: But bringing it back to Citiscape for a minute, hahaha. This project was a highly collaborative process, between Brendan, myself, the wider design team, marketing and engineering teams. The project’s success hinged on designing a creative vision, framework and visual direction that unified the team to adopt and deliver a successful product range with a strong identity and raison d’être.

Brendan: Thanks Karen! And this is what we believe is the essence of ‘creative direction’. The Citiscape experience was the first time we felt empowered to influence a project as a couple, empowering a team to create some truly amazing designs. A couple of nice examples come to mind: The Fixie was a mid-sized on-ear headphone inspired by fixed-gear bicycles. We thought it would be fun to use bike handlebar grip tape for the headband cushioning… you can imagine this feature generated a lot of hype on launch. Secondly, the Mono was an affordable on-ear headphone designed to appeal to kids with a bit of extra pocket money. The Mono employed woven shoelace technology for its headband, allowing the design team limitless combinations for color and pattern expressions. We often refer to this as ‘visual value’ - paying attention to design ingredients that don’t necessarily add cost, but create strong emotional resonance with the user.

How did that journey morph into the Play&Co agency that we know of today — including growing your team and adding new service offerings?

Brendan: Essentially, the journey and experience at world-class design firms has allowed us to build a ‘Creativity Toolkit’ that is used on all Play&Co projects. This toolkit, like Play&Co, is ever evolving. Additionally, I think there’s something to be said for our nomadic path. Together, we’ve built resilience through experience and immersed ourselves in a range of cultures that very few people get the chance to do. It’s surprising how often our ‘life lessons’ inform our studio practice. Consequently, today’s Play&Co is a highly collaborative design agency with a world-class toolkit, and strong empathy for people and our planet.

Karen: Building on the ‘life lessons’ idea… sustainability and health have always been core values for Brendan and myself… ‘the planet’s health is my health’ and vice versa. We’re also naturally optimistic and positive people, always putting an upbeat spin on complex topics. We like to think this ‘quirky optimism’ is contagious, rubbing off on our team and clients. I also believe this is one of the unique traits that sets us apart, creating a cocoon for creativity to blossom! 

What is your design philosophy and how does this echo across the rest of the Play&Co team?

Brendan:  There is a multi-dimensional answer to this question, but the simple one is that “We Take Play Seriously”. We try to infuse a sense of play into everything we do, particularly for our creative process. At Play&Co, playing ‘outside the margins’ is usually where the magic happens. We also believe in the power of story-telling. As the design process evolves, we encourage our team to capture their process, create storyboards, renderings, experiential mockups, prototypes, infographics and other assets to craft memorable and inspiring narratives.

Karen:  Yes and the influence of ‘play’ transcends our team. It’s a big draw card for clients who retain us for multiple projects, year over year. Most of our client relationships have started with small projects, but over time, we’ve built trust and value through a fun, exciting and relentlessly energetic work ethic… I’d say this is part of our brand DNA… Chromosome #1, hahaha. But in all seriousness, as we look to build our team, we look for diversity of talent, diversity of background, diversity of opinion and personality… After all, diversity is essential to create the magic Brendan mentioned. 

Brendan:  Yes! Personality is inherent, but skills can be taught… we want to prioritize building the right culture, the rest will follow.

How do you approach bringing your clients into the Play&Co design process?

Karen:  Quite organically, to be honest. It often involves several ‘get to know you’ discussions, from which we determine and agree on a project scope and timeline. The scoping process outlines an agenda for workshops, collaboration sessions, meetings, presentation milestones and other deliverables. We pride ourselves on being accessible, so if a client needs clarity on anything - we’re ready to answer and accommodate. Once a project is rolling, we maintain an internal ‘Playbook’ that captures the creative process and serves as a critical tool for design reviews, and increasingly - for clients’ general reference. Some have even made printed books from our digital Playbooks to share within their organization.

Brendan: Karen more or less nailed it. But I’d like to add that we spend a considerable amount of energy in the earliest stages to debate, plan, research, and define the objective… This usually results in a ‘project blueprint’ or ‘north star’ of sorts - a set of exercises, assigned responsibilities, and project aspirations that the whole team (client and Play&Co) aligns on. Also, it’s common for our team to discover lateral ideas that create new opportunities for the business, its customers & users. In these cases, we ‘cook’ lateral ideas in parallel and present them when the time is right. We’ve had a great adoption rate for these discoveries, generating value for the client and more business for Play&Co.

What’s next for Play&Co?

Karen: We have a near term 2-year plan to evolve into a more influential thought-leadership company. Over this period, we plan to become a go-to place for provocative ideas and market-leading products & services. This will happen by building on the great work and momentum we’ve generated over the past 2 years; strengthening our ‘Creative Toolkit’, growing our team, expanding our audience, and focusing our project work on 3 of the most important and interconnected challenges facing society today. Those being Climate Change, Energy and Health & Wellness. Sounds simple, right?

Brendan: I feel like we’re only just getting started. The children are our future. All joking aside, by that - I mean that a significant amount of our (meaning Karen and my) energy will be spent nurturing the next wave of talent to join Play&Co, adopt our mission and help build a company that designs and delivers world-improving stuff! Our mission is to ‘Help Visionaries Build Better Futures by Design’, and we’ve never felt clearer and more inspired about our direction than we do today. Excitingly, we’re in the early stages of an expansion-focused chapter with a focus on hiring a hit squad of amazing specialists, from generative & computational designers, to high fidelity CGI and animation, to knit design and more. The future is yet to be written, and we’re excited to be designing it!

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