Studio at Work: Tom Carey on designing around the world

Meet one of our Senior Creative Directors in our London studio, Tom Carey. Tom has worked all over the world, and we interviewed him to find out more about his global experience and how he brings his learnings from his previous roles into Wolff Olins. 

Hi Tom! Can you tell us a little bit about your role at Wolff Olins, and what you enjoy about your work? 

I joined Wolff last year as a Creative Director, which means I lead brand projects, partnering with clients and bringing together the right people to create an excited and inspired team, in order to do the absolute best work possible. What I love most about the role is that I get to create things, I think that’s something that is really unique as a job and something that often we can forget, that you can look back at something a week ago and realise a week before it didn’t exist - we are bringing something new into the world and it’s the opportunity for us to have a positive impact on the world with what we design. 

The second thing I love about my job is that it’s an opportunity for us to affect people in a meaningful way, it could be making them feel proud about the place that they work, excited about what they’re doing or helping to give them a voice. When you see people's emotional reactions to the work, it’s really rewarding as we put so much heart into everything we create. Everyone at Wolff Olins is so talented, nice, they all love what they do and having that range of different skills, ideas and ways of seeing things – it’s impossible not to have fun and to keep learning.

Let’s talk about your past experience. You’ve previously worked in the US, UK and Australia – Have you noticed any differences in the way that agencies operate across these different spaces?  

While they’re all very different, there are definitely things that unite them. I left the UK in 2012 after spending a few years starting my career out in London. The UK certainly has such a strong history and heritage around design, especially built around D&AD and the culture that they’ve fostered. It’s been a real pleasure actually to come back to the UK and to see how the culture has grown and the strength of the studios outside London...Maybe that was there before but it didn't have the same exposure. It’s very competitive in the UK; for the work, projects and talent; there’s a lot of people looking sideways and jostling for position, but often that leads to really great work, and I think that competition brings innovation.  

Working in Australia was super exciting as I didn't know anything about it previously and had never visited. Before I moved, I heard a lot of talk that Australia was 10 years behind everyone else, but I found it to be the exact opposite. When I look back at the work that has been done over the last 10 years in Australia it’s pretty incredible and actually it’s begun to dominate the awards and the Brand New results. It’s a small but mighty design industry in a big country a long long way away, and it has become prominent on a global stage. I think that comes down to the creative opportunities that exist in Australia as people are really willing to take risks and celebrate creativity. I was fortunate enough to work on the Sydney Opera house rebrand, if that opportunity came about in London people would be all over it and the pitch list would be ridiculously long. But that was an amazing opportunity that arose and it was a real honour. 

In the US I worked at Facebook Reality Labs (now Meta), rather than an agency, but the unique thing about the US is the sheer number of start-ups and incredibly creative businesses out there, that goes beyond the marketing department, in fact the entire business is super creative and built on an opportunity or an idea. My experience in the States was focused more on tech, product design and research which made it feel quite different, but it certainly gave me a whole bunch of new skills that I hadn't been as focused on previously, so that was exciting. 

That kind of covers the differences between those spaces geographically. But what is interesting is there are some themes that run through all of them, like: it doesn’t matter where you are, great ideas always win. There are human truths and human emotions that you can tap into, people always fall in love with great ideas, the only difference is how you support it with research, tell an engaging story and back it up with thoughtful logic. 

Over your working time abroad, what lessons and practises have you learnt that you bring to your role here at Wolff Olins? 

This is a tricky one as sometimes you don’t realise what you’ve learnt until you use it. I guess one thing I've learnt is that there are opportunities all over the world that are available if you are open to them and curious enough. I never planned to leave London but being open minded has really changed my entire life. It’s how I met my wife, it’s why I decided to go travelling, it’s why I moved to Australia, the US, and why I moved back here; it can take you on adventures and be a really powerful way to make your job work for you. Being a ‘graphic designer’ can sound like you’re stuck behind a desk but it can take you all over the world.

Some of the other things that I've learnt is that there are so many different ways of doing things, and working with different people challenges you to be better. I’m constantly thinking I remember when Oli/Daye/Teemu/Giles (to name a few) said that thing or how someone approached a situation differently. Who you work with definitely rubs off on you, and that’s unique to the places that you work, so it’s important to work with a variety of people. 

I’ve certainly learnt that doing great work is only half the battle, it’s just as important to show that you’ve listened and understand a client's challenges, giving people confidence that what you are designing is right and being able to deliver a compelling story that people understand and believe in too.

From a designer perspective, how do in-house environments differ from that in an agency? 

When you go in-house you get to go deeper and wider as you work with more individuals under one roof across departments (some you didn’t even knew existed), so you get to know the whole business better. Obviously in an agency you get to touch on different sectors and different projects, but when you are in-house the design really has to work as there is nowhere to hide, it has to be practical and functional, something that people will fall in love with across the business and have a real impact. 


Where do you find inspiration for your work? 

For me there is always pressure on designers to be inspired or go to places for inspiration. It’s not something that I really believe in or something I do myself…I rarely go to art galleries! For me it’s about trying to stay curious, stay naïve, and ask stupid questions. Try and think like a five year old is often the way I think about things. My old boss’ son was watching the Tour de France and said it looked like a ‘bicycle snake’. I just love that weird way of looking at the world of staying curious, staying with the imaginative brain we’ve all been born with, and not be too conventionalised by the world we’ve grown up in. 


What predictions do you have for the future of the design world for 2022? 

The biggest challenge, which I suppose leads to the biggest opportunity, is how we, as creative people, build creative cultures virtually. It’s exciting and an opportunity to hire people from different backgrounds and places since we are no longer limited by proximity, so we are open to a wider pool of talent and interesting people to work with, and this challenges us to redesign how we work, how we think about problems and how we can do things differently. 

I hope that, as grim as the world is right now, there's an opportunity for design and creativity to bring a little bit of joy, fun and positivity to the world.