London Calling — Tim Donaldson, The Suburbs

8 years ago by

The Suburbs is a multidisciplinary design studio based in London and also in Hamilton. They craft a wide range of cleverly thought-out branding and web design work with a group of varied clients. We recently managed to have a chat with one of the founding members, Tim Donaldson:


Hi Tim, firstly thanks heaps for your time, and secondly can you tell us a little bit about yourself, where you’re from, where you studied, where you’re currently living, etc?
I grew up in the rural outskirts of Tauranga which was pretty nice. I studied down at Massey in Wellington, loved living in Wellington — such a great place to be a student. And I’m currently living in London. Both of my parents owned their own businesses growing up so I think that instilled in me some kind of desire to be self employed. I ran into an old neighbour I hadn’t seen in years at a funeral a couple of years ago… She asked me if I ended up becoming an accountant. Apparently when I was 5 or 6 I used to run around the neighbourhood proclaiming my desire to be an accountant when I grew up! What kind of kid dreams of that right? I dunno. But I ended up doing the complete opposite in becoming a designer. It does explain my fondness for spreadsheets and budgets though…

Tell us about The Suburbs, and how it first got started.
Chris Johnson and I first launched The Suburbs back in 2010. We’d just graduated from Massey in Wellington and decided to team up and create an umbrella brand for our personal and client projects. Chris is an Industrial Designer, while I studied Graphic Design, so between us we covered 2 quite different spectrums of Design.

Starting any business is such had work and it’s no different for a design studio (especially when you’re launching out off the doom and gloom of a global recession). So, in the early days, we mostly worked on personal projects while building up our client base. Chris used The Suburbs as a platform to launch his furniture ranges, while I worked on designing type. I was lucky to have some really inspiring and knowledgable type tutors at Massey. They ingrained in me a strong sense of why typography is the basis of ‘Good Design’. So after graduating, I decided I wanted to work with Type. At around that time I saw the success Kris Sowersby was (and still is) having with his fonts and thought maybe I could follow in his footsteps.

The result was 2 typefaces which worked out rather successfully for me; Pyes Pa, and Otama. My claim to fame is that Barak Obama brought Otama in the lead up to his last election. I’ve no idea what his team used it for unfortunately, but I’m sure it played a pivotal role in his success!


Otama also took me to work in India with Satya Rajpurohit at the Indian Type Foundry. At the time, I was looking for a new typographic challenge and thought maybe I could design Otama for Indian or Chinese scripts. I got in touch with Satya about my idea and he said, sure thing, come on over and I’ll teach you! So a month later I was jumping on plane to India for my first overseas trip. I was nearly broke, working out of my parent’s house, and I don’t know how I even paid for the flights. But somehow I made it work, and India turned out to be the most amazing, exciting, life threatening thing I’ve done.

I was based in Ahmendbad, which was a hot-bed for modernist designers back in the day. I was surrounded by buildings that had been designed by Design legends such as Le Corbusier. The local design school’s logo was designed by my typography hero Adrian Frutiger, etc, etc. Being surrounded by all this design history amongst the textures, smells and chaos of India was quite an experience for a kid out of lil’ ol’ New Zealand with its relatively humble design roots.

When I arrived home from India, we got onto launching our first joint venture. Through uni, Chris and I had flatted together and developed quite a fondness for tea, so we took the obvious route and decided to start our own organic tea company, Informal Tea Co. We scraped together what money we could, I took out a loan of $1,500 from my mum (which I still owe her — sorry mum!) and got started.


I had always held an interest in building websites and had done a number beforehand, but the site for Informal Tea was the first really successful site for me. It was featured online and I started to get requests from businesses who had seen the website. From there things snowballed and web design probably makes up 90% of my work now, while Chris and his wife Melissa have their hands full with Informal Tea.

The one biggest thing I’ve learned out of all that, and which I think helps me in working with clients, is that business is really, really hard. From running and launching your own businesses, you really do get a sense of what design has to do, and that it’s part of this larger eco-system of business strategy, product selection, marketing, finances, timelines, competition.

The Suburbs is based in both London and Hamilton. Can you explain a bit about how that works and who some of your clients are.
Yeah, so I moved to London earlier this year after being based in Tauranga. I’ve been working with Mr Simple for the past 3 or so years, who are great team out of Byron Bay, Australia. They’ve also opened up a couple of stores in Auckland over the last year and keep going from strength to strength. I’m also lucky to work with The Designers Foundry which is an awesome Christchurch-based font retailer working with amazing type designers around the world. It’s fun to continue that earlier association with type and Daniel has some amazing products lined up for the near future, so you should definitely keep an eye on them. And I was lucky enough to work with DDMMYY and Previously Unavailable on their Best Award winning campaign for NZ Breast Cancer last year.



How does the London design scene compare to that of Hamilton? What benefits does the energy of each place bring to your design practice?
I can’t speak for Chris in Hamilton, but I really enjoyed being based in Tauranga. I love surfing so it’s great to have that on your doorstep when you need to step away from work. There’s a nice small creative culture over in Mount Maunganui… Chris and Rachelle Duffy (from the Little Big Markets — a client of ours) have done an amazing job to build a platform for creatives through their markets and events.

London on the other hand is a huge, undefinable beast. I wasn’t expecting to like London to be honest. I have more of a natural attraction to smaller cities like Wellington, Copenhagen and Edinburgh. To me, those cities seem to have more of an authentic grungy creative culture which I really admire. But London is pretty unique I think. The history and architecture are amazing for a start. I went to a Monet exhibition at Te Papa when I was studying and it blew my mind. It was the best visual thing I’d ever seen. In London, you could find a Monet exhibition any day of the week + 50 other equally inspiring exhibitions. And there is so much going on, a never ending stream of new pop-ups, events, festivals, gigs etc. It’s quite ridiculous really. There’s something about all that madness that drives everyone on to do bigger and better things. And it all gets a bit overwhelming and show-off-y sometimes, but this is where London comes into its own — you can go down to Brixton and you’ll find yourself among the most raw, authentic city culture that’s a million miles away from the wealth and trendiness of central London. Of course, Brixton isn’t as ‘real’ as it was back in the day. It takes forever to get anywhere, there’s a ridiculously huge and ever-widening social gap between the rich and the poor, and there’s no beaches, but I can definitely admire London for what it is and all that it offers. And the weather really isn’t that bad!

The Suburbs appears to be hugely diverse. How many people work there (both in the London office and in Hamilton), and how does this diversity and ability to widely collaborate internationally affect outcomes?
There’s just me, Chris and his wife Melissa who works with Informal Tea, so it really is quite a boutique production. I generally find myself turning away more work than what I can take on, which is a bit of a shame — I’d be excited to hear from any designers looking for a bit of extra work!

I really enjoy taking a hands-on approach to projects, working closely with clients and taking a website from design to code myself. It’s a kind of DIY process that just feels natural to me rather than delegating and leading a team.

Most of the diversity naturally comes from our different design backgrounds. For me personally, the studio is probably not quite as diverse as I’d like it to be. It’s developed a bit of an eCommerce niche in the last couple of years, but I’d really love to work more with editorial content like what Design Assembly does. And I’d love to spend more time doing pottery, but there’s just too many time constraints at the moment and hiring a pottery kiln in central London costs a fortune.


How have you found making the move to London and personally connecting with the design community over there?
Getting set up is a bit of a mission, but it’s all worthwhile for the experience. I’m lucky that I’ve been able to keep the ball rolling with existing clients while picking up some local ones which has been great. I know it’s bad, but I’ve never been great at connecting with the design community. I’ve never given the networking thing a real go — I think it stems from some weird underlying fear of meeting another designer and have them think my work is rubbish. So, my circle of friends are all non-designers!

What are some of the challenges? What are the benefits and also the drawbacks?
There’s so much going on so it can be incredibly inspiring, but London is very competitive. There are so many clever, talented people that it can be a bit daunting.

How often do you travel between the UK and NZ, and where are you happiest?
I only I moved here earlier this year as a base to explore Europe for the next couple of years. I’ve really enjoyed London so far (although I haven’t experienced winter), but New Zealand is a very special place and I think long term I need to be somewhere that I can grow vegetables, breathe fresh air and go surfing.

Can you name a kiwi designer/studio who really inspires you? And tell us why. Ditto a London-based one?
There’s so many studios that I’m painfully jealous of, but I’ve strongly admired Sons & Co from Christchurch for the past few years. The first London studio that comes to my head is Johnson Banks. I’ve followed them for a few years now, and they’re always doing something interesting. Their work might not be the trendiest but that’s what I like about them. They go against the grain, their work is thought-provoking, and they work with inspiring businesses. They’re currently in the middle of a rather painful open-branded project for Mozilla which looks tough — they have a kind of patience and bravery that I’ll never have and their passion for design really shows through for me.

Can you name a London-based website, magazine, or event that inspires and informs your practice?
I think most of my real inspiration comes from looking at other creatives and seeing how they’ve forged out their own stories. Although they aren’t London artists, I’ve seen Santigold and LCD Sound System here this year and they’re two musicians who I feel are really inspiring for going against the grain and creating their own path through the world. Looking at successful people like them gives me the courage to do my own thing. A closer answer to the question would be — they have a great website design and there’s always something interesting on there.

Any advice for other designers thinking of making the leap to working overseas?
With the fall of the British Pound since Brexit, moving to London has never been cheaper — so there’s no better time to make the move!

And where can we see more from you, Tim? and if you want to get yourself some of the best tea in NZ!

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