There are occasional moments in our lives where we have to stop and take stock. When we have to draw deep, properly look about us, and question what is really, fundamentally important. Everybody faces these moments of decision. Everybody finds themselves stood at these crossroads at some point in our existence. Sometimes more than once.
What we do in those moments, how we react, what we decide, starts a ripple across a still pond. Those ripples, those ever increasing circles, radiate out to influence those in our orbit; our colleagues, our friends, our family.
That kind of pressure, when it comes along, is real make or break stuff. It’s a fair argument that if you’re a business owner of any standing, you’ll have faced that pressure and boy, it can be a dark and lonely place when you do.
To come out the other side takes courage and strength, and in these difficult times many business owners are having to dig deep to find that.
Gareth Robertson is one such person who has not only dug deep and survived, but emerged stronger. I’ve known and worked with Gareth for a number of years now (his design agency Design Pit celebrated their ninth birthday on the 1st of February 2021) and one of the first things you notice about him (barring the fact that he’s a hefty bastard who could throw you into the middle of next week if he wanted to) is that he’s an incredibly bright and sunny guy. The kind of person you really want to be around.
Not the kind of bloke you’d typically expect to find stuck in the doldrums. For starters, he’s one of those clever fellas who turned his passion into his day job. “I’ve always liked drawing,” he says, “and from an early age I was drawing cartoons of my favourite footballers, wrestlers and rugby players. I’d get my mates at school to draw a weird shape or line and I’d turn it into some funny cartoon character in a race against the clock.” At Nether Stowe High School in Lichfield (the Midlands cathedral city just north of Birmingham in which Gareth has spent most of his life so far), he caught the eye of Design & Technology teacher David Mould, who encouraged him to think about a career in advertising.
Following A-levels, Gareth took a BTEC Foundation course in Art and Design at Lichfield College (now a part of South Staffordshire College). “My tutor, a tiny bloke called John Hayward had predominantly trained girls and must’ve had the shock of his life when a 6 foot, 15 stone, shaven-headed rugby player frequently sporting black eyes came into class!” Again, encouragement came just when it was needed most, and Gareth took full advantage. “John was really creative and a fine artist. He pushed me to explore the importance of typography and to draw my letters, rather than simply write them. I thought he was mad at first, but when I got to uni it became obvious why he was pushing me that way.”
Uni was Staffordshire University in Stoke on Trent. “If I’m honest,” admits Gareth, “I coasted through school and college doing the bare minimum. At university I got my head down and worked hard at my studies. I had a great set of tutors. One of them, Andy Ellison, was a great guy. I don’t know if he was able to work me out at first, I was a bit of a sports jock who loved rugby, gym and beers. But I really enjoyed classes with him, and always put the work in when it mattered.”
But there was an extra incentive for Gareth. The oldest of three brothers, he’d always felt a self-driven extra responsibility to provide a positive example for his siblings by attending university, giving them something to aim for and emulate. When he graduated with a high 2:1, Gareth’s parents were overjoyed. “But Laurel and Hardy as I called them, my brothers, didn’t really care at all! They were on their own journeys and had bigger fish to fry.”
One of the first things you notice about Gareth Robertson (barring the fact that he’s a hefty bastard who could throw you into the middle of next week if he wanted to) is that he’s an incredibly bright and sunny guy. The kind of person you really want to be around.
So far, so good then.
From uni Gareth landed a job at PHd Design, an agency in Lichfield. From their base in a converted barn in the Staffordshire countryside, he would spend over six years there under the guidance of Pete Howard. “Pete gave me a break with my first job and is now a very close friend and a bit of a mentor for me. He’s the guy who taught me to never give my time away cheaply, and I’ve never forgotten that. Back then I was living with a girlfriend. We’d been under the same roof for a couple of years and everyone had us marked down for marriage and kids.” From the outside looking in, everything appeared rosy and life was blossoming. And then…
“The missus suddenly announced it wasn’t working and wanted out. It was a real shock to me, and everything happened quite quickly. I was turfed out and found myself almost 30 years old and living back with my parents. Still, I was in a job that I loved. But there wasn’t much chance of progression,” he adds, “as it was a small business.”
With his world well and truly rocked, Gareth found himself at his first set of existential crossroads. That rocking world was tempting him though, and it was time to see some of it up close. “I spent a good few months working out what was going on with my life. Then I saved a load of cash, sold my car, quit my job and pissed off to Australia.”
All righty then.
“I needed it. I still wasn’t over the ex and needed time away to clear my head. And Australia delivered.” Gareth’s eyes light up as he recalls his three-month odyssey down under. “I saved about ten grand to go there. Perth to Adelaide to Alice Springs to Uluru to Sydney. I swam with wild dolphins, slept in the outback under the stars and made friends I’m still in touch with today.”
Refreshed and ready to go, Gareth was flying solo in more ways than one upon his return to Lichfield. Pete Howard, his boss at PHd Design, had been sad to see Gareth go but understood his reasons for leaving. It was now up to Gareth to set up his own design business and, pressingly, come up with a name for it. “I considered Gareth Robertson Design Limited at one point, but a rugby pal told me not to be an idiot,” he remembers. “I had a few freelance clients just before I left PHd, and I would come home from work or the gym and say to my mum and dad ‘right, I’m off to do some work in my pit’ – meaning bedroom. Design in the pit. That’s where Design Pit came from. One day I just bought the domain, and that was it.”
Design Pit, and by association Gareth’s trademark shaven head, would quickly become familiar and successful characters on the local business scene across the West Midlands. A diligent and chipper networker, Gareth was quick to mix and promote his business in ways that really drew the eye. The more successful he and Design Pit got, the more projects he found himself juggling. It was an enjoyable headache, and he managed it by moving offices and hiring more staff. “The company had grown from ‘me’ to ‘we’,” he told me. “At one point, I had four members of staff.”
The expansion was to come at a great personal and financial cost to Gareth however, the effects of which he reflects upon now with a degree of regret. “I can hand on heart say that the most challenging part of business is when you introduce other people into your company. Even if you get the best team in the world, the pressure is on from day one. I had three mortgages riding on my little business,” he admits. “At one point, we were doing really well. Turning over decent numbers month after month. But then we saw some awful times.”
One month in particular was especially tough. “My staff and overheads were at their highest, and it turned out to be our second lowest invoicing month ever. Then our computer server effectively blew up. In the space of that month, wages and overheads needed to be paid and I needed to reinvest a load of cash to save our IT infrastructure. It was around 2018 and all the uncertainty around Brexit wasn’t helping either – uncertainty that caused bigger accounts and clients to pull back their spending. Couple the financial problems with staffing problems and it all began to affect my mental health in a very bad way.”
2019 is a time that Gareth describes with startling candour as “the darkest year for me”. He’d ironed out his staffing problems and was cutting back to save Design Pit, but the cash flow problems were becoming overwhelming. “Taking away people’s jobs is fucking horrible, but I had to do it. There was no sign of things improving. I’m a graphic designer, not a sales guy. I’m not hard-nosed enough. But I needed to get my ships stabilised – the ships being my business and my head.”
I’m a visual storyteller, and for me it’s all about ‘sell to the heart, and the head will follow'.
“Scaling back felt like failure,” he continues, “it felt like I was admitting defeat”. By now, Gareth had family responsibilities too, having married Sarah in 2015 and becoming a father to Emily in 2017.
While Sarah was coming to terms with a redundancy, Gareth didn’t want to burden her with his worries, and was imploding. But it was thanks to his girls that Gareth began to find the fortitude he needed. Finally, a heartfelt conversation with Sarah was the turning point. “It was such a massive relief after I opened up,” he says. “It was hard and emotional, but I told her how low I’d been, how negative my mind had become. I told her how I’d spent a whole dog walk on the phone to a mental health charity because anxiety had set in and the world was falling in on top of me. But talking to my closest friend and my biggest love helped bring some balance back.”
Opening up and confessing all to his “rock and anchor” started to turn things around for Gareth. “I’m fortunate to have an amazing wife and a beautiful little girl that gave me a reason to carry on and not… put an end to things,” he says, soberingly. “But the feeling of joy when my daughter runs in every morning and jumps on us to wake us up is just amazing. Now I’m out the other side and enjoying life again.”
While his girls gave him purpose, it was the gym that also helped restore his mental health. “The gym has given me the ability to switch off, a focus, a clarity. Something to chase. It’s made me feel better both physically and mentally.” He’s managed to fit exercise and lifting weights into his schedule successfully, and the effects have been so positive that Gareth decided to chronicle his efforts in his own Lift Pit blog.
Now Gareth Robertson, and Design Pit, are back. Back, and healthier and stronger than ever – despite the best efforts of a worldwide pandemic to put a dent in the armour. There was also the by no means inconsiderable task of relocating home and office from Lichfield to Salisbury, another cathedral city some 150 miles south (and where Sarah had secured an exciting new job), during lockdown.
“Salisbury is very similar to Lichfield in lots of ways, so it feels familiar, not that we’ve had much chance to explore yet thanks to Covid. I’ve been doing lots of online networking and made some great connections via The Boardroom Network – a huge thanks to Jacqui Frampton for that – and we feel very comfortable here. Our neighbours are great and we love our house to bits, so we’re all set for when the pandemic ends.”
Working on his own again, Gareth is thriving being “back on the tools” and focussing on his love of great graphic design. There’s certainly no whiff of defeat or giving in to be sniffed around here. Gareth is once again firing on all cylinders and working the passions that got him noticed at Nether Stowe High all those years ago.
“I’m more than just a designer. I get under the bonnet of a client’s business and really get to understand what makes them tick. That way I can tell stories about the amazing things they do. I’m a visual storyteller, and for me it’s all about ‘sell to the heart, and the head will follow.’ I can’t remember who said that now,” smiles Gareth, “but for me it typifies what branding and design is all about – if you tell someone an amazing story about a business and they engage with it, suddenly you have a brand with purpose.”
“My design work doesn’t just look pretty; it works. I feel I’m different to a lot of designers out there who just solely focus on how good it looks. Perfection is the enemy of action – the message and narrative are the most important thing in design. When you get something looking sweet and communicating well while driving the right response, well… that’s powerful.”
Gareth Robertson was talking to Ross Lowe.
Photography by John Cooper, unless stated.