Jim Richardson, owner of Sumo Design

Gayle Tomlinson speaks to Jim Richardson, owner of leading North design agency Sumo Design

Jim Richardson, Sumo design
Jim Richardson, Sumo design

Making things beautiful and doing things right seem to be theme of the day when I interview Jim Richardson at the Sumo offices in the ‘yellow building’ on Westgate Road, Newcastle.

With a bookshelf stacked high with copies of the global briefing magazine the Monocle, books on Swiss graphic design and linotype, it’s easy to see the art school influence ingrained in Sumo’s workspace.

And when Jim tells me he spent two days sticking together 3-D posters and putting them in glass boxes to create the perfect poster campaign for a client I realise I’m not surprised. It’s this type of innovation and attention to detail which has led Sumo to become one of the North East’s leading agencies.

Jim, 39, who graduated from Dundee’s Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design is a creative through and through, but he also has a steely business core which was proven when he set up Sumo Design in Newcastle aged just 24-years-old after a £2,000 investment from his dad.

Just 14 years later he’s turned that into a £790,000 turnover business designing for Swiss pharmaceutical company Novartis and the British Postal Museum among others.

It was clear after he lasted just two weeks in his first graphic design job for an agency in Glasgow that Jim was never going to hack it as an employee.

He is the first to admit his younger self was fastidious. In fact he was so choosy he quit his next job after another two weeks. Both jobs simply “weren’t creative enough”.

It was this confidence and presence of mind which has shaped Sumo over the years. Jim says it is his ingrained need to be creative and to “make beautiful” things that puts Sumo among the top North East design agencies.

As an end of degree Royal Society of Arts award-winner in graphic design Jim had his pick of jobs to choose from when he left university and design agencies were lining up to recruit him.

It’s no wonder he felt he could be picky. Combine this with an upbringing where being entrepreneurial was drummed into him, it’s understandable that he found the constraints of being an employee frustrating and found he couldn’t settle for second best.

Jim was born and brought up in Cramlington, by his parents Alan and Jill. Educated at Cramlington High School he left with his GCSEs and studied graphic design OCD and HND at Newcastle College.

He said it was obvious from a young age that art was the only thing he was good at. His dad, a company director for a finance security company, felt strongly that his three children should only ever be business owners.

He said: “I was always good at drawing as a kid. It was obvious that I was much better at it than anything else. The business side of it came from my dad. He told me I needed to work for myself.”

After university despite numerous offers from London agencies he knew he didn’t want to work down South. Instead he eventually settled down at now defunct agency Pointsize in Glasgow.

Two years later and after working on large website design projects and branding for clients including Click Photos, Jim got itchy feet again and moved back to Newcastle to launch Sumo.

He said: “I moved back to my parents and I had £50 a week. I had this tiny desk and computer and I said it was Sumo Design. For three months I tried to get work and the phone didn’t ring.”

At his lowest point Jim was about to take a job with a design agency in Edinburgh when he landed a £3,000 contract to brand Newcastle City Council’s Generation Project, aimed at getting young people to set up businesses.

“They paid me £3,000 for it and I spent £5,000 on getting the project right. I wanted to make it look beautiful. I went way above and beyond what was appropriate for the budget,” he said.

“It is the learning process of being a designer maker. It comes back to the balance of art and business. I want to make something the best it possibly can be. You need to go beyond the expectations of the client without going bust,” he added.

From that point on Sumo hasn’t stopped designing. Suzanne Evans a former creative director at Addison Design in London joined the team in 2002 bringing with her a wealth of national and international clients including Astrazeneca and Barclays. Combined with Sumo’s already strong client base in the North East the agency was free to be as creative as it wanted.

As a result Sumo went on to sweep the board at the Fresh Awards North East 2006, winning 25 out of 40 categories.

Jim said: “It was embarrassing how much we won. We had all these big clients who were paying us well for our work but we were also working with people like Durham Literary Festival (now Durham Book Festival) where we could be creative. It was the perfect mix.”

This need to make things beautiful is what led to him spending three days gluing together 3-D posters to advertise the Durham Book Festival in 2001. The attention to detail has led to a lasting relationship with the organisers and it is clear that Sumo’s clients appreciate the extra lengths the agency goes to create the perfect piece of work.

Sumo has recently refocused its attention on its regional and national clients after Jim’s eldest son, Brody, now aged three, was diagnosed with Leukaemia in November 2012.

For Jim and his wife Sara, who was pregnant with their third child, Fraser, at the time, it was a huge shock.

“It was just a normal day and Sara said Brody was ill and she was taking him to the doctors. By the end of that day we were at the RVI with a Leukaemia diagnosis,” he says.

Brody was immediately put on a six-week programme of intensive treatment and soon after baby Fraser was born.

Brody is still undergoing chemotherapy and his prognosis is positive but Jim said the impact on the family has meant at times the business has had to take an inevitable back seat.

He said: “As a small business it does have an effect because the person who owns the business is not coming to work. It’s not something that small business owners can plan for.

“The team really pulled together and got behind us. We are a small tight-knit team and they made it work.”

The focus of the company is now less focused on international work and more focused on national and regional.

Jim said the renewed focus has brought Sumo back round to its founding principles.

He said: “Our plan was always to be the region’s premier design agency. I would say that now, older and wiser, I would say that we are definitely one of the premier design agencies. I’m not arrogant enough to say that we are the best thing since sliced bread. There are a few really good agencies in the North East.”

Brody’s illness also opened up other doors for Jim. He decided to run the length of Hadrian’s Wall to raise £10,000 for the North of England’s Children’s Cancer Research Fund (NECCR) and is now vice chairman of the Newcastle-based charity which funds research into new treatments for children’s cancer.

His vision is to help the charity to communicate it’s work in a more efficient way.

The run also sparked a passion for marathon running and as a man who does not do things by half, it led him to set up www.raceday.co.uk , a website dedicated to helping people to find races across the UK. The website has been so popular it receives 50,000 visitors a month.

Seeing a gap and filling it is a theme for Jim who founded Europe’s largest annual conference for the technology and innovation in museum sector, MuseumNext, in 2008.

He says he saw there was a need for institutions to get together to talk about how technology can support them. He thought nothing of organising it himself, bank rolling the first conference with £20,000 of his own money.

The event was such a huge success it is now in it’s sixth year. This year it will be held at the Sage Gateshead and it will see leaders from the cultural sector across the world attend.

Jim said: “I was reading a lot about what museums should do with digital space and I was speaking at events about it a lot. It felt like a natural step. The first conference cost £20,000. Last year’s Amsterdam conference cost £120,000. We flew across experts from the US. It was a big risk but there is a community there that we feel that responsibility for.”

My working day

6.00am – My three kids Jessie, Brody and Fraser wake me up and my wife and I get them breakfast and dressed for school.

8.00am – I get Metro to Newcastle and read the news and check emails received over night

9.00am – We do a quick run through of what everyone is doing in the studio and I start work on a brand strategy for a biotech start-up who we are currently working with.

12.00pm – I have lunch with a friend at Nudo on Low Friar St

1.30pm – I exchange emails about the upcoming Children’s Cancer Run with other trustees of the NECCR, a children’s cancer charity that I support.

2.00pm – I review the work that my team have done for the University of Cambridge and catch up with clients on the phone.

4.00pm – We hear that we’ve won a new project with the National Trust, a client who we’ve worked with for several years.

5.30 – I head home and play with the kids before getting them bathed and into bed, I always look forward to reading them stories.

7.00 – I head to training with North Shields Poly or run along the seafront, I’ll cover 40 – 50 miles in an average week.

9.00pm – I have dinner with my wife and hear about what the kids have been up to and talk about the day.

11.00pm – I start work again catching up on anything I haven’t got to during the day. I normally have some work to do liaising with runners who are doing the Great North Run for the NECCR.

12.30am – I reluctantly call it a night and get some sleep.


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