Lincoln-born graphic design magnate Simon Shaw is surrounded by souvenirs of achievement in his quirky terrace offices in the city’s West Parade; a glistening Heist Silver Award, Top 100 Agency recognitions dating back to 2009, faded former emblems of brands reinvented and last vestiges of work before Mac computers.
What started as a ‘knack for colouring in’ has evolved into a 27-year creative career and an enviable design and digital communications business.
Optima was born with a mantra that stuck: “Our next piece of work will be the best we ever do,” and since its creation, conceived during a seven-month honeymoon on a beach in India, it’s been forward thinking all the way.
It all started in 1995 with just 27-year-old Simon, armed with 105 letters to send to prospective clients. Now a well-oiled team of 19 boast an award-winning portfolio and local clients such as Branston (Tesco’s biggest potato supplier), Pipers Crisps and Lincoln BIG, as well as national and international names like Tata Steel, WWF (World Wide Fund for Nature) and ILO (International Labour Organization).
Optima found its wings in breaking international borders, but its heart will always belong to Lincoln, and Simon believes that with the right infrastructure and enough innovators ready to push the boundaries, anything is possible from the ‘shire he knows and loves. “Lincoln and Lincolnshire is a great place to be. I’m very proud to live here and thanks to technology and our can-do attitude we know we can reach out to a lot of people.
“If you took a little bit of London and transposed it to Lincoln, the work we do, our ethos here, the way we plan work and the quality of work we do, it’s like that. When we come up against London agencies I know we can compete. Sometimes you just need to really confirm that in your mind’s eye and go for it. I think any business nowadays needs to think of itself as an international business.”
How times change
Simon was born in the village of Navenby and went to school in Branston near Lincoln. Thanking his art teacher father for his creative genes, he considers his most commended schooling pursuit to be ‘colouring and sciences’. “I was the kid at the back who was sat colouring in really well while everyone else could do the maths and English,” he joked. “I actually wanted to be an architect. I had a fantastic art teacher though who really inspired me and convinced me to get my graphic design portfolio together instead.
“At 18, when everyone else usually goes to do a foundation graphic design or art course, he got my level to such a standard that they took me direct to university. I was also the only one in the year who got a first-class degree.
“I’ve always had good tutors and people who have seen potential in me. I think you need to listen to the people who believe in you and what you are good at.”
On graduating from Coventry University, Simon cut his teeth at the (now former) Negus & Negus agency, based in London, and his first creative role certainly didn’t lack challenge. At that time, the company was working with brands including British Airways, British Gas, DSS and projects like Port Greenwich, which later became the Millennium Dome. “The first job I did for them was to put a brand on the back of a tail plane,” said Simon. “I also worked on Concorde in flight entertainment guides for first class, that’s where I learnt all about language setting. Now, when we do lots of overseas work like for Lincoln College Group’s Saudi Arabia campus, we can handle type settings and that style.
“You had to do a lot of leg work in those days. I’d be the one doing corporate identity manuals, and before they bought a Mac in 1989 we would design them, lay them out and stick them onto boards, they would be typed out by a typist and then you’d photocopy them.” Simon still keeps hold of his first manuals, easily reliving the tasks.
In September 1992, after just over three years, Simon spontaneously took the trip of a lifetime around the world with his Branston school sweetheart and wife-to-be Tracy. “We visited South America, Easter Island, Tahiti, Vietnam and New Zealand. We worked in Australia for five months. I sold Sesame Street toys door to door and washed up in kitchens, all the while sending out my portfolio.
“Sadly we had to come back when my grandmother fell ill. The last day I was there I got a phone call saying ‘we’ve seen your portfolio, and we think you’d be spot on for what we want to do’, and I said ‘I’m sorry I’m leaving Sydney today, the flights are all booked.’ I asked, ‘what was the job for?’ and they replied ‘The Sydney Olympics’. That might just have changed my life.”
Simon went on to work for a spell at Red Ken’s Council in Brent before getting married and spending seven months travelling across India and writing his business plan. The Optima brand name came from Tracy herself. Even today, his wife offers her management, HR and finance skills to the business. The pair have two boys and Simon says family has always played a central part in his life.
Around the world and back
When Simon returned to Lincoln in 1995, with Optima fully in the making, he wasn’t sure if his idea would work. “It was me, a couple of Macs, a couple of cats and no clients,” he said. “One of the reasons I came back to Lincoln was the university. I had designed prospectuses for people like Coventry University and done brand work for Aberdeen’s Robert Gordon uni. The first prospectus we did for the University of Lincoln won us the Heist Silver Award in 2011.”
Simon tapped into the county’s most illustrious sectors, showcasing the value of creative solutions to food and farming firms, engineering businesses and educational organisations. “We reached out to a lot of companies, we were benchmarking ourselves and we were joining people like the DBA and UKTI because we knew we could achieve and we had a great team.
“We’re really proud of the work we’ve done in innovation and design solutions and our projects have won awards in design effectiveness. Recently we’ve loved working with dog food brand Vitalin. It was a great product which needed help with packaging. We’re proud of the work we’ve done with Branston and they have grown as a business while we have worked with them too. We couldn’t believe it when we won big projects like the Tata Europe website and ILO website (worth around $78,000), but we can win things like that and deliver on them. I’m just looking forward to the next big thing that comes across the desk.
“Because of that [he added, pointing at his computer screen] the world came to us. You’ve got to compete, you’ve got to show what you’re good at, where you win and where you add value. That’s where our strategies have changed from looking at specific groups of customers and target areas. Also through our growth and innovative strategies, we’ve had opportunities to work abroad.”
Breaking through the ceiling to overseas recognition was a milestone Simon puts down to a happy accident. A panicked SOS phone call from a former client who had moved to Switzerland landed the team a big job at a university campus in Geneva – a foot in the door to Swiss clientele and a gateway to other international organisations and projects.
“Now we work with lots of United Nations departments out in Switzerland, we have a Swiss website and make trips out there regularly,” said Simon. “We’ve also worked with people in Sweden and people in Somalia this year, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, and other huge opportunities.”
Simon sees the team’s focus on creative innovation and high standards as the factors that set them apart from other agencies. “We’re putting a lot of focus on information graphics, data visualisation and responsive solutions at the moment and we knew these things were going to be strong four or five years ago.
“We’re making data interesting so people can engage with it. It’s live, changing data and it’s telling the story of the business in an engaging and clever way. The ILO website was designed with legacy content but with responsive, real-life graphics. Now it gets 1.1 million visitors a month. We’ve done data visualisations for things like armed conflicts around the world, and because we do all of the work for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, we won a project with them and IKEA which is being delivered in refugee camps, teaching people skills to set up their own businesses.”
Inspiration for success
Simon’s role has evolved from designer to businessman, and while he admits he isn’t a “natural leader” the Optima team’s structure is clearly a recipe for success. Rather than layers of management and skill levels, the company’s support team orbit the central role of the designers. “They are the engine room of us creatively and economically,” said Simon. “My job now is to make sure they have everything they need to be as creative as they can. Reciprocating that, they then get told their deadlines, the client’s expectations and our resources. It works well, everyone respects that.
“Our biggest strength? We deliver on all of our promises from creativity to delivering results and we are doing some very innovative and clever things for our clients.”
The company now has a turnover of £1.4 million and is looking forward to even bigger and better projects in the years to come from its Lincoln home. “Smaller businesses in Lincoln need to be more positive about the future. You can be a successful small business and you can do well and flourish in Lincolnshire. You don’t have to go to London.”
Simon doesn’t see himself handing over the business in the next few years. Until then, if he’s not found on his much-loved allotment or enjoying weekends with his sporty boys, he’ll be gathering even more local, national and international clients and enjoying the industry where no day is the same.
As Simon recalls fondly from former teacher Graham Hillier, “best not to become an architect and have your heart broken by someone who copies your house. Stick to design, because you’ll start with a blank piece of paper every day.”
This feature interview was first published in issue 66 of the Lincolnshire Business weekly magazine.