Emma Stinson Studio EM

Inside the Mind Of

Inside the Mind of… Emma Stinson

1 Apr , 2018  

I caught Emma Stinson, Creative Director of Studio EM, at a busy time. Not in the midst of project submission or anything, but in the middle of an Easter Egg hunt they had arranged for the team. Both Emma and Kristian, Commercial Director of Studio EM, believe it’s important to treat their team like family and to create an environment that people truly love to work in. And it’s these values that have driven the studio’s success over the past 7 years. 

Don’t be afraid to get it wrong, we learn more from our mistakes than from our achievements” – Emma Stinson, Studio EM

To me, Emma Stinson, Creative Director of Studio EM, represents the ideal Dubai-based, home-grown entrepreneur – optimistic, hardworking, determined and cheerful in the face of adversity. While chatting with her, I realize Emma possesses an indigenous flavour of experience – one that has been crafted as a result of her upbringing as a second-generation resident of Dubai. This enables her to offer her clients and partners, a creative leader and a project manager who is realistic, relatable and trustworthy. It’s no wonder that Studio EM has delivered more than 150 projects since the firm was founded in 2011, a relatively short period of time! And their reputation has only grown since then.

Tell us about the Studio EM Journey

Studio EM was a product of chance, and it happened a lot earlier than I had anticipated. And while it may have sprung out of tragic circumstances, it’s now something I look back to with a lot of pride and with a hat tip to my Dad. Our father passed away from Pancreatic Cancer, in 2011, shortly after I got married. He was such a wonderful man – friendly, loved and respected by many. He never failed to inspire me! In the latter part of his life, he was a successful and happy business owner with a Scuba Diving business in Dibba Al Aqah and Dubai. 

Anyway, to cut a long and complicated story short, he inspired me! His harrowing illness showed us all that you really get only one shot at life, and you should make the most it. It’s corny but so true. With this mindset, Kristian and I decided to start Studio EM. We were in our mid-twenties and were young (or naive) enough to bounce back if it didn’t work. So far, it’s been working out. In all the years of Studio EM, I have never woken up and not wanted to go to work or to the office – I truly love the team we have and the environment we work in. I’m living a life that my dad inspired me to live – one without fear or regret, doing what I love each and every day.

One Life Kitchen & Café Emma Stinson Studio EM
One Life Kitchen & Café

What’s your favorite design sector and why?

I have always loved the retail sector. I started my career working within retail design for some pretty big retailers. When I look back to my first “real-world project” out of University, working for Harvey Nichols in the Mall of the Emirates comes to mind. Perhaps I caught the bug there. However, since Studio EM began, we’ve diversified from being a single-sector design agency to taking up work across a broad spectrum of disciplines; primarily F&B, Retail, Cinema, Offices, Public Buildings and Kids Edutainment/Play centres. It all comes back to our mantra – if the project is cool, the brief creative and the client open-minded, then we will take the project; regardless of what it is or the budget involved. It could be a 20 square meter Kiosk for Magic Planet or a 12,000 square foot store for Candylicious.

Candylicious Emma Stinson Studio EM

What have been your favorite and least favorite designs that you’ve worked on, and why?

I have to say that for the sheer enjoyment of it I did a project, a few years ago for a client in Toronto. It was a children’s edutainment center. Looking back, it may not have been our best design or one that the Studio is well known for, but it was the first real project as Studio EM. One, where the client had 100% trust in me and allowed me to unleash my creativity. The feeling was awesome and I will always thank her for that. That’s why it will always be one of my favorite projects.

Least favorite is a funny one. I see it’s a question that’s often ducked; but to any young designer reading this, it is your chance at a moment of honesty. You’re going to get some serious stinkers of projects and sometimes not the nicest of clients, but that’s the nature of the beast. We are a business and at the end of the day we have to pay the bills and salaries; but with every challenge, you learn something new. We have completed over 170 projects since we started Studio EM, but our company profile only shows 10 and our website displays 30. That goes to show that we’ve had to file a few ones away – projects we weren’t pleased with or which didn’t turn out in our favour.

Where do you find your inspirations for your designs?

I was taught very early on in my degree course to always look up, down, around and not always straight ahead. Inspiration is everywhere, it’s just about how you bank it. From a more efficient point of view, for work-based inspiration I love certain blogs and websites that I’m a big fan of. Also, and I’m not afraid to admit it, I get inspired by our peers in the UAE. There are a lot of cool boutique firms in Dubai pumping out some really interesting and inspiring work that it’s now easy to be inspired on a daily basis when I am out and about.

Poke & Co Emma Stinson Studio EM
Poke & Co

Now, this may sound cheesy, but since becoming a mummy in June, I’m now inspired to create more child and parent-friendly experiences in my designs. Be it convincing our larger corporate clients to have lactation rooms in their offices for mummies who pump, relaxation rooms for pregnant ladies or simply adding more ramps to the entrances of our project. It could be widening the aisles in the stores I design, thinking about stroller areas in restaurants, or even adding baby changing units to the men’s toilets (men can change nappies too!). This is something that Emaar and MAF support and do really well with their malls.

All of these elements are now in the forefront of my mind, which perhaps wouldn’t have been the case before my daughter Ayla came along. The last few months have really made me aware as to how much these elements are neglected in design. I’m now on a crusade of sorts to change it, inspired very much by my everyday interactions with Ayla.

What would be the most important advice you could give new designers?

Don’t be afraid to get it wrong, we learn more from our mistakes than from our achievements. Learn as much as you can from your experienced peers, don’t be afraid to ask questions and never stop doing it either, no one knows it all. I still learn something new more often than not and I know that’s ok.

What’s the best advice you’ve received ?

Not surprisingly it came from my father, who never really had things the easy way. He came up the hard way and really slogged. He used to say “If it comes too easy to you then it isn’t worth having. The best things in life are the things I’ve worked hardest for”. I live by this, and it really gets me through the dark days!

One Life Kitchen & Café Emma Stinson Studio EM
One Life Kitchen & Café

If not Interior Design, what would you be doing?

I would have a beautiful, dainty, boutique flower and wine store that sold gorgeous flowers and the finest wines, perfect gifts for everyone. And I would wear a pinny.

What are your design dreams?

To design the UAE’s first cancer support centre. I’m so inspired by the Maggie’s Centres in the UK. It’s quite personal to me because of Dad. We used to travel and take him to treatments in Abu Dhabi, Al Ain and Dubai and we’d always stay and keep him company. Something that stands out in those memories is the terrible environments. They were awful and never encouraged any positive well-being or state of mind. Everything was so cold, clinical and harsh. I remember being constantly in tears at how much dad was suffering in those depressing spaces. Maggie’s in the UK are purpose-built cancer support centers and designed as homes; they are gorgeous, soft, warm, welcoming, comfortable. A place you can stay overnight, receive treatment, wait between scans and support others on the same journey as you. Healthcare centers like those can have an amazing impact on families in the UAE. I don’t want anyone to go through what we did.

This is hands down my dream project – designing for a difference!

Candylicious Emma Stinson Studio EM

How would you describe your design style?

A few years ago I would have spurted out buzz words such as “fun, quirky, eclectic, colorful, playful” etc. But now, in truth, I can’t define my style in any one way. There’s no sound bite that clearly defines me or sums up my style.

It is what it is, it’s what it needs to be for my client or the brief. I don’t allow myself to be bound by a style or a pre-determined theme. When I learned to let go of any style sheets or boundaries, I became a much better designer; and hopefully, for the others in the Studio, a better mentor. I have one simple rule – first make it functional, and then get creative!

Is there anything exciting you’re working on at the moment?

Where to start?

The Studio’s reputation has really shot up in the last few years. Since our work started being recognized internationally, we have picked up a few awards here and there and the caliber of projects have really started to excel. More so in the last year, a lot of the “bigger” clients are really liking what we are doing and our approach to things. Meaning we’ve picked up some seriously awesome projects. At the moment, that would be the new design for Namshi’s head office, it’s so unbelievably creative in terms of scope and brief. Added to this, we have worked up a new design for the new Skydive Dubai which is wicked. And just this week, we will be opening a new international flagship for Wagamama in the Dubai Mall. So it’s incredibly exciting times! added to that, we have smaller independent clients who are really pushing the boundaries with some new concepts.

Poke & Co - Emma Stinson Studio EM
Poke & Co

Can you tell us about a particularly exciting or challenging project?

We are very excited to be in the middle of rebranding the firm, same name, same people just a more developed approach. When Kristian and I started the company, we were in our spare room working on laptops, bluffing, ducking, diving and trying to do whatever it took to get people to notice us, fuelled by eating a lot of pasta and porridge.

Seven years on, we are an international award-winning design agency – gosh that sounds weird when you actually say it out loud! We have projects all over the world and with some very big international clients, whilst also still being that home-grown, Dubai-based, boutique design agency that works with anyone with a dream and passion for their concept.

This year we are developing the company into a whole new space. We have acquired Version B, a graphic design studio here in Dubai. With that, Neil Baker has come on board as a director in the company and heading up the branding department. This is incredible for us as he brings a wealth of experience, both in Dubai and London, an enviable portfolio and a long client list. We are so excited to see how this evolves and where it takes the studio in the coming year.

With Nicola Fahy heading up the F&B division, myself taking on more of a creative director and mentoring role, and Neil running the branding division; the company and our clients are in good hands. We have a lot of really exciting prospects in the pipeline and I am as excited and as motivated now as I was seven years ago. That’s the beauty of our new brand design, it’s all about our evolution and celebrating that.

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