Conversation with Be>Our>Friend on How to cultivate a Design Business with Abiding Passion

The design studio with extensive portfolios is now entering its 15th year of practice. We caught up with them to discuss business of design, and let them share tips on how to balance work and passion in modern days context.
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BOF Partners6

Now in its 15th year, Be>Our>Friend (BOF) is among Thailand’s design studios with the widest portfolio. If you are a design enthusiast, you would surely have come across BOF’s works somewhere before. This studio has worked on countless projects since its inception in 2004. Since then, BOF has gone through three office relocations, each time to accommodate increased headcount. Currently, the studio has nearly 60 staff (as of September 2019).

How did BOF manage to grow their design business so rapidly without losing a shred of passion? If anything, they seem to be having more fun while riding the waves of opportunity!

Kooper spoke with BOF’s two co-founders Mali Chulakiet and Pom Jitpratuk, who are currently wearing several hats as managers and designers. And recently they invited renowned brand strategist, Dome (Tiwat) Nitchote, to join forces as partner in this thriving business. Below is the meaningful yet witty exchange between Kooper and the creative trio.  


(From left to right) Pom Jitpratuk, Mali Chulakiet, Tiwat (Dome) Nitchote

KP: Tell us about yourselves and your current roles in the business.

Mali: Well, you can say I’m the CEO (smiles). But the title on our business cards says we’re Partners. My key responsibility is to manage both internal and external affairs. But at the same time, I’m still heavily involved in the design process.

Pom: I supervise the team that handles all space-related projects, ranging from architecture, interior design, to installation. I’ve only been doing this for about four years though. Before that, I mostly worked in illustration. But when BOF expanded and began taking on space design, I offered to take the reins as I had been interested in this field for sometime. We initially named the team “Friends on Site”, but later changed it to “Be>Our>Friend Space.” It’s easier for clients, apparently. I don’t need to do a whole lot of explanation in papers as to why the name is different. Because in the end, we all work for the same company. We just take care of different departments.

“Our culture here is that each of us takes care of different projects. We do have our own sub-culture. But in the end, we still run this business together.”

-Pom-

Dome: Exactly. The way I see it is we’re building a brand. Having many names would only confuse clients (laughs). There is no point in doing that, isn’t it? The team I oversee was initially called “Friend Shifts”, which works on strategic development and branding. But after a while, I come to realize that BOF is already an asset in terms of branding, so we should really extend from there. That’s why I renamed my team as “Be>Our>Friend Strategy”.

“Business-wise, we have the same goal in mind. And we mutually agree that unless we unite, the chance of getting there is slim.”

-Dome-

KP: In the early days, your studio succeeded quickly. What brought about such rapid growth?

Mali: Our growth in the early years was purely organic. In other words, nothing was planned (laughs). It was all because clients trusted us and gave us more opportunities to work, so the amount of work increased tremendously. But in recent years, we’ve had growth strategies for the business. We no longer design for the sake of design. We want to do more than just creating great visuals to meet customer demands. With this clearer objective, the business needs new talents to see it through, as we want new skills, new areas of expertise, etc. That’s why our staff numbers keep expanding.

KP: As creative professionals, has this massive growth of business ever made you feel less passionate along the way?

Dome: To be frank, it has. But eventually, we have to ask ourselves what we want to see at the end of the path. If we want to grow a powerful brand, we need to strengthen both our designs and strategies.

When we were going through business expansion, our staff had to engage in more varied roles. Some of them had to adapt quite a lot. And along the way, they may have lost some passion, which is normal in the brand-building process. But ultimately, it contributes towards achieving our business goal. First of all, we could clearly see who was or wasn’t the right fit for the future we envisaged. Secondly, some younger staff, especially in Mali’s team, didn’t realize it was possible to find passion in something they had never done before. When they were pushed to do things that required them to improve themselves, they ended up enjoying it and being fascinated by it. I think that’s the kind of wonder Mali feels towards her team.  

Mali: A passion of ours today is to see the younger ones master new skills or discover new interests. I mean, some of them can become a totally different person when they open up to the new challenge.  

“When you reach a certain age, what makes your life meaningful is no longer just about the work you do. It’s also in empowering those people you count as a family”

– Mali-

Pom: Another way to keep your creative passion alive is to continue to take on small projects as they tend to give us a lot of freedom. I think it helps immensely. That said, I also believe passion evolves with age. When I was younger I used to draw a lot as it was my passion then. Now my passion has turned to something else. Today I’m happy to see my team get ahead in life, achieve some stability. I’m very pleased when I attend their weddings or see them taking good care of their parents. This is what my today passion has turned to.

“I love working with fresh graduates. I don’t care how good they are. What matters to me is that we have an attitude to grow together.”

-Pom-

Mali: We still take on projects of all scales, from very small businesses to gigantic corporations. This is a strategy that works perfectly for us to maintain our creative passion. Small projects are not always easy to execute. Sometimes they are just as challenging. Large-scale projects may be difficult in terms of strategic thinking, dealing with clients, planning platform, and overseeing it until completion. But small projects have their own challenges that we love. So, we don’t refuse to take them on just because we’ve grown big.

KP: How much do the three of you actually work together on a daily basis?

Dome: Quite a lot. Mali and I work pretty closely all the time. But with Pom, we only work together on some projects. For example, if it’s a space-related project that does not require strategic direction, but requires expertise in styling or in personal taste, that sort of project will be all his.  However, we do have the working protocol to approach any project together from the beginning. As we believe that the quality of design begins with the quality of thinking process. So, when there’s a client briefing, we try to be there together to understand each client’s problems.

Let’s just say our task is to look for a particular fish species in the sea. My job is to pinpoint the exact coordinates and send our ship off to where we’re most likely to find it. Without this compass, it wouldn’t matter how many products we create – we would only be throwing a fishnet blindly into the ocean, hoping against hope that we’d be lucky enough to catch it.

When we utilize this strategic compass to create a design framework, it doesn’t mean that designers have to stick to it entirely. They can still throw fishnets in any direction they want. It’s like exploring your intuition while looking for the fish. The most important thing is that we try to involve clients in this process too.  

Pom: I think Dome is a strategist who wants to understand design. That’s why he likes having the designer engaged in his thinking process from the beginning. Myself, I’ve been doing a lot of design work, so I want to learn about his expertise too. This is what the three of us have in common. We have the curiosity to understand each other’s worlds.

Mali: One thing I’m very happy about since Dome came aboard is how our work process has become more solid and flexible at the same time. He is a sharp thinker and understands the nature of how we work, so it’s become a perfect balance. For example, my team loves to explore different ideas and try out new things. Dome will set a boundary on my experiments, preventing me from going too far, and wasting both money and time (laughs).    

The time we spend with each other outside of the projects enables us to engage with our design at a deeper level. The same goes for clients. We don’t just aim to get a good job done for them. We try to see ourselves as a stakeholder in their business. Because when you feel the part, your work automatically becomes more powerful.   

KP: Working this closely together, conflict is probably unavoidable. How do you deal with it?

Mali: Gosh…it happens all the time. It’s hardly personal though, or is it?

Pom: It may get a little personal sometimes. Mali is like a big sister to me. Sometimes when I’m upset, I go whining to her forgetting that I’m overstepping professional boundaries. Besides that, Mali and I have different sets of logic, so sometimes we don’t get each other. At times I’ll be like, ‘OK, fine. Up to you.’ But I’ll be frustrated (laughs).  

“Mali’s work style is like a multi-layered cake. Mine is like a pancake. I have fewer layers of people and a set time frame. When time’s up, we must have a solution.”

-Pom-

Mali: For me, I’ll just let my team keep coming up with ideas. Workwise, I’d say we have no issues. But do we get on each other’s nerves sometimes? Well, of course, we do.

KP: (to Pom) Why did you decide to set up Be > Our > Friend Space?

Pom: I was contacted by a client who previously saw my drawing and wanted me to do their interior space (pauses). Hmm, it was for Bad Motel. I agreed to do it because I always wanted to try new things. From there I began learning by doing and learnt from my subordinates who were interior design graduates. My space design is based on emotion though. It’s like my drawing, I let emotion lead the way. Forms and functions follow later. I usually imagine what I want people to feel when they enter my space. I want them to feel they have been transported from the common world to the one of my creation. For example, when designing a bar, I don’t want people to feel totally at ease but I want them to feel aroused. Perhaps it’s because I wasn’t trained in interior design, my design tremendously goes by intuition.

Mali: I think Pom’s sense of space is a bit unconventional. So when he uses those senses in interior design and we step into it, we get a feeling of an oddity. It makes us feel some sort of deviation from the normal. Dome also said Pom’s work is not for everyone.

Dome: Yes. But that’s necessary for some brands. Pom’s work doesn’t have a universal pleasing character. His eccentricity can make a brand stand out immediately. I think it’s really special.

KP: If we say BOF is the 7/11 of design, how does that make you feel?  

Dome: You’d be half right and half wrong. The right part is that we want to be perceived that we can deliver everything. As a brand builder, that’s a true success. In the real world clients don’t always know what they are after. But they’ll walk into 7-Eleven, believing it might be found there. 7-Eleven never ceases to surprise us with new products, right?

But you’re wrong if you see 7-Eleven as a convenience store – for the fact they only strive to make things easy, uncomplicated, and quickly produced. BOF is not like that at all. Our working process is complex and requires a lot of thinking both by us and the client. We strive to find the best, not convenient, answer for them in the end. 

“We design everything, but we don’t do fast design. We’re actually fighting this trend which is now dominating the industry.”

– Dome –

Pom: I want to be anything, but not a convenience store, please (laugh). I asked Dome to join us because this problem had been bothering me for a while. When different companies handled the interior and branding designs, I often felt that the final work lacked unity. There wasn’t enough coherence. And I was sick of that. I’m not saying that other people’s work is lousy. It’s just not always synchronized with my concept. This is why I wanted our team to start everything from scratch. Dome begins with the brand strategy, I continue with space design, and Mali handles communications. This way, our work grows from the same fundamentals and we’ll get a stronger brand identity as a result.


Let me give you an example. Let’s say I’ve been saving up to buy the clothes that I really love. But when I bought them, I realize that I can’t afford new shoes. So my dad offered me a pair, telling me to wear them for the time being. Unfortunately, those shoes don’t match my clothes at all. In this scenario, my father is like a client. I had no choice but to go out in that pair of shoes. After all this time I’d been saving up. Can you imagine how I’d feel?

Mali: I actually like involving clients in the design process. It isn’t really convenient for them though (laughs), but this is how we work at BOF. We want clients to be involved throughout the process because they certainly have their own view of the brand, which sometimes we fail to see.

KP: Give us a keyword that defines your work.

Dome: I’ll give you three: Meaningful, Futuristic and Positive Interaction. I’m a very positive kind of guy. (laughs).

Mali: I’ve never really thought of one. But if I have to come up with some now, I’d say Hypothesis, Planning, Storytelling and Relationship (between form, content, and context).

Pom: I have just one for you: Emotional. Nowadays, people buy experiences. Consumption is emotional. If you look for something with specific functions, you’ll be buying it online. But in forging a brand-consumer relationship I believe that physical space is still required to create the atmosphere and the whole senses of the brand.

Images: Palakorn Ratchanipon, Kusonsiri Jitpong

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