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From Design Intern to the Co-Founder of Layers Studio – James Hanson

Thinking about a career in design? Working in this sector offers a unique and fulfilling experience where creativity meets innovation. Not long ago, Tech Talent Engine sat down with James Hanson, co founder of Layers Studio, to discuss what it means to be a designer in the tech sector.

From Design Intern to the Co-Founder of Layers Studio – James Hanson


Tech Talent Engine


James Hanson is the co-founder and designer for Layers, a digital branding studio based in Newcastle Upon Tyne.

With a portfolio of clients ranging from Nissan to One Utility Bill, LV and more, his ability to create meaningful experiences through design has earned him a long-standing reputation in the region.

Having worked in a range of organisations throughout his career, starting with placements at Liquid Solutions in Liverpool, Braham in Headingley before multiple placements in the North East, getting his first full time job at Surreal Creative, James’ has developed a core understanding of the user experience, ensuring his designs have an impact beyond what meets the eye.

From a graduate designer in 2008 to the founder of a design agency in 2016, James’ story is a key reminder of the dedication that is needed to succeed in the industry.

Motivation for setting up Layers Design Studio

Looking back on his career, James reflects on the early days as particularly significant. Working in a range of fast-paced agencies, he’s had the opportunity to work on a combination of projects and developed his skills quickly, ultimately, becoming a Senior Designer.

I just tried to learn as much as possible. Because I worked in small teams, it meant I got to see a lot too.

Although he loved the range of work, James became frustrated with the typical processes and dynamics within teams.

I just realised that it wasn’t what I wanted to do, and I had ambitions to start Layers, which is where the name comes from. So, I wanted to create a multi-discipline team where each core element, such as marketing, design and development is as important as the other.

With a team now of 10, a lot has changed over the 7 years, but the core mission stays the same – finding people who share the same vision of the company and enjoy working together to solve problems on projects for its clients, pushing themselves forward and keen for the next challenge.

Role as Founder

Moving into the role of founder in the design industry can often result in less involvement in day-to-day creative projects. However, reflecting on this change, James has learned a lot about himself, too.

Although his job is moving in a different direction, he has found a passion for helping to inspire others in the community.

I’ve learned that I enjoy the leadership side of growing a team, seeing them doing creative work and growing. I still have some creative input, but my responsibilities have pivoted. I really enjoy the problem-solving side of things.

So, when we have the initial consultation, we get to hear about their problems, think about the potential solutions and put together a plan for going forward. I find that aspect another form of creativity.

This desire to always push beyond your comfort zone is translated in his management style, where he incorporates stretch zones into quarterly reviews at Layers, encouraging colleagues to try something new each quarter.

We ask them, what’s in your comfort zone, stretch zone and panic zone? I find it great to see what’s changed for each person each time we review them. We often find they move up a zone each time.

Designers need to stand out from the rest

The design industry is a competitive field and to succeed in James' eyes, he believes you need to be authentic, ensuring your design has meaning.

Art and design are subjective, but if you can explain the reason behind your design, it will have a strong impact and translate meaning.

A big passion of mine is ensuring design has meaning. If you’ve done something because you think it looks cool, that’s art. If you design something, whatever it is, and give it to 100 people and you get 100 different answers, that’s great art, but it’s not well designed.

When dealing with clients, team leaders or stakeholders who have a differing opinion to you on what direction a design should go in, to get your point across you should always take the time to explore their idea. You’ll have a much easier time convincing them of your idea if you can show them the route they suggested, explain what you like about it and what you think didn’t work (and why!) - before presenting them your idea.

If there’s meaning and reason behind your points and the changes - most of the time you will get buy in. (You might get asked to do a hybrid version from time to time… but that’s better than where you would have been).

Starting out in your career is full of lessons and, to avoid future disappointment, James advises avoiding focusing completely on one area yet trying to get involved in as many things as you can. Similarly, finding out what you don’t enjoy doing is equally as important.

Since a core aspect of design involves websites, James has also spent his time learning basic web development, including Python, HTML, CSS, and Java, to allow him to be a part of the conversation in projects.

I wanted to learn this because when I’m talking to someone about a project, it’s important that I have a base level understanding of how things work so I can be a better collaborator.

Understand that you’ll never be the best at everything

Being in a fast-paced industry means you’ll often feel out of your comfort zone and James believes this is a strength, ensuring you can continue to move forward. He compares this to his martial arts hobby.

In martial arts, if you are the best person at your club, you need the others around you to grow, so you can continue to develop. I think it’s important to surround yourself with people who know more than you, and people with a growth mindset, so you are all learning together.

Similar to a martial arts class, the design industry is full of talented individuals who are extremely experienced at what they do. Acknowledging that everyone starts as a beginner is helpful when you’re just starting out in your career.

It’s best to absorb other people's knowledge and try not to be embarrassed about the fact that people know more than you – it’s inevitable.”

Long-term goals for Layers Studio

Looking ahead to the next five years, Layers has big plans for the region and is keen to shift its services offering. Already, they have seen a big change in expertise, including the addition of user research and consulting. To grow, they aim to elevate the business even further, including hiring graduates.

Part of what I didn’t like about some agencies is the factory line. It starts off in the sales team, then design, then dev development. In my business plan, I want to be able to hire in tribes so they can really add value.

In a year or so, we’re looking to hire a chunk of people across development and design to grow the business and open ourselves up to more graduates. In doing so, it would open new roles in leadership.

Start your career in design

After reading this article, we hope it’s clear that starting a career in design is a prosperous pathway, leading to plenty of progression and opportunity. Taking the first hurdle is always the biggest challenge, which is why we collaborate with more than 50 businesses to help people take the initial first step.

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