Mandy Barker, founder of Sail Creative.
Chloe Shakesby

“Values before profit”: The design studio born from £800 and the desire to make a difference

“I want to do work that means something, and doesn’t just add to the noise.”

This is at the core of Mandy Barker’s ethos - to contribute positively to society, and to encourage others to do the same.

Mandy is the founder of Gateshead-based Sail Creative, a design studio which only takes on projects it believes have a positive social impact.

The latest project under its belt is the rebranding of IWeigh, an international activist organisation set up by actress Jameela Jamil.

When I met Mandy, she was gearing up to go to London for a PEC (Policy and Evidence Centre led by NESTA) meeting - she has recently been asked to be an industry champion for the North Creative and Cultural Industries. But back when she started Sail four years ago, she was unsure that it even had a future.

“I had hardly any money, and no security. I just knew that I had a drive to be doing it myself - doing work that I cared about and work that I could decide on.

“I wanted to be helping businesses that were disrupting industry, and I wanted to be working with clients directly.”

At just 29, Mandy committed to building the studio, making personal and professional sacrifices to get it up and running.

“When I started, I had £800 in my bank account. I moved to live with family in Scarborough for six months while setting everything up, and then moved back to Newcastle and lived with a friend.

“There weren’t any investments coming in - the whole company has just come from that £800.”

The idea came from an exhibition Mandy had done a couple of years before setting up the firm.

“My first project was a personal one called Words Bare. It was about the LGBT society and their experiences, and was an exhibition in Newcastle.

“I think that had a big impact as it helped me find people with common values and really validated what Sail would eventually stand for.”

Mandy and designer Danni Gilbert

When asked why Sail focuses on projects that have a social impact, Mandy looked almost surprised - it is so deeply ingrained in her and her company to be activists that it seems she never considered doing it any other way.

“Well, I am personally an activist, and a member of the LGBTQ community. I just think that everyone deserves opportunities.

“I grew up on a council estate and I worked from when I was 16 years old. I was never spoken to about higher education and I saw that inequality, and that all led to my passion for activism.

“It’s becoming easier to find projects that we can support - people have realised how important having a purpose is, and that just because you have purpose doesn’t mean you can’t have profit.

“Sometimes a project is pitched to us that doesn’t align with our values, and in that situation we’d go back to the company and suggest ways that the project could be tweaked to match up with our values.

“Our values are always before profit.”

IWeigh certainly fits Sail’s criteria for a project - the movement aims to tackle toxic messages on social media, including the promotion of ‘detox’ teas which can be harmful.

The project really resonated with Mandy: “When I heard about the project, I looked up more about Jameela Jamil and I was really struck by her activism and her intelligence and I just felt like she’s fearless.

“The project appealed to me personally because of the activism and the human impact. I have two teenage nieces and I know how social media can be.

“The project is everything we stand for and winning such a big account has validated the last four years - it’s so worth it.

“You’ve got to speak about what you stand for, because if you don’t then nobody will - and this is a really big platform to showcase our work and our values.”

Having started with so little support - and such strict project criteria - it couldn’t have been easy getting Sail off the ground, but for Mandy perseverance and sacrifice was the key: “There’s a lot that has gone into this from a personal point of view, and I think it’s about resilience.

“I’ve lived frugally for the past few years to make this work and it’s really paid off.”

It seems that it has - from starting with just £800, Sail is now looking at a six figure turnover, and having worked on as big a project as IWeigh, it looks likely that it will only grow.

So how has four years of business changed Sail Creative? “If I were to compare Sail now to Sail four years ago… I would say that our values have stayed the same, but our ambitions and our confidence has grown.

“I think the company started as a reflection of me, and of the values that I held - but I’ve found people with the same values.

“Our first branding project was with Curious Art, and although it was right at the beginning, I don’t think we would have done a single thing differently.

“Our level of ambition has certainly risen - we have a growing community, and strong ambassadors from companies we’ve worked with in the past.

“It’s been a fairly slow growth - but an organic and sustainable one.”

It may have been steady growth, but Sail certainly shows no signs of slowing down. The team already has a major venture in the pipeline: “We’re now working on a big project with Lankelly Chase, a national grant provider and systems organisation working with those who support severe multiple disadvantage.

“It’s really radical and it’s showcasing what we can do, as well as growing our connections.”

Mandy’s enthusiasm for Sail was apparent right through our chat: “And of course it has a social impact! So yeah, we’re really excited about the future.”

As Mandy headed off to the capital to continue the Sail Creative journey, I found her passion had rubbed off on me, and I’m excited to see what happens next for this local entrepreneur and her socially conscious enterprise.

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