The 35-year-old co-founder of the Thomas.Matthews partnership and Three Trees Don't Make a Forest, which campaigns and educates designers on environmental issues, was horrified 12 years ago at the waste generated by College catering. She got together with future partner Kristine Matthews to produce a prize-winning exhibit, spending three days with the canteen staff, totting up the number of cups and cans and counting the cost in financial terms and to the environment.
‘It was shocking, but it was great raw material for a project. We collected a week’s worth of polystyrene cups, which was about 5,470, and 1,600 cans and washed them out and hung them in the gallery,’ Thomas said. ‘People had to walk through them, and they actually became a rather beautiful curtain.’
The pair made posters and a mug which, when used in the canteen, allowed three pence off the price of a coffee – the cost of the polystyrene cup. 'With the money raised we instigated recycling round the college, things like glass and splitting cardboard from the rubbish, which saved £50 a week. Before that it just didn’t happen.’ The College has since instituted a wide-reaching environmental policy, and is well on the way to exceeding its 60% recycling target by 2011.
After graduating Thomas worked on point-of-sale graphics for The Body Shop, but the job was always going to be a stop-gap. ‘I had a dream about having a big studio,’ she said. ‘I recognised that I wanted to be my own boss when I realised that it’s very hard to work for other people. I believed I could do better.’ During that year Thomas worked with Matthews on No Shop, a three-day installation for Friends of the Earth that tackled issues of consumerism and consumption. 'It was a real media pull… people still talk about it now,’ Thomas said.
No Shop earned the partnership a reputation among environmentally aware groups and institutions, and they began to get commissions, setting up both office and studio in Thomas’s living room. One of their first jobs was for the Earth Centre in Doncaster, where the duo’s campaigning and innovative pitch for on-site interpretation design earned a round of applause from directors. 'It’s about the clarity of the message and the most effective vehicle for that message,’ Thomas said, and she clearly knows her business. Among other projects, the practice is currently working on an Olympic legacy consultation project.
Thomas.Matthews still take a purist line on advertising. They don’t do it. ‘We don’t really believe in it… I’m much more interested in communicating messages that are about better living, better lifestyles. One of the interesting challenges at the moment is how we get consumers to start consuming less but without actually saying that it’s a step backwards – what’s termed elegant frugality,’ Thomas said.
Matthews, a native of Seattle who has since returned to America to teach, came from a west-coast community that was aware of their environment. ‘Historically, graphic designers have rarely believed they had an impact on the environment, but they are wrong. Paper is the world’s fourth largest polluter and the third largest consumer of fossil fuels,’ Thomas says. In her own business, which now employs ten people, Thomas is rigorous about sustainability, using only vegetable ink, post-consumer paper and tightly controlling the studio’s carbon footprint. Thomas herself comes from a politically active family in Oxford. “I‘ve always tried to bring together the political and the creative sides,’ she said.
A desire to engage with sustainability beyond her own practice led to the Three Trees Don't Make a Forest project, set up with two other former RCA students Caroline Clark and Nat Hunter. It is a not-for-profit social enterprise that aims, ‘to provide tools for all designers and businesses who are involved in design and advertising, to inspire them to re-think their working cultures and start to produce sustainable design that really works’. The website was conceived because the trio were inundated with requests for advice about sustainable design. In addition to her design commitments, Thomas visits companies to give talks and workshops on improving sustainability.
Campaigning, for the indefatigable Thomas (who also has two young children), involves education and last year she co- set up and ran Greengaged, a Design Council-backed series of talks and workshops on eco-design, which was very well received. Her new role in the Design Council can only widen her reach. As the chairman Sir Michael Bichard remarked when her appointment, alongside that of the RCA’s Jeremy Myerson and five leading designers, was announced: ‘sustainability will be very important over the next year’.
Enjoyed this story? Discover more alumni stories here.
"I had a dream about having a big studio. I recognised that I wanted to be my own boss when I realised that it’s very hard to work for other people. I believed I could do better."Sophie Thomas
MA Communication Art and Design