The Origin brand has been around for 15 years. From creating an identity in a fledgling industry to carving our way in an increasingly noisy world, the same designers have worked alongside us for the whole ride. They are Alex Rowse and Ross Imms, co-founders of South West based design studio, A-Side.
So who are the men behind the creative and what’s kept things so fresh over the years? Their story started a stones-throw from Origin’s current roastery, at the School of Art in Falmouth, Cornwall.
Ross was in Falmouth for a four-year course in information design. At the time, that was the design degree on offer there and the location was too appealing – born and bred in Cornwall, he couldn’t tear himself away from the coast. Ross was brought up in Gorran Haven on the South Coast. He talks of the personal inspirations there. It was a hotbed of creative talent with the likes of Tim Smit [the visionary behind the Eden Project] and Kneehigh Theatre.
With this backdrop, his interest in graphic design then came from his passion for skating and the visual culture around it; Santa Cruz, BauHaus Graphics. He started skating in 1986 – a time when skate shops didn’t exist, and decks were sold in toy shops. Social media and YouTube didn’t exist either. It was all about print and video magazines, which were a link to the outside world and offered a snapshot of Californian life. Even at this early stage, these were the things that laid the foundations for his design career. “I remember reading a friend's skate magazine on the school bus. One double-page spread had the same photo repeated twice, but neither was of the complete image. I just remember staring at it and wondering why it was like that. It was a minor thing, but the impression was huge. I flicked to the front and saw that it was by David Carson. It was the first time I’d been aware of and questioned design and the effect it can have.”
Skating was more of an influence on Ross as an upcoming designer than surfing (which for him was more about mindfulness). “It was more rebellious and the more urban areas with their billboards, shops and interesting architecture were a huge influence.”
Whilst Ross was immersing himself in skate and surf culture in Cornwall, Alex was doing the same in Devon (he grew up on the edge of Dartmoor). His Dad was a real beach lover so every weekend his family would hit the sea. Alex finished school at 16 and went straight to Plymouth Art college for a two-year general art and design course. Here he went from drawing for 2 or 3 hours a week to it being part of his life and mixing with peers who were into the same thing as him.
As with Ross, the skate culture was a hugely defining influence; design and fashion within skating moved really quickly so it was always fresh and kept you on your toes. It was current, exciting. They were always waiting for the next magazine video to come out – they’d go around friends’ houses to watch them and afterward be totally up for it.
Skating back then was really DIY. “You’d literally have to look for places to skate and create parks from benches and what you found around you – you had to be creative. The language of skateboarding was raw, influenced by punk and hip hop. Surfing was a bit softer in its approach; it was from a slightly different heritage. In the 80s surfing was about dayglo colours whereas skating was black and khaki. It was hoodies and more secretive culture. Through skating, brands started to have an effect on me. There were so many skateboard brands and I started thinking about how they made me feel – psychologically I was already making decisions around how brands looked and felt. It was the foundation of my design future before I even knew it – the messages, visual and the raw, fast-paced culture.”
Alex then went on to do a HND in Falmouth. This is when he and Ross met, skating and surfing in and around the town. They had the same design heroes – David Carson, Geoff McFetridge [around the time he was working on Grand Royal (Beastie Boys magazine)], Spike Jonze, Mike Mills. These people have since gone on to become prominent household names and still influence their work today.
Image: Russ Pierre Photography
The start of their collaboration.
The first thing they collaborated on together was Alex’s final course project - Shelf magazine. The mag was inspired by LowDown from Berlin, which had a cross-over between music and skate subculture. This was just the start.
Shortly after this Alex went to work for Absolute Design, an agency in Truro. When Ross graduated he headed there too, albeit for a shorter time (Alex’ worked with the team there for nine years, with Ross heading off after a year and pursuing more freelance work, alongside filming operations for the NHS).
During this time the pair were trying to do a lot of London-centric work. They were able to get a lot of progressive work through but were trying to push it as far as they could. They were yoyo-ing up and down to London during their free time. Ross’ freelance work was building nicely, with work in Pictoplasma (character design), being published in Los logos and some work for Ben Sherman. His main focus was trying to find interesting clients and was using basic broadband to work on his jobs from Cornwall (working remotely was still a new concept). Alex’s time at Absolute was a great opportunity working with some really good people, honing his skills.
Tom & A-Side
Towards the end of Alex’s time at Absolute Design, Tom (Origin's Owner & Founder) approached them and talked about starting a coffee company, (Absolute had a history and good reputation of developing packaging). One of the names he was thinking of was ‘Origin’.
The first thing Alex worked on with him was the logo and designed the original brown and orange one with customised typography. The colours were nicely complementary, and it had a retro feel which was popular at the time. Tonally it had hints of beach culture, with soft edges due to the local lifestyle. As the brand kicked off, Tom then met with Ross as he'd heard that he was making a name for himself in illustration and print materials.
Around this time Ross had started working on Stranger Magazine, with copywriters, Stranger Collective. He set up a studio above a surf shop in the centre of Falmouth, with the Stranger team in the front room and him tucked away in the back. There was also a surfboard ding repair guy downstairs – he’d listen to techno really loudly and the fumes would mean they had to abandon the studio some afternoons. It was perfect. It was raw, back-to-basics, back to their roots. This was the catalyst to Alex joining him in what would become A-Side studios.
The creation of the Origin brand
Tom’s work with Ross was exactly what he was looking for. It was flexible and dynamic, both businesses were in their infancy and so were able to experiment. If a design didn’t work, they’d just move on. Tom had loads of energy and kept coming back with new ideas and thoughts. They were all spontaneous, and off the back of this the style of Origin slowly, organically morphed into the illustrative design, which is the lifeblood of the brand you see today. It wasn’t necessarily a conscious thing, it just naturally happened. It was also influenced by the Falmouth student/ex-student community at the time. Back then there was an underlying competition to be creative and do something exciting, to stand out. You saw this in local music nights, where the flyers became increasingly creative to capture attention (in a day without social media). Ross and Alex applied this approach at a business-level.
As the duo got more involved in Stranger Magazine they started working with illustrators (rather than doing them themselves) – styles to suit content – and started reaching out to different illustrators. They used lots of local ones as they would proactively get in touch with A-Side to submit work. As well as local talent, they’d try and involve people that inspired them; world-class illustrators responded to their approaches as were excited by the niche content in Stranger. This is when they first started commissioning illustration and learning how to art direct.
“We saw Tom’s coffee bags as the perfect canvas for this too [commissioning illustrators]. We saw the labels like skateboard decks, commissioning illustrators to let rip and create exciting new pieces. We didn’t know what would come back from them which was hugely exciting. Illustration was really unusual in the world of packaging back then, but we were excited about the process and bringing the product to life in a way that broke with convention.” [Alex]
The first illustration of this series was a painting by Jack Teagle. In fact, this painting was the catalyst for the entire range. It was of a grim reaper having a coffee. Ross and Alex saw it and it all started from there. “It was very brave of Tom to stick a grim reaper on a coffee bag. He had a gutsy approach to business. His approach to Origin was the epitome of creating a challenger-brand; Funnily enough, it didn’t feel like a big decision at the time, but ultimately it was huge.
Packaging and illustration
As this work progressed, they started to be slightly less loose with the briefs behind the commissions, getting more out of the illustrations in terms of what they said about the coffees themselves, the concepts behind them. The first iteration of this was a dual coffee release in which they commissioned two labels from one artist that would be connected. These are the two yetis having coffee, courtesy of Simon Peplow. Simon was a key player in a big exhibition in Rough Trade at the same time – they were familiar with his work through that world and being a skate fringe artist. These two yetis can now be seen sipping brews on the new 15-year packaging.
Around 2013 they moved away from commissioned illustrations on the labels themselves as Tom found that people were choosing which coffees to brew based on the label design, not the actual coffees. At this stage, coffee culture started to take off in the UK too, and there was a general trend for going more minimal. So, they moved to bags with illustrated typography. At this stage, all of the supporting materials had ramped up too and these came to life through colour and illustration.
From here we then moved on to kraft bags, as sustainability became increasingly important to consumers, and kraft packaging was being used as a visual cue.
Then back-to-black, to return to our design and illustration heritage, with sustainability embedded in everything we did, and still do today. The bags themselves brought on-pack illustrations back into the fold, featuring the curious characters of John Dunbar Kilburn. Originally created for an illustration to celebrate Origin hosting the South West heats of the UK Barista Championships, they incorporated a nautical element due to it being hosted on Brunel’s SS Great Britain in Bristol. You’ll see a steamship with group handles alongside creatures of the deep, sci-fi manifestations and dancing maidens. Naturally.
Each coffee was (and still is) accompanied by a bespoke illustration on tasting cards. It brought the original illustrated labels back into the mix, in a way that wouldn’t lead coffee selection and could keep up with Origin’s increasingly fast-paced and broad coffee portfolio. A mention has to also go to the wider team at A-Side, to Davitt and Laura - who are hugely instrumental in the ongoing development of our tasting cards, as well as the living, breathing brand.
Now, with 15 years of brand history, our new packaging showcases our design and illustrator heritage. It features illustrations from eight artists who have been part of this journey. Their level of talent is just something else, and we’re privileged to have worked with them.
Our new bags celebrate the vision of those involved in the creation of Origin – of Tom, Alex, Ross, and the talented illustrators we’ve collaborated with - arguably the pioneers behind the visual cues of the current UK speciality coffee industry and the wider craft product packaging movement. It’s an industry that’s now full of design-savvy and inspiring creative, and one which we’re incredibly proud to have been instrumental in laying the foundations for.