Making Conversations Count


Episode 18

Do I go left or right? Peter Howard – owner of PHD Design Studio

Peter Howard runs a design studio that is ranked in the top 100 in the country and was responsible for the WAG brand.

Having known Peter and his team for many years, Wendy has heard lots of his stories but knew there would be one she had not heard before.

Digging for the gold in the seam through conversation or branding can have a really positive impact on the first impressions you make in business. We make all decisions through an emotional process.

Being a clever chap, Peter shares a story about an invention, with a global patent, that you will just never believe…


Connect with Peter on LinkedIn 

See the PHD Design website



Making Conversations Count – Episode 18

February 18th 2021

Wendy Harris & Peter Howard, PHD Design




00:00:00: Introduction

00:01:45: Cutting through the noise

00:03:28: Digging for client gold

00:05:07: Every decision is an emotional one.

00:06:27: People like to chat

00:10:40: PHd is invisible

00:12:21: Never going to float; way too brave

00:13:30: Pete’s pivotal moment

00:18:09: Left or right?

00:19:34: £100K in six years?

00:23:26: The power of conversation

00:26:05: Final thoughts


Wendy Harris: Welcome back to the Making Conversations Count Podcast. I am your host; I am Wendy Harris and today I am joined in the studio by Peter Howard from PHd Design.  We’ve known each other for a very long and time I must just explain very quickly that you might hear a dog wagging their tail because my Maud knows you very well and has recognised your voice; and does normally sit down very calm and quietly but I think she’s missing her Peter love.

Peter Howard: Bless her cotton socks.  I can put up with a little bit of tail wag whooshing.

Wendy Harris: That’s great, thank you.  Peter, please introduce yourself.  Tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do.

Peter Howard: My name’s Peter Howard and for my sins I am Head of Blame at PHd Design.  Thankfully that role is not that busy because we don’t very often get things wrong.  So, PHd Design we’ve been going since 1992, good Lord, and we an award-winning graphic design branding and design company.  We’ve got two international awards, a couple of regional awards, we’ve been a member of the Chamber of Commerce since we started, and we’re also now independently ranked in the top 100 design companies in the UK.

Wendy Harris: That’s a fantastic accolade to have, isn’t it?  Am I right in thinking that we brag about that as being the only design agency in Staffordshire that has ever got that accolade with Design Week?

Peter Howard: Spot on, the only one in Staffordshire.  There’s only three in the Midlands, the other two are in Birmingham and they’re all infinitely bigger than we are, and they do a lot of other things apart from what we do.  But we’re a specialist and we’re very proud of that, because it is independent as well which is wonderful.

Wendy Harris: I’ve known for what 10, 11 years, I think?

Peter Howard: Yeah, something like that.  I have got older, I’ve got more bags under my eyes, a few more crow’s feet but hopefully the passion hasn’t changed and the ability to cut through the normal, shall we say noise?

Wendy Harris: I think you are right there, Pete, because it’s a very family feel in the studio.  There’s that sort of relaxed approach because you know what you’re doing.  When I hear you talking to clients you know what you’re talking about so it’s about getting them to relax as well; to tell you what they need for you to be able to show them what you can do.

Peter Howard: It’s absolutely true.  Strangely enough, because of all this Covid times and we’re all working remotely and then we came back to the studio and now it’s all working remotely again, blah, blah, we’ve adapted, and I think the phrase is “pivoted” so that we can all work from home remotely and access all the bits and bobs at work.

Wendy Harris: I like “pirouette” better.

Peter Howard: Sounds much more pleasant that does, definitely.  You wouldn’t want to be seeing me do a pirouette though trust me.

Wendy Harris: No, you don’t want to see my knees.

Peter Howard: Yeah, my wife said to me the other day, she happened to be at the office here at home.  She said, “You actually came across really well there”, and that was quite a nice thing for me to hear.  She doesn’t normally witness what I do for a living.  So, she happened to be in whilst I was talking to a client about a presentation of what they needed.  She said, “You came across really well because you got your personality across and the passion and the real desire to dig to the heart of what their challenge was and then solve it for them”. 

Ultimately that is what every client wants.  They want somebody to bother to understand it, and then offer a solution that recognises what the challenge is that they can see it and go, “Oh yeah, I get what that is now”.

Wendy Harris: For me it’s like digging for gold, isn’t it, and finding the seam.  So, a lot of clients will know themselves what that gold looks like and feels like, but then explaining that gold and how it can work for them can be really challenging either through conversation, through communication, through a lot of the things that you produce in the studio.  I’m really chuffed I get loads and loads of comments about my branding and that’s thanks to you guys.  It’s made such a massive difference because people recognise who I am straight away, just from an image.

Peter Howard: It’s amazing how much of a difference that can make.  It’s wonderful for you to say that thank you very much, it means a lot, but it is absolutely bang on.  The funny thing is, is that we can’t help, as human beings, we can’t help make a first impression.  If you walk into a room, if you walk past a bookstand at an airport, if you’re out on the pull, and this is a strange analogy, but we always make a decision with our eyes first. 

If you’re at a restaurant and the food comes out, if things look good, if things look right, if things look appropriate to what you’re expecting them to be, then the message goes from the eyes to the brain, the ears, the nose, the taste and this, that and the other, to tell them, “Listen, guys, we’re the first barrier of defence, all looking good”.  So, everybody else is a little bit more relaxes in the senses.

So, if the visual is right at the start, chances are people will look a bit further and try it or test or talk to it or touch it or whatever it is to make sure that it lives up to its first impression.

Wendy Harris: I was so busy listening to you then I was thinking, “Do you know, it is that every decision that we make is an emotional one”.

Peter Howard: God, yeah and you justify it afterwards.

Wendy Harris: Yeah, we talk ourselves in or out of it afterwards as to whether it was the right decision or not, but it is that emotive process, isn’t it?

Peter Howard: Here’s something that happened to me a few years ago, this is just to bear that out.  I was looking to buy a different car.  The old car I got was broken and it was time to put it to bed, so to speak.  I went looking for a car, and I thought, “I’ll get a lease deal and this, that and the other”, and I found an Audi A4.  I’m going to back to — the year was 2003.  Found an Audi A4, and I wanted it and it was my first ever brand-new car and I just wanted it.

I remember justifying it, finding lots of evidence about the miles per gallon and about the insurance premiums and what I was already paying on XYZ, just so that I could justify it to our accounts chap at work then.  I thought, “What am I doing this for?”, because ultimately, I’ve bought it because I like the look of it and that’s what I wanted.

Wendy Harris: Yeah, I can have it because I can, I don’t need anybody to tell me I can.

Peter Howard: Mad isn’t it?  But I do remember justifying it, so yeah, it was an emotional purchase, but then backed up by trying to justify it pointlessly anyway.

Wendy Harris: It doesn’t matter what we say, conversation is key to just about everything that we do really, isn’t it?  Life, work, personal, goals.

Peter Howard: I really agree with that.  This manifests itself into our world or PHd’s world day in, day out.  Because we work so closely with our clients, you end up having them as friends, they end up becoming part and parcel of your life.  You can have a conversation with somebody and if they feel comfortable with you then they just start talking about all sorts of things, all sorts of things to do with their own life.  Having that ability to hold a conversation with anybody, whether it be shopfloor to boardroom, doesn’t make any difference people are just people.

People like to chat.  People like to have a chat with somebody who can demonstrate that they are (a) listening and (b) give a damn about what’s being said to them, because so many times you’ll hear or you’ll see maybe, you’ll come across, let’s say a salesperson, and that salesperson is focused, “Get the deal, get the job”.  You’re having a chat with them and they’re not listening.  You can almost see the words you’re saying going in one ear and falling out the other one and you’re thinking, “I’m not going to give you the business”.

Wendy Harris: It’s that’s scenario isn’t it of, “You went on holiday, that’s nice, can you sign here?”  “The weather was — yeah, it’s just there and you need to date it too”.  “Yeah, so there was plenty of ice cream?”.  “Yeah, okay and if you turn over that’s the small print”, because they just want to be out of there, don’t they?

Peter Howard: Our clients, they just keep coming back which is absolutely flipping wonderful.  We don’t hold anybody on a retainer, I don’t think we’ve ever done a retainer with anybody, but the simple principle is if you do a good job and you’re being straight and honest and upfront about everything with somebody and you do it right, then they come back because they see the results of your labour.  You were alluding to it earlier that the work that we’ve done for you is getting WAG more noticed because you’ve now got a distinctive style.

Wendy Harris: Yes.

Peter Howard: If we can give that to people to make them more recognisable, more seen, more noticed, more heard, etc, by the power of design, then they’ve got to be ahead of their competitors.  If you can do that and be a nice person and have a chat and a laugh along the way …

Wendy Harris: Yeah, I agree Pete, because I have visibility now because people recognise it.  There’s a certain credibility as well because I would say it shows that I actually care about the first impression I want to make, when I show up.  It is polished, it’s no longer the eye stock vintage phone, cobbled together on some free app with my logo that’s 16 years old.  It just shows that I care.

Peter Howard: Absolutely, and if you care then they will subliminally care because people notice that.  They subliminally notice stuff when somebody’s put some effort and care and attention into it.  You can’t help it; we all notice when things look ropey.  You don’t necessarily notice when things look good, but you notice when they look bad.  Not many people will tell you it looks bad, but if people are noticing that you look bad then you’ll see it in the drop off the figures, people will do that.

Whereas if you look good, it’s almost expected to be that way, so what we try and do is make sure that all of our clients look consistent.  Oddly probably the biggest and best word in what we do is that, it’s consistency, because if you do it consistently then you get a brand awareness; you get a look and a feel and a style.  The trick there is to make sure it’s done well, so if you do it consistent and well, that’s a winner for everybody.

Wendy Harris: Your design, one of the observations I would say having known you for such a long time and seeing a lot of the projects that you’ve worked with and —

Peter Howard: Is this going to be good or bad?

Wendy Harris: No, yeah, it’s good.  You’re a small team and it’s very much a family feel, and I think even the listeners will agree with me, when you go to a designer and an agency there’s generally a very strong undercurrent of how they design, that you can tell who it is.  You can go, “Oh and that’s them over there, they’ve done that”.

Peter Howard: Yeah.

Wendy Harris: What I think the beauty of what you create in your studio is what the client wants to the point that we can’t always tell that it’s you that’s done it.  PHd is invisible because it’s so the client’s brand.

Peter Howard: It’s not everybody that notices that, but that’s oddly what we try and set out to achieve.  We don’t necessarily want people to recognise that it’s us; we want people to recognise it’s the customer.  That may be born out of the fact that we’ve got such a diverse client base that it’s wonderful.  We might be dealing with a range of beers one day or one week; and then we’re doing a shirt the next week; then we might be doing a solicitor’s literature the next week.  There is a novel thing, trying to make solicitor speak into the language that the customers (a) understand, and (b) give a monkey’s about; that’s quite a challenge.

Professional services, and then we might have an automotive company and all of those are incredibly different target audiences, so you have to design it in a different way for each different project.  But because have such a wide scope it really makes it a lot easier, ironically, because we can draw on experiences, let’s say, from the automotive world and put it into the drinks industry.  We can draw on stuff we’ve done for the FMCG market and put it into professional services, and it does help having such a wide pool of very different customers.  One thing that holds them all together though is that they do care how they look; that’s the probably the thing that holds them together.

Wendy Harris: Yes, and that whatever it is that you do for them speaks on their behalf.  It’s not that they’re suddenly trying to communicate in a different fashion either.

Peter Howard: Well it’s got to be appropriate to them.

Wendy Harris: Yes, you can take the jargon out can’t you, but it’s still got to be that it sounds like them.

Peter Howard: And appropriate to the market.  There’s no point making a solicitor look like a cool hip and trendy TV producing company, because it wouldn’t work and equally vice versa.

Wendy Harris: Although I have got that going round in my head now and that’s quite funny.

Peter Howard: Likewise, you wouldn’t expect a barrister let’s say to come dressed with beads, dreadlocks and flip flops.  There’s an image that you need to culture.  So, there’s a window; is that the right word, or parameters that you can work within.

Wendy Harris: Boundaries, I know one of my listeners will love that.

Peter Howard: You try and push them because that’s in nature what we try and do, but you do need to recognise that there are certain things that you think, “Nah, that’s just going to float, that isn’t.  That is just way too brave”.

Wendy Harris: A bit too out there.

Peter Howard: It’s knowing where they are.

Wendy Harris: Yeah, absolutely.  Pete, I could talk to you all day about what you do and it’s just purely because I have an invested interest in it as well, having known you for so long, but everybody on the show you can’t get out of it; I ask everybody to bring a pivotal moment at that conversation that really created a turning point.

Peter Howard: Do you want me just to spurt it out and talk it through?

Wendy Harris: Yeah, tell us what’s happened to create a pivotal moment for you?

Peter Howard: Let me take you back to late 1990.  There may be some people out there thinking, “I wasn’t even born then”, you never know, but late 1990 I was a partner in a reasonably successful design company in Birmingham.  We’d got, I think, five staff designers and life was pretty good.  I thought I was king of Great Barr to be honest at the time, that’s where I’m from.  I had a Peugeot 205 GTi with a phone in it.

Wendy Harris: That’s what I learned to drive in.

Peter Howard: Fantastic cars.

Wendy Harris: Yeah.

Peter Howard: So, I was king of the hill and I thought I was superb and everything in the garden was rosy.  Me and my business partner, we invented a product, and that product has gone on to sell easily in excess of a billion units throughout the world, but however there’s always a “but”, we’re dogged with a bit of bad luck and it culminated in a weekend down in London with the MD and owner of Chrysalis Music. 

We’d got over a lot of hurdles, we’d borrowed a bit of money and ultimately, we were going to sell the rights to this product to Chrysalis Music for a global rollout.  It’s a flip case, like a Filofax for CDs, so anybody who’s listening, if you’ve got one of those like a little zip case with the sleeves you can put CDs in, it emanated from me.

Wendy Harris: I’ve got one in the car.

Peter Howard: Yeah, I’ve got the patent certificate at work, because we got the global patent on it.  However, come Christmas and this was December 1991, so I’ve come forward a year, my then business partner, who shall remain nameless, he announced to me that he was going to be going to, I think it was Gambia with his girlfriend for Christmas.  So, I thought, “Great, fine no problem”. 

He said, “Do you want to borrow my car over Christmas and have a little play?”  He’d got — I think it was a reasonably new Lancia Delta HF Intergrale which is basically a Ferrari with a Lancia body on it.  It’s a nutcase car, left-hand drive, evil, evil thing.  So, I thought, “That’s brilliant, I’ll have a little play with that”, so off he went.  That was mid-late December 1991.

By Christmas 1991 the world had imploded for me.  The car was repossessed, his car was repossessed, my car was repossessed; the phone obviously went with it.  My flat had to go because I couldn’t afford it.  The business — we had three businesses all of them imploded on themselves. 

What I’ve learned out of that particular experience is that I trusted probably too much because I’d signed lots of things that I wasn’t quite sure what I was signing, and it basically transpired that the whole of the three businesses were held up by prayer and faith and hope.  So, it was incredibly in debt, there was a lot of bank debt, there was a lot of personal guarantees debt, and that’s quite a crucial factor of this pivotal moment.

So, I hadn’t realised a lot of this; so everything went, the bailiffs turned up, the business was gone.  Not quite overnight, but pretty close.  I rang my parents up, I moved back in with my parents.  I went out with some old mates from school and got incredibly drunk for a couple of nights.

Wendy Harris: Ratted.

Peter Howard: Absolutely twisted and it was the world’s and his dog’s fault.  None of it was my fault, I blamed everybody.  I was angry.

Wendy Harris: Trying to just understand what had happened.

Peter Howard: Absolutely, yeah.  Then after I think a couple of days after the Christmas period, I thought, “Okay, that’s enough of that.  You’ve licked your wounds, you’ve been angry, you’ve shouted a few people and you’ve got it out of your system.  You’ve now got to recognise that you’re in that horrible place, you’ve got a lot of debt”. 

There are PG debts, which I then discovered that when you’ve got a personal guarantee on something, whoever you owe the money to, can choose — how many people have signed that document, they can choose whoever they want to come to for the money.

So, being as my then business partner had gone abroad, I didn’t see him for years, I don’t know where he went but he disappeared.  Effectively, the banks, the only place that they could get any money from was me, because I had an address, and I had a postcode, and I wasn’t hiding.  Ultimately, I ended up sorting the banks out and paying them off.

Now, you might think, “Well, if you’ve got nothing how can you afford that?”  The amount of monies involved here was knocking on the door of £100,000 in total.

Wendy Harris: In 1991 was a lot of money.

Peter Howard: This was January 1992, so January 1992 the whole pain came out.  It is Christmas 1991/January 1992.  So, £100,000; £60,000 of it was PGs, it was a mind focuser.  So, the pivotal moment, we get to it through all this preamble, I had a decision to make in January 1992 and the decision was really simple and the only way I could do this was to think about it like a junction in a road.  I’d got to a T-junction and I could either go left or right.

It was go and get a job; and if I went and got a job, which I didn’t think was going to be a problem, because I felt that I was good enough to get a job, so if I was going to get a job, I’d be paying off that debt probably until now, because that was the equivalent to one-and-a-half, two houses.  Yeah, it’s lot of money.  It was more than my first house which I bought six years afterwards.  So that was one choice, turn right, go and get a job pay it off the rest of your life.

Turn left, try and learn how to run a business.  Try and do it and then —

Wendy Harris: I don’t mean to laugh, Pete, because I know you’re still trying.

Peter Howard: I know, I know.  One of these days I’ll work it out how the hell you’re supposed to do it.  I don’t know when that’s going to be but — so I thought, “How difficult can it be?”  I suppose because of blind ignorance and not having a fat lot of choice, I thought, “I’ll do it”.  My brain said, “If you go left and try running a business, if it fails go and get a job”, so there was always a get out clause.

Wendy Harris: Yes, you got a plan B, yeah.

Peter Howard: Yeah, I tried to learn how to write a proposal, learn how to write a quotation, learn how to do stuff.  Doing the work wasn’t a problem to be honest, because that’s what our partnership was.  He went and got it and I did it.  So, doing it was no issue, it was the going and getting it and working out the business matters.

So, I went round, and I spoke to all the suppliers.  I did a deal with every supplier that was owed money.  I said, “Look, I know I don’t have to pay you but because trust and honour and reputation are vitally important, I’m going to”.  So, we worked out a process where I’d do X amount of work for X amount of money that would knock off the debt; and ultimately when the debt’s gone, with all these suppliers, they would still give me work and it would then turn into a better structure.

I did deals with the banks to pay it off, and without boring you with all the details, I started PHd late January 1992.  Six years almost to the day after I started it, I can remember cracking open a bottle of champagne, with my then girlfriend who’s now my wife, in our first house going, “That’s it.  It’s done”.  The last bit of the debt was paid off and it was almost six years, so it took a long time and a lot of grief and a lot of graft, but reputation was completely intact, all debts paid and move onto the next chapter of PHd.  So pivotal moment; Christmas 1991.

Wendy Harris: High ten to you, Pete.  I don’t know why I don’t know that story.  Perhaps it was because I needed to hear it today.

Peter Howard: Maybe, I don’t broadcast it; basically most people don’t want to go, “Yeah, whatever”.

Wendy Harris: Thank you.

Peter Howard: I’ve got nothing to hide by it, but it’s not the sort of thing I normally broadcast, there you go.  I’m surprised you don’t know actually because we have had quite a few chats, so there you go.

Wendy Harris: Yes, I know we’ve talked about lots of things on lots of different deep levels that sometimes has got absolutely nothing to do with work and more about the life and the universe and our navel, but it’s incredible really when you consider £100,000 in six years and to live, because that’s the other element, isn’t it?  You’re not working that off and working for free and somebody else is covering your arse, let’s be frank.

Peter Howard: Well, I have to say my parents were amazing because they said, “No problem, come back”, and I moved into my old room back at home.  So, I would be 26-ish at the time, and they said, “No problem”.  My mum said, “Don’t worry about paying us board so to speak or keep, do it when you can”, which was brilliant.  So, I did when I could, but they were incredibly supportive, absolutely brilliant.  I couldn’t have asked for better.  That massively helped.

My first car I bought it off my dad.  I bought my dad’s old, and some of your listeners may not even know what the hell one of these things is, but an old Datsun Stanza.  Datsun is the name that Nissan used to be called for anybody out there who doesn’t know.  An old Datsun Stanza I bought off him for £300 and paid it off bit by bit, but it was a massive help.  So, I didn’t do it alone, I did it with parental help.

Wendy Harris: I think the other point that I just want to quickly touch on is that at that crossroads, when you could have gone left or right —

Peter Howard: Yeah.

Wendy Harris: — “After everything that I’ve just been through, I really don’t want any more hassle, I’m just going to get on with it, keep my head down, once bitten I’m not going to get bitten again”.

Peter Howard: Yeah.

Wendy Harris: Yet you decided to go with the, “I’m going to give this a try myself and you’re nailing it and still nailing it”.

Peter Howard: Well, it’s 29 years now we’ve been going, so I think the phrase is, “We’re probably over the worst”.

Wendy Harris: Yeah, do you think?

Peter Howard: Yeah, we must be doing something right because people keep coming back and we’ve won certain statuses within the industry, so we are recognised as actually good at what we do.  That is just born out by just being really open and honest.

Coming back to this whole conversation situation, it doesn’t matter who you are, if you can articulate what you need to solve.  If you’re a client and you can articulate what you need to do, and if you’re working with somebody who can understand that and articulate how they’re going to help you solve it, all by the power of conversation, then it can happen.

Wendy Harris: What I would like to say just as a final observation is that I hear you sometimes on your mobile phone and I know that you’re following up a quote or that you’re in the middle of a job for somebody, and you go, “Oh hello, so and so, yeah and we’re doing this, and did you do that, and did you do the other?  Tell me what happened”. 

Then at the end you think, “Oh we’ve been on the phone quite a while I’d better go”, and then you go, “Yes, that is why I rang you.  Oh, you want me to do that, okay”.  So, you do ring — you’ve just phoned auntie, your nephew, your best made down the pub and you kind of forget that you’re working.

Peter Howard: Weirdly enough I do say to people at work, if I’m going out and I’m talking to a customer and I’m sitting in front of somebody, whether they’re a potentially new customer or a customer we’ve had for donkey’s years, sitting there and chewing the fat and really getting a strong relationship going with them just by chatting, it doesn’t feel like work, I do feel like I’m cheating sometimes, but that’s what it’s all about because everybody likes to be able to know who they’re dealing with and trust them.

Yesterday, I won’t say who, but I was with a client yesterday morning and I dropped in to drop some bits and bobs off that they’re ordered, and I was in Birmingham, so it was easier for me to do it; so I dropped in.  45 minutes later, rather than just drop it off, “Thanks very much”, 45 minutes later, two coffees and a biscuit later, they’d started talking about some other things and I knew that the one lady had a fantastic holiday that had been cancelled for three times; I knew that the MD there wants another motorbike, and the particular motorbike that he’s talking about wanting, I know someone who’s got one, not that they’re selling it, but I was able to have a conversation about that.  Personally, I think motorbikes are death traps, but that’s only because I’ve been on a motorbike three times in my life and I’ve fallen off three times in my life, so, there’s a message there.

Wendy Harris: Average there, yeah.

Peter Howard: I haven’t got a pretty good hit rate there, but we could have just a conversation and the amount we laughed while we were talking was brilliant.  But it welds us together, it cements us together so we’re going to carry on doing business hopefully for the next 20 years.  We’ve been dealing with them for 20 years already and I hope it carries on for another 20 and it’s just because we get on and we like each other.

Wendy Harris: It’s the right kind of infectious.

Peter Howard: Yeah.

Wendy Harris: Thank you so much for agreeing to come on the show today, it’s been just lovely to chat to you.

Peter Howard: Or in the words of Vinnie Jones, it’s been emotional.

Wendy Harris: If anybody wants to pick up the conversation with you, Pete, about anything that we’ve talked about today, where’s the best place for them to find you?

Peter Howard: You can either ring the office, which is 01543 473191 or look on our website which is easily named as, that’s with two d’s in the middle; or email me, which is again really challenging email this so get your pens and papers ready,  Nice to keep things simple.

Wendy Harris: We will make sure that we put the details in the show notes for you, brilliant.  Thank you, Peter, it’s been wonderful.  To our listeners please do send us your feedback and comments, we do love receiving all of those that we’ve been looking at recently and make sure you share this with your friends and family that need to be introduced to Peter.  Make sure you subscribe; the channel address is, as always

That’s all from me, and Maud and Peter.