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Lost City

Serif Are the Local Tech Company Taking on the Big Guns with Their Editing Software

11 November 19 words: Fabrice Gagos
photos: Fabrice Gagos

Five years ago, during the fall of 2014, two revolutions were about to start: the now-famous Umbrella Movement protests in Hong Kong, and the launch of Affinity Designer,, developed by Nottingham-based company Serif. Affinity Creative Suite – complete with the launch of Affinity Photo in 2015 and Affinity Publisher in 2019 – would eventually provide an interesting, and affordable, alternative to the mastodon Adobe Creative Suite... 

The Affinity apps have now been downloaded over 2 million times. In 2018, Serif sales grew 18%, almost tripling their profits since 2015. More recently, they were included in the 2019 Sunday Times Profit Track, and ranked at #11 in the Grant Thornton East Midlands 200, which lists companies showing the biggest year-on-year rise in profit. In Nottinghamshire, Serif was ranked #2 after Games Workshop. All of this sounds a bit like a Forbes article, so you’re probably imagining a corporate company full of boring people in suits and sleep-deprived employees. But this couldn’t be further from the truth. 

Even though Serif has been going since 1987, not many are aware they’re locals – it was only when I casually noticed the “©2019 Serif, Nottingham, United Kingdom” at the footer of their newsletter that I realised myself. Their office is situated in Nottingham South & Wilford Industrial Estate in West Bridgford. From the outside, there is nothing really remarkable about the facilities, it’s just another building in a bland industrial zone, from which the most attractive feature is a small coffee truck and some picnic tables alongside the road. 

But walk through the doors and you’ve reached another world. Each area looks different: there are floating seats in the lounge, the walls of the cafe are covered in wood to make it look like a real pub, and there’s even an arcade – where Matt Priestley, the project manager, apparently spends most of his time. There’s a big warehouse on one side of the building, dating back to the time when they had to store physical copies of the software. They are still debating on what this huge space will become; some are championing a gym, whereas I would suggest a cinema. Most importantly though, I didn’t clock anyone in a suit.

Serif’s creative director, Neil Ladkin, explains that the building was designed to make people feel at ease: “I wanted to create something that feels a bit magical when you walk through the door.” They also encourage their staff to use the space how they feel best, whether that’s working at your desk or in the lounge or cafe. “If people are happy, productivity will come. You don’t need to strap people to a chair, that won’t work,” says Neil. “We want things to be born from creativity.”

It’s this philosophy that has made the Affinity apps such a success. Like the facilities, the products are designed to fit their user’s needs. “Our aim is for the user experience to be magical, with nothing getting in the way during the creative process. If the user thinks about what the app is doing, the magic’s gone,” explains Neil. Matt adds, “When ideas are only exposed to your team, it’s easy to lose track of what the users may want. Because your teammates know what you’re trying to do, it’s easy to reach a point of self satisfaction.” This sparked the strong relationship Serif has built with Nottingham’s creative community over the past few years.

If people are happy, productivity will come. You don’t need to strap people to a chair, that won’t work

This relationship with users started with public beta for Affinity Designer, to which Matt attributes the success of the product. “We’ve got engagement from some talented artists, and we actually listened to what they said and made the changes.” In the beginning, Designer was more his own product – shortcuts were different, and the tools acted differently. “But during the public beta, some common expectations came to light due to users’ workflow and habits, and we realised that there are certain industry standards. You won’t be adopted in people’s workflows if yours is really different.” 

Essentially, Affinity developed from a combination of the Serif team’s twenty years of experience, and the open discussion with their ideal customers. “Hopefully that helped us came with something more mature than normal for a first version,” says Matt. But the tight relationship with users doesn’t stop here.

“This human interaction keeps you passionate about what you’re doing, and makes it real. We want to engage with the wider art community through our space,” says Neil. “It’s not entirely finished yet, and we’re not quite sure what it will be, but we could host exhibitions or events. We imagine having a photographer here, a digital artist or sculptor over there and we can stream their performances online; a local artist can come in here and then reach millions of people with his performance – there’s nowhere else in Nottingham you can do that.”

Serif is undoubtedly one of the most successful and interesting companies in Nottingham, and they don’t plan to rest on their laurels. The pair reckon that every day in the office, they hear about ideas of potential new apps to complete the suite. But, with time, their philosophy and their passion, Serif stands a chance of becoming a staple stomping ground for Nottingham’s creative community. 

Serif website

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