The White Cloth Gallery was a popular space in Leeds for many years, but it sadly closed down. However, since then it has been taken over by Hippo Digital, a digital consultancy firm that is proud to be a part of the Leeds landscape. We talked to founding director Rob Coop, to find out about the plans for the venue.
Many Leeds residents will have been familiar with the White Cloth Gallery over the years, and Rob Coop is definitely one of them. It used to be one of the haunts for him and his colleagues at Hippo Digital. “We used to come here quite a lot,” he said. “We’ve always been very local, so this was one of our locals as a bar.”
However, the venue closed down in January 2018, leaving the building open for a new future. This was something too good to pass up for Rob, and he arranged for Hippo Digital to take over not one, but two floors of the building. “We chose to take two floors so we could turn one into an events space where people can come in and work and where we can have conferences and things like that,” he said.
Part of the ground floor of the venue is taken up by the coffee shop and bar Brew Society, which is something Rob is pleased about. “The cafe/bar being on the front of it helps; we wanted it to be quite a social space and that fit in with our ways of working,” he said. “Also, it’s a great facility to have for our team and our clients.”
A big part of the appeal of the former Gallery is the building itself, a reminder of the factories and mills of Leeds’ past. Rob agrees with this, but also sees the building as a symbol of the direction in which the city is moving.
He said: “Choosing a building like this with such a strong link to the city’s industrial heritage, but that is also part of the future of Leeds being service-based and having a very strong digital community, was quite important.” He added that even though the space wasn’t designed for the method of working that Hippo utilises, it fits the company’s needs extremely well.
In fact, Rob wants to turn the building into more than just Hippo Digital’s workplace. He said: “It’s important to be part of the Leeds digital scene and support community groups. Although this is a paying space, and it’s a separate business, we want it to be a community space as well so people with community events can come and use this space and we’ll support them in doing that.”
So who are Hippo Digital? “We’re a digital service design consultancy,” said Rob. “We work with mainly public sector clients, ensuring their services – primarily digital services – are well-designed.”
The company was founded almost three years ago, in April 2016, by Rob and his business partner Adam Lewis. The pair were working on a project for NHS Digital, but realised that there was a niche in the digital industry that they could fill with their combined expertise.
“We realised that the user-centred way we were working provided an opportunity,” said Rob. “There were a lot of companies focusing on the engineering of services, but not that many on the product design or service design elements. So there was a clear opportunity, we felt.”
As a result, Rob and Adam founded Hippo Digital. Rob explained the work the company does: “We work on the design and product side to ensure that what they’re building is the right thing, that it’s been well-researched, and that the user needs are clear and well-understood. That way when they go into that delivery phase, they’re focused on building a service that we’ve validated and helped design.”
Rob is very clear on the fact that Hippo Digital is not an agency, it’s a consultancy, and there’s a clear reason for that. “With agencies, they’ll be given a brief, they’ll go away and work on that brief and come back with the results,” he said.
“We work alongside the client, so our consultants aren’t based in this building. They often come back here and work here to complete a project, but they’re based on the client’s sites, and they’re part of that client’s team. They don’t just take a brief from the client, they really work to understand what it is the client is trying to achieve, what problem they’re trying to address, and how that can be best dealt with.”
This approach to the work fits in well with the workspace the company has chosen. “We could have easily found a modern office that would have been very corporate,” said Rob, “but it wouldn’t have been us and it wouldn’t have felt like us. We moved out of a very corporate, very flash digital premises because we feel that the collaborative way of working, these kinds of spaces fit that so much better.”
The consultative way of working means Hippo often has clients come into work with their team, and their new offices help with this. Rob said: “People really enjoy the space, they feel that the informality of the space fits their way of working. People who come in like it’s flexibility and that it doesn’t feel overly formal, so people relax straight away and feel comfortable in the space. I think that’s very important for us.”
It seems that the former White Cloth Gallery is in good hands. With Hippo Digital’s collaborative mentality, the new workspace seems set to be a community landmark for Leeds’ digital sector for years to come.