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Industry experts explore how—and when—to rebrand your design business.
Not many doctors perform surgery on themselves, but many designers perform surgery on their own brands. Altering a name, brand identity and brand hierarchy, transforming the over-all look and feel. Reworking the values you and your organization adhere to or the promise(s) you make to clients and stakeholders. Whether you’re a freelancer or an in-house designer, or at a studio or agency, you’ll probably have to rebrand at least once, performing surgery on yourself.
It’s challenging to work on a brand so close to you, especially if you’ve invested years of your career into it, but that should make you the most qualified to do the work—or should it? How well do you know yourself and your studio’s brand? What about retooling and revising your own brand strategy? If you need help, what part or parts should you outsource to others? Whether the rebrand is 100% in your hands or delegated to an outside partner or contractor, you should approach the work with eagerness and excitement—and caution. Take good care of your own brand during the process, and make sure you remain dedicated to your clients, meeting their needs too.
BEGINNING A NEW CHAPTER
Banks Wilson, president and creative director of digital agency UNION, went through a rebrand in 2014 after undergoing big changes since first opening his own studio. Years ago, while completing his Bachelor of Fine Arts with a focus in graphic design at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, he created a portfolio website, direct mail promo, résumé and personal logo of himself—a caricature wearing a baseball cap. Wilson, who had always been known for wearing such a cap, built it into his brand identity. He soon landed a job at an advertising agency but craved more than the projects assigned to him, so he struck out on his own in 2002. He named his company Studiobanks and used his hatted personal logo, but with one small change: He removed the caricature and added an ‘S’ for Studiobanks.
By 2014 Studiobanks had grown into an 18-person digital marketing agency. “It was less about me personally and my capabilities,” he says, especially since they had evolved into an organization that was more about the team. Wilson calls Studiobanks “chapter one” and UNION “chapter two,” emphasizing how the change was “a cultural need” to shift things from what he calls “The Banks Show” to something more team-oriented. “We grew out of the startup stage and into a more mature business stage. We needed a name that felt larger and less campy.”
Easy to spell, simple and powerful, the name UNION worked perfectly—and it was available as a .co domain name. “We liked the concept of unification and how it related with our style of work. We unify consumers with brands, strategy with technology and goals with results.”
The bolt signifies functionality and ruggedness, something Wilson sees as emblematic of a “hard-working style and willingness to do what’s needed for our clients.” Wilson has been growing the company for over 15 years, from just one team member—himself—to 36 team members. Their maturation and growth proves that they know what clients need.
Among UNION’s core values are its digital-first philosophy, strategic connections between brands and consumers, and an emphasis on craft, strategy and data. And they deliver on the promise of helping brands “create meaningful and enduring relationships with highly connected consumers.” Wilson and his staff in-house took on the rebranding and repositioning process themselves because they were, in his words, “just too close to it and couldn’t imagine anyone doing our branding work other than ourselves.”
REBRAND OR PERISH
David Brier, rebranding specialist and “chief gravity defyer” at DBD International, echoes Wilson’s sentiments about needing to tackle rebranding on your own: “You’ve got to own it. After all, it’s your story.” He has firm beliefs about branding, and the work that goes into it. “The first thing to understand is that brand- ing is the art of differentiation,” he says. “Ever wonder why brands eventually hit a wall, and why they need to reinvent themselves? This is where branding comes in. Rebranding is something that’s done for a number of reasons. Some of the most common reasons are: noise level changes, technology changes, customer needs evolve, corporate focus gets refined or evolves, cultural preferences shift, new opportunities arise. When age, technology or cultural needs shift, brands need to be nimble enough to stay relevant and be meaningful.” Brier’s “chief gravity defyer” title comes from his first book, Defying Gravity & Rising Above the Noise. “Most clients and followers know I am about defying gravity and rising above the noise, instead of adding to the existing noise in the marketplace,” he says. “So, when it came to my title, chief gravity defyer was the perfect fit, and always brings a smile to people’s faces when I hand them my business card or send them an email.” He works with regional startups, some national startups and what he calls “a host of existing brands nationally and internationally.”
When asked if he’s ever been brought on to help with an agency or studio’s rebrand, Brier says, “Not studios.” But if a branding agency did reach out to him for help, he’d have his doubts. “I’d wonder what’s the caliber of the firm, not because I doubt my own ability, but it’s a funny thing … you’ve got to solve your own problem even though an exterior view would help get an outside perspective.” However, Brier could see a need for outsourcing certain parts of a studio’s rebranding if the team is too close to their work or if they don’t have the necessary perspective. “The best brands are tackled with a very broad exterior viewpoint,” he says, something that an outsider could certainly assist with.
Brier’s latest book, Brand Intervention, provides a wealth of information about branding. “Knowing how strapped everybody is for time and changes, I wanted to create a single book that was free of any bloated brand theory, and keep it lean and mean in terms of the proven insights and tactics that have helped cli- ents make millions of dollars in new business,” he says. “So the text is fast with about 65% visuals that show how branding should work.”
The HOW Promotion & Marketing Design Awards has a category specifically for self-promotional projects, like those client gifts that promote your design business, your new website for your freelance business, and business card design and rebrands for your firm. Don’t miss the deadline: April 9!
Scott Lerman, CEO and founding partner of Lucid Brands and founder of the School of Visual Arts’ Masters in Branding program, also wrote about branding in his book Building Better Brands. In addition to writing and teaching, Lerman works with corporate brands, organizations and small businesses. Due to of the nature of the brands he works with, he sees the branding process as a long-term game, building a reputation over time. It’s less about being driven by what’s trendy. But sometimes there is a place for those surface changes in a rebrand. “Something that just feels very fresh, or leading taste, may be very important for certain kinds of businesses or design businesses,” he says. “If you’re working to do branding for fad or fashion-driven industries, then it can be important to be of the moment.” He believes that identity is a key factor when it comes to branding—but not just brand identity.
“You have to decide who you are and what you stand for.” If you do rebrand for fashion’s sake, he has some words of caution: “Just because you’re bored with your visual identity doesn’t mean everyone else is.” Lerman has worked with smaller agencies, ad agencies and design groups, and he appreciates the work that goes into branding and rebranding your own organization. He’s been approached by very small studios who asked him to recommend assistance. “Few people have the ability to do this [on their own], and they all need some complementary help,” he says. You might want to do your own brand strategy, but you might also need to go out and get help from somebody who knows it. So where do you start? “One of the concerns I have … often they don’t know who to turn to,” says Lerman, and this can make the process even more difficult. “There’s not some guide to tell you whom to work with.”
Sometimes it’s best to go to somebody you know. When Studio OL, a small Montréal web design and video production studio rebranded, they hired Laura Lee Moreau, whom they had worked with in the past. Being familiar with each other’s work and process helped, according to Moreau, who says, “The team was enthusiastic and open-minded from start to finish. That helped so much, and let me go beyond the first concept.”
In a similar move, brand strategy and innovation agency Redscout went to creative studio Franklyn for its rebrand. Franklyn created a unique system built on illustration that was “enthusiastically received,” according to Franklyn partner Michael Freimuth. “A wonderful extension of the system became a highlight for the brand—the eclectic portrait illustrations that are created for every ‘Scout’ and highlight the wide variety of talented individuals and backgrounds that Redscout encompasses.” Redscout’s head of design Michael Greenblatt echoes those sentiments, saying, “Franklyn helped us capture the unique spirit and culture of Redscout in a way that celebrates the individuals who work here, and with a cohesiveness that connects our shared interests and passions as ‘Scouts.’ We never would have considered individual business card designs without their perspective, and now every single Scout continues to get a custom-designed business card and a professional headshot.”
Why would a brand strategy agency go to outside help? you might ask. To which Redscout’s Greenblatt replies, “We have always believed in the power of design, which is why having a design practice is core to our business and the way we partner with clients. But part of the value we bring to our clients is an outside perspective, which helps them unlock the untapped potential of their brands and businesses. So when it came time to design our own brand identity, we were completely open to collaborating with the design experts at Franklyn. They helped us find the untapped potential in the Redscout brand, proving that when you relinquish control and allow for new perspective, you can get to a fantastic result.” And theirs is indeed a fantastic result that both companies are proud of—brought about by collaboration.
Design industry powerhouse Duffy has more than 30 years of experience with client branding projects. During that time, they’ve undergone changes them- selves, rebranding along the way. Nancy Kullas, head of strategy at Duffy, recognizes a key ingredient when it comes to rebranding your own organization. “The craft of revitalizing a brand is filled with nuance, leveraging equities while signaling innovation and new relevance, and it takes great care and time, making it difficult to juggle with client work—yet treating our brand like a client’s brand has always been our intent,” she says. “Keeping the work internal gives us great flexibility and offers efficiencies that an outside firm would have difficulties delivering.” Kullas says that when it comes to Duffy’s own rebrand, the studio has found great success. And if another studio reached out to them, asking Duffy to help with rebranding, would they do so? “We absolutely would,” Kullas says. “We love brands, and we love our industry. We design to enrich everyday life. This mission applies to consumers making meaningful purchases, and to helping prospective clients find the firm to enrich their business and ultimately their own lives.”
To any studio that redesigns its brand identity without considering strategy, Kullas suggests they think twice. “The strategy is the key insight that inspires the artistry … the design,” she says. “The strategy reveals the emotion the design should deliver. Without a strategy, a logo is a brand without a heart. A credentials presentation to a prospective client is perhaps the ultimate brand opportunity. Case studies should illuminate how your agency thinks, works, behaves and why it exists. A logo promotes a vendor relationship; a brand delivers a partnership.”
THE HEART OF THE MATTER
If you’re eager to learn more about brands, especially when it comes to logos and brand identity, then you’ve probably heard of Jesse Reed’s and Hamish Smyth’s Standards Manual, a New York City independent publisher started by the former Pentagram designers. Standards Manual has published brand style guides and manuals, including NASA’s out-of-date graphics standards manual, as well as the NYC Subway’s. Not long after starting Standards Manual, the two left Pentagram and launched their design office, Order. They run both companies, Order and Standards Manual, out of their new office in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, and it includes a small bookshop for selling Standards Manual’s titles, as well as other publishers’ graphic design books.
During their time at Pentagram, they worked with Pentagram partner Michael Bierut on large branding and rebranding projects, including Mastercard’s new logo, so Reed and Smyth know a thing or two about brands and were very capable when it came time to launch their own. Reed says the name Order came quickly, and they registered the web domain and created email accounts within a day. Before settling on Order, they had another name in mind, based on something Massimo Vignelli once said about how being able to design one thing enables you to design everything. “For the most part that’s true, and we wanted to embody that spirit. We first wanted to call it Everything, but soon realized we really can’t design everything,” Reed says. The name Order grew out of the definition of what they do, how they “put everything in order” and “everything is in order,” says Reed. “There are many paths you can take as a graphic designer, not every focus is the same—some are more expressive, more academic, avant-garde, etc.—we tend to take the perspective of extreme organization and applying rationale to every decision we make.”
ABOVE Wordmark for Jesse Reed and Hamish Smyth’s design office, Order. BELOW The office where the duo operates the Standards Manual bookstore. photo credit: Hamish Smyth
Branding their own design office was “not a long process,” according to Smyth. “We sketched the word- mark the day we decided to start the business together and didn’t look back.” He says other studios shouldn’t think too hard about their own branding. “You need to look professional, have nice business cards, make a good online portfolio site, and then focus on the client work. A potential client is not going to hire your studio because you have a nice logo. They will hire you based on your past work and you as a person.” Smyth adds that ever since launching Order, they’ve been busy. But how big of a role does strategy play when it comes to getting that work? “I’m not sure why a design office would ever need their own ‘brand strategy,’” Smyth says. “It’s just not something we have discussed. We’re completely focused on the work we do, not on our own brand.