Agile, Holistic, Collaborative: How DesignStudio Builds Brands in the Digital Age

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Take everything you know about traditional advertising and identity design. Now forget it, and instead, take a look at the way DesignStudio is doing business.

Founded by Paul Stafford and Ben Wright in 2009, DesignStudio has matured into a powerhouse in the design world. In PRINT Magazine’s Fall 2016 issue, design icon David Carson identified DesignStudio as one of those rare agencies that has “successfully challenged the traditional rift between advertising and design.”

This success is a result of what San Francisco-based principal John Creson calls “boutique quality at scale.” While many agencies tend to go corporate when they begin to take on higher-profile clients, DesignStudio applies its same cutting-edge approach to clients at any scale.

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That means not just focusing individually on siloed design disciplines like advertising, motion design, and digital platforms, but bringing those together into a holistic brand presence that challenges traditional norms. As a result, the agency’s portfolio boasts consistently impressive campaigns for globally recognized clients including Airbnb, Premier League and Twitter—as well as up-and-comers and boutique brands such as Deliveroo, Breakwater Studios and Artfinder.

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Creson says the agency aims to cut through the noise of the digital age by helping clients ensure that the culture within their businesses is aligned with their sense of purpose. “The goal is to make an impact on how our clients are designed, push the boundaries of the work we’re doing, never feel comfortable with the way we’ve done it,” he says. “How can we do something different? How can we use technology to do something new? How can we push our clients to go along with us based on a stronger sense of who they are?”

[Related: Accentuate the Negative: Branding & Identity Design by Christopher Doyle | Ferroconcrete: The Branding Agency Founded by a Dreamer]

Working with Airbnb marked a turning point in the agency’s advancement. DesignStudio’s deeply collaborative, meaningful work with smaller clients had helped establish a reputation of trust and inventive thinking that prepared them to take on the challenge of rebranding the soon-to-be travel and tech titan. With a background in design, Airbnb’s founders were open to collaborate and interact with the agency—and that willingess paid off with what has become one of the most recognizable identity systems in the world.
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“Even as [the Airbnb] identity launched into the marketplace and met a wave of criticism, they could have pulled back and said they made a mistake, but they were so involved and so committed that when all that criticism came, they were very supportive,” Creson says, adding that it’s that sort of rare client that facilitates powerful design solutions and lasting relationships with clients.

As we’ve all seen every time a logo design or rebrand hits Twitter, public criticism is par for course. Creson says it can be disappointing to see the industry tearing at itself, but the phenomenon is important for designers to observe and respond to. “Symbolism is inherently a fascinating space,” he says. “Take the American flag—you see it and you feel something. There’s an emotional connection, something deep within you that effects how you see the symbol and how you feel it. It takes times and experience to ritualize a mark, but [in today’s social media landscape] we jump on it without having fully experienced it. Identities are created by us, but made by the public in terms of what they ultimately become.”

Leveraging that emotional connection in uncommon and innovative ways, and across platforms, is the key to creating lasting brands that today’s public can engage with—which the studio not only did when rebranding Airbnb, but also with clients including Premiere League, which is a cultural institution as much as it is a brand.

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Next up, Creson says the agency (and the design industry as a whole) will have to think critically about the constant evolution in the digital realm with new tech featuring personalization, AI and augmented reality—and particularly the growth of voice-controlled devices. “As voice starts to become something by which you interact with more brands, the role of symbolism and identity shifts and evolves. We have to think about what means and how to create something like that.”


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