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West Coast design took a new direction in 1999 when three fresh California College of the Arts graduates—Tish Evangelista, Ben Pham, and Rishi Shourie—launched Character, a San Francisco-based branding agency. Joined by Ollie Ralph as a managing partner in 2008, the team continues to energize the brand landscape for monster-sized global clients such as Google, Facebook, Adobe, Amazon and Nike, as well as for smaller local operations such as Mixt Greens and Nod, a tech startup.
Although they’ve grown to a robust 30-person operation, Character maintains the mindset of a boutique agency, cultivating long-term personal relationships with clients, participating in product development, and keeping the focus on design-led strategy. The firm excels at elevating a product’s image in the minds of consumers—even (perhaps especially) when that product happens to be a toilet. More on that later.
The graduates realized as they started looking for jobs in the Bay Area that much of the available design work at that time was for tech and biotech companies. They, however, were more interested in consumer lifestyle brands such as furniture, interiors and fashion.
“It’s a shame that clients like Gap, Pottery Barn and Banana Republic only hire New York agencies,” says Pham. “We thought: Is there a way we could start something? Convince them to see Character as a firm that can handle the work?”
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His wish came true when the three-person team landed their first giant account, Pottery Barn Kids—advertising’s equivalent of winning a horse race straight out of the starting gate. “It was exciting—we didn’t mind working till one in the morning, and the account was big enough [that we] started to hire additional team members within the next couple of weeks,” says Shourie. “The entire branding system remains in place to this day.”
Rather than pursue a typical kid-centered strategy of bright primary colors and childish typefaces, Character took a more sophisticated tack. Evangelista says, “We understood that the PBK mother stood for comfort, tradition and American craftsmanship and paired that with the knowledge that parents often take a wistful tone describing parenthood.”
With smaller startups such as Teforia, a producer of a countertop tea infuser similar to an espresso machine, Character often collaborates with the founding team. This may require the agency to do a bit of hand-holding and client education, but the trade-off is greater creative freedom. “Working with Google or Facebook comes with its own parameters,” Ralph says, “but working with an early-stage company provides more of a blank canvas and gives designers the opportunity to scratch that creative itch.”
For instance, Character created the Teforia app after observing that people wait around in the kitchen anywhere from three to five minutes while their tea brews. Maybe they need something to read? “We built the app with an educational feature that allows a user to discover a deeper tea story, similar to how people go into a wine store and read labels to learn about the origin of the grapes,” says Pham. “This small change within the app moved it from merely functional (I need to know when my tea is ready and keep track of which variety it is) to emotional (understanding the background of the tea and discovering new blends).” Not coincidentally, the app also drives sales of loose tea via an e-commerce function.
Let’s return to a large global client, Kohler, maker of bathroom fixtures since 1873. How does an agency elevate that most humble of household necessities, the toilet, in the minds of consumers?
Character put forth a bold strategy pairing fine art photography with Kohler’s products, intertwining design throughout the brand identity and moving the narrative away from the practical and mundane towards a more rarified conceptual level. The team feared this approach might be a tough sell, but the client understood it right off the bat. They loved the philosophy so much, in fact, they immediately brought in all the heads of the departments and the Kohler family to brief them on the new mindset.
Asked what advice the partners could offer young designers, Evangelista immediately replied, “Always keep learning. You never know enough; never stop learning.” Pham added, “We still thrive on the opportunity to learn something new every week. Recently, Tish launched a campaign for a company called Grail, which provides early cancer detection in service of prevention. Grail has received tons of press, $2 billion in funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates foundation, and undertook the largest clinical cancer trials in history. We don’t have a lot of experience in the medical space, we’re not oncologists, but the subject touches us all in some capacity, so we threw ourselves into it. It’s a very different project for us, very challenging, very meaningful, very fulfilling. Working with this kind of company is a privilege; we always want to grow and be seen as new and innovative. Eighteen years later, we still want to learn.”
More work by Character:
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