When Simplicity Is More Than White Space

When you’re working with big-name clients, it should come as no surprise that things can get complicated. But for ad-agency veterans Michael Hart, Chris Lange, and Jim Scott, they believed it was time that things be simplified. So, in 2004, they left their successful careers at big agencies and banded together to launch their own company where the uncommon—but oft sought-after—element of simplicity would be at the heart of the business.

That business was mono, a design-led agency based in Minneapolis. Simplicity might have seemed an unusual goal for a company that wanted to attract national brands and get top clients, but it has proven to be just what they needed: Mono has created notable print, TV and digital campaigns for the likes of Target, MSNBC and USA Network over the past decade.

HOWdesign.com was intrigued with their approach to business, staying creative and building an inspiring workplace atmosphere—all while cultivating that ambiance of simplicity—so we got in touch with the trio of founders to find out more. Read on for our Q&A interview with mono, along with sneak peeks into  their workspace and tips about how you can bring their core quality of simplicity to your own workplace.

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Can you give us some background about starting mono?
After building successful careers at big agencies around the country, in 2004 we decided to go out on our own and build a different kind of agency. We wanted to leave behind the egos, hierarchy and departmentalism and create a different agency culture that embraced simplicity, collaboration and cross-disciplinary thinking. And we wanted to work with big, national brands to help them solve their most complex marketing challenges with bold, unconventional ideas.

Sesame Street was our very first client and we spent the first year working with them out of an attic. From there, growth has been consistent and constant. Today, we’re a company of 70+ people and proud to say that, although it has been tempting to retreat to more traditional structure and practices, we’ve remained true to our vision.

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Can you explain  mono’s value of and approach to simplicity?
The landscape in which we work is rife with complexity. From the complexity of the marketing challenges we face, to the complexity of navigating large, siloed organizations, to the complexity of connecting with consumers who have more control than ever over the content they interact with. The problem with all this complexity is that it is paralyzing. It leads agencies to stick with the status quo, producing more of the same tired, uninteresting and ineffective work.

Simplicity is our secret weapon. The way we view simplicity and how we use it is unique. For most, simplicity is seen as an elegant, quiet, delicate thing of beauty. It is equated with minimalism and a modern aesthetic. For us, simplicity is about challenging the status quo, breaking down conventions and being relentless reductionists, all in pursuit of a singular focus for our work. To remove the unnecessary so the necessary can shine. And it is with that focus that we are able to develop truly innovative work that creates meaningful change for our clients. From a live runway show inspired by real tweets, to an interactive forest of lights and sounds that responds to movement, our unwavering belief in simplicity fuels ideas that are unlike any other.

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What kind of work does mono create?
We are often brought on by clients that are going under, or preparing to go under, significant change. Whether it’s a major new brand or product launch, a rebranding initiative, or helping them re-invent and re-imagine how their brand and company connect with consumers, we thrive in an environment of change. And because we’re built differently than a traditional agency, the resulting work from those challenges tends to be quite varied. So a socially-driven digital campaign or brand experience is just as likely to come out of mono as a big TV campaign is. Throughout everything, though, I hope people see and feel our belief in design and simplicity. And not simplicity in the form of white space, but in the form of a single, powerful idea brought to life in lots of innovative ways.

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The work we’ve done for Blu Dot over the years is definitely a highlight. We’ve created everything from designing and developing a cool digital clock and app that tells time through 720 different photographs to social ideas like the Real Good Experiment, where we placed 25 GPS-embedded chairs on the streets of NYC, free for the taking. Our most recent project, Musical Chairs, combined the childhood game with Twitter, allowing the fastest tweeters to win free Blu Dot chairs. The brand has always maintained a fun, quirky and innovative spirit. And we’ve enjoyed creating work that mirrors that.

How do you help or encourage your designers to stay creative?
I think our culture and appetite for invention and our openness to non-traditional approaches probably does more to foster creativity than anything. Designers at mono are stretched to think and apply their talents to things that lie beyond the traditional world of graphic design. They’re asked to think broadly about how to solve business challenges and engage people in new and innovative ways. The result is that they are helping to design experiences like the Real Good Experiment, or public art installations like the Light Forest we created along the Charles River in Boston for Lucy. And they’re helping to figure out how to stage a first-of-its-kind live Runway Show on Twitter for Target. It’s quite challenging at times for designers here, but it’s certainly never boring.

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What makes your business/management model special?
We have a very simple structure without managers, departments, rigid processes and offices. We have a collaborative style that trains all disciplines on a challenge at once rather than as an assembly line. And a focus on empowerment where we give people room to grow and contribute wherever they can.

This approach provides for faster, more responsive teams that are responsible to themselves and the client first. They don’t have to go through layers of management to make decisions or to respond to a challenge.

This model fosters a greater sense of ownership, accomplishment and accountability. Rather than create hierarchy to tackle the strains of growth we’ve leaned on our dynamic and collaborative style that emphasizes the amazing things a talented group of people can accomplish together.

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What can other designers take away from mono and apply to their own work lives?
We thrive on real, healthy collaboration, not just in lip service as we often see at other agencies. It’s not always easy to put your ideas out there for others to debate, add to and build on, but the end result is always worth it. When you actively seek out collaboration with people who see the world differently, who have a specific talent, perspective or expertise, you’ll find they help us see new possibilities to push a concept or idea to an entirely new level.

(Answers provided by mono’s co-founders: Jim Scott, Managing Director; Michael Hart, Creative Co-Chair; Chris Lange, Creative Co-Chair.)

Interested in Making Your Workspace More Creative? Get Inspired: Read this collection of past Workspace columns, which detail unique design studios profiled in HOW magazine. Learn how you can subscribe to HOW.

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