Pum Lefebure: There is No Second Place

Washington, DC, may be known for political intrigue, but its design cred had a low profile compared to NYC and San Francisco. Design Army has had a major influence in putting the city on the creative map. Led by husband-and-wife powerhouse team Pum and Jake Lefebure, Design Army has been creating remarkable work for 15 years, earning a slew of awards from AIGA, the ADDYs, HOW, The One Show and more. Pum is chief creative officer leading the design while Jake is the CEO and handles the business side. Pum takes the stage at HOW Design Live in Chicago for a keynote presentation about her firm’s award-winning design work.

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We recently asked her about Design Army’s trajectory:

I’ve been writing about design for 20+ years, and I remember seeing Design Army’s stuff in HOW design awards eons ago. How have you maintained that consistently high level of work?
It certainly feels like 20 years (it’s actually only been 15) and it’s so much harder to stay at the top of the award shows every year with the ever-growing talent pool out there. I think one of the reasons Design Army’s work is awarded honors so often is the fact that it’s always changing and judges don’t get bored. Design Army’s style will always be low-fluff and to the point, but just like fashion we change it up every season to keep it fresh. We fall in love with a new font or color just like a new bag or shoes; but then we get bored and find a new favorite.

Also, we like to be ahead of the trend curve. Not long ago I showed a design to client that was all hot neon colors. Of course they were jaw-dropped and could not understand why or where this bold statement was coming from, but after I educated them a bit and let them know that neon is going to be the all the rage in a year they warmed up to the idea. We all want to be the leader.

Looking back, was there a particular project that put Design Army on the map? How did you land that project, and what did it do for the firm?
Wow — this is a hard one as there are so many projects that have impacted our image. But if I had to pick just one it would likely be the 10th anniversary book called “Wonderland” we created for The Washington Ballet. It was a pro-bono project, as the TWB was one of our first clients and we wanted to give back. The idea was crazy, but so was the artistic director (Septime Webre) who green-lit the project. It took us almost 16 months to complete (plan/concept/shoot/art direction/design/print) but it was worth it. Not only did this project win all the award shows, it also landed us the starring role in two Adobe videos and countless other clients. This was probably the slam dunk of all projects.

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Design Army has achieved a high level of recognition, with profiles in Forbes and The Washington Post and Working Mother. It’s taken time and, I’m sure a ton of hard work. Was that high profile a goal for you and Jake? If not — if it just kind of happened — what do you attribute it to?
From the beginning (at our kitchen table) being the best was always the goal, and it still is today as we expand our office and build out a new content studio and a production company. Both Jake and I love what we do so that makes life a little easier, both in the office and at home. I have said this before, but the best way to sum up this question is that second place is a dirty word at Design Army. Our team is very passionate, driven and hungry.

Also, it’s so important to have the right clients. I’m a strong believer that you can’t do epic shit for basic people. The careful selection of clients and projects is very important to the direction of Design Army. The clients and projects that we take today are going to set the tone for the projects that we execute tomorrow. That is part of our success.

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You were born and raised in Thailand — how does your heritage influence your approach to your work?
I was trained as an artist since I was very young. I got the solid foundation down: color theory, Thai decorative art, craft, art history, and then I came to study in the US. That is when I started blending the two to create my own unique voice. So like me, my design has a very strong unique accent. However, I may speak with an accent, but I don’t think with an accent. I’m as much as a designer as business thinker.

And I am Thai at heart and always will, but after 20+ years in the USA it’s safe to say I have been assimilated to the “Work 24/7” American culture. I don’t think I have an off switch and it’s probably going to kill me some day. But until that day comes I will spend my time absorbing design and culture as fast as my wifi will allow. Life is short and I don’t want to be lazy.

You’re the public face of Design Army, and Jake seems like more of a behind-the-scenes leader. How do you both manage that dynamic?
Years ago when we started Design Army, Jake would do more speaking and travel with me, but today he’s happier at home working on his own projects. Jake is in charge of the business side and I oversee all the creative that comes out of Design Army. So, this arrangement actually works out pretty well since I love to travel and be surrounded by great design. I am very thankful I get the opportunity to do that. Behind every successful women there is a man!

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Ready to do epic work? Hear and see more of Pum Lefebure’s work, her creative inspiration and the killer instinct that drives Design Army’s award-winning success at HOW Design Live. Jump on your registration NOW and get great savings — we’ve extended the Early Bird registration deadline to February 1.

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