Design Revolutionaries: Design Army

For many years, I’ve watched the work coming out of Washington, DC-based Design Army with a mix of awe and envy. It’s hard to overlook their distinctive blend of typographic simplicity and fanciful photography—particularly because the studio enters (and wins) design competitions prolifically as part of its marketing strategy.

Principals Pum and Jake Lefebure gave their first-ever HOW presentation at last year’s event in Chicago, and based on fabulous feedback they’re making a return engagement at the HOW Design Conference in Boston. I managed to catch up with them recently in between business trips, photo shoots and work on the upcoming One Show awards event, for which the studio designed all the marketing materials (and Pum served as chair of the design awards jury).

So, Jake and Pum: What’s cooking in your studio right now?

Pum: Too many things! We have a photo shoot weekly until mid-May, including our annual feature for Washingtonian Bride and Groom, which is going to be on location.

Jake: We’re doing a residential real-estate project. We’ve come up with the name of the buildings, and we’re treating them not as buildings per se, but as brands. (Brochure doesn’t include architectural drawings) We’re marketing what life is like there, not marketing the building itself. And we worked with Neenah on a new Classic promotion coming out in mid-May. It’s really exciting. They may take a few of these to the HOW Conference.

Pum: Then there’s The One Show: We’ve been doing all the branding since last fall, and the work will continue through New York Creative Week in May. We’re doing all the video clips that will be shown between categories during the award ceremonies.

Jake: And we’re getting ready to re-launch the brand for the Hay Adams Hotel here in DC—all the marketing and all the in-room collateral.

It’s exhausting. We’re looking to hire.

Pum: Print is not dying; we’re printing more than ever. And the print piece has to drive somewhere, so we’re doing the websites, too.

Welcome sign created by Sophie Lefebure

Your session at last year’s HOW Design Conference focused on drawing. How important is sketching as part of your creative process—especially when you’re concepting a complex photo illustration? 

Pum: It’s a must. We always start with pencil and paper. You have to get the idea down first. There’s something about drawing with just a piece of paper vs. working on the computer; the result is different. When we say sketch, it can be an image, or words. It’s not so much what it looks like, but what we’re trying to say and what we’re trying to communicate, what kind of emotional sense we want people to have. We spend more time thinking about a project than we do on the execution.

We show clients sketches. That way, clients don’t get hung up on a detail like the model’s hair color. They feel like they’re part of the process. It’s not just like, ‘here are three options, pick one.’

Jake: It all starts with the sketch. Then we have to figure out, “How are we going to do this?”

When I think of your work, I think of beautiful photography that really tells a story, as in your feature layouts for the bridal magazine. How do you create those visual narratives?

Jake: We’re always looking for [props]. On weekends, we pretty much drive around and dumpster dive. Once we have approval of a concept, it takes us two to three weeks to plan and pull it all together.

Pum: You have to be ready for the drama. It’s always something beyond your control. I see our process as ‘designed photography.’ Everything you see—the model, the clothing, the backdrop, the props—it’s all been sketched and designed before we shoot it. And we’re involved in retouching—it’s like painting.

You do it by learning it, and the more you do it, the better you get.

How would you describe your work?

Jake: No fluff. That’s the best answer. If there isn’t a reason for it to be on the page, it doesn’t go on the page. We design minimally so the message we want to convey is understood immediately.

Pum: Our work is evolving. Our design in 2012 gives a sense of adventure. Emotionally, it takes you somewhere. I think design should please the eye and stimulate the mind.

Can you give us a sneak peek at your session in Boston?

Pum: It’ll be an inspirational session. It’s about being the best in our backyard. A lot of people don’t necessarily work in bigger markets. So our goal is to inspire people that it’s not where you are, but about what you can do where you are. Your point of view doesn’t have to be a New York point of view. I find it much more interesting to be in a smaller market and to make a difference.

Jake: I’m going to talk about the business side, doing pro-bono or low-bono work to get to the next level. Those clients aren’t going to call you. You have to go find those opportunities.

Want to learn more about becoming a big fish in a small pond? Catch Jake and Pum’s session, Be the Best In Your Own Backyard at the HOW Design Conference in Boston. Be sure to register before April 30’s Early Bird Registration Deadline to save on your conference pass

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