Strategies & Insights

Design Undone

Posted: September 21, 2009 by
Gaemer Gutierrez

How many times has your agency received positioning language in a brief similar to "Our brand is confident, sexy, authentic, and classicáyet modern?"

Design agencies are handed briefs like this all the time. I know I have seen enough interchangeable adjectives to fill a book. For the most part, brands want to convey the same kinds of positive qualities, and I find that it takes real discipline to avoid falling into solving their creative challenges with the same tools. I recently looked closely at our design firm (NiCE Ltd.) and tried to ascertain which tools and techniques help us to be good problem-solvers.

Putting my ideas on paper was a challenge because like most designers I operate on instinct. If I were completely process-driven, I would have been an accountant. So, it took me a while to break down and identify a series of "tools" that we use (which on a daily basis usually looks like complete chaos).

Diversity is a tool

Talent is important to any organization. However, it is also important to consider diversity as another key ingredient. Take advantage of the diversity that already exists in your organization. This does not have to mean complete cultural diversity; it could also mean diversity of opinion and taste levels.

Over our 14 year history, Davide Nicosia, principal and creative director of NiCE Ltd., has made it a priority to develop talent from all walks of life, backgrounds and different parts of the world. The result is a multicultural team that speaks 19 languages and offers a variety of perspectives. This tension creates robust internal debate on every project and ensures that our projects are thought through from many different vantage points.

A prestige skincare brand based in Japan, for instance, came to us for guidance on how they were being perceived in the Western World versus Asia. They wanted to improve their global image while holding on to their Japanese origins. Our agency taskforce was a diverse group of designers that provided our client with a depth of knowledge which combined American strategic thinking with European style and an Asian sensibility. This gave us a real edge that is difficult to find.

Date your client

Okay, I'm exaggerating a bit. But let's face it; working with a client is a lot like dating. No matter how attractive or smart that person is, it often comes down to chemistry: Does that person understand me? Can I trust that person to meet my needs? The same goes for an agency/client relationship: Is there trust? Is there a natural understanding of the brand? Do you begin to take each other for granted? Are you letting it get stale?

Clients are like us. We want to work with people we like and trust. They want to feel special. A solid relationship with open communication will provide a deeper understanding of their brand. It pushes you beyond the "confident, authentic, and sexy" brief. You will get to know what is important to them and what their priorities are to get a sense of what the brand really means to them. It takes work, but it is worth it to keep long-term clients.

Know your history

It is important to understand the history of a brand as well as the social climate when it was founded. Diving into a brand's history and uncovering early design elements, corporate philosophies, and even personalities of the founders can open up a world of inspiration. Immersing yourself is more than just a history lesson. It is an opportunity to make all the sensibilities and nuances of the brand second nature, so that when things start going in the wrong direction you will know instantly.

For one major American brand, its history of design dating back to the 19th century gave us the foundation in which to build a design philosophy and language for its future. When the design solution was finally presented to various department heads, it was approved rather quickly.

We were all surprised by the short approval process considering the scale and scope of defining the future of this large brand in a large corporate structure. The reason for the quick turnaround was that the design language ideas made sense. And, they made sense because they were rooted in the brand's history.

Stay agile

Things move quickly. You have a Japanese prestige brand in the morning, a masculine European brand at lunch, and an American mass brand in the afternoon. Design agencies must be agile enough to go from brand to brand while constantly shifting gears and keeping a fresh eye. This agility goes back to people and talent. Knowing the capabilities of each person will help when it comes down to who a better fit is in any situation.

Set the mood

Mood boards can be helpful, but it depends on what you need from them. When we get a design brief with two pages of typewritten words, we need to visualize what those words mean. Mood boards, brand books, or any assemblage of images help determine the brand's tone and texture. It is cold? Is it hot? Is it dark and romantic? Is it bright and energetic? All these insights help to focus design exploration.

Another tool I like is determining brand truths. Brand truths take the obvious elements or social impressions of the brand. For one client, a brand truth was: "The brand has a cult-like following." We translated this truth into creating a "members only" type of sensibility where the package had small messages for the owner. We created an aura of secrecy within its aesthetic, inspired by a simply stated brand truth.

Make rules to break rules

I have mentioned some techniques and tools that I believe work in getting to know a brand and design a meaningful package. The fact is that there are no design rules. Sometimes it takes using lots of mood boards and organized brainstorming sessions. Other times, answers come easily and naturally.

You can use all the appropriate processes and rational techniques to solve a design problem. Yet there is always that 5% that you just can't explain. Sometimes the fact that "I like it" can be reason enough. The bottom line is that there are many ways to get into the core of a brand. Allow yourself enough flexibility to let magic happen.

Gaemer Gutierrez is creative director of design strategy and advertising with Nicosia Creative Expresso Ltd. (NiCE Ltd.), a multi-disciplinary creative agency based in New York City. Gutierrez has an extensive background in package design, magazine design, television, print advertising, and brand management, and he can be reached at