The Many Sides of Robynne Raye

If you know anything about Robynne Raye, you know that she’s outspoken, passionate, and a fierce advocate in the design community. As cofounder of the now legendary design studio, Modern Dog, her poster designs have been regularly lauded in industry publications, and the firm’s tongue-in-cheek package designs for Blue Q (among other clients), put them in an enviable position among their peers. For more than 25 years, Modern Dog was at the top of their game.

Then from 2011 to 2013, Robynne and her partner, Michael Strassburger, became embroiled in a copyright infringement case against Disney and Target. It nearly bankrupted them financially, and broke them spiritually. Fortunately, they persevered and the big corporations settled, but the firm was fractured and displaced, and Robynne and Mike were exhausted. Although Modern Dog still exists, it’s now a part-time venture for the principals, who have since taken on new roles.

Mike is an art director at the Seattle Aquarium and Robynne has been teaching full time and taking on projects of her own. If you ask her, though, she wouldn’t have it any other way. She’s busier than ever and she loves it. “When you’re running a studio, you’re managing people and projects, not actually designing. Design is what I love, and I’m happy that I’m able to do it again without the hassle of running a studio. I don’t see myself ever going back to that,” she says. “For 27 years at Modern Dog, I felt like I was taking care of other people. Now I only want to take care of myself.”

And she still likes to be part of the design conversation, especially when she sees something she doesn’t agree with. A few months ago, she unintentionally started a debate over an AIGA event in Seattle called Woman Up, that featured a panel of leading female designers discussing challenges they’ve encountered in their careers. Robynne was disturbed by the intent of the event, so she posted this on Facebook:

“If women designers are on the same level as men, why are we being separated? I saw this [event announcement] earlier today and thought, ‘Oh no, not again.’ Not that I have anything against any of the women on the panel (all talented and some of them I’m lucky to call friends), but I am dismayed that in 2016 we are still (collectively) separating women, and giving them their own ‘women platform.’ Why not just call this a leadership panel? Gender really has nothing to do with their talent. … I look forward to the day that this kind of thing stops.”

There was backlash and support, as the thread wound down the Facebook chain. Robynne will tell you any day of the week that it’s the work that matters, not what’s between your legs. “People were contacting me and telling me that I have to be a role model for women. I am a role model,” she asserts. “The truth is, at Modern Dog, I always got way more attention than Mike, and I think part of that is because I am a woman. I don’t see how it’s hurt me in any way. In some cases, I think my business partner got overlooked because he was male. I find it almost offensive when the AIGA is asking for women to get together and discuss gender issues, when the AIGA is about promoting design. Why leave the design element out of it?”

“Sexism is not a unique part of being a female graphic designer, it’s part of a challenge a person deals with if they are born with a vagina. If I’m going to attend an event that includes smart, talented women designers, then I would like to hear them talk about their work. If other people would rather talk about sexism and gender issues in the field of graphic design, then I’m not attending.”

Robynne acknowledges that sexism exists—in any field—but personally, it’s never been an obstacle for her. She believes you’re either a good designer, or you’re not. If you’re good, you can come up with a solution for any problem. Case in point: She teaches graphic design at Seattle Central Creative Academy, in Seattle, and she recently assigned a male student to design the packaging for a healthy herbal supplement that eases menstrual cramps. “I always think it’s funny when people assume you can’t design outside of your demographic. There isn’t any reason why this guy can’t do this,” she says.

As a teacher, she is mentoring and nurturing the talent of young designers, and she loves it. She hears first-hand the frustrations from students who need guidance, because they feel pressured to be good at everything. “It’s become a badge of honor to list 15 different things you can do, but 13 of those things you don’t really love, and it will show in the work. I tell my students that there’s nothing more satisfying than being good at one or two things. If you’re good at what you do, the work will come.”

She’s also compelled to educate her clients, and let them know when they don’t need something. For instance, a few years ago a former client asked her to redesign a logo she did for them ten years earlier. “They thought it was time to update it,” she says. But after looking at it, she told the client that there was no way she could make the logo work better than it already did. They said OK, and they didn’t change it. “I could’ve made money doing it, but I felt like it would have been irresponsible to try to take something that’s already working really well and make it different.”

In a similar vein, she’s doing several projects for a cannabis company. Originally, they wanted her to redesign the packaging, but she couldn’t find anything wrong with it. “It’s really quite brilliant. It doesn’t use a lot of resources—no glue, no plastic—so it’s already sustainable; the graphics are good; the simple diecut holds the product securely. There’s no reason to change the packaging,” she says, adding, “It just needs to work a bit better,” which is what she’s doing.

“I’m at a point in my career where I’m not desperate to take money from someone. I feel better telling someone what I really think, and it’s a good place to be as a designer.”

Timothy Goodman & Jessica Walsh: Being Vulnerable on a Public Platform

What happens when two designers set out to do a social experiment that reveals their vulnerabilities and insecurities? They publish a book, get tons of media coverage, and Hollywood comes calling with a movie deal. Then they start over with a new experiment.

Jessica Walsh and Timothy Goodman are well respected designers who have plenty on their professional plates already—Walsh as partner of famed Sagmeister & Walsh, and Goodman as a prominent designer, illustrator and art director. Both are based in New York city, and they teach at School of Visual Arts, as well. In 2013, 40 Days of Dating started as a personal exploration where Walsh and Goodman exclusively dated each other for 40 days, following a set of self-imposed guidelines including attending couples therapy, an entire day of holding hands (even in the bathroom), and a romantic weekend get-away. The entire experience was documented daily, with each recording their thoughts about each other and what they were feeling each day. This was the most real, reality program we’ve ever witnessed, and highly addictive. During the experiment, Goodman was asked by a friend why he was doing this, and he said, “I really believe it’s testing my capacity for intimacy.” That intimacy was ultimately viewed by more than 15 million people worldwide. The two didn’t become a couple, but they have remained close confidants and co-conspirators, and Walsh found her happily-ever-after with someone else.

Their latest project, 12 Kinds of Kindness, again took them way out of their comfort zone as they explored their own personal struggles in the past and how they dealt with them—and are still dealing with them—as well as how they respond to unwanted behaviors in others. The description on the site, says, “Two self-centered New Yorkers, often focused on what’s ahead instead of what’s around them, created a series of 12 steps as a way to become kinder, more empathetic people. As a resolution, they practiced this for 12 months.” Here, we talk to Goodman and Walsh about their motivations with each project, why they keep doing them, and how they feel about publicly revealing such personal experiences. Read the rest here.

walsh_goodman

Logo Design Lessons from 5 Summer Blockbusters

It’s that time of year, when the summer blockbusters are released to much fanfare with overblown, Hollywood budgets. But with so many movies hitting the theaters at once, it’s sometimes hard to decide which one to see. Fortunately, you can usually judge a book by its cover, or in this case, a movie by its title treatment and logo design. Here, Matthew Jervis and I discuss five movie logo treatments and how they stack up in the frenzied Hollywood landscape. We’ll ponder why some logos work and others don’t.

Ghostbusters

One of the most highly anticipated movies of the summer, Ghostbusters, has come a long way, featuring an all-female cast in this remake, but one thing hasn’t changed at all: the logo. Devised by designer Michael Gross and Brent Boates more than 32 years ago, the logo has not been cleaned up, touched up, or tweaked in any way. Its genius in its simplicity.

But Gross never thought it would see the light of day, as he explained in an old interview. “The logo was in the script. The guys in the film had this logo on their shirts,” so had to devise something long before the production started. So, he came up with the concept of a ghost coming out of a “no” symbol, and asked Boates to comp up several variations. He never expected the logo to take hold the way it did, yet here we are 32 years later, and it still endures.

In the 1989 sequel, the logo was cleverly changed to show the ghost holding up two fingers. Ghostbusters merchandise has been flying off the virtual shelves of online retail outlets, showing that a good logo will stand the test of time, even if it’s for a fictional company.

Take away: Don’t mess with success.

Finding Dory

“The sequel to Finding Nemo, uses the same unique typeface, but it works better with Dory,” says Jervis. “The big round letter shapes of the ‘D’ and the ‘O’ in Dory make it look a little clunky.” Whatever little design issues we have with the type treatment, doesn’t seem to affect box office sales, as Finding Dory had the highest grossing debut of all time for an animated feature.

Take away: “Sometimes sticking with the branded look doesn’t work, but you go with it anyway.”

Suicide Squad

This movie, based on the DC Comic, has all the trappings of an action-based thriller, featuring a team of dangerous villains sent on a covert mission. Jervis says of the logo, “The punk rock aesthetic with a thrown-together placement really reflects the theme of the film. I like this logo for that reason.”

Take away: “The logo lives up to the expectations of the film.”

The Nice Guys

With leading men like Russell Growe and Ryan Gosling, you can hardly go wrong, but the title type treatment may be a little misleading. It seems to indicate this is a fun romp through the disco decade. “It’s a Cool logo typeface, pretty 1970 cliché look. It captures the time this film is set, but doesn’t reflect that the story is pretty dang violent.”

Take away: “We like the kitchy disco ’70s vibe. It always sells.”

Eat That Question

The documentary on the always controversial Frank Zappa, captures his story in mostly his own words. Unfortunately, the title design lacks any of the quirky tendencies of the artist, himself. He was an eccentric, eclectic musician known for speaking his mind, no matter the consequence, but the generic lettering overprinted on his face, doesn’t give the audience much to chew on. Jervis notes, “Apparently the studio decided not to spend any money on a real title design.”

Take away: You get what you pay for.

How to Build a Better Brand from Four Experts Who Know

Brand-building is key to any successful business. Design plays a critical role in the development and evolution of a brand over time. Here, we ask four branding experts about the factors that influence brand success and why.

Meet the Four Branding Experts

Megan Auman is a designer, metalsmith, educator and entrepreneur who has built a multi-faceted business around her passion for great design and sustainable business. Her eponymous jewelry line is sold in stores across the U.S. and online. Her designs have been featured in Design Sponge, Better Homes and Gardens, Cooking Light and more.

April Bowles is a writer, creative business consultant, marketing strategist and photography dabbler. She wants to live in a world where artists and makers adore their blogs, write with confidence and know how to get their unique work in front of people who love it—and scramble for their credit cards because they just “have to have it.”

Stanley Hainsworth is founder and chief creative officer of Tether, a design and branding agency in Seattle. Prior to founding his own agency, he worked as creative director, defining and reshaping the stories for Starbucks, Lego and Nike.

Lewis Howes is a lifestyle entrepreneur, high performance business coach, author and keynote speaker. He hosts The School of Greatness podcast, which has received millions of downloads since it launched in 2013. His newest book, The School of Greatness, provides a framework for achieving real, sustainable, repeatable success.

Learn from the Branding Experts

HOW: What’s the difference between a brand and a set of branded elements?

Howes: Your brand is the feeling people get when they interact with you or your work. It’s how they remember you and what they say to someone else when describing you. Your brand elements are just the visual representation of that feeling.

Bowles: A brand is all the marketing and communication you do to differentiate your business from the competition. Branded elements like a logo or business card are pieces that help to make up your brand.

Hainsworth: A set of branded elements are the badges and the delivery mechanisms for a brand. A brand is a thing, but it’s also a feeling, a movement, a passion. A brand puts a promise out into the world, “if you interact/experience/try our product or service then you will…”

Auman: Simply put: Emotion. A brand is an emotional connection repeated over time. Brand elements are one signifier of those emotions. The challenge in branding is that it’s very difficult to build an emotional connection simply through the elements we traditionally associate with branding. The emotional appeal comes from the product itself, the stories a company tells, the experiences customers have with the company (both online and off), the experiences customers have with the products, and even the way a company is represented in the media.

What person or company, in your opinion, is currently doing the best job at branding and why? What sets them apart from the competition?

Howes: I think The Rock (Dwayne Johnson) is on top of his game and brand in a big way. He dominates at social media and has mastered letting his authentic self through in all of his interactions with fans and the press. His brand really reflects who he is, and he’s attracting the opportunities he wants because of it.

Hainsworth: Virgin has a brand and branded elements that are consistent across multiple consumer categories. The multiple brands share the right amount of brand-ness and branded-ness that unites them from the inside out and the outside in. They don’t create industries or categories, they go in and disrupt them, do it better. And then they back it up with their attitude, service, pricing, branded elements.

Bowles: Marie Forleo is a great example of a business that kills it when it comes to branding. From the fonts to the images to the web design to the videos to the products–everything works together and sets the brand apart from everything else out there. What Marie does better than many other businesses is that she stays true to who she is and doesn’t jump on trends for the sake of being cool.

Auman: I am a huge fan of Freshly Picked, which makes baby moccasins. The founder, Susan Peterson, took this from a side hustle, sewing leather baby shoes at her kitchen table, to a multimillion dollar company. This makes them an interesting case study in brand loyalty, as it’s really a brand that was built from the bottom up, by appealing directly to consumers’ emotions, rather than top down by attempting to apply consumers emotions to arbitrary brand elements.

Freshly Picked has a focused, consistent, and recognizable product line. The moccasins are basically the Louboutins of baby shoes. When you see a toddler wearing them in a photo, you instantly know who made them. And for a long time, they only had one product. (They’ve since expanded to a few other shoe types and accessories.) This intense focus helped them become known for doing one thing really well.

 

So much brand building in recent years has come down to social media and apps. Do you see this ever changing or going back to more traditional methods?

Bowles: No, I don’t see this ever changing. I know a lot of businesses would love to ignore the power of social media and apps, but that’s the world we live in. Everyone is connected to their phones more than anything else. Back in the day, when the internet first appeared on the scene, people said that it was just a trend. The internet! One of the worst things you can do as a business owner is to become rigid in your marketing tactics instead of moving with the market.

Hainsworth: It is all a mix, and will continue to be so. For example, brands that started online are creating physical, or brick-and-mortar experiences. Social media platforms have started creating branded products. It is all a beautiful mix and will continue to change (and stay the same) as new platforms become available.

Howes: Honestly no, I think social media is here to stay. Of course it will keep evolving and there’s always new apps, but the direct connection between a brand and its audience is irreplaceable and that is what social media has allowed on a huge scale.

Auman: One of the reasons brand building has been so focused on those methods recently is that they work! It takes time for brands to develop that emotional connection, and social media, with its frequent updates and need for an endless stream of content, is a great place for that.

That said, consumers are growing increasingly weary of brands’ need to constantly engage on social media. And they are growing even more weary of brands advertising on social media. I think that means that companies will need to look to innovative strategies for brand building, and that may include looking backwards to methods that have worked in the past.

 

Why do you think some brand overhauls go over well (KFC, Sprint) and others fail miserably (Tropicana a few years back; UPS redesign was highly criticized)? 

Hainsworth: Think of one of your friends who shows up with a significant change in their appearance. If it is a nice evolution, you will nod your head approvingly. If it is a total left turn you will look questioningly and say that seriously? This speaks to the emotional investment that consumers put in the brands they use. It has to be a respectful or believable evolution. If it is too much of a departure, too trendy, too different, too not-who-we-are, the consumer will arch their eyebrows.

Auman: I think brand overhauls fail when a brand fails to understand the emotions behind the brand and the customers they are appealing to. UPS is an interesting example of this, because they’ve really pushed themselves recently as a very utilitarian brand, with a focus on “logistics.” But the average consumer’s experience of UPS is as someone who magically makes all those online purchases appear. A criticism of the logo redesign was that it lost the element of “it’s a present” that appeared in the old logo, which is often how you’ll hear online shoppers talk about getting their deliveries. There’s a strong emotional pull there that UPS is completely ignoring in their focus on utility. And as more and more websites give customers the option to choose their shipping carrier, it would behoove UPS (or any of the shipping carriers for that matter) to focus on branding that appeals to the emotions customers already associate with getting packages delivered.

Bowles: I work with small businesses, so I’m going answer this question based on small businesses. One reason that I see brand overhauls fail is because they move away from what their customers really love about the brand. When you change something that has become synonymous with your brand (and your customers adore), you risk alienating your most loyal customers. If you stay true to who you are during a brand overhaul, you tend to improve upon the things your customers love and it becomes a huge success.

 

How difficult is it to get consumers to shift brand loyalties? Do you think it comes down to the brand elements/story or the actual product? or is it a mix? can you give an example of this happening? 

Auman: One of the benefits of having a strong brand is that it becomes a shorthand for making purchasing decisions. Consumers are overwhelmed by choice, so when it comes time to make a decision, many will default to the brand they’ve always used. This can make it difficult for consumers to shift brand loyalties. But at the same time, this shorthand also put brands at the risk of losing their emotional appeal, when buyers begin making choices only out of habit and no longer out of deep love and affection for a brand. This presents opportunities for a new brand with a strong emotional pull to swoop in and steal market-share.

Hainsworth: Consumers are loyal to brands, sometimes. But think of your friend again. She talked poorly of you to others behind your back. Will you forgive her? Give her another chance? Or maybe hang out with another friend more and eventually switch your loyalties to her. New best friend. Consumers are the same with brands. If there is a brand mis-step, whether a blip in product quality, or a lapse in transparency, etc., you might try another brand. As an experiment. And you may forgive your former brand love and go back to it, or if the dalliance with the new brand shows promise, you may switch.

Motorola was the darling of the phone handset world. They innovated and provided a great brand experience through the design of their devices. Until they didn’t. When other brands (Apple, HTC, etc.) started putting out devices with similar service but provided an enhanced, sexier experience, consumers went with a new girlfriend without a backward glance.

Bowles: Great branding is so good that it’s hard to put into words. One of my favorite brands of all time is Anthropologie and it’s hard for me to explain why. They didn’t start marketing to me via email or pushing their way into my Facebook feed. I loved them from the moment I walked into the store. It felt like everything in there was made for me, I loved the scents from the candles they were burning, and I felt comfortable in the dressing rooms. You can tell that they pay close attention to every detail and that makes a great experience for customers. When you give people an experience that blows their mind (by paying close attention to every brand detail), you can definitely get them to shift their loyalties.