A Mountain to Climb

While many studios limit their ambitions to local or cultural clients, Browns’ ongoing relationship with global investment company Invesco is testament to the ability of smaller, independent design firms to take on the big guys

Browns has built a reputation for making bold, often typographically-led print work for a range of cultural and commercial clients and, more recently, for publishing art and photography books, some of which bring to light conceptual projects created by its founder and artist, Jonathan Ellery. But over the last few years the studio has developed a long-standing relationship with Invesco, one of the world’s leading investment management companies. With an HQ in Atlanta and offices around the world, Invesco is still settling into a global identity which has changed both how it looks to the outside world and how it sees itself internally. Recently, a series of extensive brand guidelines were launched to keep this large-scale international project in check – taking in everything from colour and type to film and infographics. And all by Browns, a firm with just one office and a fraction of the staff of the major branding firms.

So how did this independently-run studio end up working with a New York Stock Exchange-listed company which manages assets of nearly $720bn? Ellery and Richard Ingham, Invesco’s head of brand management, are candid about the work they’ve produced together and, indeed, about the enormity of the project. Browns continues to work on Invesco material on a daily basis. And Ellery firmly believes that this kind of work is out there for smaller studios to take advantage of. The benefits of course include the chance to work on an international stage and to create across a range of print and digital material; not to mention the financial rewards that a large client like Invesco can bring to a creative studio. Browns is proof that it isn’t just big multinational agencies who can do it.

Given that the relationship started in 2005, to say this is new territory for Ellery and his team is slightly misleading. Browns has had big corporate clients before, such as Hiscox, and has been working with Invesco since creating the identity for its UK arm, Invesco Perpetual, before going on to design the global identity for the company in 2008. Since then they have been working continually with the firm on establishing its brand guidelines, the digital version of which was rolled out a few months ago. Browns’ work – which only now is the studio able to talk about – reaches far beyond a logo and typeface. It includes colour palettes, photography, film and animation, signage, environmental design, guides for presentations – even music.

In 2005 Ingham initially suggested Browns as a possible candidate to redesign the Invesco Perpetual identity. Alongside a fairly anonymous circular logo, the company had previously used an image of a mountain in its communications as far back as the 1980s, but disbanded this approach in the early 2000s, only to rethink its importance a few years later. “I was very aware that financial services companies act and behave in a certain way,” says Ingham. “We dress alike, we follow each other. So it was important that we found an agency that would challenge us, would check to see what our peers were doing but reposition us somewhere different. I liked the mixture of culture and commerce at Browns, it weaved in a fresh element.”

While Browns don’t pitch for work Ellery explains that the studio initially had “more of a conversation, [with] no creative work” with Invesco. “That’s how we like it,” he adds. “If we get a chance to go in and show our stuff and speak to people, then we feel pretty good. If ‘creativity’ is needed then we don’t enter into it.” Having been informed that they had been selected to create the new identity for Invesco’s UK business, the team got to work. “Off we went and did our modernist thing,” says Ellery.

Ellery admits that in terms of the project’s “scale and old school rigour” it was, to say the least, an unusual project. In short, it involved getting photographer Donovan Wylie to shoot Ama Dablam, one of the tallest peaks in the eastern Himalayas. “Most identity projects don’t have [the budget for] shoots to go to Nepal, with sherpas and oxygen, [and] a Magnum photographer,” he says. “When we read about identities today, it’s [in the context of] the graphic identity and its surrounding colour palette. But actually to go beyond that into photography, or the music that’s on the phones, the ‘scale’ of that doesn’t happen very often.” Ellery’s pride in the work, he says, stems partly from adopting an approach more familiar to the work of studios such as North (for the RAC) and designers like Wim Crouwel. “Go to the Himalayas and do a shoot … put Donovan Wylie in a helicopter and see [the mountain] as an ambiguous object! And the client goes ‘yes’? That’s unusual, right?”

But in 2008, a year after the UK’s new identity had been launched, Invesco announced that it was reviewing its entire global look. Three US agencies were invited to present concepts alongside Browns, who had already completed a strong piece of work for the company. Ellery reflects that had the studio not been awarded the new commission, the work on the UK identity would have been for nothing. “What they wanted wasn’t the same mark, it was now a global job,” he says. “And if we didn’t get it, all our work gets kicked into touch. We were armed with a European aesthetic – reasonably exotic in that context. We were the guys from London.”

How Browns planned for the presentation offers an interesting glimpse into the psychology of the design process, something Ellery says he and his team spend a lot of time on. Where the studio was from would also be an important part of this. “We do rehearsals on something this big,” says Ellery. “Nick Jones and I were rehearsing the night before in the hotel – he came over at 5.30am in the morning because he wanted to talk it through. We’d have conducted research into the people [who would be] sat in the room – their names, age, where they’re from, what position they held. Rich would tell me who’s with us, and who’s not. We’d then talk through the key moments and decisions in making the UK work – so they could understand what it would be like to work with us and it wasn’t ‘those Europeans coming over and telling us what to do’.” This attention to detail also pervaded the presentation itself. “We wore London tailored suits,” says Ellery. “Nick’s tall and red-headed, I look like a Millwall hooligan, but we kind of knew how the Americans would be dressed in that context – and so we talked about what to wear, so that there was an element of ‘London’ in the room. That’s what we think about. If you understand American business, you don’t go to work dressed in a T-shirt.”

The presentation was a success and Browns were now embarking on a huge international identity project. Yet almost immediately, the sheer size of the application and the range of locations it would affect stalled the roll out, particularly as Invesco’s own company structure and stable of company names was changing. “It wasn’t properly embraced,” says Ingham of the global identity. “Some [parts of the company] were uncomfortable with putting ‘Invesco’ in front of their name – so adopted some of it but not all.” Browns were determined to show how the change of identity could be seamlessly adopted across the board – the studio again looked to its experience in publishing to help reinforce the company’s visual heritage.

Browns produced a second ‘brand book’ which explored the mountain in pictures and, as with the photographic book produced for the UK identity, this was more in line with the studio’s self-published artworks than any corporate publication. “What a mountain stands for in terms of fund management – strength and solidity, that’s the kitemark,” says Ingham. “Then there’s the language of the Ama Dablam mountain [which means ‘mother’s necklace’] so what a mother would do, nurture you – it’s got the perfect ingredients as a story; the specifics are hugely important.” For Ellery, it was important that the corporate literature didn’t look like it had come out of head office – that it again reflected that “there are changes happening,” he says. “And it happened quite early on that office environments started to change – it wasn’t just a calming space on the printed page, but in the offices, the furniture….”

The next stage of the project began in 2011 when it was felt that while the new global identity had begun to settle down, the world had moved on. “The third phase of it was to develop a new set of ‘digital’ guidelines,” says Ellery. “So everything was up for grabs apart from the mountain and the colour blue – the core identity is still there – but we wanted to really kick it up the backside. We wanted the majority of [the identity work] to be screen-based: how does it move, how does it sound? I don’t know of any other digital guidelines which are so detailed and so far reaching.”

Ingham says he noticed a change of attitude within the company as people questioned why Browns was looking at the identity from a digital perspective. “‘Why are you starting here? How’s the brochure going to look?’ No, you’ve got to start digitally first – with moving image, for example, and then push it back the other way,” he says. Ellery concurs: “we jumped from moving image to print. The whole colour palette was revitalised and it became more screen influenced. We explored when to use mountain imagery, when not to, how to be flexible, so that Invesco could develop their own languages depending where they were. We had a massive image library of mountain work.” Browns also commissioned a wealth of photography from regular collaborator, John Ross, and so each Invesco office has a pool of images to make use of – some are generalist, while others reflect the locality.

To keep this vast array of material current, Browns is in regular contact with Ingham – and in fact works daily on projects for the company. “We have a weekly call to go through stuff, to foresee issues, develop templates,” says Ingham. On the Invesco side there is also a team picking up where the identity isn’t being used properly, or on erroneous imagery – the humble PowerPoint presentation proving such a stylistic problem that Browns has even produced guidelines on how to make them. It’s a truly responsive identity system, reacting to what is needed – and where gaps emerge they are quickly addressed by the studio. “There are no big shocks, it’s a constant back and forth,” says Ingham. “As you’re part of the process, if there’s something not right, you’re partly to blame. That’s how it’s moved on so much, bearing in mind that it is a conservative industry.”

“People know us for our print and books, but most of our work over the last five years has been digital,” Ellery explains. “This project has music written for it, for example, there are so many elements. And graphic design and identity has influenced the physical stuff – the car parks, the signage, the tables. That’s one of the reasons I’m so proud of this work, you can seen it leaving its mark everywhere. For us as a studio, this is what we want to do. Big adventures with meaningful work that changes cultures.”

Earlier this year, Ellery presented some of the Invesco work in a talk held at the Typographic Circle in London. But in it he also addressed some of the wider concerns that working on this kind of project has seemingly flared up inside him. This brief and his thoughts on the current state of the design industry are closely connected. “It’s about design not running around after art galleries and not doing work for nothing,” he says. “Don’t [agree to] pitch and you might get a job like this. We didn’t – and that’s the battleground right there. This is an unusual story of a small-to-medium size studio doing a world-class global project and there should be more of them. The reason there isn’t is because designers in this country aren’t behaving in an intelligent way to get the projects.”

For Ellery, the mindset that design is a service industry and that designers must attach themselves to an influential name to gain respect, even if that can mean not being paid, needs to change. “Stop running around after people, particularly in the art world,” he adds. “As a designer, you’ve got your own equity. You don’t need someone else’s.” Browns are clearly still enjoying the fruits of theirs – a big adventure making meaningful work.

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