In 2014, DesignStudio created one of the most talked about identities of the past few years. Its logo for Airbnb was likened to boobs, bums and other body parts – but it was just one element of a well thought-out and comprehensive identity system that has transformed the way Airbnb communicates with its audience. (We spoke to then ECD James Greenfield about the project here). The studio has since designed identities for the Premier League and restaurant food delivery service Deliveroo as well as beauty platform Treatwell.
Founders Paul Stafford and Ben Wright met in Scunthorpe and set up DesignStudio in 2009 – just a few months after the financial crash. The pair had previously worked in both large and small agencies as well as in-house at Nokia and wanted to create an agency where designers could work on large-scale, global projects – the kind that would have a significant impact on a client’s business – and be involved at every stage of the creative process.
Involving designers at every stage of the process
The pair mapped out the standard process for an identity project and found that designers were often left out of important strategy discussions. They might be asked to create assets for a pitch but would usually have little involvement until the design development phase.
“Ben and I both felt restricted by that …. because actually we’re all creatives, we’re all designers, we’re problem solvers, and I want to understand the strategy, I want to be involved in those conversations, I want to know why that strategy is going to inform the design and what the business is going to do. So we wanted to look at how do we change this model?” said Stafford.
With DesignStudio, the pair set out to create a model of working with clients where the design team would be involved from pitching through to completion and set a rule that everyone working on a project would get to meet the clients – something they said rarely happened at some agencies.
Cutting the new business team…
Wright and Stafford decided against having a new business team, preferring instead to pitch to clients directly. It was a tough decision – “but we just found that when you have this superstar new business guy who comes in, he drops the mic at the end when he’s won the business and disappears, the clients are going to say, where did that guy go? I really bought into that guy who was at the meeting and I’ve never seen him again,” said Stafford.
Wright said DesignStudio splits projects so that a “creative leader” – such as Stafford, Wright or ECD James Hurst – can be closely involved in projects from an early stage. “People want to know we’re going to be involved in the project throughout, so we don’t just come in when something’s gone wrong,” said Stafford. “I think it was just about having a real dialogue from the beginning between the clients and the people we’re going to work with and that simplicity seemed to really resonate [with people],” added Wright.
…and the bullshit…
Both Stafford and Wright expressed frustration at the amount of “bullshit” in branding. Stafford said that many of the clients he and Wright worked with had previously invested in expensive brand strategies and identity systems that they had no idea how to use.
“We have a bit of a rule at DesignStudio … we have to make [the brand strategy and identity system] useful,” said Stafford. “People have to be able to use it going forward, we have to make it understandable and put it in terms that everybody can understand because when we step out of this business eventually, the teams that are going to run with this need to be able to understand it and bring new people in and translate that as well. The worst thing you can do is hand something over that will sit on a shelf and gather dust.”
The creative process needs to be equally clear from the outset, said Stafford: “I’ve seen processes where I think the clients have no idea what they’re buying into or what the hell’s going to happen at any stage of the work … so we try and make it simple, we try and make it really clear. There is so much smoke and mirrors in our industry that clients sometimes then have to sell [the work] back to their bosses and don’t really know what they’re going to get in the end,” he explained.
…and the egos
Stafford said he and Wright have tried to create a culture where everyone has a voice and ownership of a project – one where everyone from client services to designers work together and there are no “siloed areas”. He also said there is no room for egos. “If someone’s trying to lead the show, if someone’s trying to say everything’s my piece of work, or I’m the leader, we find it really unhelpful to the business, to the culture and the work that’s coming out in the end.”
“I have seen it work – you’ll see lots of businesses named after specific people – but it’s a difficult model to scale in one way. If you want a business to be global, it’s very hard if that one person is the thing that everyone is buying into,” he continued. “I also think it’s dangerous … I’m not sure I enjoy working in that way [because] you’re all just the vessel for another person’s ideas.”
At DesignStudio, Stafford said the company tries to create an environment where no-one is afraid to speak up and where junior staff in particular are invited to share their ideas. “The junior members of staff – not just creatives, because anyone can be involved in the creative process, we’re all consumers at the end of the day – but junior members of staff, these are the people that are fresh out of university. They’ve still got high energy, they haven’t been through the mill of business … and we want them to excite us. We try and get the most out of them in our business – it’s about giving them a voice and ensuring there are no egos in the room stopping them from talking.”
Building close relationships with clients (but maintaining a critical distance)
Wright said that DesignStudio had set out to blur the lines between client and agency and remove any tension between the two through working closely together. DesignStudio spent months at Airbnb’s head office in San Francisco, working closely with stakeholders from across the brand to understand its needs.
However, Stafford said it was also important to maintain a critical distance: “Be warned – especially in Silicon Valley – because you can get consumed,” he said. “This is very easy with something like Airbnb where you’ve landed a business that’s now worth $30 billion dollars and you start drinking the Coolaid, realising this is a really cool business, thinking ‘we’re untouchable and nothing can go wrong’, so you need to balance that with a bit of critical distance, otherwise you can get swept up believing the hype…. We always try and make sure we have time to step back and work in our own space and question everything that we’re doing.”
The importance of immersion
Wright and Stafford said it is vital to immerse yourself in a client’s business before developing design concepts. This doesn’t mean researching the company online but speaking to employees as well as customers or end users and studying a customer’s every interaction with a brand.
When working on the branding for Deliveroo, DesignStudio spent a few days working as delivery drivers to get an insight into the pressures drivers faced and how they interacted with customers. This process informed new kits for riders (shown above). With Airbnb, DesignStudio visited various listings around the world to meet with hosts and speak with people who had stayed in them, and it was this that informed the brand’s Belong Anywhere ethos.
The pair also said it was important to not be afraid to ask “stupid questions” about a client’s business to uncover why a company works the way it does. “There’s a real danger of having to turn up to a meeting with a client feeling like you know everything about their business … but that’s ridiculous. Don’t be afraid to accept at this stage that you know nothing – people respect that transparency,” said Stafford.
Delivering exciting presentations
“When we deliver our immersion work, we don’t just give people a really dry Powerpoint or PDF,” said Wright. “We’re a creative agency and clients want to work with us because we make it engaging for them.”
With Deliveroo, the agency compiled findings from a customer perception survey in a magazine-style publication rather than a traditional presentation. “The client instantly got it,” he said. When pitching to Airbnb, DesignStudio turned their studio into an Airbnb listing and invited Joe Gebbia in for a meeting.
“When we did the pitch, Joe Gebbia flew over to our office with a couple of the design team and rather than him walking into a conference room to be sat at a meeting table, he walked into his brand,” said Wright. “It meant so much to him … and he felt we understood the brand.”
Co-founder Brian Chesky dialled in to the presentation from San Francisco and initially thought DesignStudio had hired an Airbnb listing. When he found the studio had created one from scratch, he apparently sent Gebbia a text message saying: “We have to work with these guys” before the presentation had even begun.
Finding the one thing that makes a company special
This research and immersion phase is crucial to understanding what makes a company unique – the one thing that makes it special. “A lot of people think we make nice brand identities and of course that’s part of the process … but this is what we want to bring to our clients,” said Stafford. “It’s about helping uncover what makes them truly amazing: what makes them stand out from everybody? What makes people want to buy into it?… and this should be the core that runs through everything.”
With Airbnb, it was the idea of feeling like a local and belonging – a concept that has informed everything from the logo to TV ads. With the Premier League, it was acknowledging that the league is nothing without its fans (communications now feature images of fans and local matches, highlighting the organisation’s focus on supporting grassroots football and challenging perceptions that the money the league makes is spent on paying footballer’s wages). The new branding hasn’t been rolled out overnight but it has already made a meaningful difference at the Premier League, said Stafford.
…and remembering that a logo is just “a full stop”
Airbnb’s logo might be the most memorable part of its identity but it is just one piece in a vast toolkit of parts – from a website that allows people to share their experience of listing apartments on the platform to brand films and photography guidelines.
Identities are often judged solely on their logo but Stafford and Wright said it was important to acknowledge that they are only “the full stop at the end of the story”. Wright said there is a tendency within the design industry to tear apart work without acknowledging that identities such as Airbnb’s are complex projects that can run for a number of years. “I don’t think the conversation should stop. I just think it’s good to recognise that these brands, they mean more…. The logo is not the brand for us, the brand is so much more,” he said.
Airbnb’s logo feels right because of the other creative that surrounds it, said Stafford: “It has a lot more meaning packed into it because of everything else they do,” he said.
Paul Stafford and Ben Wright were speaking at OFFF in London. For details, see offf.london