Proxy is a London‐based venture capital company with in‐house brand studio which creates visual identities, interfaces and packaging for the companies it invests in. We spoke to co‐founder Aapo Bovellan about how the business works, some of its recent projects and the importance of providing design and branding support to startups…
Based in Clerkenwell, Proxy was founded by Bovellan, a former director of Nokia’s brand and marketing studio who oversaw the redesign of its identity and introduction of the Nokia Pure typeface in 2011, and Miia Bovellan, a researcher with a PhD in life sciences. The pair had the idea for the business in 2012 and opened an office in London in November last year.
As well as providing funding for startups, Proxy’s brand studio works with them to define positioning and tone of voice, and designs an identity, brand book and ready to use brand assets.
“Our process always starts with what we call a ‘brand culture workshop’. We outline the ambitions and beliefs of the founders in a very concise way, into a simple memo … What kind of a brand will it be? What will it be known for? What gives them unique cut-through?” explains Aapo Bovellan.
“From there, we develop the core brand identity system. This includes elements such as the logotype, typography, colour, iconography and a graphic design system, as well as a unique tone of voice – which we use to write the entire Brand Book with.
“The third phase is providing applied brand elements to the startup – these could be redesigns of their user interface, packaging designs, investor presentations, trade marketing materials or visualising their product, for example. We do very practical, immediately useful stuff … as start–ups need the branding to work for them [right away],” he adds.
The brand studio is run by Aapo, Miia and senior partner Gernot Preslmayer, a former creative director at MetaDesign and Microsoft’s in‐house brand studio. The group also works with a pool of freelancers, including 3D designers, photographers and digital designers from agencies including Wolff Olins and Sid Lee.
Companies Proxy has invested in so far include Frill, a vegan friendly, gluten and lactose-free dessert, which will be appearing in shops in the UK later this year, pictured above; Zen-Me, a company developing personal sensors, brain training app Peak and My Health Pal, pictured above, which helps patients with chronic illnesses such as Parkinsons, Diabetes and HIV manage their health by uploading data about their diet, exercise, medication and sleeping patterns and sharing it with doctors and professionals. (The platform is currently being trialled by a hospital group in the US).
With Frill, Bovellan says the company helped its founders define the product and designed a range of cheerful packaging based around an image of a polar bear. “When we started with the founders, we had just a fact sheet and this delicious mass in a blank white cardboard cup which they called the ‘non dairy ice cream’,” he explains.
“We invented a new category descriptor, ‘The Frozen Smoothie’ [designed to sound more familiar to consumers] and after doing a lot of retail research we recommended going with a transparent tub, not common in UK, that would show the texture of the product, in line with its natural ingredients.”
“We wanted to create an identity that would appear to adults and kids alike, hence the graphically simple polar bear with universal appeal across age groups [and] we use the bear to visually communicate what the different flavours taste like, so you can intuitively tell which one is tangy, smooth, relaxing, sweet … The simple graphic design is meant to stand out next to the graphically busier FMCG competitors [in stores],” he adds.
Proxy began working with Peak following its founders decision to relaunch (it was previously called Brainbow) and helped redesign and reposition the app, which was recently featured in Apple’s selection of the Best Apps of 2014.
“A key part of the brand strategy was determining whether Peak is a game or utility – we came up with the idea of creating a brand that would be like ‘Nike+ for the brain’, steering away from gaming influences typically seen in brain training apps,” explains Bovellan. The identity system is based on the idea of ‘progress’, with progress bars forming part of the logo.
Zen-Me products are still in development and due to launch early this year, but Proxy has developed an iconography system to be used across packaging, marketing and products, and a word marque based on Dalton Maag’s Soleto typeface.
In the US in particular, VC firms are becoming increasingly aware of the importance of providing design support to startups. Google Ventures’ in-house design studio is made up of five full time staff, who have helped design better user experiences for reading app Pocket and CustomMade, a website connecting local craftspeople, while Silicon Valley Group Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers recently hired John Maeda as design partner. In Chicago, VC group Lightbank has launched a fellowship programme, hiring new and emerging designers on a salaried basis to work alongside its portfolio of startups.
Often, however, design support offered by VC groups is focused on refining UX or designing websites and products themselves, rather than providing a full branding service and ready to use assets, or firms will act as an intermediary between startups and external agencies.
But as competition among startups increases – more than 581,000 new businesses were founded in the UK last year – and companies continue to realise the value of recruiting top design talent to work in-house, this will surely change. Having a strong visual identity and brand vision are essential for businesses looking for early stage support, and can have a significant impact on the amount of capital they are able to attract.
“Brand is the ultimate stake in the ground for a start-up. It’s a shorthand for everything the company intends to do, their strategy and offering in a nutshell – the brand signals how seriously we should take the company, who it competes against and what the company intends to grow into,” says Bovellan.
“Building the brand forces out the hard questions. Are we a games company, or an utility? Are we a travel aggregator or a tour operator? What would you even call a product like this? Why do we stand a better shot than then hundred other companies coming to the market?
“Our brand culture work surfaces these tensions between founders for the first time, and once we present our brand identity explorations it really hits the founders. Which brand path looks like the company they intend to build?…[but] once the identity is concluded, our portfolio companies know exactly what they are set out to do. Peak makes personal progress fun. My Health Pal helps you take control of your condition and help others. Frill is the world’s first frozen smoothie,” he adds.