Studio DAD combines design, writing, illustration and music to create identity systems, strategy and extensions﹢editorial, print, social and video content. Some of their clients include Oregon Metro, Simple, Crowdstreet, and the Oregon Health & Science University. Headed by writer Peter Dean and designer Tess Donohoe, they “find contradictions in the known, ambiguity in hopelessness and the peculiar in the expected.”
Now for the Q & A...
Tess and Peter - First off, we love your work. It’s beautiful, considered, and obviously made with a love for creativity. What do you love most about working as creatives?
A: Thanks for the kind words. I can think of three things that I find most rewarding in our current work. First is the freedom to choose our own projects. This goes for both client and studio (self-initiated) work. Second is the freedom to explore disciplines and mediums that might otherwise not make sense in a traditional agency setting, where the non-stop grind of client work seems to always take precedence. Finally, I feel super lucky to have Tess as a partner. We’re able to very quickly get into a mode of free-flowing collaboration that both challenges and betters our individual efforts and collective output.
How did you find your way into branding? Did you study marketing and design, or did you get here along some other path?
A: I always claim that there are two paths into this industry. The fist is the direct path: you study design or advertising or branding, you get an internship or a first job, then you work your way through. Second is the much more meandering, oblique path. This route can start pretty much anywhere, any industry/profession, but the individual sort of stumbles into the creative field by chance or luck and finds a good fit. It seems the creative professional industry as a whole is pretty evenly split between these two entry points.
I definitely fall into the latter. I studied film in college, happened into my first agency job straight out of college by dumb luck. I felt it wasn’t for me, promptly quit, then found myself working in television, at a non-profit, in a warehouse and not working for some long periods. I played music and toured a lot, and eventually got into writing as a freelancer (which I did for almost a decade). That led to my second agency job as a Creative Director at a branding firm in Portland.
You clearly have a great creative relationship. How did you two meet, and how long have you been working together creatively?
A: When I started as the Executive Creative Director at Owen Jones in Portland, a large portion of the agency’s creative team had just quit. I needed to build a team relatively quickly. I had met Tess about a year earlier and had hired her as a freelance designer. I knew straight-away that she was extremely talented and smart. We also shared a sense of humor, which plays an important role.
I hired her as a Creative Director and we ran the creative side of Owen Jones as partners. After a few years of that, Tess made a very compelling argument as to why we should start our own studio. It culminated with the words “if not now, when?” She was right. We’ve been running our own studio for two years and have been working together, in one capacity or another, for nearly 5.
What trends are you noticing in branding right now? What excites you, and what do you see that’s probably just a fad?
A: I’m of the opinion that everything is a trend. This is certainly true for the world beyond branding but is especially apparent in our industry. It’s all about striking a balance: the work should be creatively and culturally relevant, but it shouldn’t feel derivative. It’s not an easy task, but it makes for a much more enduring end product.
Beyond that, the most exciting thing I’ve seen, and something that we certainly pursue, is moving past logo-based branding. It's too easy to focus all the energy in a project on creating this one logo mark that’s going to encapsulate everything that the brand is and will be. It’s easy to focus on it because everyone knows what a logo is and everyone can have an opinion on it. In my eyes, the more difficult, but effective, path is to pursue an identity that is based on a feeling and to focus all the effort on how to convey that feeling with all the tools at our disposal. Sure, that could still mean a logo, but the logo does not need to dictate everything that follows.
What’s your discovery process like? How do you go about building relationships with clients and understanding who they are?
A: It starts with being honest about who we are. For many years I played the game of trying to be the client’s best friend, regardless of any personal connection or shared beliefs. That’s a good way to have many miserable client dinners and happy hours. We make it a point to be very upfront about our interests and beliefs as a studio and our approach to the work we do. That cuts out about 75% of the clients that wouldn’t be a good fit, the other 25% fall away when we show them the price (kidding).
When it comes to actually collaborate with clients, we try to do as many meetings as possible face-to-face. Virtual meetings make it too easy to miscommunicate, misunderstand, miss subtle cues, miss all the important parts of building a meaningful, productive relationship. Those first steps in the process are so important, and it seems like so often that part gets phoned in. It’s a cliche, but it’s true—it’s all about the people.
Branding, marketing, and advertising are incredibly visually driven these days. What role do other elements like writing and strategy play in a visually stimulated world?
A: I feel that for the very reason you just mentioned, a well-considered strategic approach to any project will pay off far more than chasing visual trends. It’s easy to emulate a popular style, but that will inevitably be a short-lived solution to any design challenge. Any project should start with lots of talk and lots of thinking. On the average, Tess and I will talk about a project for a day or two before any writing or design begins. That deep discussion leads to understanding, which, in turn, is the starting point for making decisions that will reach the goals of the project in a strategic sense, rather than by applying visual band-aids.
Something that stands out about your work is how strategic and considered it is. What are some elements of a great brand strategy?
A: Much like how we approach any client relationship, honesty is the basis for any branding strategy. We always tell clients that branding doesn’t solve business problems. If an organization has a flawed structure or business model, or ineffective management, a new brand isn’t going to solve any of it. What a brand will do is honestly reflect the organization in an emotionally compelling manner. If you can get everyone to agree on that from the get-go, you’re off to a good start.
Another important element is that the client must take their personal ego out of the equation. At the beginning of every branding presentation, we include these words: “Remember, it’s not about what you like or dislike, it’s about what’s right for the project and the organization.” If the client is in agreement, and if you can maintain that perspective throughout, it’s possible to avoid many of the personal conflicts that can derail a project.
Independence as creatives is great, but can also have its difficulties. What are some of the benefits and challenges of being a small, independent shop?
A: The biggest benefit is self-determination. We can choose who we work with, what we produce and how we run our company. We can also make practical, financial decisions that might not be possible when you have a staff and payroll and everything that goes with it. That independence is the whole reason to do it. You can run things your way and work with who you choose.
The flip side of that is it’s all on your shoulders. No one else is going to make it happen for you. There’s so much to do with regard to running a business (and that goes for any business), that the reason you started to do this work can get clouded. The biggest danger that we’ve seen is to take the easy route— take the work that just shows up, keeping working with people who you already know, do work that you’re comfortable with— and stop growing as a creative person because there are so many other pressures. You need to be able to run your business successfully, but still chase some notion of better. Having a great partner can make all the difference.
Developing great branding can be difficult, on both the creative and client side. What advice do you give your clients to help them stay on track?
A: It might be obvious, but it comes up a lot: “Remember why you hired an outside agency to do this work. Our perspective, our process, our opinions are all a benefit to your organization. We want to do good work and want to see you succeed.” If everyone truly believes that and remembers it for the duration, the outcome will be much, much better.