Behind Brands™: An interview with Aaron Poe from Ueno
We sat down with Aaron, a creative director at Ueno, to talk to him about Ueno's approach to a branding project, his thoughts for the future, and how he got started with design.
How did you get into the world of brand identity design — and what made you stay?
The rock group KISS was my first exposure to a brand when I was just 3 years old. The hair, make-up and album covers are embedded in my mind to this day. It’s funny because KISS has a ‘maximalist’ aesthetic, whereas today, I consider myself to be a modern minimalist.
As I got older, as an active athlete I was interested in sports branding, so I’d rebrand NFL and MLB teams as self-initiated projects. During my junior year of high school, there was a competition to come up with the logos for 2 MLB expansion teams, the Florida Marlins and the Colorado Rockies. I submitted my ideas and they were super similar to what they ended up becoming when the teams launched. It was then that I realized I could become what my mom called a ‘commercial artist’ which clarified the difference between art and commerce. So, I give most of the credit to my mom who always encouraged me to see things in a more positive light. I’ve been a visual designer ever since, starting in surf/skate branding, and now more corporate branding for well known companies like adidas, Beats, Lyft, Square, and too many tech companies to list. Creating brands from scratch motivates me, and I still find the industry challenging as I progress in my career. Ever-changing technologies, mediums and consumer habits all play a role in keeping me intrigued and insanely curious.
Is there a perfect brand identity brief? What does it look like?
The best brief should not have it all figured out. Of course, it’s preferred and expected to have main objectives, deliverables, KPIs and key stakeholders identified. That said, the best briefs have a bit of ambiguity — it allows me to ask questions, identify the gaps and challenge assumptions on what the client thinks they want or need. It is that creative tension which generates new ideas and allows me to help shape the brief with the client. It’s also a clever way of building immediate trust. The client sees that you care, that you’ve done your homework. When a client gets that you’re into what they’re doing, you can begin to communicate more clearly. It’s my job to push the client — make them feel slightly uncomfortable. Change only happens when you’re uncomfortable.
You recently did the Essence Global branding. How do you creatively approach a project like that — from beginning to end?
It begins and ends with strategy. For a rebrand of an established industry leader like Essence, I will pose questions like “If your company went away tomorrow, why would anyone care?” This elicits a really candid conversation. It gets the client thinking differently about themselves, helps them organize their thoughts and encourages self-reflection about what is ‘good and true’ about their product or offering. The best thing a design consultancy like Ueno provides is objectivity. Essence has an in-house team, but they recognized that they were too close to their own brand to successfully help redefine and reinvent it from a strategic and visual standpoint.
At its core, Essence is a data-science advertising agency. Since joining Ueno, I’ve worked with a lot of data driven brands across different verticals such as AI, Advertising and SaaS. It’s a trip. Data is the new currency. At first, I was hesitant about working with yet another data company on a rebrand, but I took a step back and tried to focus on the positive and turn it into an opportunity to learn and grow. (Thanks mom) All the brands I’ve helped launch come to us with unique business challenges, all with different audience personas, and different business goals.
So, once we’ve discovered their purpose and shaped the brand strategy into an actionable deliverable, the design part becomes an exercise in inevitability. As we get ready to launch the new brand into the wild, we are very strategic about it. We partner with their internal team to make sure they are set up for success. Design agencies are there to provide the tools and guidance to allow their team to confidently own the brand moving forward, but ultimately, it becomes their domain.
Thankfully, the team at Essence is a well oiled machine. Not only are they design savvy, but they operate with a collaborative attitude during the entire process. It couldn’t have been a better partnership. The work speaks for itself. It’s simple and direct, elegant but not pretentious — and it’s honest to who they are as a brand who deals with your sensitive data. Check out the Essence brand guideline here.
What is your preferred client/studio relationship or process when working on a brand identity concept?
I love extreme collaboration. I prefer to expose the client to our process, invite them to take a peek behind the curtain if you will. By involving them earlier in the process and in a more informal manner, it helps speed things up. Exercises such as in-person half-day workshops, preparing brand identity spectrums, asking open and direct questions like “Is your brand in need of a reboot or are we flipping the table here?”
Once the fog of the brief begins to burn off, we quickly move from talking to doing. If the client or the internal organization is design savvy, and have experience working with agencies, the education part may not be needed. If they are new to this process, then we roll up our sleeves and unpack how to evaluate things like a logo, typography or color palette.
At Ueno, we don’t build decks, we build brands. Of course we put the ideas into a keynote, but sometimes that’s just a formality. Typically, we open up the Illustrator or Sketch file and show messy artboards, with loose sketches. Some clients can handle this level of ambiguity. For those who prefer a more buttoned up presentation, we deliver that way as well. It takes a certain level of EQ to determine which approach to take.
What do you or your studio do differently than others in regard to brand identities?
Ueno is a natively digital agency, with deep roots in development. So when we create brands, we have a leg up on the digital storytelling aspect. That’s our special sauce. We’re not a traditional studio, we’re aware that a brand lives on the streets, in print, and on the social web so it’s important to be able to flex in both OOH marketing as well as motion driven branding for screens.
What are your thoughts on brand guidelines? How do they fit into the process?
They’re important. It helps codify things and provides some healthy guardrails. Lately, thanks to Brandpad, we’ve been delivering public facing web-based guidelines for all of our branding projects. Clients love it, the press loves it. We as designers love it. It just makes sense.
Do you have a ‘truth’ you follow when working on visual identities?
Has brand identity design changed in recent years? What do you expect for the future?
Currently, it’s become a sea of sameness. I see a lot of dull stylish appropriation. A copy, of a copy — thanks in large part to the social media attention economy and instant gratification.
A positive change is the reemergence of strong copy. I feel strongly that the ‘verbal identity’ is way more important than a logo. Type as voice is super powerful. It’s what helps cut through the noise. Motion and audio branding is another positive trend of late. Purposeful and contextual animations or living identities, when appropriate, can add a level of inventiveness that sticks in your mind.
The good news is the next wave of brand, does not exist yet. That seems like a great opportunity to help define the future of branding at large. I predict the logo will matter less and less. A logo is not your brand, rather, purpose driven brands with a moral compass will rise to the top and it will become more content-driven, less style-driven. More more impactful, less decorative.
Aaron Poe is a Creative Director at Ueno in San Francisco. Ueno is a full-service agency, busy designing and building beautiful digital products, brands, and experiences. You can read more about them here.