Behind Brands™: An interview with Tom Lenartowicz aka Thrilly
We sat down with graphic designer Tom Lenartowicz, aka Thrilly, to talk to him about how he got started with design, his process and how he approaches a brand identity project.
How did you get into the world of brand identity design — and what made you stay?
I suppose my entry into brand land started when I was still at school, around the age of 14. For a few years, my friends and I would spend hours and hours between and during classes coming up with names for make-belief snowboard, skate and surf brands, drawing logos in our workbooks. We would each have a few brands that we focused on; designing t-shirts, catalogues, and websites made on GeoCities or Homestead. I remember some of my brands were called things like Metaphor Snow, A+Plus, Espen, Common Sense — the list went on. I even used Metaphor Snow as my case study in my Graphic Products class, using Terje Haakonsen as an imaginary team rider.
Towards the end of school, when I was 17, I came up with the name Thrilly for a new brand. At this point I wanted to see if I could actually make it work for real — a streetwear brand for snowboarders. It quickly picked up attention after tentatively launching, initially spreading the word on online snowboard forums that I would frequent, which quickly turned to a UK snowboard magazine publishing news about this “new homegrown brand”. I don’t think I even had any t-shirts printed at that point. But that was the start of Thrilly.
It was a really worthwhile experience running the brand, albeit on the side of traveling and part-time jobs. During its course a couple of friends, Ric Scott and Gareth Horner, were also involved. We sold our stuff directly from our website; had a team of sponsored riders; got involved with events around the UK; and received some more exposure through magazines.
During this time I started my own online snowboard magazine, called MonthRag. Even though it was a website, I treated it in the same way as a print magazine releases issues. So each issue, every month or so, I would redesign the website, using Photoshop and Dreamweaver, with new content I had written and collated over the previous weeks. Looking back now, it was crazy the amount of time I was putting into all this stuff.
All the work I had been doing was what got me accepted onto the Graphic Design course at Falmouth University. But eventually, due to study and being a broke student, both the brand and the magazine kind of faded.
Having such a big interest in snowboarding opened up a lot of opportunities for me to experiment with design and other creative endeavours. I think that finding a subject you’re passionate about to base your work around is definitely something I would recommend to younger designers.
Now I use Thrilly as the moniker for my design practice. I guess both the name and my interest in brand design just stuck with me.
Is there a perfect brand identity brief? What does it look like?
What I like is that each brief is different from one to the next. Some are pretty loose and others are heavy with detail, which can depend on the client’s preparation and their experience of working with a designer. But in the end it’s about asking the client the right questions and developing an understanding of what they want to do, while offering directions they may not otherwise think of. If the client is passionate about their business and open to ideas, the relationship and the process is much more fun and ultimately leads to great solutions.
You did the visual identity for Surfshop.no. How do you creatively approach a project like that — from beginning to end?
The Surfshop.no project came up due to knowing the guys there, on an off-chance discussion we got into about designing a new identity for them. So that casual approach opened up some positive discussions from the start, which continued through to completion.
The brief was to create an identity that represents Surfshop.no’s unique northern location; serving the burgeoning surf scene in Norway. They wanted to show inclusivity to all levels of surfer, from first-timers to pros.
We explored various directions in visually conceptualising these attributes while avoiding clichés attached to surfing. The end result is a logomark that combines 3 levels (of surfer), inspired by swell lines, that build from a wave into a mountain (a typical sight at many surf spots in Norway). The logotype intends to be clear and bold, in accordance with the self-descriptive name. The raised dot takes after a degree symbol (°) that accentuates the shop’s adventurous connection, and creates a subtle distinction that this is the Surfshop.
What is your preferred client relationship or process when working on a brand identity concept?
For me it’s about the openness of the relationship, being receptive to the potential of new and different ideas, and respecting both the ambitions and limitations of a project. I prefer to be involved in a project from as early on as possible, so that we can create a solid concept and platform that feeds into or influences the brand’s overall output.
What do you do differently than others in regard to brand identities?
As an independent designer I’m able to be personal and easily approachable to a client. I think that’s a valuable thing for both the client and the designer. It can offer a more intimate understanding of requirements, and form a fun and open relationship.
I recently moved into a really nice studio in Oslo along with the design and illustration collective I’ve been a part of the last few years (official studio announcement coming soon). We’re working on our own projects and collaborate on other things, all in a really relaxed, creative space next to the river. It’s a relatively loose environment compared to big studios and agencies, which I love. And I think it’s something clients find refreshing.
I’ve previously been employed by other studios, and I’ve worked at various design and advertising agencies as a freelancer. For me it’s great to experience that contrast to my usual days at my studio; to understand different processes and meet people with different skills and approaches. So those experiences and perspectives go back into my own work.
My process involves a lot of research and conceptualisation from the beginning; working out what’s special about a business and how that is communicated visually. I believe in focusing on what is good in regard to the brief, and not what is good for my own portfolio. The work has to have true substance. That’s when I’m most proud of the work I do, and that’s when you’ll find it in my portfolio.
What are your thoughts on brand guidelines? How do they fit into the process?
I see the main intention of brand guidelines are to enable the brand to work in its intended form and consistently across its platforms once it’s been let into the wild. So during the process it’s important to develop an understanding of how assets will be used later. I’ve learned that making a client aware of the importance of an overall direction and guidelines from the start is critical, otherwise the work can quickly fall flat and lose its substance. I think that a brand should be able to breathe and evolve naturally within a structure that allows it to do so, and that’s when concepts and guidelines can work in really clever ways.
Do you have a ‘truth’ you follow when working on visual identities?
It’s about creating value for the people or subject behind the brand and representing what they stand for using a research-based approach. But the ultimate truth lies with the intended audience, as to whether it positively responds to the intention of the brand.
Has brand identity design changed in recent years? What do you expect for the future?
I think the core ideals and processes of identity design seem to have largely remained the same over the years. But with that there is always progression and change within culture, technology and realising specific needs. So process and output must adapt to the present. And if done right, it also considers future possibilities. In terms of designing a brand identity that has longevity, something that can essentially be timeless requires an understanding of what has come before it while exploring solutions that are adaptable to new innovations. Just in the near future, I think the possibilities for developing and using brand identities are really exciting.
Tom Lenartowicz aka Thrilly is a graphic designer based in Oslo, originally from England. Much of his work revolves around visual identities and typographic design with a holistic and conceptual focus. You can read more about him here.