The humility manifesto
The best designs are not always the ones that stand out, but the ones that are discovered over time, says Camilla Jensen, graphic designer. The same principle goes for people.
When Camilla Jensen (the designer formerly known as Camilla Holcroft) first started as a senior designer at the Netlife Research team in Bergen, I underestimated her abilities. I am probably a typical male creative director kind of person, outspokenly fascinated by complex design problems. It energises me. I love quick, verbalised dynamics. I get this strong urge to sketch strategic meta models on whiteboards. To nail it. Fast.
In the beginning, in our first project, I found Camilla kind of slow. She held back. She started out with abstract layers, loose sketches, strange questions, she tried out detours, doodles in her sketchbook, she hesitated where I felt a need to conclude. It felt as if she didn’t want to circle in on the solution.
But then something happened. She gained speed. And soon she outsmarted everyone in the team. There was a sharp analysis embedded into her early design sketches. Her solutions had a simplicity and concistency about them. She nailed it. Better than anyone. But she didn’t rush it.
During the more than two years Camilla has been working with us I have learned to appreciate her wide experience, her relational abilities and her approach as a designer, copywriter and strategist. She gains trust with clients. And her solutions are holistic, pragmatic, elegant. I learned a lot from her. But unlike me, she doesn’t feel the need to talk very loadly about her approach. I failed miserably in convincing her to start blogging. So, instead I used our internal Slack to invent a new journalistic genre: The slow, asynchronous, conversational interview. Camilla style, living the form. Here you go:
You have 18 years of experience as an identity designer. What are the most important lessons you have learned over these years?
The most important lessons I have learned is “involve the end user”. Involving the client goes without saying. Why am I doing this, and for whom? It is not about me, it’s about them. Also, get the main decision makers onboard as early as possible. Get an insight to how the organisation works/struggles. Just talk to them first, get them into describe how they work and what matters most to them. Talk about budgets and expectations as early as possible. Be human and humble. Always. And have some f***n humour.
So, you identify needs, aspirations, inner organisational painpoints, and constraints for the work at hand. Then what? How do you approach the work? What do you actually need to design to build or rebuild a brand?
I also need to know their business goals, and which brand associations they are after. And everything about their human resources. I am a bit like that annoying kid, asking all sorts of questions. It’s my only time during the project that I am as blank as their customers about their products and services. I need to find out for myself, with no middle men distorting that first impression.
Then I am ready. The thing that needs designing depends on where we’re going and in which areas the client need to be present. What is their core business? It takes a village to build a brand, but good design can provide the tools needed to build a strong brand and stay interesting in a world that is changing. Great brands evolve, and I love to be part of that journey, sometimes helping the client with directions.
So, you use your initial ignorance, the blank slate, as a tool to get a true picture of your design problem. And the first thing you “design” is a strategic roadmap. What if the direction you point out is another direction than the management anticipated? Or if there are several pathways to follow?
Great, that comes with the job. It’s part of the discovery, and this is where I believe designers can and should contribute a lot. If there are several paths to follow, you discuss the pros and cons of them all. (How) will they alter the way the organisation works today? How are we for time and money? You cannot follow all the directions, and I believe there are several paths that potentially can be “the one”. So make a choice and try it out. It is important to be open about this process, because there can be hidden agendas when deciding.
So, identity design is “political”, because great brands requires a consistent narrative and aligned aspirations across sometimes complex, conflicting organisations. Part of your work is to design this narrative. And, as a designer, you help by bridging gaps, creating strategic aligment across departments, and channelling the energy within the organisation in a more consistent direction. How does visual design interact with this process? Do you consider logos and styleguides tools or end products?
I strongly believe that brands need a good designer’s ability to bridge analytical with visual, logic with magic and content with form. The visual language enhances content and function. It makes people talk, it sparks a dialogue between brand and user groups.
Great design helps us to *think*. Visual design elements, like logos, typography, colors, lines, space, images, icons, contrast, scale and so forth, are tools to tell stories. They are strategic enablers, not decoration. They should change strategies, not just follow them.
I do not like the word “end product” as it implies that something is finished, or the goal of the project. I consider styleguides to be a tool, not a delivery. They should explain the hows and whys. I look at the styleguide as a map for the client, and strive to make it easy to understand for non-designers. It must be digital and live online, and it must be nurtured to be relevant. By this I mean that if you need to change visuals, or the market/productions change how you work, the styleguide has to follow and be updated. The styleguide must not be a straitjacket, but open up possibilities within a set of rules.
In some of your projects it seems that your work are subtle nudges to existing identities. Many designers seem to call for revolutions and total makeovers, but you seem generally to be more concerned with long term reforms. Is this non-disruptive approach somehow a statement?
No, I don’t see it that way. If budgets are limited, and the existing identity has potential that hasn’t been realised, I believe in exploring this before a total makeover is decided upon. I value both – it all depends on the time/money limitations and the quality of the existing material. There can also be feelings connected to the identity that need to be talked about. Some clients are very attached to their logos. So I go gently at first. There may be hidden treasures and ideas behind the logo, and I can use that to my advantage, for example if I’m on a budget. But I will never stay quiet if the existing material doesn’t do its job. Never ever.
Gently at first. The impressionist approach. It seems that you advocate for both time and conceptual space. To start out with open questions and initial exploration, before defining the scope of the project. How does this affect the process, seen from a design buyer’s perspective? What is your best advice to organisations that right now are in the early planning stages of a rebranding project?
I totally get the impatient buyer that wants to see proof of their investment as early as possible, but I strongly advise against rushing the initial phase. The value of laying down a proper groundwork always pays off later, it can save huge amounts of time later on in the project.
*This does not mean we should turn over EVERY stone in a neverending process, but ask ourselves some questions (both designer and client): Why are we doing this? Who for? Are there deadlines that will be the end of us if not met? My best advice, that is the most useful, is to make a creative brief. There are some studios that call this The Innovation Brief, which gives it a nice implication. A brief like this is *not* the same as the price quote or time schedule. A creative brief is written down, and will be a tool through the process. The goal of the brief is to make it as complete and useful as possible. I have worked with lots of different briefs. The length of it is only determined by the requirements of each specific project and its complexity. The benefits of putting your brief in writing, not just “talking it through” will be very clear to everyone involved as soon as the project gets going. Everyone involved needs to be in sync on all sides of the table. Everyone will have access to the same info, and time wasted in meetings to explain, will be used working instead. It’s all about speed!
Getting to market faster, connecting with people and consumers more quickly, moving out from a person’s head and into the real world faster. I have experienced that “verbal only” briefs only add time to the project, some quite significantly. So: my top tip in any project is: write a brief. Together. It will NOT limit the creative phase, but help it. Forget about the constant” reminder meetings” that drain the creative flow. Spend the energy solving the real innovative issues, not reminding everyone of what their job is and why they are onboard.