What being our own client taught us about collaboration.
A conversation with two co-founders at 10 years.
In this golden age of audience research, every founder or CEO should experience first hand what it’s like to be their own customer. This may be obvious (and easy) for a retail or DTC brand, but for a small business built on service, it is even more important.
As a design practice, collaborating closely with our clients, we see behind the curtain to others’ growth challenges, help define value proposition, ensure values are aligned within the organization, and express that narrative through design. This requires a high level of trust.
But where does trust come from?
Honesty, rooted in self-awareness. Confidence, based on previous results. But, most importantly, it’s “a feeling” transmitted between words, tools, and people. And this, ultimately, is the root of a brand.
This is also where our story gets meta. As Language Dept. approached 10 years in the business of brand and communication, we found we were missing our own brand story. Our client-engagement team had grown from two partners with a long shared history to a collective of eight diverse designers working in emergent teams. Our collective vision of design had evolved with technology, curiosity, and our clients’ needs. Articulating the who, what, and why of Language Dept. was increasingly difficult.
It was time to be our own client.
The following is a conversation with co-founders, Jenn Cash and Tanya Quick, about sitting in the Language Dept. process as inside/outsiders, and what the new brand identity taught them about their company and themselves.
How it began.
Jenn: The team has changed so much in the past couple of years that we’re not the same organization that we were early on. We’ve scaled from 3 people to 9, expanded our skillsets, established shared processes, evolved with technology, and have grown side-by-side with our clients. And how a small team of 3–4 people communicates and collaborates is different from a team of 6 or 9.
The process of research, reflection, and writing showed us that we needed new visual elements to express the values that we have now, in the team that we trust now.
Logistically, we needed a mark in addition to our name that could represent our company as an avatar. Something that could become shorthand, like a wink. Anytime you have to boil something down into a symbol, that’s what you’re doing. Going through the process of making a symbol forced us to look much more closely at our values, and our value.
Tanya: The creative landscape is a crowded market, and the decision of who to trust with their voice has a major impact on every client. Are we a branding agency? A digital studio? Or something else? What do we do uniquely? We owe it to ourselves and our potential partners to be clear about that.
It was time to be our own client.
Tanya: The first time we expanded our discovery and strategy process to include the whole team, we saw that there was was a different level of buy-in and a different level of ideating hitting all the various spokes on the wheel. That ultimately made the strategy stronger. And when we also involve the client’s team there’s even more trust. So we framed this rebranding with the two of us as the clients and our team as strategy and design as the way to explore our own strengths.
I realize now how vulnerable it can feel. How validating it can feel. How eye opening it can feel. And how exciting it is when you start to see the new thing feel really right.
Jenn: We saw how clients have grown with us and maintained long relationships. In many cases we’d “grown up together.” The last two years have taught us the importance of audience research, and taught us to talk to our own audience and literally ask them the question “what it is that you value?” That’s where the team started.
Start by listening.
Jenn: The values that have always been there for us are various synonyms around curiosity, insight, and systems. But what we learned in the last year is that the fourth corner is collaboration. We didn’t assign a word to that and bring it into focus before. It came into focus when the team started talking to our own clients about what it is that they value.
They asked them to tell us about Language Dept., in their own words: What have we done and how has it differed from other collaborative experiences? What would you consider us for and what wouldn’t you? What’s important to know in advance of working with us? What makes that leap of faith into trust that’s necessary for good work?
They all pointed to listening as a value and a skill.
Tanya: We learned that they saw strategy as part of everything that we do. Every decision that we make is rooted in strategy. We’ve previously put so much emphasis on the design that we weren't owning strategy. We do elevate design because we believe in design as a tool to solve problems, to move things forward, to help scale, to help grow. We see design as a solution to almost any challenge. Strategy is the plan for how to decide what the tool should be and what the approach should be. We can’t design without strategy.
Jenn: Strategy is not the solution. It’s the plan for the solution. We realized we have to talk about the thinking, the planning, the questioning, that creates the insights that lead to design.
Tanya: The importance of moving from strategy to making is that it’s in the making where you test the strategy to see if there are gaps or if it needs to be nuanced and refined or expressed. You can have a positioning statement that was developed in small leadership team meetings, but then you have to transfer that to a larger team. Teams have to see themselves in it and see how to adopt it in the work that they do. That’s when the words come alive and it moves from being a deck to being something that a culture can adopt and that a customer can feel and can adopt as well. It needs the language to bridge that idea to the people. Teams need to understand how to make the positioning statement a through line of their culture and their work.
One of the other things we heard was “the organism accepted you, and that’s not a small thing.” Our ability to knit our team into a client’s team and support them in their challenges feels like the ultimate expression of where we’ve been moving over 10 years.
Collaboration is the future.
Tanya: The problems we’re solving have gotten bigger and that requires this bigger team. It requires more collaboration. Huge challenges aren’t going to get solved by a single silo of a demographic or a single type of thinking. Things like climate, aging population, cities scaling, remote work and how people collaborate, how we take digital tools at their best without creating loneliness and isolation in populations…these are really rich, complex problems that require design and complex divergent thinking.
Our team is built of “ampersand” types... people who have either shifted career focus or who bring a more divergent thinking to design. Our team count is nine, but we actually have many more types of thinking. When they come together, there’s a real richness that comes out of it. The solutions are not as obvious as a result.
Jenn: Each person has their own experiences and life paths that cross industries. What we do as designers is apply design thinking across different industries with a similar approach.
It’s part of why I believe so much in metaphor. It’s no accident that our name is a metaphor. We use metaphor to help create those moments of connection between different sets of language— the language of design versus the language of, say, psychology or traffic engineering or dermatology…all of these different sets of languages that we’re introduced to through our clients. Metaphor is powerful in helping people explain one thing through another thing.
I think that’s part of what resonates with this new mark of ours. There’s a lot of metaphor inside of these couple of symbols sitting next to each other. You can ask any person in the office “What does it mean?” We nuanced the specific relationship between these three shapes — their scale, the space between them, their rotation. It revealed these stories about dialogue... like are these shapes talking to each other or are they facing each other or are they moving? At its best, a logo is a metaphor for how a company thinks and talks and behaves. I think ours does that.
Tanya: We get really close to things. I responded to the logotype when we saw it was because there is reflection in the L and the D. There’s this mirroring of two things coming together and having a dialogue. The mirror neuron and the act of mirroring is the first step of empathy. It leads to language. In the ligature of the G to the T, the T is really holding up and supporting the G, which speaks to strength created in collaboration.
Jenn: We also started talking about language, in our name, from the perspective of purpose: the point of language is for people to talk to each other. Collaboration is in the metaphor of our name.
Learn to trust first-hand.
Tanya: Going through the process has brought another level of empathy. It’s helped me to understand when it’s important to give people time and space to sit with things and feel confident in their decisions so that we can all move forward in confidence as well.
But the process has also been a constant reinforcement of everything that we believe in… that a brand is the way you talk about yourself, the way you work from that central focus point, the way you make decisions....and language, visual language, verbal language, is the way and places that we communicate.
Jenn: This mark is a symbol that represents us as a team. It feels right. Design is a relationship with an idea, with a challenge or a problem. Design becomes a relationship of trust along the journey of creating together.
We are Language Dept., a strategy-forward design practice:
Sarah Asip, System Design and Research
Jenn Cash, Strategy and Creative Direction
Jesse Lankford, User Experience and Visual Design
Jenna Park, Creative Strategy and Visual Design
Tanya Quick, Strategy and Creative Direction
Rachel Shim, System Design and Research
Niquita Taliaferro, User Experience and Visual Design
Jada Vogt, Art Direction and Visual Design
Frank Wild, Studio Assistant
We expand the creative capacity of our clients, to help move teams and ideas forward.
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