Creating a brand to serve

The story of REKKI and the design of our brand

Stepping into an independent restaurant, we get immersed in an experience that someone passionately and painstakingly curated for us. These fragile establishments facilitate the exchange of ideas by allowing their customers to communicate. Their chaotic nature demands a sensitive approach that focuses on what really matters.

REKKI is the culmination of years behind the counter of an independent restaurant. The resulting core principle is that the control of raw ingredients determines a restaurant’s success.

REKKI is a free mobile app that lets you order and chat with any supplier. Motivated by a living network of users and businesses so used to serving others, we set out to create a brand to serve.

Research

To fully understand the problems we are solving, our design team needed a real understanding of the lives of the people that use REKKI. We went into kitchens, coffee shops, bars, and warehouses to experience first hand how our users spend the majority of their day and what surrounds them.

Jesse Dunford Wood at Parlour
Staff at the The Frog Hoxton and Viet Grill

Most of the spaces were industrial with plenty of stainless steel, concrete, wood and other raw materials. On top of that, they were packed. Not just with people, but with objects. From cooking utensils and supply boxes to machines of all kinds. It was no wonder the only elements of graphic design were the signs. With their strong vibrant colours and bold typography, these are spread across kitchens, making sure the rotating staff always know how to act.

Example signage found in kitchens

The vast majority of brands are created with the purpose of selling a product. Products are designed to stand out against the competition. Whether on your shelf, your phone or a billboard, they constantly yell at us. The moment we buy them, they don’t just disappear into the background, they keep yelling.

We were going to create a brand to serve people, not advertise to them. A brand that stands the test of time and the battering of a commercial environment. We needed to exercise a profound economy of means, rejecting formalisms and making only the truly essential stand out.

We looked at transportation systems that exist to serve people. We were inspired by how their design guided people from A to B. People of any origin. People speaking different languages. Even distracted, we all find our way home.

New York subway

A big part of multitasking is the context switch. For our users this switch is not only mental but also physical — chefs and kitchen staff often hold multiple objects at once. An empty hand will probably be wet and scarred. We looked for suitable interfaces to help in this environment.

Simple phones provide a glimpse into how to effectively distill a complex set of features into one main action. They require very little training: dial, connect and receive.

With these concepts in mind, we were now ready to start the design process. Notice how these ideas flow through the work that followed on.

The Word

The best place to start is sometimes the most obvious. At its core, REKKI is about communication. It seemed natural to start with the written word and the choice of brand typeface.

Early on we fell in love with one family: Akzidenz Grotesk. Designed by unnamed punch-cutters and craftsmen during the 19th century, it remains a symbol of modernism thanks to its classic neutral and unadorned shapes. A typeface made to serve. As is common with metal period typefaces with multiple creators, Akzidenz has strong discrepancies between different sizes of the same weight, as well as between different weights.

Even though the size differences haven’t made their way into the digital versions of the typeface, there are still strong differences between some weights (e.g. Regular vs Medium). Notice how letters like the lowercase “a” change radically between weights. This makes it hard to use Akzidenz as a consistent brand typeface.

Akzidenz Grotesk Regular
Akzidenz Grotesk Medium

To solve this, Karl Gerstner, one of the key figures in Swiss graphic design, designed a systematic version of Akzidenz called Gerstner Programm, featuring a rigorous construction and a uniform structure. Unfortunately, perhaps due to the end of the type technology then known as Diatype, or perhaps because of the short demand, Gerstner Programm never truly came to exist commercially.

Thanks to the important reconstruction efforts by Forgotten Shapes, Gerstner Programm has now found a new life in the digital era. We highly encourage further reading about the history of the typeface and to support their conservation mission.

Gerstner’s coordinate system (image from Forgotten Shapes, ©Stephan Müller, Private Collection)

In 2013, Dinamo, a Swiss design studio and foundry, founded by the talented Johannes Breyer and Fabian Harb, created Diatype Programm, a contemporary interpretation of Gerstner Programm. Dinamo’s version featured the same modern construction but with a defining difference: horizontally cut terminals.

This rational version felt like the right starting point for REKKI. Our design team reached out to Dinamo who would later become an essential part of the project. Together, we set out to apply the essence of REKKI to the typeface itself and achieve a unique visual language. We created “Diatype REKKI”.

A business which is more efficient is by definition more successful. One way of looking at efficiency in spacial terms is to spend the least amount of time/effort/materials to get from A to B. As we know, the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. We applied this principle to the letters of the alphabet, taking care not to impair legibility. Notice the design of the letters “R”, “K” and “y”.

Diatype REKKI Regular

After Diatype Rekki Regular, we set out to define the second and last weight: the Medium. By having only two weights, we discipline our design process, forcing ourselves to create hierarchy and contrast via means other than changing weights. This makes it easier to scale our design system and achieve consistency.

Diatype REKKI Medium

The true magic of having your own brand typeface is experienced when writing everyday words. Essentially, the shapes of the letters create a subtle but lasting impression of the brand. Consciously or not, the user reads the alphabet and memorises the distinctive letter forms such as the letter “R”.

At this point, without further design, we effortlessly communicate REKKI through a simple line of text. Every single person that uses this typeface is now a creator of their own micro instance of the brand. Our users now extend the REKKI brand with every message they type in the app.

Of course the most interesting word to write with our typeface is the word “REKKI” itself. Notice how the legs of the “R” and “K” establish a rhythmic repetition of the oblique line and how the spaces inside the letters form arrows and sharp angles.

Let us further analyse the word by examining its writing process. When we write “REKKI”, the rhythmic nature of the letters becomes visible. The repetition of the five active vertical lines establishes a clear routine. This aligns perfectly with one of the key learnings from our research: a chef’s life is about repetition.

Necessary pen strokes to write the word “REKKI”

The angular lines are straight lines that suffered the action of an outside force, an unexpected change of direction. The passive horizontal lines are in their resting state, clearly outnumbered by the surrounding active lines, an appropriate representation of the pace of life in the service industry.

By understanding the linear nature of the word and the individual character of the lines, we can further explore them as a brand element.

The Line

Paul Klee wrote “A line is a dot that went for a walk”. Lines are speed and movement visualised. The line is the backbone of nature — both branches and skeletons have linear structures that support planar extensions such as leaves and tendons. Transportation in the macro scale (e.g. roads and rivers) and in the micro scale (e.g. blood stream) occurs in linear networks.

Words strung together make up sentences. Through the lens of form, sentences become linear elements.

On top of its visual aspect, the line of text carries the dot’s movement in space, as the reader’s eye scans the letter sequence from left to right.

The Arrow

Arrows have been with us since the beginning of humankind. They are enhanced lines because they have direction. Arrows allow us to overcome our physical and ideological limitations. The physical arrow allowed us to fight, hunt and conquer; it moved us towards a goal.

The symbolic arrow allows us to represent forces in physics and vectors in mathematics. Signage arrows point us in a direction. Sometimes they serve as self fulfilling prophecies — they guide us, and we believe them.

Much like letters in a foreign language, when we can’t understand the meaning of a symbol, formal qualities take over — we do not read, we see. Symbols like the arrow have a powerful inner force beyond their external appearance that cannot be ignored. We trust arrows.

The Mark

If we now analyse the REKKI ecosystem and the problems we try to solve every day, we notice the following equation:

The challenge? A buyer considers communicating with a supplier using REKKI (or vice versa). A sceptic may say: “If things have always worked for me this way, why should I introduce an intermediate layer between me and the other side? Was I doing it wrong the whole time?”.

The solution? Preserve their independent relationship and visibility towards each other. We become the common ground where both meet.

Something special emerges as we visually represent the coming together of the two sides. A symbol is conceived but it is not yet finished. REKKI is not only a way of bringing together buyers and suppliers, but also a way of making both more efficient.

Similar to what we did with Diatype REKKI, we apply the principles of efficiency to this new symbol. First we remove the excess, then we optimise the spaces where lines meet, and finally, we modify the inner proportions to perfect squares allowing easy reproduction.

In the process, we modify the weight of the strokes to match those of our brand typeface, essentially turning the symbol into an extension of the alphabet.

This is the REKKI mark. A typographic symbol capable of representing everything we do and everything we stand for. Apart from its internal value, the REKKI mark has an abstract form to the outside world, allowing it to play with the viewer’s imagination.

Some people see a three legged table (or chair), the most effortless and economical build. Others see the road with an infinite horizon ahead. My personal favourite is the bridge, connecting two opposite sides in a linear fashion.

Place the REKKI bridge next to the wordmark and its typographic nature becomes clear. Together they form a harmonious unity — the bridge carries within it the horizontal, the vertical and the oblique line.

Thanks to its simple shapes, the logomark is versatile enough to scale the identity in all formats, sizes and colours. The smaller the wordmark becomes, the more its letters merge, forming a graphic pattern of lines.

We now have the ability to synthesise a solution to countless equations in a line of text. REKKI connects buyers and suppliers.

The bridge can be used to connect places, partners, users, locations and disciplines. A systematic language that allows us to easily establish new instances, suitable for a young company eager to define its own future.

The Plane

When we weave lines together the plane is born. The linear character of the lines becomes secondary and the surface area of the plane becomes active.

Squint your eyes to see the different grey tones

The planes created can have different densities depending on the lines that formed them. Notice how different inter-character spacing is enough to generate different grey values. This reveals contrast of tones without changing colour values of the characters themselves. Remember, we’ve constrained ourselves with only two typographic weights.

If we look at our research, we see how common the plane is in the kitchen. The stack of planes and the grid are the logical and most efficient way our users have of organising the world around them. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that our design language has embraced this pattern wholeheartedly.

Contrast between the bridge and the circle

By working with planes, we realise the possibilities that emerge with a different type of shape: the circle. This planar form achieves the highest degree of contrast from our angular lines, giving it the power of emphasis.

Contrast between the divine monumental plane and the small man-made object

Our brand is built with principles of contrast in mind. Whether contrast of shape, size or colour, each decision should make the relation between two or more elements clear and effective.

Colour

Next, we explore how colour lives in our world. Our research shows that colours have a primarily functional existence in the kitchen and other commercial environments.

The only way to exist next to colourful raw ingredients and supplier brands without conflicting tensions is to be colour neutral. For this reason, REKKI is black and white. This scheme suits the brand’s design philosophy and typographic nature.

When deployed, colours are used primarily as functional elements. We decided to adhere to the kitchen code — red, blue, yellow and green.

These colours can appear isolated next to black and white (achieving emphasis) or combined when necessary, generating unexpected expressions of the brand.

Photography

We took a rather different approach with photography. Instead of carefully planned photoshoots and art directed sets, we decided to hand members of our team (and some of our users) a set of disposable 35mm cameras. We wanted to remove the focus on the individual creator and place it in the hands of the community.

As society frantically becomes more technology driven, we assume the responsibility of documenting the fascinating world of independent businesses. Believing in preserving their place in society, we capture life in these spaces.

Supplier delivering flour at 2am

We document the lives of those that feed us. We hear their stories and their struggles. We hear why they work crazy hours. This is not just our responsibility but also a source of knowledge that helps us improve REKKI.

Staff members of Parlour, The Frog Hoxton, The Dusty Knuckle, Cay Tre and Viet Grill

We find not only people but also their spaces and how they communicate. This has proven itself extremely valuable as countless times our design language has evolved from observation.

We intend to keep spreading our cameras in the community and maintain an archive of the service industry.

Rhythm, not tempo

Repetition and routine are key graphic elements that speak directly to the life of our users. In design, repetition leads to identification. Identification leads to assimilation.

However repetitive, we don’t allow the brand language to fall into the spectrum of wallpaper, where the pattern becomes divisible and forgettable. Our language is that of the natural, of the asymmetric.

“Repetition is key in a chef’s life”

By using elements such as the line, the plane, and the bridge, we are able to construct layouts with clear and economic differentiation of values. In the event poster below, the line is employed to ground the planar structure of the large type while the bridge connects REKKI with one of our users.

On the poster for “Lights Out”, a film documentary we produced, we use the power of typographical symbols to create a mysterious union that begs the user to read after contemplation.

Rhythmic design using lines

In the above design, we use the active vertical line. Without a grid, the content is free to generate the rhythm of the lines, creating different musical impressions.

Though we have clear proportions and guidelines for usage of the brand, we wanted a way for anyone to be able to contribute and take part in the identity, much like our photography approach.

Some of our favourite REKKI marks in the wild

With four strokes, anyone can recreate the mark from memory. We’ve since collected many creative expressions of our brand in the wild.

“The cigarette”

The Website

Once we needed to build our new website the design came naturally. The “plane stack” as the natural way of organising content and allowing users to instantly scan the website. Colours are used to differentiate elements and their functions, while the arrows inform the navigation and give direction.

We used the contrast between the circular plane and the rectangular shape to further differentiate elements. We made the interface hyperbolically oversized, creating compelling graphic forms from hyper functional elements. People seemed to appreciate it.

The Film

During our research process, with the help of our friend Filipe Penajoia, we shot a documentary film on super 16mm (with an original soundtrack), capturing the lives and places of work of those that feed us. We created a website where anyone can enjoy the film and listen to podcast format interviews of the main characters.


What’s next?

We’re redesigning our mobile app and working on a detailed design standards manual. We’re also creating new exciting products and instances of the brand in print and digital.

We are a small, disciplined team focused on building a world class product. We design with honesty and respect for our users.

Thank you.