2023 S&D Greatest Hits

Smith & Diction
Smith & Diction
Published in
17 min readDec 20, 2023


The year 2023 sounds like the beginning of every apocalyptic sci-fi movie. And while this year deff had the vibes of an apocalyptic sci-fi movie in every way possible, we all kept on going on despite the strange eerie darkness.

At the studio, we did our very best to focus our energy on the bright spots. To keep on having fun at work and pushing ourselves to make interesting new things for people we enjoy working with. This year we completed 15 brand identity projects, designed a stressful mural, and wrote down our process, which took off like a rocket. We tried to grow the team and failed, shared our idea of what a brand sprint should be, won an award, did some public speaking, worked on some very big NDA stuff, Chara got on the cover of her alumni magazine, Dayan got a new cat, and I only had one minor panic attack while getting off of Lexapro.

Anyway, this post will be a bit different than our normal case studies because most of the work we did this year didn’t really fit into the typical “S&D case study” format. But we still wanted to share it. So this is just a fun way to show some of our favorite work from the year.

Simplifying Perplexity

First up is Perplexity. This work was far and away the most liked, engaged with, and shared thing that we worked on this year. It was a fun one because every person from the team chipped in and helped, so it really felt like we all owned a little slice of it. Working with Henry Modisett & Phi Hoang from Perplexity was a literal dream. I truly felt like they became our best buds in the process. And the way they’ve taken the brand and run with it is something that should be studied in brand hand-off history.

Our goal was to create an AI brand that felt more like a Scandanivain subway system and less like the representation of a fuzzy false future with blurry gradients and happy faced characters everywhere. They wanted something serious and dependable. We were incredibly lucky to work with Justin Lawes and Upright T-Rex to bring the mark to life through animation and sound.

We’re so proud of this identity and we were thrilled when it got a kind write up on Brand New. The comment section wasn’t toooooo bad, just some people hating on my writing style. To them I say, deal with it 😎.

Animation by Justin Lawes

The one and only Ginger Rudolph

This next one was a bit of a sleeper project because it was a sprint that didn’t have a ton of executions tied to it. Ginger is a friend of the studio, she works directly with the Paradigm folks and is a board member at the Rail Park. She came to us looking to step up her personal brand/business card game. She is a force. When she enters a room, you are immediately drawn to her energy, so we wanted to make a brand that lived up to her powerful and unique aura.

Quail Store — Not for birds

Next up: Quail Store, a project that really let Dayan shine. Ashley from Quail Store came to us looking to brand her store here in Philly, but she wasn’t entirely sure what exactly would be in that store. We knew it would be a mix of antiques, ceramics, and modern design curiosities though, so we kinda channeled that eclectic energy and created a brand that could sort of reach across that entire spectrum in a clean and considered way.

Dayan absolutely crushed it on this one, delivering a whole range of logo options—including an elegant script logo, a fancy Parisian looking sans logo, and a QS monogram that will melt your heart.

Philly Mural — A love letter to the Parkway

Now for that mural I mentioned earlier. I’ve been doing my best to not let work get to my head and drive me crazy these days, but this project really drove me to the brink because I knew that if it sucked I’d be banned from Philly. Especially since I talk so much trash on people that hire studios from outside of Philly to work on Philly things. I had to walk the walk with this one.

The Philadelphia Visitor Center asked us to come up with the name and some exterior graphics for their new mini visitor center at the bottom of the Art Museum Steps right next to the Rocky Statue. We came up with the name Parkway Outpost so if they decided to do more of these pop-ups around the city they could just put the location + outpost and it could operate as a pretty flexible system. For example: Fishtown Outpost, South Street Outpost, Rittenhouse Outpost, Penns Landing Outpost, etc. It works with the location OR the landmark.

Not going to lie, when I started S&D I was like, “I want to make Philly more than just Rocky, 1776, cheesesteaks, and disappointing sports teams! I’ll never put Rocky on anything! I swear!” Eight years later and my job was to literally put Rocky on a thing. So I took it with great responsibility. I even had a talk with my therapist about it. I was feeling the pressure in a big way.

I wanted to create something that got people excited and didn’t use the typical Philly tropes. We had our hands tied with photo usage and whatnot, so I just used all of my own photos that I had taken over the years as I walked up and down the Parkway. This mural was a love letter to those walks and my city.

I ride past this thing on my typical bike loop and I’d say 9 times out of 10 there’s someone taking their photo in front of it. It really warms my heart and makes me feel proud that people actually dig this design.

We also made a map that showcased all of the great things to do and see on the Parkway as well. So many people visit these steps every single day and it felt like such a missed opportunity to sort of leave them empty handed. The Visitor Center folks wanted to take charge and let those people know that there is so much to do all within walking distance of the museum steps. We were happy to be a tiny part in helping people realize that Philly is the most incredible city in the world.

We designed a ton of things for the interior of the shop, too, but MGM and Sly’s team killed all of it. We hired Malachy Eagan to make this unbelievable illustration of the Rocky championship belt. But technically we didn’t have the rights to use the other characters likenesses, so it got killed. I was sad to see all of this stuff get passed over, but I guess that’s just how it goes when you’re working with two legal teams. Hard to get much through so I’m just glad our mural got approved untouched.

Rocky Belt illustration by Malachy Eagan

Sidenote, here’s a picture of Sylvester Stallone holding a logo we made.

Velocette — A ~lovely~ brand

When we work on a sprint, the whole studio will usually take a spin at a direction. But sometimes one person will just feel inspired and come out of the gate with two or three directions all on their own. That was the case with Summer on the branding for interior design studio, Velocette. She showed up to our first meeting with one direction of interchangeable wordmarks AND another another direction that was sort of based on hand drawn blueprints. So the res of us just stepped back and let her do her own thing. The multi-wordmark direction really tapped into the Velocette Studio approach to design, which is super flexible, adjusting the aesthetic to fit each project.

During this project, we also had one of those moments when a client mentions something during discovery and we all nod and smile and think, “There’s no way that one’s gonna happen they way they want.” But somehow this one actually did. Hope Velocette said something along the lines of “I love that our name has all the letters of LOVE in it…if there’s a way to bring that out, that’d be so great,” and while messing around with these different wordmark lockups, Summer came up with this incredible unexpected pattern where the word Love is just as easy to see as the stacked name Velocette.

Living Roots — Telling a story with symbols

Now for some work that’s slowly rolling out over the next year or so. We’ll write an officially official case study about it when we can, but since this was a bucket list project of mine and I absolutely can not shut up about it, I’ll post a preview of the work here for now.

Living Roots is a winery in both the Finger Lakes of New York and the Adelaide Hills of South Australia. Most wineries in the Finger Lakes specialize in really nice whites because that’s the kind of grapes that thrive best there. So it leaves the reds with a bit to be desired. But since Living Roots also has a vineyard in South Australia, they have a unique situation where they can offer the light whites and the deep reds.

House of logos

We knew we needed to tell this multi-continent story within the identity itself because that’s what makes Living Roots so special. So we developed a logo that consisted of multiple icons that tell a collective story, instead of a single symbol. Those icons can be split apart, stacked in an oval, used independently, or rearranged in many different ways depending on what the client and execution needs. Saving out all of the files was a bit of a task but ya gotta do what ya gotta do.

Label Concept

We had so much fun while developing this brand. We used the symbols from the logo as background elements on the bottles to drive home their meaning and importance. We also got to work with Jeffery Phillips, an Aussie illustrator, to create this sneaky mascot who’s just trying to drink in peace. Let him be!

Rooty mascot by Jeff Phillips

I can’t wait to show off much much more when it all starts to come together. Keep an eye out mid-2024.

Bumper Stickers

Writing it all down.

This was the first year we started to write down things OTHER than our case studies. I love writing and I have the best editor in the world so why not do it more? We’re called Smith & Diction for a reason. Here’s some of the stuff we published.

Trusting and giving away the Process

In January of 2023 we published our process document in Figma and it absolutely went wild. We thought there was nothing revolutionary in the document. Just an overview of what it’s like to work on a project with Smith & Diction. I had no intention of it blowing up. But it really took off, and it actually brought in about 60% of our new business for the year which I was endlessly grateful for but could not have anticipated.

It went so wild that it actually crashed my Figma because there were too many people in the document at one time. It was a really nice reminder that sharing is always better than hoarding. If we could help one person develop a better understanding of their own process for their business then it would be a great success. Some kids even shouted me out on TikTok, good for them.

I can’t tell you how many people were hitting me up being like, “Yoooo my boss just shared your doc on the work Slack.” We were so grateful to have so many wonderful conversations because of this simple document and hope to share much more like it in the future.

We’ve even been tossing around the idea of writing a book! Chara and I have been workshopping the best topics to cover and we’ll have more on that next year. We’re still in the very very early stages but we’re thinking it will be more like a design 101 for founders and people starting businesses.

We want to ease the communication process between founders who may not have ever worked with an agency or studio before and the design studios they work with. We want help decipher the jargon on both sides to make sure people get the work they want and communicate more clearly.

If you have any ideas, tips, stories, or topics you think we should include us drop us a line → chara@smith-diction.com. And we’ll prob be looking for people to proofread and help edit the first draft whenever that happens.

The Sprint

This year we also released our thoughts on the Sprint offering. We had been silently offering this super quick branding option to friends of the studio since 2020, honing it and seeing what worked and what didn’t. After three-ish years of quietly testing it, this year we were finally ready to release it into the wild and stand by it with a strict set of rules. After publishing this article we got a bunch of inquiries and our defined list of rules absolutely guided us through what would work for us or not. Sometimes it’s nice to draw a line in the sand and set a clear boundary around a sort of blobby idea.

Collage of sprint work

We worked on a bunch of really fun sprints after we published the post. Here are a few fun ones (including some that haven’t been made public yet). We were also hyped on a little wordmark redraw we did for the Yodeler Hotel out in Montana.

Just last week we finished our final sprint of the year for 41 West, a production studio out in California (coming soon). Summer had a ton of fun with this one. In the kickoff, we were talking about all the fantastic characters that you find on video shoots, so in addition to the flexible, fun wordmark, she also illustrated a whole weird little production crew to put on merch and whatnot.

Good news and good vibes

And now, a quick list of some press we got this year.

Best of Philly

I’m usually not concerned with awards or anything like that, it’s not why we do what we do. But when we got named Best of Philly this year, I felt a very weird sense of pride. It was an honor to feel recognized in the city we love so much. Thank you to Regan Stephens who worked her magic on making this a reality.

It’s Nice That

We chatted with our good friend Elizabeth Goodspeed about the state of branding for an article in It’s Nice That.

Brand New

Our logo for Perplexity came in at #5 best icon on Brand New’s end of year recap

The Brand Identity

The Brand Identity interviewed us about what makes our studio tick. It’s all about making work that makes your heart sing. You can feel when you’re on to something and that’s our secret sauce. We don’t stop until we feel it.

We also chatted with them about how our small studio handles project management.

The Process Chat at the W Hotel

We had a fun night with Nick Vicente & Rahmi Halaby talking about the process of how we approach design and life. A whole BUNCH of people came out and I had such a great time catching up with old friends and making some new ones. It was so awesome to just connect with all kinds of Philly designers and makers. I’d deff love to do more of these kind of round table chats in 2024.

Launching our online shop

Every year Chara and I sit down and try to think deeply about what we want to be working on at the studio. Last year I said I wanted to carve out a bit more time to make things that only had one purpose: to make me happy. I grew up in the poster era of design. I studied folks like Jason Munn, The Heads of State, Aesthetic Apparatus, Large Mammal, Invisible Creature, etc. I LOVE making posters. So this year I made it a priority to make some for the first time in a long time.

We’re lucky because the building our studio is in hosts two annual Open Studios events where thousands of people come and see what everything is all about. It’s a perfect venue to sell posters and talk about design. Now I set those events as my goal posts to put together a new poster or two.

People started asking me if I had a place they could buy them online and I was like ahhhh that’s such a hassle, I’m not going to deal with shipping and taxes and blah blah blah. But then I looked into Big Cartel and was like oh! This isn’t so bad. So I set up an online shop in less than 24 hours.

It’s even inspired me to make even more things and think outside of the poster format. One night as I was falling asleep I was randomly thinking about the NASA logo, as one does, and I was like wow the worm is a perfect name for that thing. Then I was like, I wonder what it looks like when you write WORM in the NASA typeface? Would that be dumb? The answer is yes it’s dumb but it’s also so so good. So I put it on a hat and sold 40 of them. They are all sold out at the moment but I dunno maybe we’ll do a blue run in the future??

I’m not trying to make a living off of this shop, it just makes me really happy to get into the weeds a little and put my heart out there just a bit. Most of my posters have been a take on dealing with my emotions and anxiety, so it’s nice to just have an avenue where the stakes are so low and if other people relate to them then hell yeah man, that’s great.

Thanks for reading or scrolling this far. I know these things always get a bit longwinded, but that’s just how this stuff goes for me. I feel like designers are always trying to simplify, to make things faster, to optimize everything. But honestly, sometimes it’s great to be a human and just kind of wander through thoughts and ideas for awhile. Thanks for coming with me while I wandered through 2023, cheers to more weird wanderings in 2024. I’ve already got some more merch ideas.