To sprint or not to sprint.
Thoughts on a controversial branding offering.
I know some designers will read the following and say that I’m completely out of my mind. And four years ago, I would have agreed with them. But we’ve been offering brand sprints to a select group of clients for the past few years and it’s going…extremely well, surprisingly.
I’ve had a few people reach out and ask if I could outline the process and best practices for our sprints, so this will be my very long-winded take on that. We’re still learning how to structure this offering. Nothing is set in stone. It’s all very blobby. But I will do my best to explain our approach.
Let’s start with the why.
In 2020, the year of the great “let’s circle back” a few of our bigger clients paused all future projects as they waited to see how the pandemic was going to shake out. We were like okay cool coooool what’s the next year going to look like for the studio tho? We’ve got nothing on the horizon, no RFPs coming in, how are we going to stay afloat?? Luckily, at that time the government was also giving out loans like they were beer covered beads at the Mummer’s Parade.
So the silver lining was that lots of people who got laid off were finally in the position to revaluate what mattered most in their lives and follow their passions (with a nice little injection of PPP $$$ to get things moving). It was a kind of wild time that I think we’ll all look back on and be like uhhh was that real??? There was so much potential energy. People were making things like crazy.
We had a few friends reach out and ask, “Mike, can you just throw a little something together so I look borderline professional? I know you’re busy, so it doesn’t have to be fancy. Maybe just a nice typeface?” Up until that point I was a brand purist, believing you must follow The Process™ to get something that could stand the test of time. THERE IS NO OTHER OPTION. But at that very particular moment in time during the pandemic I had nothing to lose. So why not try something new, something that challenged me? Maybe we could all adapt to this unbelievably fucked up thing we’re going through and make something beautiful together that helps both me AND you.
Sprints are like design from concentrate. You can’t drink it straight.
Sprints are deceptively fulfilling because they are so fast and fun, but they can also drain you…so deeply. If you’re not careful, you can easily get addicted to this kind of work and burn out in blaze of panic-attack glory. If you’re doing four of these bad boys back-to-back you might not make it to the fourth with the same vigor and attention to detail, and at that point you’re not helping anyone and no one is happy. You’ll find yourself dreading your work every day which is the complete opposite of why you started sprints in the first place!
But, they can also be extremely beautiful playgrounds with cool twisty slides and a water feature (I have a kid). You can try something a bit strange because the stakes are so much lower. You can use this opportunity to push yourself though the easy or trendy ideas at light speed. You can dip your toes into an entirely new industry. You can shake the dust off your Apple pencil. You can use that weird 3D option in Illustrator. You can watch tutorials from dudes in India showing you how to do something you should definitely already have known at this point in your career. You can help out homies who are opening a dope skate shop in New Hampshire.
Sprints provide me with a different type of creative freedom. There’s something about the scrappy energy they bring to the table that’s like a high for me. It’s like I’m getting away with something I shouldn’t be doing. Most folks might completely disagree and think this is the worst business advice anyone could offer. Honestly, they might be right.
I’m not saying this is THE way to do things, but I am saying it is A way to do things. And it actually makes me very happy. I’m definitely not saying to ONLY offer sprints, that’s not practical—and it’s definitely not what we do. But sometimes I like to help my friends out, using a skill I’ve worked so hard to hone over the past 15 years, and why not have a little fun with it? I’d rather be known for using my skills helping a local business owner put their best foot forward than just chugging away rounding and unrounding the corners of buttons every five years (this is a mean dig, I know there’s way more to UI design than corner radius and I’m sorry for being rude).
I want to create as much as I humanly can while I’m on this Earth. I want to touch work I’ve created. I want to be happy at work. I want to make people happy with my work. I want to try new things. I want my mind to wander and say what if we did this? No wait, what if we did THIS! LET’S USE A SCRIPT TYPEFACE AND CROP IT OFF THE EDGE!
But as a designer you also need to make sure you’re protecting your time and setting some boundaries in this process. For our sprints I have one tiny little rule and it’s a dealbreaker for most people:
You get to tell me what you like, but I’m going to make whatever I want.
I mean this in the least rude way possible, it’s just what makes sprints fun. It’s me challenging myself to make the best possible thing for you. And if that idea doesn’t jive with you that’s toooooootally fine, I will not be hurt and I’ll connect you to someone a bit more flexible than me. It’s uncomfortable, I get it. But when you’re getting something this fast, there’s a give and take.
Client requirements for the brand sprint.
We only take on about 3–4 sprints a year and we’re extremely selective with who we offer them to. Right now, we only offer this option to friends, because they know us and they know that we’ll do our absolute best to take care of them.
That being said, the sprint is not guaranteed. We can’t even promise that you’ll get a usable logo out of it (so far everyone has, fingers crossed). But we’ve set up these four guidelines that seem to be working for us.
: side note : This section is meant to scare folks away. If you don’t have the guts to trust us entirely, that’s fine. This is your fork in the road, and it’s totally fine to take it. Head right on over to The Smith & Diction Process document to learn more about the usual brand process that 95% of our clients go through.
- No new friends. You’ve gotta be a friend of the studio for us to even offer the brand sprint option. Sorry! Sprints require a ton of trust on both sides of the table. They also require a ton of mental energy and studio resources so we need to have faith that you’re actually going to use this brand.
- You have to know the basics of Figma or Adobe Illustrator. We hand off one organized design file and that’s it. No fancy style guides, no neatly organized folders of logos saved out in all of the different formats and colors. You’ve gotta save out all your own stuff. But let’s be real, all you really need is an .svg and a .png.
- Be prepared to collaborate. We’ll be bringing all kinds of good, bad, and weird ideas to the table. Most will be wrong, but some may be right and we’ll rely on your confident decision-making skills to tell us what’s working for ya.
- No revisions, no promises. We make no promises that you’ll get anything useful out of this process. And you are more than welcome to take what we’ve made and put your own spin on it. But there are no revisions and no guarantees, you get the files we give you and you choose to use them or not.
A guide to our 6-step, one-week brand sprint process.
Now that you’re super pissed that I slipped in that click-baity “no revisions no promises” line above, here’s why. This process is highly collaborative and there are very few surprises along the way. We kinda build this plane in the air together. When we offer this option to clients, it comes with a very large warning label that this is a “skate at your own risk” type situation. But if we go down, we go down together…best friends meansssss… (a Taking Back Sunday reference for those olds in the back).
1. Spill your guts. No secrets.
I’d say this is the most important part of the entire process and it’s not unlike our typical full identity process. We’ll set up a one-hour meeting where you tell us everything, and I mean everything about your idea. Why do you need this brand? What vibe are you going for? Black and white vs color? Wordmark or symbol? When you say you want to lean retro, are you looking to reference 1920s Italian signage, or the Nintendo 64 logo? This will set the tone for how we move forward, rather than presenting moodboards. Hell, you can even bring your own moodboards to the meeting if you want. Some clients have. There may even be some flirty screensharing or scribbles on paper of fleeting ideas. WHO KNOWS?
This happened in the initial Vidal meeting. While trying to explain the momentum of a hand painted logo, we stumbled upon the early stages of the final mark at the bottom of the page there.
2. Design work begins.
This is a one week process, so to say things move quickly would be an understatement. We all immediately dive into work fresh off of the discovery call to keep the momentum and keep the energy flowing. Normally, I’ll put on some angsty pop punk music that makes me feel like I’m 16 with eternal energy and go through the favorites in my font library trying to ~*~find a vibe~*~. I’ll write out the workmark and any other associated words that might be useful to see typeset. It typically looks something like this:
3. Internal check-in. Green light — yellow light.
We’ll sit as a team and go through all of the work we all created over the first 24 hours and mark the directions we like with a little green dot. We put yellow dots on the stuff that’s interesting but maybe needs a bit more time to develop. We’ll narrow the options down to about one or two for each designer on the team. From there, we’ll refine for the rest of the day. Putting some finishing touches on text, building out lockups that might be useful, seeing how it works on top of photos or whatever format the project calls for. Just some thoughtful exploration.
4. External check-in. Now we spill our guts.
This is where we put everything out there. We’ll present directly inside of Illustrator or Figma (pick your poison). We’ll toss the logo options on top of some photos. Maybe explore some early color ideas. Toss in some quirky moves that we have initially explored—and will explore deeper if you head in that direction. This is where the collaboration and communication comes in. You gotta tell us exactly what you’re feeling. No need to sugar coat anything.
Our studio is particularly lucky because we have three designers that can each jam on their own direction, rather than trying to do something like this all on your own, which is a little dangerous. Not that it can’t be done, it’s just a lot. I feel like we’re at the perfect size to be able to offer these sprints—any bigger and you won’t be profitable, any smaller and you’ll burn out quickly.
Dayan (showing off a bit) made all of these Paradigm logos during his initial exploration, then I stepped in to build out one of the directions to lighten the load.
5. Picking a direction. No pressure but also extreme pressure.
Now that you’ve slept on it, it’s time to choose where you want to go. This will set the course for the next 48 hours, so there’s no pressure at all. Once you pick a direction, we focus on refinement and expansion. We’ll dial in any feedback you have and we might add in some fun extras if we’ve got the creative juices flowing.
6. Final presentation & handoff.
At this point you have a strong idea of what you’re about to see. We present one final time and walk you through all of the pieces and how to use them. We’ll also help you buy any typefaces you might need. After that, it’s all yours. Your little brand baby is born.
A typical sprint handoff file usually looks something like this one we made for Universal Patterns.
Bonus step: Rollout.
Everything about the sprint is built to encourage imagination. We create weird stuff that might not make it through the weeks and strategic focus of a typical brand process. You get to see how a logo concept can work across different mediums. We all get to think big and dream about how awesome this thing you’re building can become.
But sometimes our clients see something and get attached to it. THEY NEEEEEED IT. And that’s totally cool. We made a poster for Universal Patterns to hang on the wall behind his Zooms. We made stickers and wheatpastes for Group X to put up all around town to make them seem even more elusive than they are. We made business cards for Ginger that help her stand out at art openings. We’ll do anything we can to help our buds look cool or just legit.
The sprint is one-week, but the relationship doesn’t have to be.
We love building out brands we’ve made—sprint or otherwise. Like when Paradigm came back after their sprint and asked us to design the exterior signage before opening their new gallery space. And that opportunity would never have been there if we’d turned them away for having too small of a budget in the first place.
You never know where these things might lead. Coming into the relationship through a sprint is nice because it’s one week, no strings attached. We both get to test the waters in a really low-stakes way. If it’s not feeling right, things don’t have to drag out, which really wears you down over time.
We like making work for people who care deeply about what they’re doing. Most of the time, those people aren’t millionaires or corporations who can pump a good chunk of money into branding. Sometimes they’re art galleries started by people you’ve been friends with for over a decade. When we take on a sprint, it’s because the people fill our hearts and fully trust us to do our best and take care of them.
I feel like trust is an extremely important factor in the sprint. It felt so good to put our identity in your hands, also because we know you’re excited about it too! Without that deep knowledge and admiration of your work as a base, I doubt it would have been as smooth. The sprint is for mega fans of Smith & Diction. :)
– Sara & Jason, from Paradigm
Building in public.
This was not written to be a flex or anything like that, we’re just trying to develop a process around a really blobby idea—and maybe help someone else figure out their own process at the same time. We hope to keep testing these sprints with more friends, and friends of friends, and eventually open it up as a tried-and-true studio offering in a few years. Our entire goal at Smith & Diction is to make work we can stand behind and be proud of. And when I offer something, I want to be 100% sure it will work. Our sprint process isn’t there yet, but it’s pretty freakin’ close.
So now, if you’re thinking “hmmmm…yes this sounds good, where do I sign up,” we have a few final thoughts for you to consider.
Before we take on a sprint, we ask ourselves these questions and think long and hard about the answers:
- How many deciding stakeholders are there? Quick tip, more than two is probably too many.
- Do you trust one another? Like, really trust them to represent your business? And would you want to represent theirs?
- Do you believe in this company? Would you bet that they’re going to succeed? The sprint is our version of investing in things we want to see more of in the world—whether that’s a person, a place, or just an idea.
- Are you both consciously choosing to specifically work with each other? For us, if a client is shopping around for an agency, comparing proposals, the sprint isn’t an option.
- Would this project be mutually beneficial? Offering sprints can get dicey. We’re the first to admit it. It’s important to protect your own time, and be sure you don’t get caught in the favor friendzone eternally.
- Are your ready to collaborate? Like, realllllly collaborate. The sprint eliminates all the smoke and mirrors of the traditional brand presentation, so it requires everyone to bring their own imagination and creativity, and to actively give one another the benefit of every doubt.
This offering started from a place of total desperation, but over these past few years it has brought me immense joy and allowed our studio to make some of the work I’m most proud of to date. So if you’re in a weird place because the design industry is feeling rocky, maybe give the sprint a shot. Put your own spin on the process and make it unique to you. No one is reinventing the wheel over here, just trying to make it through and have some fun along the way.
There’s room for big projects with big thinking and deep concepts that require time and stakeholder buy-in. And there’s also room for the homies who are working their butts off to get something off the ground and just need a little help. You get to pick what makes you happiest.