Outside In. What I’ve learned by shutting down my design studio to enter a big tech company.
It’s been more than a year since I made the move — and now is a good moment to take a step back and evaluate how I managed to do one of the biggest decisions I’ve made in my career so far (or just finish the article I started one year ago justifying why I was doing what I did).
First things first. I’m Lucas Bacic and I’m a designer working with brand strategy and product marketing at VTEX, a global tech company from Brazil. Now let me tell you about my story and hope we can share some insights about it.
From cheap beer to real challenges.
It’s background-story time, yay!
I started my career as most designers do. I worked my ass off in some local design studios and luckily had some good mentors that helped me through those early stages. As soon as I felt more confident about the work I was putting to the world I knew I needed to take the next step, so I got a good friend of mine, Lucas Falcão, on the phone. We went down to drink some cheap beer in a buy-one-get-one kind of bar and, long-story-short, we founded a studio called Savia Design&Branding.
We went through all the phases on making your own company: from dreamers that wanted to change the world (but didn’t know how) — to try to fit all the work we could deliver in one week — up until getting things done kind of properly and being recognized about it.
But one thing was crucial, even though we both came from a graphic design background: as soon as we started our company we knew we wanted to work with branding and strategy. That was our focus. We wanted to explore our role as designers and see how we could impact the brands and companies that worked with us.
We got lucky that quickly some good fellows would trust two guys with red paint all over their faces to create their purpose, positioning, and identities. And VTEX was one of them.
As soon as our studio started growing, we noticed that a big part of what we were doing was about helping businesses either launch or dramatically change their brands.
The first one was the most common. When you help a business to launch, it’s all about clarifying raw ideas, purpose, and differentiators into a cohesive and strategic brand. Of course there is always the pressure to make the first impression the most impactful, but after all a new brand is an empty canvas to do some good design work. If you do it well, it will only grow and help the company achieve its goals. To be honest, in the run you’ll see how companies don’t really know when to start a branding project — either too early (i.e the product will only launch in two years and there’s a bunch of strategic gaps) or too late (“it’s all set, we just need THAT logo!”), but I’ll let you with Jim Schachterle’s post about brand launches.
Besides that, creating new brands was good. But little by little the second part started getting into our skins. I’ll try to explain why.
Fire it up.
It’s all about ch-ch-ch-changes.
Change hurts. For most of the companies, to change is almost to reinvent themselves. Inside out. And that’s the thing: you can only drive change at a certain point when you are an outsider. Yes, you can be the light that will fire up change, and a rebranding or a repositioning can be a good platform to do that. But usually, a new brand will not get to the core. Change will only happen when people inside the company embrace and make it their opportunity to change.
We tried to tackle this using a bunch of frameworks and methodologies. You all heard about design thinking. But, yeah, to fill this gap we brought collaboration to the table, so we could create alignment throughout the stakeholders. We brought the CEO, the product guy, marketing manager, and the salespeople, all together, to talk about critical things that they never talked about it together — like the god-damn purpose that guides the company.
We were trying harder and harder to change from the inside, and being some kind of neutral partner that would be either empathetic or brutally honest was our way to do this. We started being more of a translator than a creator. We were getting the ideas from the inside and trying to shape them in a way that could be relatable and inspirational.
With that path, we started seeing the potential of our work. Little by little, we were creating new roads for brands and companies to travel. Our work was being the starting point for their changes and we were helping them see what they could truly become. And this is awesome. But this was also the problem.
The models are a-changin’.
Cash in and bye-bye, baby.
Let me take a step back to make this clearer. I think it was back in 2016 that I went to a major design event here in Brazil and met some other studios from all over the country. At that time we were also having conversations with local studios in our hometown, sharing the pains and perks of our profession. When I saw that everywhere people were having the same discussions we had back home, things got clearer: Everybody is fucking lost.
Jokes apart, I understood that being you a graphic, digital or a branding studio as we were, the way we do business is not working anymore. And I think one of the main problems is in the very same model we learned and reproduced in the past six to seven decades. The classic design studio way of “receive a briefing, do the job, get paid, and bye-bye”. This model is not enough. At least not anymore. For the simple fact that it can not keep up with the complexity of our time.
The point is: to create a deeper impact you can’t count on just one silver bullet to do the job. Even if it’s a god-damn well-executed, tested and validated bullet. Even if you have a clear vision of where you are aiming. The transformation will happen on the go.
Being realistic: I never ever saw a project that we developed truly consistent after 1 year of its release. At least not like we planned. And this is not our fault. Neither the clients. It’s because companies, products, and systems need to change and evolve. Even more when you think about how technology is changing huge markets like retail, banking and so on. The pace is fast and we need to work with it.
So this idea started getting into our heads. We were discussing new models, trying to see how other industries transformed. We joined a group of design studios to talk about those types of subjects and (because that's what designers do) we did some internal workshops to map new opportunities. We were working hard trying new things in each new project, and at least once a month the subject would come back in one of our meetings or rituals.
Well, if you have read up to this point you are probably thinking I’ll have some super-duper model for you. Or at least some brilliant insight with a beautiful quote to share. Sorry to say I don’t. But I think there are some of us trying to push this further. I don’t know when or how, but I think graphic design, architecture and other disciplines — highly influenced by the modernist school — had split up from new ones like (digital) product design and service design. Those areas are trying new models and using the same design processes in different ways — not only to deliver better projects but to create new sources of income.
So, to keep the conversation going, I’m leaving at the end of this post a list of some of the studios and agencies I think are doing an amazing job trying to reshape the way we do design. They are pushing the boundaries on how an outsourced asset can deliver constant innovation.
That said: back on track!
From A — to — B
Baby, it’s a match.
Before joining VTEX, we worked with them for almost a year and a half. Our main contact and the guy that started all of these was Bernardo Lemgruber — coincidently (or not), a designer. Well, in this period we did a bunch of things: we created the VTEX identity system, repositioned and created the identity for one of the main brands of the group and even started helping with some internationalization challenges. We were finishing one project and starting another right after. But this was just the beginning.
The more we dug, the more clear it was that they had a lot more work to do — and we could to do it together. Of course in the process Bernardo saw that too and, by that time, he started talking about maybe we joining VTEX. At least he wanted. But we didn’t. We had just won the Prêmio Multishow and were getting better projects, considering hiring more people and even I was planning to move to São Paulo to expand the studio. So the conversation slowed down and we went back to our work.
The next challenge? VTEX repositioning.
Bernardo invited us to the next big project. Our goal was to create a global positioning for a brand with a presence in more than 3 continents, marketing initiatives in 12+ countries, and with a horizontal culture — what makes scalability and consistency a true challenge. Damn, this is good work to do. The kind of work that gives you chills, excitement and some woke-up nights to solve it.
So we started. We mapped the goals, interviewed clients, partners, and internal folks. We did a competitive analysis and spent weeks and weeks working hard together to understand and translate how their brand could impact other people’s lives and drive growth. How we would build the journey to make VTEX one of the top 5 commerce platforms in the world. This was done with an amazing team alongside them and, man, we were flying. The days went by and, finally, we had our positioning in hands.
I think it was a day before we presented it for the entire company that one of the co-CEOs, Geraldo, showed up. We discussed the main topics, reviewed some details of the presentation, and he brought back the subject — this time without much winding: “Guys, why you are not with us at this point?”. It surprised us, but at that time our mind was all made up that this was not an option — our design studio was our bet, and we were confident about it. So you don’t give up that easily.
The conversation went by and the next day we presented the positioning for the entire company. All countries connected, in one of VTEX's rituals called Demo Friday, to see the new positioning being announced. The feedbacks where amazing and we were absolutely happy with our delivery. The job was done. Or at least our part in it.
A few days later we flew back home to get back to the studio and, after a couple of weeks, something happened.
I was reviewing the presentations and finishing the last files and materials to hand-off the positioning and noticed that this was more or less like a treasure map. You know, the one with the dots, the mysterious landmarks and the X in the end? I realized that, for most of the projects I've been working with, the main impact I could deliver was to show brands an ambitious vision and a good road to pursue, with purpose and creativity. But, for some reason, for VTEX this doesn't seem to be enough.
That’s when all clicked. Working with a company with that complexity and scale, creating a map was good. But it was more or less like a guess. See, to tech companies, the main challenge is not to find point A or point B. It is not about finding a vision — in fact, most of the tech companies are born with it. For them, the challenge is to adapt it.
In this new technology context where things change fast and companies need to evolve faster, I understood that the real challenge is to go through the road where everything is constantly moving. To know when the context changed and to understand when the first vision needs to be adapted or even rethought. This may sound basic to the folks working with digital products. But, for branding and graphic design, this is a whole new paradigm. We basically need to build a fucking treasure map to a hidden island.
When I saw what three designers and an awesome team could do to a company like VTEX in just a few weeks, I saw that I could go further. That the fun of a project like that was not to discover it — but to try to deliver and to learn from it. I saw that we had the potential to make it real. And if I and Falcão, when we founded the studio, were trying to find new ways of doing design — why shouldn’t we do the same in a new place? If we wanted to test how designers could impact complex scenarios… Well, this could be the opportunity.
Long-story-short (because I already wrote much more than I was intended to), me and Falcão talked and, I don’t know exactly when, after a few weeks and a bunch of conversations we went back to Lemgruber and Geraldo to say: okay, let’s talk. For the months to come, everything would change, and we were ready. It was time to start a new cycle. It was time to, once more, test how far our work could go.
We packed our things, said goodbye to some amazing clients (and friends), and moved to Rio de Janeiro.
Now, one year later, I already see the impact.
The big picture
A transformational facilitator
When we were the outsiders, I found that one of the best weapons I had was to be the provocateur. The force that fire up changes and challenge companies to see what they could truly become. Now, I found myself in a new position.
One year later, after dealing with all kinds of projects — from launching new products to completely refactoring the original positioning we developed (and this should be the subject for another post), I started seeing myself more of a facilitator them the wrecking ball I thought designers should be.
When I started working with folks from all over the world. When I helped both the product and the sales and marketing teams — I realized that, even in companies with a collaborative culture, it's really hard for your peers to keep up with the changes and visions of the company. And, at the same time, I saw that being the reference voice of our brand — and therefore the strategy and vision of the company — I could be a facilitator for each one of them. I could translate the changes and challenges for each context. I could help them to see and to transform their works on a daily basis.
So, when I wake up to a day filled with to-do-lists and booked calendars, I remember that the biggest contribution I may make is to help others see the big picture. This is the most important value I can bring to the table. And, essentially, this is the work I tried to do with my design studio and is the work that I’m doing at VTEX.
And, man, I'm proud of it.
If you came all the way down to this last chapter, I would like to say that this movement is not happening just with us. The changes are happening fast and not only in the tech industry. Other designers and strategists are getting more and more space to move and positively influence both companies, governments, and institutions. And I truly believe that this will help them go further and really achieve their visions. That’s the impact I think we, as designers, can do.
And I hope my story helped or even lighted up some changes in yours. Let’s keep the conversation open, shall we?
— — —
R/GA: they went from being a special-effects video producer to become a top agency in the 00s and recently reshaped their model to be some kind of design-driven agency that helps start-ups and brands accelerate their transformations through innovation and connections. Check this interview with its founder.
Pentagram: if we think of graphic design and brand identity, we need to think of Pentagram. They have been launching relevant and impactful brands with consistency and originality for the past 90 years. Ninety-fucking-years. The reason they kept their position can be very much explained by their business model. Here's a letter from one of the founders explaining it.
DesignStudio: if you saw a unicorn recently, there's a chance their brand was created by this studio. They are the classic branding/design agency, but with a strategic yet boutique approach — perfect for the tech companies out there. Check the Airbnb interview.
Wolff Olins: Those old-school bastards are doing better and faster than most of us. The reason? They've evolved and changed a lot since 1965, building up a reputation of transformational partners. Right now Wolff Olins is one of the top strategic branding agencies, led by a brilliant woman and are producing the best contents about cultural, organizational and practical transformations.