2018 Year in Review

In the year since we launched Grammar, we’ve met and worked alongside teams and leaders with seemingly boundless ambition and zeal. The opportunities that have come our way and the outcomes born from them are nothing short of amazing. At least, to us. We wrote a TED talk. We designed a digital platform. We launched brands. We’ve fallen down, raced ahead, nursed bruised egos, ridden the wave of sudden success, wondered after a few slow weeks if it was the end, and we’ve learned — through experience, observation, and from others.

The work, the act of creation, the running of a business — takes a village…

As a matter of practice, we’re documenting our learnings here because without a doubt, this — the work, the act of creation, the running of a business — takes a village, many of whose residents we’ll never meet. That village, and the information, ideas, and lessons gleaned from the sharing of its experiences, has made all the difference for us. We hope that some of what we’ve experienced and taken away from this year may be useful to others.

While tempting to condense into a tidy list, the learnings captured here are diverse and unequal in impact and word count. They are a collection of all the surprising, strange, wonderful, and hard-earned lessons of 2018.

Get ready to evolve

Brands, like all living organisms, can and should change over time. Consistency, in the early stages of a brand’s life, helps build awareness and understanding. Over time, a brand should be willing to break its rules, placing emphasis on cohesion over consistency to stay relevant and interesting. As creators and practitioners, our job is to help clients understand that they need a strong, not static, system that will allow them to flex and experiment in the long term. As cultural forces shift and social mores become obsolete, brands should be well positioned to anticipate and tap into their effects on customers. The ideas that underpin a brand — principles — should be evergreen. Individual elements — like illustration and photography — should be freed from the tyranny of false permanence.

Set an intention

Branding efforts should have goals. At the outset of a project, it’s not unusual to have a sense of the challenges associated with the status quo; less common is an articulation of the desired outcome. Statements like “Be more friendly” or “Make the mark more legible” are simple but effective ways of guiding the creative process. Taking the time to capture needs and desires helps coalesce diverse points of view into one solidified brief, which can be translated into a set of criteria for decision making. Having a clearly articulated intention, where you want to move “to,” helps clarify whether what you’ve created is “right.” As a creative studio, we know there is no shortage of beautiful work in the world; finding the intersection of smart, beautiful, and right is where the magic happens (and the challenge lies).

Illustration by Yi Pan

Take your time

The uncomfortable truth is that it takes a while to get the work right. It’s true that in the pursuit of speed, quality often takes a hit. The opposite is also true — time makes opportunity, quality, greatness. We’ve realized wonderful outcomes, and experienced real a-ha’s, when there was mutual generosity of time. Time and patience from the client, as we work to interpret their ideas and translate them into something that feels right. Time and patience for our client, as they try to shape their brief, understand and articulate their feedback, and socialize the work internally. At our size, it’s easier to be nimble on timing, but our goal is to always allow flexibility in our process. The hope is to get it right on the first try, but the work of defining a brand is a creative process, and the exchange and iteration of ideas cannot be manipulated by overzealous timelines, driven by either client or creative team. Getting comfortable with the back and forth, even embracing it, is a perennial, but worthy challenge.

Search for truth

Identity is about truth. Brand identity is no different. To be distinct as a brand, you must surface what’s true and real — not just aspirational. Identity systems, names, and voice and tone not rooted in the fundamental ethos of a company disintegrate fairly quickly, often with painful results. The sweet spot is the intersection of ‘today’ and ‘tomorrow,’ building a future that is based on what is, with the opportunity to evolve and grow along the way.

Illustration by Yi Pan

Make systems, not logos

Brands become great not because of individual elements — a typeface or logo mark — but because of a system of elements working together in compelling and scalable ways. We don’t use the term ‘brand system’ to overly intellectualize what we do — we believe that the most compelling brands have a litany of elements in their toolkits (a distinctive brand voice, a compelling color palette, a hard-working illustration style) that can flex as the moment demands it. Thinking about brand as an opportunity to solve problems and unlock new opportunities, not as a one-time exercise, helps engender more meaningful possibilities and futures.

Bring people along on the journey

As stewards of the creative process, it’s our job to surface unseen observations and challenge assumptions. We know that the longevity of a brand system doesn’t lie in persuading the client to choose option A; it depends on the energy and excitement of a much larger group that includes employees, customers, partners, investors, and in some cases, the public at large. One of our most significant learnings of the year is that the work of the client and creative team is not just about unearthing the right brand system, but educating and enlisting others as you go. This helps both unlock stronger and more durable creative outcomes and prepares the team to be true champions of the work going forward. When we teach, and bring people along our process (steering clear of creativity by committee), we foster a much deeper belief in the work.

Illustration by Yi Pan

Measure with care

Metrics allow us to make informed decisions about where to deploy spend, how to gauge channel effectiveness, how to evolve creative to meet business objectives. But too often, measurement becomes a reason for not taking risks. Not testing a short-term retail experience. Not spending on offline. Not pursuing partnerships. The best brands measure, but they also understand the value of taking risks whose rewards will take longer to materialize, understand, or improve. These brands gauge success through a variety of factors, quantitative and some qualitative, business-focused and culture-focused. The takeaway here is not to abstain from measurement, but rather, to prevent it from overriding what’s possible.

Be generous

Lastly, and most importantly, building an amazing creative community and network (which in turn helps you do amazing creative work), requires giving. We are so thankful for the support we’ve received from firms that could be easily deemed competitors. That spirit of generosity has done two things 1) driven us to look for ways to be helpful to those who have helped us 2) expanded our own definition of what it means to be helpful. We love being part of a community of folks genuinely interested in helping one another succeed, and believe that this phenomenon need not be limited to the creative community.