A designer might hesitate to take on a visual identity assignment for a start-up venture. These often seem like vague ideas or lofty dreams, and in the early stages there is always the very real possibility that they will not materialize. This is why start-up companies often end up with such generic logos, when in fact, they need a clear and focused identity perhaps more than an established brand does.
But the longer the shots are of success for these emerging endeavors, the greater the potential satisfaction for a designer who puts his or her talent and strategic thinking behind them. This is why we generally try to have at least one start-up client on our roster at any given time.
These projects are also some of our toughest design challenges because unlike our clients from big corporations, start-up entrepreneurs put it all on the line, and the new fledgling businesses are their babies. Once we get to know the clients and become intimately familiar with their ideas, we cannot avoid feeling a sense of responsibility and we often become personally invested in the success of their ventures. I’d like to introduce three of these entrepreneurs and the graphics we developed for them:
The Face of his Brand
In 2012, Andrés Moreno and his team came to us from their headquarters in Miami to renew the logo they’ve been using since the inception of Open English — a subscription-based web platform where you can get a live tutor to teach you English anytime. That mark had an appropriate concept — “open” — but the graphic representation of the “o” suggested more “broken,” which, combined with “English,” is a particularly unfortunate message to send.
While studying at Universidad Simón Bolívar in Caracas, Andrés asked himself why so many students fail to learn English, which is an essential tool for social mobility and economic ascendance.
In 2005, he decided to leave the university to create an online English school based on the needs of the Latin American consumer. He went to California to raise capital and within two years, he managed to raise significant support from angel investors. Since then, the business has taken off and had 50,000 subscriptions by the time they asked us to study their visual identity.
In working to revise the original design, we thought that focusing on the terrific name and making it memorable was still the right approach. The solution was a frame evoking a screen — as the conduit between teacher and student — but also an open door: a metaphor for the idea of increased opportunities. Out of the options we presented, the OpenEnglish team immediately gravitated toward this solution.
They now use the mark across all platforms, and it’s especially visible at the end of their commercials (starring Andrés), which are ubiquitous on television channels across Latin America, especially Brazil, Mexico, Columbia, and Andrés’s home country of Venezuela. In the year since the new mark was adopted, OpenEnglish’s subscriptions have doubled.
Presentation (in person) is everything
Unlike Andrés who came to seek our professional help for his identity after his venture already had a foothold in the market, Gay Gilmore and Troy Hakala contacted us from Seattle, WA, with just an idea and a business plan.
The couple, who had previously started Recipezaar (now Food.com), had a new unusual idea for a brewery. In our first phone conversation, they explained that while most of the beer brands out there are very masculine, butch and some even aggressive, they wanted to create a beer brand that would be the antithesis: positive, friendly and bright. They named it “Optimism.”
GAY GILMORE AND TROY HAKALA
We were excited by this unusual challenge, and got to work. We interviewed the couple over Skype, and based on the discussion, we explored for a few months ways to visually depict the concept of optimism. It wasn’t easy. In fact, we were so worried about solving the design problem that we threw ourselves into it and ended up with more options than we usually ever show — eight plausible designs. When it came time to present, we reached out to Gay and Troy to schedule their trip to New York.
An important lesson we’ve learned over the years is that the moment of looking at new logo designs is very tricky. Since logos work by familiarity, it’s difficult to feel a connection to — let alone a sense of ownership with — a new design that you see for the first time. Therefore, we find that being in the same room together when reviewing the designs is almost essential. So while we’ve conducted identity presentations remotely when we’ve had to, we always do everything we can to hold them in person. The issue of identity requires even more sensitivity and intimate interaction with an entrepreneur, for whom the new business venture is a personal initiative and investment.
But Troy and Gay are busy … they have three kids and a brewery to build from the ground up. Moreover, they didn’t see the need to travel across the country to look at logos in person. We made our strongest arguments for a face-to-face meeting — but it was a no go.
“We’re internet people,” they wrote in a subsequent blog post about the identity development process. “We don’t need to be in the same room to look at logos.”
We took a risk and pushed again by email and on another Skype call, and to our delight, they were ultimately convinced and came in person. In addition to the fact that it secured a successful outcome to the visual identity effort, meeting them was terrific. They are unusual people with an unusual vision, and they’re bringing it to life. They also picked our favorite concept out of the eight: bubbles — one of the hallmarks of beer — that are growing out of the typography. We like how the type and the image come together as one. Bubbles always rise, which to us is a poetic visual manifestation of Optimism.
Troy and Gay are currently constructing their brewery in Seattle and have an estimated opening date of early 2015. You can follow their progress at http://optimismbrewing.com.
A Young Man with a Plan
Masoud Gerami — a 24 year-old Iranian entrepreneur — needed no convincing to come into our office. He had moved to New York from London where he went to university after spending much of his childhood in Dubai.
He came into our office as he was about to develop a new brand of iced tea, and, realizing that the success or failure of this type of consumer product would depend in large measure on its visual representation, he hoped to put his best foot forward and get the branding right from the get-go. We got to work inventing the brand visually, while Masoud worked to develop the teas and to perfect their flavors. The first step was to design the bottle, which we hoped could be made of glass. However, Masoud pointed out that a glass bottle would be much more expensive to produce and to fill. We insisted. For us there was no comparison between the appearance and the feel of a glass bottle and a cheap plastic one. After some discussion, Masoud was convinced.
This first interaction foreshadowed the kind of relationship we were to develop with Masoud. As a talented businessman, he is always concerned with cost, but at the same time, when we make a case for a design consideration he rarely ever says no. This is another important distinguishing factor between working for a large corporation and working for a start-up— we are in direct day-to-day contact with the ultimate decision-maker, so if we can make an effective case — we only need to make it once!
We designed an elegant, tall, elongated bottle with rounded shoulders. Masoud found a way to produce it economically in Mexico. We then designed a symbol: a leaf — the essence of tea — that flows into a drop. The verticality of the symbol proved to work very well on the bottle. Overall we wanted the look to be as clean and reductive as possible, which would help to differentiate Heart of Tea from its competitors and their much more “busy” approach to the graphics.
Our relationship with Masoud continues to this day, as he comes to us to solve every new design problem that arises: website, marketing presentation, trucks, aprons, advertising and so on. Masoud does everything himself, from convincing deli owners and then buyers for the biggest food chains to give shelf space for his teas, to delivering the teas in his van, to conducting tastings in the streets, to putting up his own street posters in the middle of the night. He comes to our office every now and then to deliver a few cases of teas for everyone in the office. A year after its launch, his tea brand has already become a fixture in major retail venues across the Northeast.
It’s incredible to watch our start-up clients make something out of nothing, grow, and become major players in their industries. But an important aspect of doing right by them and providing them with an effective identity is to almost forget that they are a start-up. I have heard complaints that logos for start-up companies often have a certain look about them. The secret is to not treat your client as a start-up but to think of them as any other established company, and then your logo isn’t going to look like a “start-up logo.” If we make our start-up client look like it’s always been around — then we have done our job.
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