Jason Halstead spent almost twenty years building View Design, before deciding to move to Portland and start Gist Brands. We talk about branding, our lovely city, and where the secret Mad Men parties take place.
- Salt, Fire & Time
- Gist Brands
- Erik Spiekermann’s question on Quora
- Willis Alan Ramsey
- Northeast Texas Women by Willis Alan Ramsey
- Chuck Berry Anthology
- Our theme song is Rite of the Ancients from The Budos Band III.
- Hello Jason?
- How are you today?
- I’m doing pretty good.
- Excellent. Nice weather.
- It’s a little bit nicer now than it was about 20 minutes ago.
- Yeah. It’s improving by the minute. Let’s start at the beginning here. Where do you hail from?
- To start at the beginning, it sounds like, is this going to be serialized?
- No. Like what’s the creation myth here?
- In terms of where was I born or where …?
- Yeah. Where were you born?
- I was actually born in Grants Pass. I’m a native Oregonian and grew up all over Oregon when I was younger.
We moved to Elkton, Oregon when I was probably in junior high school which is very small community. I can surely say that I’m not just native Oregonian, but native redneck Oregonian.
- Got you. How did you become interested in design branding?
- That’s a hard question for me to answer because it’s been a really long journey to get here. I was always really interested in creativity and design from the standpoint of just as a kid, loving reading, loving drawing; all those kinds of things, but didn’t really have any contacts for that like as a career. The Elkton School District I was at was actually a really great school district, but nothing supporting really the arts in that small of a community. That was just … I think my self-exploration started there because there wasn’t really any support of it in terms of educational programs or anything like that.Then when I got ready to go to college, I got advised that art wasn’t a way to be successful and have a career and make money. Somebody said, “Oh well you know, you’re kind of entrepreneurial. You understand business and you understand the basics of all these things that are part of business. Get a business degree and you’ll always be able to sell your art.” Which in some ways was really a stupid advice, but also was really good advice because for me, what I found, I actually went for a business degree and for me what I found is that I’m very right brain, left brain. I probably wouldn’t be successful in the career that I’m now in branding without having the basics of business drilled into me in an undergraduate degree and then figuring out how does that get leveraged into business and into branding.It was a roundabout way and ultimately I took a position with the University of Oregon after graduating from their business school and was doing almost like PR public information, communications position. I was managing design projects. There was an opportunity for me to do more of that work myself. I’ve always had this figure it out mentality of being able to be a generalist and a dabbler. I started doing that and really enjoyed it. We started to get really good response to the work that I was doing. Ultimately that just became my full time job at the university which also became a career and a business in Eugene which is now a business here in Portland.
- When you say that you were pulled that direction because you were entrepreneurial, were you? Did you exhibit entrepreneurial tendencies before this?
- I don’t know. I don’t …
- Like lemonade stands or something?
- Yeah, exactly. No. that would have been … it would have been something other than lemonade around Elkton. I don’t really know exactly what that was. I think that people saw this ability for me to like more to fit my environment. To a certain extent that’s what an entrepreneur has to be able to do. I’m not quite sure exactly what these people saw in me that they saw as so entrepreneurial. Really to be honest with you, this would have been … I went to the University of Oregon in ‘85 to ‘89 so entrepreneurship wasn’t even really … at that time there was no entrepreneurship center at the U of O like there is now. There really wasn’t one probably at any institution. The whole idea of small business and entrepreneurship really was still pretty nascent.In the larger business community obviously there were a lot of businesses that were that, but as a focus or as a goal that wasn’t really the case at that time. In fact I couldn’t find really that much at U of O to support those particular ideas. There were a couple of classes. It wasn’t really until after that that that became such a big deal, a buzzword and a focus for people, but obviously there was something in the business skills or the understanding of how business works that people saw that I was good at.
- in Eugene you ran … what was the name of the …?
- It was called View Design.
- Tell us about that. How long did that go on and then what kind of experiences did you have there?
- I did that for, I think it was 18 years I finally figured it out after moving up here. It really started as an outgrowth. I’m trying to figure out how to make this a short. I’m not really good at short versions.
- That’s okay.
- The whole business view started because I was working at UEVO and it was in the midst of Ballot Measure five, which was a whole round of budget cuts that drastically eliminated programs and people and whatever around the state, but specifically in higher education. We’ve been told by our division that we had to basically reduce our budget. We were going to have a lot less money to work with. It was, we were reducing money for publication and programs in an attempt to keep people.I looked at the publications we were producing and this was when my dean came to me and said, “You know, you’ve been doing a lot of our little fliers and things like that around the office for all of our different programs that we just don’t have budget for. What do you think about taking on some of our serious publications and bringing those in-house? We just don’t have the money to continue to pass them out of house and we don’t have the priority in our publications department here in campus to get these things done.” I started to do that work and I looked at it as a game that first of all I went to the printer and said, because we actually had our printing services department at campus. I went to the printer and said, I understand there is this love hate relationship between designers and printers. We depend on each other.
Designers hate printers because printers say that they can’t do something and printers hate designers because designers create things that are unprintable and if you haven’t told somebody how to do it right before they learn how to do it wrong, what would you do? That was my introduction into printing and went back and I said okay, if we’re going to be limited, if we’re going to be eliminated by doing things, laser print in one color and two color before we did full color and I’ll elaborate, this is going to be really hard if it’s just feeling like restriction all the time. What I want to do is make it a game. How can I make one color or two color be better than it typically is? What are the tricks to make people assume that these things are better quality than they are? Even though I was pretty young as a designer, I started pushing boundaries of things. We ended up six, nine months later getting our hands slapped by the provost office for saying that basically our publications were looking too elaborate and too high budget, even though we were spending about 50% of what we were prior to that.
That problem solving piece and communications piece, as well as the design has always been a big motivator for me.
As I looked at what was happening in higher education and the fact that I really hadn’t started out to have a career in Higher Ed, I looked at the fact that this was probably a very good model for a business and very quickly transitioned out of the Higher Education environment and started my own business with many higher education departments at the UEVO as clients to do just that. I figured if there was a way to do it where I would have more input, more control, more creativity, but also could probably get paid better for it in the long run as well. That’s where View Design was born. It wasn’t that I set out to create a graphic design firm or create a services agency or whatever it ultimately grew into after about those 20 years, but it really was more creating myself a job and creating myself a job where I got to use the skills that I liked best and something that merged together this right brain and left brain piece. I’m a Libra. I’ve always been this between person always looking at multiple aspects and balance. That was my way to invent a job.
- It almost sounds like you were maybe at a little punk rock in your ability to work within constraints and be creative and use a one color or two color. That randomly reminded me of something that Erik Spiekermann, the typographer wrote on the Q&A site Quora recently where someone had asked why tabloid magazines use yellow, pink, aqua so much? He pointed out that designers’ habits were formed by the fact that those colors were harder to get. They were… like if you were doing offset printing I guess you’d say …
- Like four color offset printing?
- Yeah, like doing those colors was harder to get and so they’d stand out more on the newsstand. They don’t anymore, but people still use those colors to signify those same things. Their language has been formed over a decade.
- It’s interesting that that translates so much into the digital realm now. Those colors still do. We do say pure RGB, pure red green blue, but we’re really being informed from this traditional printing. It wasn’t really so much of those colors were hard to achieve because those are really the base colors of full color printing as black, cyan, magenta and yellow.
It’s just that you were always … the whole purpose of four color printing or process color printing was to try to create the illusion of colors that aren’t there using these screen patterns and dots of color to build that because you can’t print something with six million colors.It really became more that people wanted to… it’s kind of like you see that now with the craft movement where it’s like people want to expose the process. They want to expose the DNA or the raw materials evident. I think when we got into more that punk style design and some of the edgier designs, people were like, why are we trying to hide these colors? Why are we trying to hide dark patterns in the production process? Let’s actually emphasize them and show the craft for what it is. Yeah, it is true that those definitely got associated with that punk era. They still … like when you see that you still flash back to either punk or ‘80s album covers, when you see somebody really using pure 100% of those colors or now. Then they started to push it … after that got exposed then they started to push it where they tried to use fluorescent versions of those colors or double hits of those colors because those weren’t things that were achievable using the actual full color process. It is interesting.
- Was that like ‘80s or late ‘70s, early ‘80s Warholesque kind of almost neon and print …?
- Essentially that was what was happening at that time too. You look at Warhol or you look at [Lipton Shine] and it’s like they were exposing, whether … it was like the production process of comic strip style or whatever. They were again exposing the production methods and pushing the production methods and actually having the production methods be a part of the art, specially like with Warhol where it was print making and a lot of people weren’t seeing that as real art because it wasn’t brush strokes on canvas. To a certain extent those artists were throwing the production processes and materials into the face of the establishment and the rest of the art world.
- I don’t know if we’re really going off of at a tangent. I don’t care about tangents. It seems like if you look back in history people think of … well first of all I would say that if you look at a great artist like the renaissance even, they had a studio of people working with them. There were apprentices and so forth. That’s how the in-studio was run. That’s how Warhol ran his factory. That’s how all that was run. Do you think that in any way diminishes art? Or even does it make something artificially commercial when it’s not, do you think? Do you think maybe … like typically an art of Da Vinci was any less of an artist if he didn’t individually paint his paintings versus …?
- I think it’s hard for people to be able to make that judgment just because so many of the people that we hold up as like groundbreaking artist or the examples of their eras there were aspects of that to their work. I think now I guess it’s harder and harder to delineate between what is pure arts, what is craft, what is mass produced arts, whatever.
One of the things that I like when I look at the art … because I collect art, it’s from all different media and all different types of artists, all different styles and all different kinds of makers or production techniques.To me art is something that is expressive and transformative. That may take a lot of different forms. I even look at typography as art and the fact that it can be licensed and downloaded as a font and reproduced and whatever, really doesn’t make it any less of what it is. In fact in some ways it democratizes art to be accessible to the masses.Yet this idea of single maker, amazing artwork that can only be expressed through that person’s brush or painting or whatever is also an amazing thing as well. I think the category has been stretched now to include a lot of different things. I don’t think there is necessarily anything wrong with that.
- Let’s move forward a little bit here. What compelled you or drove you to move to Portland and how has that been going?
- I actually wanted to be in Portland for quite a long time. I felt like Eugene … when I started the company down there, like I said it was more just to give myself a job and to combine the things that I love to do and a business just grew out of that organically over time because of the demands of clients and everything else. I ended up with a professional studio and staff and overhead and all those kinds of things. I never really planned to stay in Eugene. Eugene was meant as a stop for education, but I really didn’t know what I want to do after.Then once the business started I’m like well, this is intriguing and I thought I’m going to have to follow the story of art for a while. Then after a while for me, probably 10 years or less into it, I really started to feel like … it wasn’t that the story was exhausted, but that I wasn’t in control of the story any more. It was more about feeding the beast in terms of keeping employees employed and their kids school fees paid and all that and serving the clients’ needs as those needs grew and especially as web and other things started to come into play. I really didn’t know where I wanted to be and yet I had had the opportunity to travel a lot. Every time I left Oregon, specifically in the Pacific Northwestern general, I traveled all over the world or all over the United States and find all these fascinating places, but no place that I really wanted to be other than where I was. I just kept coming home. For me Portland really started to eclipse Eugene many years back and my desire to be up here, probably because of the energy that’s here.
Eugene, as much as I love this town, the city is really … up until recently … now that I’ve left things are happening in Eugene. Prior to that, it was just really difficult to see change and vision, the things that fed my creativity. What I found was that, I was working and living in Eugene and I was going to Portland and other places all the time to feed the creativity. This is where I get fed. You were coming up to the art museum or coming up for arts events up here. Eugene has a certain amount of that, but it was the massive amounts of information to be gained in one setting that was really of the most interest to me.I was spending a lot of time up here and was thinking that, at that time economy is going great and the part of not wanting to walk away from Eugene was the fact that when the faucet is open and the water is running out and you’re making money, you don’t really like to turn the faucet off. I was thinking of doing a two office model and opening an extension, a satellite up here in Portland with a plan for me to be up here fulltime and have my staff in Eugene continue to serve the clients down there. We were actively pursuing that and I was networking up here and growing the business. My partner also was up here in Portland. For five years I was driving back and forth and we were maintaining both households and training weekends back and forth and trying to re-shape or careers around being able to do long weekends and work remotely and do all that. It just … well that worked out okay for that time period. It wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought. It just was not an ideal life. About that time was when the economy really tanked badly. It had been tanking prior to that, but …
- There was definitely a bottom. I remember that.
- It was really bad. I looked at it and I told Rob, we sat down over the holiday, I think it was Thanks giving and we looked at it and I said, everybody is saying two years. I’m thinking seven or eight before things change. When they do I really don’t think it’s going to be business as usual. It’s going to be … things are going to have to change. I’m not really willing to wait seven years for the economy to bounce back and then two or three years plus for things to grow enough to be able to do this two location model.Yet I also don’t feel like I want to just rip up the roots of View and move it to Portland and plant it here and have the same thing all over again. I said I’m always recommending to clients that they look at the bigger picture and rip off the Band-Aid or not just look at the Band-Aid approach but look bigger.
For me that really meant being a little more retrospective about the last two decades of my career and what is it that I really love about it or do I love it anymore and what do I want to do going forward? When I moved to Portland I had about nine months worth of three large re-brands I was working on which was nine months of work that could keep me busy on my own for that entire time.
I did that work first and then I took a three month sabbatical to take a look at my work and career and what I wanted out of life and what did I want the next decade, next 10 years to be. Really, ultimate made myself go through my re-branding process that I’d used for clients before, trying to figure what the vision was and everything. That’s where Gist came from which was just brands, which was the new entity. That’s really hyper focused on brand strategy and brand identity design, because that’s what I found when I looked at the compendium of the work over the last 20 years.
That was what I found fed me the most and where I felt the utmost value and where my talents were a little bit more unique. That’s going good here. It’s just amazing the networking here and people’s desire and capability to collaborate and do joint work without stepping on each other’s’ toes and support each other’s business models is really, really amazing.
When I looked at the competitive space up here in Portland I said, there is a ton of creatives here. You can sit in a Starbucks and hit 10 of them. There is a lot of people exiting that are doing relatively senior level work too that are exiting, Nike, Adidas or Intel or whatever the organizations are. I went, I can go out and I can establish another graphic design firm all servers, trying to be everything to everybody like I was doing before, but it’s a crowded space here and it’s already available here in spades and really quality and a lot of quality work.
I was like, if those people are doing their things, the campaigns and the implementations and the websites and the things I just really don’t want to spend my time micro-managing, why wouldn’t I partner with those people and really narrow my focus to what I feel is my biggest strength?
- What you really offer is complimentary to that, to serve a general purpose full service studio might offer for example.
- Yeah. I think a lot of studios are … and we have talked about this before since you guys helped with my website. I think a lot of studios are out there selling, branding. It’s not really branding. It’s logo design and not that there is anything wrong with that because that’s a big piece of what I do as well. Branding is such a bigger idea and it’s more integrated into the business strategy and the business vision and the value that the organization brings that just coming up with a unique mark is only a piece of the pie. What I see, logo design is the outcome of a branding process, same with a name or tag line or URL or other strategic brand assets. What I found is I looked around at websites because there are some people here in Portland obviously that are doing full service brand strategy.When I took a look at the competition here, I just felt like there were a lot of people that are doing logo design. What that means is that, because it’s not really based on the long time arch of where the business is going and it’s not all the alignment of these elements, it means that those people have to re-invent that logo, that identity multiple times. Really the goal of logo design and brand identity and brand strategy is to have a longer term arc and to be something that can survive for 10, 20 years.
If you’re in consumer space where it’s planned out lessons, that’s a different matter, but for most service based businesses, law firms, health care, whatever, all those businesses need more of a stronger foundation. My frustration as a designer when I was doing logos was people didn’t want to talk about the business side. They’d come to me as an assignment saying we need a new logo or whatever they thought the Band-Aid was, the thing was the sore point, the pain point at the time and when I started to try to take them back and say okay, well that’s fine but let’s talk about your business, where have you come from? Where are you going? What’s unique about what you’re doing so that I can take that and try to express that through your logo and your brand identity, there was a lot of confusion.
- Like why, did they think you were just to upsell them maybe?
- I don’t know. Yet when you look at the brands that you value and support and that really resonate with you, there is usually a strategic reason behind that, not just a design component that makes that resonate with you. I didn’t think there was any reason why a business law firm can be thinking strategically as opposed to just creating another word mark to throw out there.
Even if there wasn’t huge changes in strategy to be effected through the design that the choice of the type face used, the formatting, the whatever could definitely feed into who they are as opposed to detract from. It’s whatever your logo designer wants to do, but I don’t think a lot of people doing logo design necessarily do as much of that left brain discovery and research.They ask questions. That’s pertinent question. There’s nothing wrong with that. I do that as well, but really what I’m always trying to do beyond just discovery, the creative discovery of figuring out who the company is really helping that organization articulate that. Our part of articulation at the end is in graphic form, but a lot of their articulation is in words, deciding who you are and who you want to be to these people that you’re serving and who those people are and who the target audiences are and what you want them to know about you. It’s really just trying to get all those things in alignment it’s so much more powerful.
Like one of the things I’m realizing right now, I just had somebody ask me to do a future blog post on branding or re-branding strategy in social media. First of all I’m thinking, well I’m not really in … I do social media myself. I’ve done it in the past for my clients, but I’m not in implementing and planning social media for my clients. My gut reaction was just like why would you ask me that? It was a stupid question given what I’m focused on now, but it really isn’t because the articulation side, if you’re helping decide who they’re speaking to, what your value is, what your uniqueness and your value is to them, why they should care, the personality of how you communicate, key messages that you always want to get across in your communication.
That is your DNA for what your social media plan ultimately … there’s lots of different tactical things that are going to happen and a lot of different way that can show up, but it’s going to give you the concept ideas and words to talk about. Whether it’s PR, social media, your website, whatever. That’s kind of that hand in hand, the right brain and the left brain. It’s the creative piece, but it’s also the business piece and the strategic piece of why would we do this and how would we do it.
- The disadvantages to not doing that or thinking about that seem definitely like they could be … you could probably speak to this better, but it’s not just that you’re changing your logo over a few years, but that you’re kind of, I don’t know, like just firing in every directions rather than focusing your efforts.
- Yeah. That’s exactly right, because there’s lots of different definition of branding. Probably the interesting thing about writing this last website content was trying to figure out what I was going to say branding was, because I can very easily point and tell people your brand is not your logo, but then when you try to get down to telling people what brand really is, that’s a little bit harder. I think that’s one of the reasons why so many people add … I did a presentation in an MBA class out at EOP a few weeks ago, did this presentation and I had this list where I had graphic design plus branding, public relations plus branding, marketing plus branding.Every time I got down to like t-shirts plus branding, donuts plus branding because it really was like people just got on the bandwagon without really knowing what they were selling. I tell clients when they don’t really understand branding it’s like hey, it’s not your fault. The industry itself doesn’t even really understand what it is. Realistically, if you have to boil it down in my opinion, branding really is that value proposition. It really is that uniqueness. It’s finding out who you are, who you need to relate to and why you are important to them, what is the unique thing you can provide that others can’t.
For even the most commoditized of businesses that I’ve worked with, we’ve always been able to find something. It’s not always that you’re in a whole other category all by yourself. It is finding your piece that is meaningful to somebody else about what makes you different than the next guy. Otherwise you really are a commodity. It is that focus for exterior consumption so that they know what you do, but it’s also that focus for internal consumption, because then everybody is like working in the same direction.
If your staff all know what you stand for in terms of the vision of your business, where you’re going, who your ideal customers are, who your target audience is, what you want to say, whatever, you can give them a lot more latitude and leeway to decide what is right for the company.
It not just energizes them, but it validates them to be able to go out and serve as ambassadors or activators of the brand. It makes it real clear when they know that they’re not delivering on what’s expected out of the brand. It also just gives you a North Star or a roadmap. In addition of having all the great creative assets that look good, it also … if you know who you are speaking to and your know what your key messaging is and you know how you’re different and how you provide value, then if say an advertising opportunity comes out, you can look at it and go that’s not even speaking to the people that we want to talk to.
Really it gives you a lot of tools. It gives you a lot more tools than most people think it does because a lot of people think of it more from the creative expression, personality side of the business, but it’s really more about what’s the focus of the business. The graphics, the names, all the rest of that stuff are the mnemonics that people use to remember what it stands for. I always talk about a logo as being a brand box. The logo, sometimes it’s illustrative, sometimes it’s literal in some way and sometimes it expresses the personality aspect of the company, but mostly what it does is it just serves as a filing cabinet because we’re so inundated with marketing and brand messages all the time that somebody can file away what they know about your organization until they need to know it to make some kind of judgment call.
That’s finally way both positive and negative. Just like we see with brands that end up running into problems with sweat shops or whatever else it is. It’s like brand equity is kind of a thermometer, it’s something that waxes within lanes. When you do a brand strategy, your ideal is to try to figure out how to constantly be moving that in the positive and also remove some of the speed bumps that are in the way of people accessing your brand and having all those messages reinforce themselves, because a lot of times organizations have a really good idea of who they are and relatively good expression and might have a great logo and might have a great office, but then it’s like the receptionist is really upset when you call and right away even though you’ve come in word of mouth referral, whatever, it’s like okay, well that’s two ticks down.
My experience with this is three ticks up and whatever. Really what you’re trying to do with brand strategy is really look at the bigger picture of all these things and try to figure out how to make sure that they’re all reinforcing, they’re all aligning and reinforcing so that when you get an opportunity to talk to somebody about what you do or you get a word of mouth referral, it’s more like it’s gaining speed toward a sale or engagement with that company. The more they see the more they want, the more they understand etc.
- Thinking about branding probably on a large scale, I probably myself couldn’t think of a better and more obvious example than the maker of our phones. They seem like a company that obviously has hit roadblocks. You mentioned the sweat shop example and the equivalent has happened to Apple, but I feel like their messaging is pretty good as far as … they’ve stuck with that iconic logo since I think 1978. That has some legs. As far as and maybe I’m making an assumption, would you agree with that, they’re pretty good at that?
- Yeah. I think obviously they are held up as an example of both the branding and just design being central to business, which as we know is like the big buzzword now that everybody needs to, no matter what industry you’re in you need to be focusing on design. I think design from this standpoint, not just so much of the product design which is amazing, but this idea of intentional planning which is what I’m talking about when I’m talking about strategy post creative or right brain versus left brain.I think Apple, given some of its, when you look at Apple from the early, there was parts that were really not very successful. When you really look at their whole long story and they’ve definitely had hiccups in terms of different products and different aspects of their business. I think the interesting thing about the Apple brand right now really is that that concern that people have over now that Steve Jobs is gone and obviously …
- He was like a really good brand steward. I feel like he reignited peoples’ concept of what Apple actually stood for where they kind of lost their way in the ‘90s and they started putting out all sorts of crap…
- They lost their way. Have you read the biography?
- Yeah, I have.
- Anybody who has read that realizes just how far they lost their way before he came back in to shepherd them and be the inspiration again. Just knowing when you see how much input he had into everything, you know that he left a lot of input and game plan and whatever. Not that … there’s been there’s been other amazing leadership and other amazing design key players within that company. The success is not all on his shoulders, but you know that at some point whatever that input, whatever that vision was that he had, a lot of that story ark peters out at some point.I think that’s what people are concerned about is even if there is product plans that have been in the works for the last three years about the trajectory of where Apple is going, without that being fed for the long term, where will it go, which is why you see so much … among other reasons why you see so much volatility in the stock over there in a year or so. Yeah, an amazing company from a branding perspective, amazing company from design and product development perspective.
The other thing that I think, it’s also to me it’s one of their brands. I bring up a lot of brands when I’m when talking about brands with people and partly it’s because they’re iconic and people know them, but partly because it really demonstrates what branding is and isn’t. For example when you look at the Apple logo, what exactly does that have to do with computers and with these amazing changes and telephony and interface and whatever? Not much. As a picture it really doesn’t.
You look at Starbucks logo and others. There’s all these stories behind where those … it’s not that those symbols are meaningless, but that’s where you really have to look at what is the their there? What is the thing that is behind it? With Apple, even though it’s an odd choice in terms of a logo for a company that’s done what they’ve done, that symbol symbolizes a lot. You can see that brand box example that I was talking about before where the logo in itself doesn’t really mean anything. It’s what everybody … what Apple has invested in filling that box for and what people have through their own experiences and their own social networks, what meaning they’ve given to the brand.
- Random question related to logo and branding. Have you ever seen Apple’s original logo?
- That really ornate weird like …
- Yeah. It’s kind of like a wood cart engraving.
- Do you think that Apple would be where they are now if that was their logo?
- I don’t either, but I’m just curious.
- It’s too complex … for one thing it’s too complex. It’s not really that picture or illustration really is not what a logo is meant to be.
- It’s not a logo really. It’s a wood carving. You’ve probably looked at … a lot of brands have evolved their logo a lot. Like Starbucks they did a write up on their blog recently of how it has basically simplified over the years as well as becoming more family friendly. What are your feelings on that? Is that a brand question or is that completely separate from the brand? It’s just the evolution of the logo? It’s the same logo. Do you see that as the same logo or a different logo?
- No. I don’t really see it. You can see this if you look back at most long standing brands, Coca-Cola, Ford, the television networks etc. You can see their evolution over time. Some of that is just stylistic, but most of what you see, although occasionally there is a blend in the path, but mostly what you see is simplification. You see something going from a relatively complex and sometimes illustrative mark that was meant to actually stand for what the company did down to something that becomes more iconic.
- Conceptual, yeah.
- Part of it is that as the brand builds and its meaning builds behind the name and what the brand stands for, there’s less needed to communicate that. More and more of your color scheme, the topography you’ve chosen, whatever, is more and more accessible. Sometimes people will strip up complexity for that standpoint. There is a huge pendulum swing and in fact there is something in my blog right now where I’m talking about … there was a recent one a couple weeks ago that talks about why are logos becoming more minimalistic, which is really not that they are becoming more minimalistic. It’s more that there’s been a pendulum swing. There was a pendulum swing to really crafted, illustrated, complex images for logos and now it’s swinging back toward … like if we looked back to like Saul Bass, Paul Rand, the iconic designers of the design logos of the ‘50s and ‘60s.
- Because of the television networks and …
- Going back to United Airlines, the television networks, UPS and some of the others. Part of that is a brand factor or a pride factor. We can communicate more in less because we’re out there and we’re known, but a lot of it is just the noise. When you look at how many … just going online and looking around and Google searching and whatever, you just end up seeing so many brands. You end up seeing so many visuals. We’re so inundated with visual information that the simpler an icon, a symbol is the easier it is for people to zero in on it and remember it as well as there’s a relief. I don’t have to look at 15 lines to figure out who this is. I can look at five. We just see a lot of this simplification happening across the board.
- You would see like way back when logos first became a thing it was the era of the Coca-Cola or anything. Your Canvas was a poster or a wall or something whereas now it’s like a button on your phone.
- There wasn’t that much competition. People didn’t operate other than say Coca-Colas and others, people didn’t operate at a national or a global scale. What you had was your local companies that were recognized both from their names. Interesting, we call these things logos. The fact of the matter is they’re not. If you really get specific in brand terminology, logo is just the shortening of logo mark or logotype and logotype was just like it was the Coca-Cola. It was your name rendered in a descriptive typeface.Now what we call logos really aren’t what logos originally were. It’s just interesting to see this morphing of terminology and things co-opted by the public to describe things that become accepted terminology that you have to run with even if you’re …
- It’s like people using the word font for something when they really mean typeface.
- Is what that reminds me of.
- Font really is referring to all the style type setting. It’s not really referring to digital. We’ve adapted it into the digital but …
- No one really using the font for anything.
- Yeah. The tricky historian people really get into that, but like for me it’s like in doing more of this educational content strategy with a new business, it’s like I’ve got to talk in the terms with which people, so I have to say logo and it is the easiest word to use because it is the most accessible and yet at the same time there is places where I’m having to draw the line, because I’m saying your brand is not your logo, so let’s talk about what a brand is. There is all these permeable edges to the definitions and yet there’s certain things that I found it’s like you’ve got to like stand your ground.It’s interesting. One of the funny things is when I was looking recently at brand trend reports because I was writing on trends on my blog. Frequently just the headlines of these blog posts that are supposed to be from some educated expert. There are some like ‘How to Rebrand Your Logo.’ It’s like well those are like two completely different concepts there that you are merging together there.
- It probably says like ‘9 Ways to rebrand Your Logo’ if I know those blogs.
- Yet at the same time it’s like that’s what the average person is looking for. How do you use that as an opportunity?
- Yeah. They’re using the vernacular.
- Not only to find them and to engage with them, but educate them in a way without like overwhelming them about what this stuff really is.
- just talking about Portland, is there anyone in Portland, like a smaller business like, not talking about like Apple level stuff, but is there anyone in Portland that struck you lately as doing a really good job with branding, like presenting themselves as a well branded organization that just struck you?
- I’m not really thinking of anything right off the top of my head and it’s not because there isn’t great stuff happening around here.
- It’s a tough question. I can’t think of anything off the top of my head either.
- I think there is a lot of small business around Portland that are jumping on the design bandwagon and I really applaud them for that. There is a lot more small businesses that are jumping on the design bandwagon and really jumping on the brand bandwagon. I’m not really sure. I see these really fun, great, creative crafted identities, logos and looks and feels, but I’m not always sure that they’re really a match to the business. I’m not really sure what they’re supposed to be saying about the business. I’m also looking at them going wow, that’s really fun and I can see, it really stands out and I can see that it’s engaging, but it also seems like it has a short shelf life.When I’m looking at let’s say a retail logo or something like that where I’m like really cool, definitely very hip, on trend, but is that going to play in three years or are you going to be reinventing again? I’m not really sure always that the business owners are thinking about that long term path. It’s frequently a huge investment, not just in the branding and design work, but also just in the implementation. You look at like restaurants with menus and all that stuff.
If you’re on the retail side, you’re frequently, even if you are not aware of it, you’re frequently planning for planned obsolescence. You know you’re going to … you know if you’re in the consumer space you’re going to have to refresh more frequently than a lot of other businesses.
- People might like … might be attracted to that, your particular demographic or something, just that feeling like it’s always fresh I guess.
- We have some questions on Twitter. Green Solutions asks, ‘do you have any suggestions for rebranding a negative image into a positive one? I know that Apple is listening so maybe they’ll be …
- When you talk about like trying to deal with some negative publicity or negative brand image that’s out, there that’s usually not a single event. A single event, people … actually when you look at like how you look at social media and branding and authenticity, the public is actually pretty forgiving of single events as long as people step up to it and own it and take responsibility for it. That’s one of the reasons there is so much talk about authenticity in branding and social media and PR and all those kinds of things. I think the hard part sometimes about changing the negative images about something is well, what is the authentic part about our organization, because if most of what is really authentic about the organization is on the negative side, it’s not good to customer service, it’s behind the times, whatever it is, then it’s really not so much about the brand expression. It’s about actually changing the core of the business.That’s one of the reasons why I really always want to talk about business is about who they are as a business and how they operate, not just where do they show up in advertising and design, because there’s a lot of times where it’s not something I can help them with, but I can help them identify a lot of those speed bumps or a lot of the problems there where I’m like here is what you say, but then here is what you really say when somebody calls on the phone. A lot of that is the internal versus external. A lot of people think about themselves in a certain way and they don’t really as their customers.
Is this the way you think about us? Even going through that deep dive initially in branding project, it’s really interesting to talk to customers, in surveys format too, but in interviews format, hence from an interview format, because they’ll use completely different vocabulary. it really enrichens … it may be limiting too because those keywords may not come up at all the way that the company is describing themselves and how the customers are describing them, but frequently there’s even better words or more accurate words that come out of the customers than come out of the business itself, because the business itself usually has settled into its jargon and its ways of thinking.
The main thing I think when you take a negative image and try to transition it to a positive image is you have to show people that it’s more than a veneer. That’s the challenge I think when people focus on brands as logos as look and feel as color schemes and brand guidelines and not as the meat that’s behind that or what’s under the surface. I talked about it as an iceberg.
The logo and what’s visible is the part above the surface, but there is so much more that’s down below and that’s the potentially powerful and potentially dangerous part is what’s there. Businesses that really want to change the negative aspect have to do some pretty hard homework and introspective stuff about who they are as a business, what are they offering, what do their customers think about them, why is that?
They typically have to make bigger changes to like their products or services themselves or the way that they are servicing customers, not just how they talk about themselves through advertising and marketing materials. People are very suspicious of marketing and brand messaging and more and more so. They have to feel like there is, that they’re there. They have to feel like there is something behind it. I think one of the main things just like admitting faults, when businesses are dealing with negative aspects and wanting to rebrand, they really have to demonstrate to their past clients and to the market or their audiences or communities, they have to demonstrate that something’s changed and that the new brand and new logo isn’t just wallpaper.
- just changing a business name no? Isn’t that what Halliburton did? I was just going to look that up.
- There is a lot of people that have done that, yeah. Changing the business name, rolling out a new logo and the funny thing is …
- They’re just Band-Aids.
- The funny thing is that everybody outside the organization, even the agencies they’re working with usually know that that’s not the problem. Why if somebody standing up within that organization and outside the organization to say, this is not the issue and maybe it is and the decision makers don’t care, but it’s such a hollow promise for that to happen and it is no time before people are pulling that apart, especially if the business not only rolls out a new name and a new logo, but has like this high salute new manifesto that they’re putting out there, this new face, new marketing messaging and manifesto. People will start picking that apart like within the first 30 seconds of announcement if there’s not some evidence that there is something behind the hype.
- There you go, GS Print on Twitter. Let’s talk of something more casual here. Do you have a favorite cocktail? I know it’s a little early for that question. It’s only 4:40.
- Are you willing to pour?
- No. I wish. We’re working on it.
- The funny thing is that you ask about favorites because in general I am diametrically opposed to favorites. I don’t really have favorite anything [crosstalk 00:56:30]. I think it’s because just between this thing, this right brain, left-brain balance thing, I’ve always found like favorite artist, favorite movie, whatever is so incredibly limiting. Part of it is for me the whole world is about the context that it resides in. People ask me about my favorite restaurant in Portland and I’m like looking at them like really?There is such a great food scene here. It’s so incredible. You can eat out every night and not make it to all the new things that everybody has told me about and you want me to choose one? Give me some context. Are we talking … give me a neighborhood, give me a price range, give me a cuisine. It really is about context, but I have to say I do actually have a favorite cocktail. That’s one of the few things that I have favorites.
- Reveal your secret.
- It’s a Manhattan.
- I love a good Manhattan.
- I really love traditional cocktails with … and maybe it’s the whole Mad Men mystique and whatever, but years ago I started drinking Manhattans and now I would say … actually love Portland’s cocktail craft culture. It’s so fun to go out and find somebody’s take on a classic drink or something that I’ve just never heard of. I actually do order a lot of things that aren’t Manhattans, but given I’d rather or if I’m going to make something at home, it’s usually …
- Do you have a favorite whiskey for your Manhattan?
- Buffalo Trace is my current favorite.
- I was at a…
- And the Antica Vermouth. Have you tried the Antica Vermouth?
- No. I haven’t. I ‘ve never heard of that.
- It’s grossly expensive.
- You don’t use a lot.
- I do, but it’s not one of those things that you just buy on a whim. I can almost leave out the bitters because it’s so flavorful. I really didn’t … I just thought of Vermouth like when you see like the typical … it’s like you go to the Vermouth section and there is like two bottles and they like they are generic packaging and whatever up until just recently. I always thought of Vermouth as totally interchangeable, but this is one that’s not interchangeable.
- That’s good to know. Do you have a particular attraction to Made Men? Is it your industry or is it the style of the show?
- I think it’s the industry. I think it’s the … it’s such a rich visual. I think it’s this retro and throwback and yet like it’s a part of my history and it’s memorable. Like I can remember certain aspects of that very clearly in terms of like they’ll turn a corner in an apartment and I’m like oh my god, my aunt had that record player, whatever it is. The IBMS Selectrics which were out of the era whatever for the particular launch I bet as you’ve probably have seen a little wiggy twiggy fact checking, but all this stuff that I remember.Then there is the over-romanticizing of design and advertising, which is just hilarious. There are aspects that are very true. Of course I wasn’t there in Madison Avenue in that era to know and I know there really was this aspect of bigger budgets and four Martini lunches and sex sells and whatever.
It’s interesting to see how much of it they get right in terms of the industry and the client relationships and the madness and how much of it is glossed over. It’s a real rich visual thing. I think that’s part of what I enjoy about it the most is the costumes, the props, the set, everything is just a really rich visual. Then I got even more tweekie into Mad Men. We bought a house up in the Northwest Hills a couple years ago which is of that era. It was built in ’54.
It’s amidst a tree ranch and we have a room that we call the Mad Men den. When we walked into the house I went oh my god, this is the Mad Men den because it’s this mahogany paneled den with a fireplace that totally looks … it’s got the shelves for the booze bottle and the whole shebang. That inspired our house warming party which was a joint house warming party and my birthday was our first Mad Men party. We decided to theme it. We themed the horderves and the cocktails and the idea was people were supposed to come in costume.
I’m a sales person or marketing person anyways so of course the way I’m writing the Evite and all of that is really talking it up and giving people all these rich visual references so that they can go out in costume. A couple weeks after we sent out the Evite, people were really getting excited about this party. We dropped in to a friend’s house and she … Gail was really, really excited. She was like, “Oh, I have to show you my dress.”
We’re like your dress? What are you talking about? She’s like, “My dress, my costume for the Mad Men party.” She runs in the back room and she brings out this amazing vintage dress that she’s bought that is like totally over the top with the sequin, the border and the wrap around the collar and the big four jewel pin that keeps the thing all together.
I told Rob, I said, “Crap, we’ve got to go home and like sent out an email and tell people…” I sent out a follow up email basically said, ‘if you come in in shorts and a t-shirt or jeans, you will be turned away, because Gail and several other people had really upped up the ante of really having fun and coming into it. It’s been really fun and the costuming has been pretty amazing. The first year was just Mad Men and so people were obviously dressing more like characters from the series itself. We encourage people to think of like milkmen and all the other different people that would be very, very much imperial and a part of the era that wouldn’t necessarily just be skinny ties and suits.
Then last year we did Man Men Mambo Italiano. That was the whole ‘60s Sophia Loren big sunglasses, Vespa scooters and that kind of stuff, which was a blast and everybody came much more theatrical in their costuming. This year we’re doing Man Men Tiki. It’s going to be a retro Luau. We’re making the guys get out of something other than skinny ties and suits. They’ve got to be a little bit more creative, even if all it is, is going out and find a vintage Chilean shirt.
The fun thing has been so many people have been able to actually mine their closets and especially the women. Like I have one woman that came up for the first party and she was crying and I’m like what has happened? She said, well, you don’t understand. She’s like this fur that I’m wearing is my grandmother’s. The jewelry is my sister’s. These were all like family heirlooms or things that she couldn’t part with that she had sitting in the closet for probably the last 20 years, never wearing and all of a sudden she had this opportunity to do this. It’s really been a little fascinating journey doing these parties. Now it’s an expectation.
- The ante only goes in one direction.
- Yeah. It’s got to be an annual event. The last time what we did is we actually had part of our creative activities for the evening where it was a big … I setup my Mad Men easel and chalk pad or board with all these old newsprint sheets on it and big markers. The idea was people had to draw future Mad Men themes or write out their ideas for future Mad Men themes. Some of them we already had in mind, like the Mad Men Tiki, but some of them were completely new ideas. Now we have an archive to pull from.
- That’s great. People don’t throw enough parties like that.
- It’s true. We’re very much into entertaining. It’s not so much that everything has to be themed, but you if you create some theme or ambience around something, it is something that really pulls people in and makes for a more memorable experience in a lot of ways. I’m really glad I only have to pull this off once a year.
- It just sounds like a lot of work.
- It takes the whole year to plan.
- You should definitely checkout the … sometimes I listen to other podcasts and there’s one called By The Way. Jeff Garlin does this podcast. Episode 10, the most recent one is like a two-hour conversation with Matthew Weiner who is the creator of Mad Men. They talk about Mad Men most of the time. He talks about a lot of behind the scenes stuff. I think you’d find that really interesting.
- Yeah, definitely.
- About how he costumes and he’s definitely obsessed with the … almost more so than even the plot.
- I know. I’ve read some interviews where they’re talking about their props and the costuming and it’s just amazing the level of detail where they’re recognizing right away, oh no that pin didn’t come out until ‘69 so we can’t put it in at all….
- I can never follow the plot on those shows because of two factors. One is, I’ll get so obsessed with that, exactly what you’re describing, like looking for anachronisms or just studying the environment and the design of the set and the costuming and everything that I’ll just I’m not even paying attention to the dialogue. The other thing is that I love seeing their take on what a pitch meeting is, that I feel like that’s the only time I can actually stay focused on the plot. You’re sitting on the table and trying to talk a client into some pitch. I just find that fascinating because just seeing the way that their take on how that would transpire, the chummy guys club feeling over it.
- I think early on there really wasn’t a lot of it I understand. People knew that advertising was working, but they didn’t really know why. They didn’t understand a lot of the psychology around it and Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, why would people buy and all those kinds of things. I think there was a certain amount of that black box. Fortunately I think a lot of that survives today where there is this agency black box feel where people, they know they come in, clients come in and they know they’re involved in some information gathering.Then they go away and then they are presented with concepts through some magical distillation process and they’re supposed to choose, as opposed to more of a process that really is more involving and defining so that by the time they get to that creative product, those things may make them uncomfortable because it pushes them a little bit, but they really do see it as an extension of themselves as opposed to a creative campaign that’s being imposed from the outside that’s just really about creativity or humor or whatever.
We all know all that. I’m trying to remember now. I just saw another ad the other day where it was absolutely hilarious, but at the end of the — I’m in this field and at the end of the ad I couldn’t tell you, not just like 10 minutes recall later, but at the end of the ad I couldn’t tell you what it was for. Just like appropriateness and fit, like there is a lot of discussion right now. I don’t know if you’ve … have you seen the Kmart Ship My Pants?
- Look for that one. Google that one online. It’s actually a very, very funny commercial called Ship My Pants that was done for Kmart, but when I go online through my branding and marketing forums and everything, there is just this huge discussion as to whether not only the word play is appropriate for Kmart and audiences, but also just like whether even the positioning. Kmart can ship things to you like Amazon or somebody that’s truly proficient on providing things from a shipping standpoint. There is just like a lot of debate as to what’s the strategic advantage of this commercial.There is just a lot that happens especially in the advertising space where it gets viral. It really activates social media. It maybe pushes something in terms of a short-term push in sales, but that’s probably because they’re also couponing and doing everything else at the same time. What is it doing to build the brand? What is it building on in terms of what people know or how is it changing their mind? For me I look at that as a really funny commercial, but like you need to figure out how to tell me why to get me back into a Kmart store after 18, 20 years.
- You’ve got a lot of explaining to do.
- Why will I get on Kmart website to ship me some pants?
- Yeah. That’s crazy.
- Those are the pieces that are just … a really, really successful campaign doesn’t necessarily mean it transitions into long-term gain for the …
- I did not know that Kmart even had a website. Now I know that they do. That’s interesting. One point for Kmart. We should probably warp this up. I love talking with you. I could talk all day. I thought about two dozen other questions that I would love to ask. Maybe we’ll have you back again sometime if you will grace us with your presence.
- Like I said it could be a serial talk show.
- Excellent. Thank you, Jason.
- You’re welcome. That was fun.