September 10, 2021No Comments

Refresh. Revive. Revitalize.

Investing in cultural infrastructure is often overlooked during a recession, even though studies prove the arts help spark economic recovery. Creativity stimulates the local workforce, supports the development of tourism, and bolsters civic engagement. This year, we're tapping into the critical connection between the arts and the economy for the Cultural Alliance of Western CT's Annual Fundraiser. Our campaign was designed not only to intrigue the viewer, but to educate our audience about the unknown benefits of the arts in our communities. The idea is to encourage sponsorship and donations, for sure, but also create interest and drive awareness of the event.

“Refresh. Revive. Revitalize: How the Arts Spark Economic Activity,” will be streamed from 9 to 10:30 a.m. on Friday, Oct. 8. Local leaders in government, education and business have been invited to discuss how art helps the economy. Ridgefield First Selectman Rudy Marconi, a longtime advocate of the arts as an engine of the economy, will lead the round-table discussion.

“Our elected officials have been so important in the conversation about the importance of art and how it can benefit a community in tangible ways,” said Lisa Scails, executive director of the Cultural Alliance. “The presentation will show real examples of projects in our local towns that have worked to bring in visitors, attract patrons to businesses, and to make our communities more livable.”

Marconi will be joined by Bethel First Selectman Matt Knickerbocker, New Milford Mayor Pete Bass, Sherman First Selectman Don Lowe, Western Connecticut State University Provost Missy Alexander and Neviana Zhgaba of Aquila’s Nest Vineyards in Newtown. They will discuss successful art projects and plans for the future to bring art into our cities and towns to help communities recover from economic shocks and better equip them to withstand future crises.

“We see examples across the region of art projects that have injected life into a section of town,” Marconi said. “If we can agree to build on our successes and promote art as a way of attracting more business to this part of the state, we will be much stronger in coming years.” The event will include an auction and opportunities to donate to the Cultural Alliance, a 501(c)3 service organization serving 10 towns in the Greater Danbury area. For more information, visit cawct.org.

August 26, 2021No Comments

Think Small Again

The timeless “Think Small” Volkswagen ad, created in 1959 by Doyle Dane Bernbach, is embedded in most of our minds as the quintessential example of, ironically, the “Big Idea.” You know the one — the tiny silhouette of the VW Beetle, grounded by shadow but floating asymmetrically in a sea of negative space. The famous two-letter headline sits a mile below in Futura Heavy. The design works on multiple levels because it challenges perceived norms: both America’s propensity for gas-guzzling vehicles, and the reader’s graphic preconception of how a glossy print advertisement should look and act.

For those of us who went to school for Design, the ad was ubiquitous, being featured in both Megg’s History of Graphic Design (Page 353), and Hollis’ Graphic Design: A Concise History (Page 113). Held on such a pedestal, it’s no wonder so many of us have spent our  careers crying, “Simplify!”

Understandably, the concept of going smaller was big in 2020. Smaller productions, smaller budgets, and, for many companies, smaller staff. For large agencies, reduction was somewhat expected, even if not immediate. In spite of that, 2021 has been an important year for small, independent agencies and studios, like ours, and — knock on wood —it appears that the number of opportunities will remain quite large.

Its been over 60 years since the VW ad first ran, but there has never been a better time for marketers, brand managers, and business leaders to once again consider the benefits of thinking small. This is not a call to simplify, or to rally ideas around the “Single-Minded Thought.” Instead, with so many innovative design opportunities tabled in the age of uncertainty, businesses can march ahead with an eye on the future of big ideas: the Small Agency.

No doubt, the Small Agency possesses a number of characteristics not only suitable, but preferable, for today’s competitive environment: cost, productivity, creativity, and, among the most important traits, agility.

Free from the constraints of multiple levels of hierarchy, the small studio acts nimbly. That doesn’t mean careful attention and consideration is brushed aside for creativity — quite the opposite, in fact. Team members at a small studio are themselves invested in the success of the business. While bureaucracy is successful at delegation, personal investment results in a roll-up-your-sleeves and get-it-done mentality. The ability to consider, learn, and adapt quickly provides clients with a direct advantage. 

Externally, the marketplace shifts faster then ever before. Insights, opinions, and behaviors don’t just evolve; they trend, then rapidly change. Companies that adapt to these changes the quickest oftentimes reap the rewards, gaining the important advantage of being first-to-marketing, or obtaining the coveted early-adopters. Small, dedicated teams can be assembled quickly, ideas can flow, prototypes can be built, and changes can be made on the fly. Design Thinking, the Design Sprint, and the Lean Startup are all processes that work better with small, passionate teams that ignore groupthink.

Bonus: the teams at small agencies are built to be customer-oriented — an environmental by-product of problem-solving and collaboration. The empathic approach to design always considers the intended audience first. Likewise, creatives are able to partner with their clients’ and evolve in real time.

Another important benefit of working with a small agency, though often taboo, is cost. We all learned in 2020 that expensive overhead is unnecessary. Really smart, creative work can get done in just about any atmosphere — big, small, or remote. Small agencies don’t have big offices, and in many cases have moved to a completely remote model. That’s immediate savings that can be passed on to the client.

In addition, it’s likely that everybody at a small studio is involved in the projects their assigned from start to finish. That means clients don’t pay for staff that isn’t dedicated to their business. Side benefit: fewer managers means less red tape to cut through. Red tape has many negative connotations, deservedly so, but the biggest culprit is simple: it slows business down.

Furthermore, project-based work saves literally thousands of dollars compared to yearly retainer-based work. There are supplemental benefits to consider as well. Namely, project-based work keeps both the client and the studio invested in the task at hand. Authentic partnership almost always results in more unique, original, and meaningful work. When a certain level of trust is built in the relationship, a retainer can be outlined that is mutually beneficial.

By far, the most important factor to consider when choosing any creative agency is the quality of work. Exceptionally creative marketing communications that results in a return greater than the investment is the goal, every time. Which is why working with the most creative thinkers and designers is important.

It’s no secret that the smartest, most innovative thinkers — of which there are plenty — are always brought in to pitch new business at big agencies. It makes perfect sense to assemble a team that’s going to impress a potential new client. The reality is, once a business has been acquired, the team with the great ideas is almost never assigned to that client. When you hire a Small Agency, the people you hire are the people you work with. Their reputations are tied to the quality, craftsmanship, and professionalism they deliver – along with the success of their business. While a Small Agency won’t always have the ability to pitch work on speculation, any small business owner worth their salt is willing take the time talk about how they can contribute to help solve your design, marketing, and advertising challenges. It’s that partnership that always leads to smarter, more creative work anyway.

Undoubtedly, there is a place for creative agencies  both large and small. For those who still question the Return on Investment for good design, consider the alternative cost of bad design. Look around, most things aren’t designed. Communication materials gets over-looked. Directions can be confusing or misleading. Brand and Product launches fail more often than not. But there is certainly no lack of talent — Incredibly smart people, many of whom we consider to be our friends, contribute to innovative creative solutions for their clients every day. Some work alone as freelancers, and other oversee teams of 50 or more. With the challenges that are present today, we think the opportunity is exceptionally big at the moment, for the small agency.

August 21, 2021No Comments

A Delicious Taste of Branding

We like to think of branding as big, ripe avocado – an analogy we borrowed from Brian Dougherty’s book on “Green Graphic Design” (Allworth Press, 2008). Dougherty relates the three layers of an avocado to important roles of the modern designer; 1. Manipulator of stuff, 2. Message maker, and 3. An agent of change. It’s a fantastic read — highly recommended — but we also think the avocado is a ripe analogy for branding as well. Here’s why:

Brand
The outer layer acts similar to our definition of what a brand is – the perception of a company. In “Zag,” Mary Neumeier defines brand as “a person’s gut feeling about a product, service, or company.” In other words, a brand is what people think about you. People make judgments based on a number of brand characteristics: the quality of the product, the effectiveness or creativity of advertising efforts, and the quality of customer service. But a brand is also built on what other people say – in magazine articles, online reviews, or what colleagues are gossiping about at work. Literally everything that people see, hear, or say about a person, organization, company, or business reflects and builds upon our perception of a brand. The single best word in the English language to describe it is “Reputation.” 

“Branding” is the effort to influence this perception. You can’t control what your neighbor’s mom might say, but you can do your best to make consistent and authentic impressions. While the outer layer of an avocado is thick and bumpy, we know it’s delicious and tastes wonderful on toast.

Identity
The set of visual and verbal elements that make up a brand is referred to as its “Identity.” This is the meat of our avocado, where strategy takes hold and brand identity designers offer most of their services. Here, the idea is to influence the public’s perception of brands by creating appropriate and consistent brand elements.

The features that make up people’s identity also make a brand’s – how you look, act, and engage with others. In business, this is often referred to as “Corporate Identity,” or an “Identity System.” In America, the practice goes back to the early days of Paul Rand’s work for IBM and other technology and pharmaceutical companies. But Corporate Identity systems can be traced back even further in the Netherlands  where, in the 1920’s designers like Piet Zwart formed longstanding relationships with companies like the Dutch Post, Telegraph, and Telephone service, or the PTT. What made these partnerships notable was the consistent design across a number of materials: letterhead, brochures, envelopes, business cards, packaging, and industrial signage. A certain “style” was obtained by working with one designer or a small team. Today, that system is also made up of many more elements, like color, fonts and icons, as well as digital touch points, like websites, apps, social media, email blasts, and video.

The brand style guide is the corporate document that keeps track of all the elements of the brand identity system. It ensures that everybody tasked with bringing the brand to life in the marketplace maintains a consistent visual and verbal tone of voice.

Logo
A logo is a graphic mark or symbol used to promote and identify a company. The word is short for “logotype,” which was one word cast as a single piece of type in hot metal typesetting. The definition has been expanded to include both type and figurative design, which often comes in the form of an icon, like the Nike “Swoosh.” If it includes text of the name it represents — for example, “Nike” seen without the swoosh — it’s known as a wordmark. A company’s logo is today often synonymous with its trademark or brand.

The logo is arguably the most memorable part of a brand identity. Out of all the elements that makeup an ID system, it is usually the most consistent, just like the seed at the center of our avocado. However, that doesn’t mean a logo can accomplish everything that helps define a brand. At first, the Nike Swoosh symbolized nothing but a fledgling new sneaker company. Over time, though, depending on how the brand identity works and, more importantly, how the company engages with its audience, the logo can come to symbolize what the brand actually stands for. The logo then acts as a quick reminder, emblematic of everything the audience has learned in the past and comes to expect from the brand in the future.

Time to Refresh?
For companies in a competitive market, or in an industry where products and services are generally the same quality, a brand’s identity becomes even more important. It helps to differentiate one product from another. But there are other situations that call for a brand identity overhaul as well. Perhaps a new audience or opportunity has been discovered, or a company’s internal mission has changed. New competition in the market can also be a good reason to evolve or shift parts of an identity system, either visually, verbally, or both. Often, it just so happens that the current brand identity doesn’t work – it isn’t connecting with the audience, or it just looks and feels outdated. That's a perfect time to slice up a big, ripe avocado.

July 21, 2021No Comments

State of the Agency

On April 14th, we officially put the “Open for Business” sign on our front door — metaphorically speaking, of course, since our announcement came by way of Instagram and LinkedIn. We didn’t actually have an office door to hang the sign. Then again, we didn’t have a single client either. Or a project to our credit. So basically, nothing.

In our announcement letter, I mentioned we'd keep our followers informed about the trials of starting a new business. We try to keep good on that promise with our creative posts on Instagram and Facebook. Hopefully, this article will provide a little more depth to the story. I can’t tell you how other design agencies start, though there are plenty of great books on the subject, which I would happily recommend. This is just how we launched, and how it's been going over the past 3 months.

Business Plan
Do you need one? Not really, unless you need to secure funding or a loan. It seemed like the professional thing to do, however, so we took the time to write our thoughts on paper. It’s about 25 pages, acts as a general description of the business, outlines what we think is our point of difference is in the market, and sets up a few basic creative and financial goals for the first year. If anything, we thought it would be interesting to review in a few months and see how far off we were. 

Funny thing is, taking the time to put your plan on paper really forces you to set realistic expectations. While we didn’t execute the marketing plan exactly as proposed, we're tracking ahead of schedule on several fronts, including new business. This will help us make better projections for future growth, and allow us to shift some of our spending to other important business needs.

New Business
At first, we went a bit "old school." We sent out a mailer to 200 prospective clients. It was hardly a creative execution — a simple letter in a #10 envelope that announced our opening and listed a few services. 75 of those mailers included a customized letter, where we researched accomplishments of the recipient, and addressed them personally. The remaining received a more generic letter, simply because we couldn’t find any specific information. We sent them to office addresses, though we knew most people would be working from home because of the pandemic, and just crossed our fingers. 

We then followed up a week later with either a phone call or an email. Generously, I’d say the response rate was about 20%, which isn’t bad considering the total cost for everything was around $500. (The biggest expense in this case was a new laser printer.) One recipient even sent a response back by mail, which was interesting. In total, the mailer resulted in 5 offers for proposals. And, we secured our first client who has since returned for multiple projects! Even more importantly, since we targeted the people and businesses we wanted to work with, the types of projects we've been awarded since have provided very meaningful opportunities. Which is why we started the business to begin with.

Clubs/Organizations
Having spent the past 7 years at an Ad Agency, one of the first things we wanted to do as an orginazation was become more involved with the design community. However, the pandemic really put many of those clubs on hold, and most events in early 2021 were still being held virtually. That didn’t appeal to us, and so we are holding off membership until 2022. We figured we’d have more to contribute next year as well.

On a whim, we joined our local Chamber of Commerce, and that decision paid off almost immediately. We were introduced to a new business owner in town that needed a logo and a website, which has been one of our favorite clients and projects to-date. (On the other hand, this specific project was also put on hold for months. This taught us the importance of continuously working on a new business pipeline.)

Workshops/Speeches
We gave a presentation at the local library on the Power of Branding, and invited all of the members from the Chamber of Commerce. The idea was mostly goodwill — to provide businesses with an introduction and basic understanding of how branding works. Obviously, we also wanted to get face time with local business owners. 2 people showed up. I suppose that shouldn’t have been a big surprise, given that most people were still uncomfortable getting out in public. But, 8 people did attend virtually, and one of them reached out afterwards to potentially collaborate in the future. While we were initially disappointed with the turnout, we learned a valuable lesson with regards to networking: you just never know what connections will work out. We're already making plans for our next workshop.

Team
While I’m still acting as creative director, art director, designer, bookkeeper, and receptionist, there have been several projects where we’ve had to bring in experts for different services. We’ve partnered with an account professional to help make media buying decisions, as well as a social media expert to consult and recommend executions in that channel. We’ve also brought in partners to help develop proposals, brainstorm conceptual territories, and freelance designers to help execute tactics when the workload has been too busy for one person to handle. There's no doubt we'll need to partner with a front-end developer in the near future. We just delivered several new business proposals that could potentially necessitate full-time hires as well. A big business decision, for sure, and one we won't be making without a lot of deliberate thought and planning, including a trip to the accountant's office.

Office Space
This is a topic of real debate, especially since many agencies were going remote even before the pandemic. As of now, we’re keeping our eyes open. We’ve made several appointments with Real Estate agents to look at studio space. Until we make a decision, our home office is officially a shared workspace, complete with a kids’ Ikea kitchenette.

Summary
Did we launch the right way? That’s a rhetoricall question, of course, because we’re not exactly sure what the right way is. All we know is our way. And so far, it seems to be working. The economy is picking up, and we see no reason why our business can’t grow exponentially over the next year. As always, we’ll continue to look for that next big project to walk through our metaphorical doorway.

July 14, 2021No Comments

What would de Harak do?

Pure. Simple. Rational. Those are the words often used to describe de Harak’s work, but the trained eye knows that achieving any of those qualities doesn’t come easy. It’s almost frustrating, the amount of work – the practice, the iteration, the reservation – that it takes to distill a communications challenge down to the core of the problem, and then create something that seems almost effortless, as if there were no other possible solution. De Harak and his team did it time and time again.

To ask, “what de Harak would do?” is to ask, “are we solving for the right problem?” And That’s what makes “simple” so “difficult.” Richard Poulin, who worked alongside de Harak for almost a decade, has captured many of those timeless solutions in the new monograph, “Rational Simplicity: Rudolph de Harak, Graphic Designer.” It’s currently being crowd-funded at https://vol.co/product/rudolph-de-harak/

June 22, 2021No Comments

Meeting Uncle Matt

I first met Matt in the Fall of 2020 and, like so many introductions during the pandemic, ours was virtual. It was an interview of sorts — he was looking for a designer to build his new bakery's website — though it didn’t feel like one. We talked about our families, life in our small town of Sandy Hook, fishing, and football. Small talk, really. Though he had worked as a pastry chef at renowned locations like the Russian Tea Room and the Essex House Hotel in New York City, he didn’t find it necessary to talk about those experiences. To most people around here, he’s just Uncle Matt. 

Like me, and millions of others, Matt acknowledged that he had lost his job as a result of the economic downturn caused by Covid-19. But, he didn’t immediately start to look for another job. Instead, he looked at the situation as an opportunity to collect his thoughts, get his personal and professional bearings in order, so to speak, and to finally follow intuition: his lifelong goal was to open a bakery and cafe. I let him know that I had started my own business for many of the same reasons. Our meeting might have seemed like chance, but it was actually situational circumstance. 

We kept in touch over the ensuing months, occasionally checking-in to see how business was going. It turns out, opening a bakery takes a lot more planning that starting a design agency. Whereas I only needed a computer, and perhaps a little courage, Matt would need equipment and permits. And tables. And chairs. And supplies. And ingredients. And, of course, a physical bakery.

Along the way, I kept Matt informed of my own trials and tribulations, like projects I had been working on and pitching new business. We’d chat on the phone, text, and meet on Zoom, of course. He’d run his menu by me and ask my opinion about things I frankly hadn’t put much thought into – like what I thought was a fair price for a croissant. We grew to trust one another, and a friendship was forged before business ever started. 

Though our homes are separated by a few short miles, the only way we saw one another was through our respective monitor screens. It would be months before we occupied the same physical space. We developed a website together, and built his brand from the ground up, entirely online. I suppose that’s not uncommon these days, but I still find it interesting – given that we’re essentially neighbors. For almost a year, I’d only seen his face framed by the thick border of my Mac. I couldn’t even tell you how tall he was. 

Meeting Uncle Matt at his bakery for the first time didn’t come unnatural, even from 6 feet apart. It was just like getting together with an old friend. (The casual nature of a fist bump is less formal than a handshake.) He showed me around the kitchen and explained his vision for the customer experience. We talked a bit about family, about the next project and, the most exciting thing of all, his Grand Opening: Saturday June 26th. It’s a moment he’s been thinking about for a year – or a lifetime, depending on how you look at it. 

I’m glad to have been a small part of Matt’s journey to opening Uncle Matt’s Bakery and Cafe. I’m sure there were ups and downs along the way, but I couldn't tell. He handled everything like his demeanor — calm, collected, and cool. I think that’s how most of his guests will get to know him, and I’m excited that so many others in town can finally get a chance to meet, Uncle Matt.

June 9, 2021No Comments

The Power of Brand

On Tuesday, June 8th, Map gave an introduction the importance of branding in the 21st Century entitled, The Power of Brand. The event was hosted at the Booth Library in Newtown, CT, in partnership with the Newtown Chamber of Commerce. In his speech, John Rudolph, Principal and Creative Director at Map Agency, spoke about the benefits of design thinking in developing a unique brand strategy, provided a few examples of brands that are harnessing the Power of Brand today, and presented the shortfalls of traditional advertising. Most listeners joined via Zoom, but it was really exciting to see a few attendedants in person! For questions, comments, or inquiries about future speaking engagements, please reach out to John at john@map-agency.com.

May 14, 2021No Comments

Oh Baby! A New Brand for Origin Finance

We are so excited to announce the launch of a new Brand Identity System for Origin Finance, fertility experts on a mission to help make parenthood financially attainable for more families. Origin provides information and financing options for parents looking to grow their family through IVF and surrogacy. They needed a brand that was going to reach their audience, and communicate in an inviting, yet informative, manner that was unique in market.

Together, we created a comprehensive style guide, complete with a new logo, custom iconography, color pallet, and photographic direction. Those elements were implemented across a number of materials, including a new website with automated email communication. We're proud, and humbled, to work alongside such an intelligent and passionate group. From the ground up, they developed new programs and loan options that make it easy for all types of families to find success in their journey to parenthood.

"Map was an outstanding contributor to building our company’s logo, brand, and website. They were easy to work with, responsive, and open to our feedback. John quickly grasped the vision for our company and took us from start to finish on time (which is rare in the development world) and went the extra mile to help us set up additional features and answer all our questions. Highly recommended!" Angela Rastegar, CEO, Origin Finance

April 14, 2021No Comments

My Next Best Agency

I learned practically everything I know about design at my favorite agency in Connecticut, Taylor Design. It was the job I didn’t get coming out of Syracuse University — which made it all the more attractive — and especially rewarding when they hired me two years later.

I spent the next 7 years as a design sponge, soaking up every drop of inspiration from an extremely talented group of creatives. Even then, I was interested in every aspect of creative problem-solving, including the business. When I bluntly asked Dan, the owner, how to run a design studio, he responded with the best advice imaginable. “Keep your eyes open,” he said.

And so I did.

After that, I took an opportunity as an art director at an advertising agency in Westport, Catapult Marketing. This is where I learned about advertising and promotion. The CEO was extremely smart and passionate, and surrounded us with the most brilliant minds in the business. The CCO, Dave Fiore, was a visionary who knew how to challenge the status quo, and squeeze every ounce of creativity from every office. Together, they built a culture of innovative thinking that was both challenging and exhilarating. As is often the case with success, the agency became a hot commodity and, needless to say, it’s not the same company anymore. For a while, though, I’m convinced it was the best advertising agency in Connecticut. How fortunate am I, to have worked at two great companies, and to have learned from two great mentors? What could possibly be next?

To be sure, I was never interested in moving to my next favorite agency. Or the next best.

Looking beyond 2020, it seemed as if remote working would certainly expand the number of opportunities for creatives. A number of great agencies remain in the area as well. But I’ve always been particular and deliberate about the brand of creative problem-solving I get to call my career. And, as practical as I can be, intuition has always informed by best decisions. After two great companies, plenty of planning and internal debate, instinct led me to believe that 2021 would present the greatest opportunity yet.

That’s why I started my own Agency, Map.

As we begin to roll out, I look forward to sharing more about us, our brand of creative and, for those interested, the trials of starting a business in the middle of a pandemic. Our mission is grand: utilize design to make the world a better place. However, the way we intend to do that is modest: retain and build upon the qualities that made my favorite agencies such fantastic places to work. That's the simple plan to hopefully make my next agency, the best.

April 3, 2021No Comments

Always Give Credit

A fun exercise  to try when you’ve run out of design solutions: set Futura Heavy Oblique knockout on bright red – maybe Pantone Red 032. Then take said layout and share it with a colleague, casually asking, “Does this design resemble anything you recognize?”

Design students are fairly educated today, but there was a time when some of us spent our nights in studio, cutting letters, and an occasional finger, with X-Acto blades. The result being, Art History 101 didn’t serve as well as a source for design inspiration as it served a practical time for sleep. In response to Futura Heavy Oblique resembling anything, very few could answer with the correct response, which is, “oh yeah, that looks just like a piece by the Barbara Kruger. Your layout is a complete knockoff of the artist who referenced advertising and leveraged design to make bold, graphic statements about feminism, struggle, and power in the 80’s. Didn’t you go to art school?” That’s the response you should be looking for, of course. 

Instead, you might get a response like, “it kind of looks like that ‘Obey’ guy, what’s his name?” To which, its actually appropriate to lose your mind. Calmly explain, oh, you mean Shepard Fairey? I love his reference to 1920’s Russian Constructivist movement, though I tend to view his work more from a purely illustrative standpoint than with any deeper design motivation. The Russians really had a great handle on typography, didn’t they? By the way, did you notice that knockout type on the bold red background? Maybe don’t be quite so snooty.

Perhaps bring the conversation full circle with brief explanation of post-modernism and use of Appropriation in art. It’s okay to copy, even steal, from artists. But know who you are stealing from, so that you can reference them in conversation. At the very least, always acknowledge Barbara Kruger if you are going to set Future Heavy Oblique knockout on a bar of red. Having launched a sophisticated discussion and debate about design and history, consider the exercise a success.