"Our approach to design is very craft-oriented." One of America's greatest identity designers speaks with Garrick Webster
Having worked with some of the world's biggest brands, it's hard to imagine that Joe Duffy started off as a fine art student who wanted nothing to do with applied art. However, needs must, and with a young family to support he used his art skills to become a technical illustrator. After founding his own illustration studio, he set up in graphic design. Today, he has a fantastic global reputation for helping companies shape their brands.
Computer Arts: How did your background in illustration influence your approach to graphic design?
Joe Duffy: I've always loved to draw and paint. The way we approach our design at Duffy is very craft-oriented, where more often than not we do our own illustration and incorporate it into our design. So it's a very hands-on kind of design.
CA: Making an image is very hands-on, but how hands-on are you now that you are head of a design company?
JD: Well, I'm a creative director now and the only way for me to be involved in all of the various projects that we work on at any given time is for me to oversee the actual design work being done, as opposed to sitting down at the computer and doing it myself. I still sketch out ideas. I'll still take something another designer has done and say, 'Maybe if you do this...' and I'll draw it, rather than what they typically do, which is both the design and the illustration on the computer.
CA: How important is drawing in today's design world?
JD: It's really, really critical that the people we hire are able to render their ideas, to literally draw them before they jump onto a computer. I think artistic skill is absolutely essential to do the best possible design, and to do it in a collaborative way where you can share your ideas initially with a little sketch, and then refine it, and then go on to the computer and work through it. I think there are too many designers out there who don't have the real artistic skills that I think are necessary in order to do the best possible design.
CA: You've worked with huge brands like McDonalds, BMW and Starbucks. How do you manage to influence the look and feel of such companies where there are so many stakeholders in the brand image?
JD: Perseverance is the number one quality you have to retain when working with large clients. Typically there are layers of approval. When you're changing a brand or creating a brand, you need to collaborate with the people who are immediately responsible for it on a day-to-day basis: the brand group. Then that has to go to a higher-up marketing supervisor, and then that has to go up the chain of command all the way to the CEO or president. One of the skills that is so lacking in design today is a sense of business - an understanding of business, and understanding that business requires the art of persuasion.
CA: How can young designers acquire those business skills?
JD: Learning it on your own is certainly the best possible way. You have to do that. However, a shortcut that I've always taken is to align myself with a good business person. I've always partnered with people who specialise in marketing and business, and I've learned from them and then we've formed a partnership that I think is formidable. I'm covering the creative side of the equation and they're covering the business side of the equation.
CA: How does the creative process work at Duffy & Partners?
JD: After we've done our deep dive into understanding the marketing aspects of the brand - where it's been, who it competes with and who the audience is - we take the verbal brief that the client gives us and, together with the client, we create a visual brief. It's not just a mood board: it's literally a collage of images that we think create, in effect, both a filter and almost a world in which our design directions can live. So there's colour, there are graphic elements like illustrations and photographs, and there are examples of typography. The designers working on the project and the clients are always involved in this part of the process. If the client is involved in creating the filter through which we'll make the final design decisions, then they're not surprised when they see the new design. They were participating at the outset in helping us to create a path for these new design directions.
CA: You advocate democratisation of design - what does this mean?
JD: We've reached a point in popular culture where everyone is a designer to a certain extent. People have the ability today to design their own stationery and their own logo and they can do what graphic designers do. There are a lot of designers who feel threatened by this. But for me, I think if people are gaining a better understanding of design, they're therefore gaining a greater appreciation for the people who do it at the highest level. When people appreciate and understand how it's done at the highest levels, it makes for smarter clients.
CA: A lot of people move to New York or London to pursue their creative career. Why have you stayed in Minneapolis?
JD: I started in Minneapolis because it's where I was born and raised. It's also a very creative community in fine arts as well as in applied arts and so that kept me here. I ended up, as our company grew and expanded, opening an office in New York and then London and then Singapore. At that point in time the way to develop my business was to literally be in those various locations.
These days, though, we have one office here in Minneapolis and we work for people in Europe, Asia and South America as well as all over the United States. It's primarily because of the internet and also because of the ability to fly anywhere from here - there's no longer a need to be on the ground in these various locations.
CA: Is there a Minneapolis look?
JD: If you look back to the early days when a few other designers and I were doing all the handmade work, and doing all our own illustration, we did kind of establish a look that I think other people have said became the 'Minneapolis look'. It was a kind of handcrafted and crusty aesthetic. We used old engravings and manipulated them, and we used recycled paper back before anyone else was using it, and that kind of established a Minneapolis look.
That regional look or aesthetic has pretty much gone away. It had to in our case, because we work for different companies all over the world and we have to understand their culture as opposed to imposing our culture on them.
CA: Outside of design, what are you interested in?
JD: I love to paint. I always have a painting going. And one main reason why I love where we live is that just minutes from the downtown area you can be out in the country, out in the woods, on a lake or a river somewhere, skating or swimming or hiking or mountain biking. I also love to cross-country ski, and I do it competitively.