Blok on designing a legacy for the future

Blok Design partners Vanessa Eckstein and Marta Cutler share their love of ‘the space in-between’, and why a value legacy for future generations is important.

Blok Design is in an unusual location for a design studio. It’s not in downtown Toronto, where you’ll find plenty of trendy boutiques, galleries and studios on King Street or Queen Street. Instead, it nestles in the western part of the city, somewhere north of the university district, and not too far from the up-and-coming Junction neighbourhood. And perhaps that’s fitting because, both visually and philosophically, Blok Design likes to find places that are yet to be defined.

“Conceptually, we like the space in-between,” says founder Vanessa Eckstein. “In every project there’s a point of contradiction and we like that to be a point of discussion – like the juxtaposition, that point where everything is opposing each other. Trying to understand the balance is very interesting. So we like those spaces where people are not working, or where we haven’t worked before. We like the challenge of, ‘What is this space about?’”

Drinking in design

In practice, this has so many manifestations in Blok’s output. Coffee at the studio is served in cups that are part of a crockery range that Blok designed some years back. The studio drew its own font design for a book it created for México Ciudad Futura, an environmental project in Mexico. Soon, it’ll be designing an experimental audio site for a musician it’s working with. Blok has just done the branding for a high performance road and track car, but it’s also co-publishing a range of children’s books. It’s even branded an airline.

Blok’s physical space chimes with that open mentality, too. It might be in-between neighbourhoods, down a little back road and next to the railway line, but the designers here get to work in a big, airy studio with plenty of room. Natural light streams through the windows, with leafy views. The floors are stripped wood, and reference imagery and work in progress is regularly posted on the bare brick walls.

With just six staff – including two interns – there are no fights over desk space. And near the entrance you’ll find a huge collection of inspiring books covering art and design, photography, philosophy and more. To round things off there’s a 1963 Vespa parked in the centre of the floor.

There are no partitions or closed doors at Blok, either. The designers all sit down and discuss things at a big table in the middle of the room. According to Marta Cutler, who joined as partner two-and-a-half years ago, the studio loves receiving guests.

“We’ve always got our doors open to anybody who wants to come in and talk, because it feeds our creativity,” she says. “People come in just to pick our brains on projects.

"For example, there was an interactive film project going through a production company and they just said, ‘Can we just come in and talk to you about the ideas?’ We said, ‘Sure’. It was a high-level thing, conceptually, that was really interesting.”

Creating a legacy

With a background in advertising at agencies like MacLaren McCann and DDB, Cutler was invited to join by founder Vanessa Eckstein, who set up Blok back in 1999. “I have a six-year-old daughter. I was at the point where I was starting to think, ‘Well, what’s my legacy? Where do I want to grow? We met at a coffee shop, and Vanessa put a café grande in front of me and hit me with the words ‘value legacy’. I went home and thought, ‘Oh God’.”

Cutler joining the studio concluded a period of change for Blok Design. For some years Eckstein had been running the company out of two studios – one in Mexico City and the other in Toronto. She too has children, and so decided to rethink her situation.

“I had gone through the same thing as Marta,” says Eckstein. “I love Blok as a studio, and when I opened it I always thought this was a space for collaboration, where true value and change could happen. At some point, although we’re doing really creative work, I realised there were things that I wanted to make sure of.

“I called it a ‘value legacy’. We took a sabbatical at the Mexico studio for one year, and called it a value legacy because it was about ‘what example do we leave our kids?’”

The Toronto scene

Blok still has a small office in Mexico, and several important clients there. However, Eckstein is now more focused on Toronto, and the creative community there has more than embraced Blok Design. When a blogger posted a list of the ‘23 design studios in Toronto you should know about’, Blok was omitted. A number of comments popped up, one saying, ‘Tough list to trust without Blok on it’.

Sharing this anecdote with Eckstein and Cutler, they’re both surprised and flattered. Blok hasn’t done anything to cultivate an image. It has its open door policy, and both partners contribute to the design community.

Eckstein is on the board of the Advertising & Design Club of Canada – the nation’s equivalent of the Art Director’s Club in the US. She mentors design students at George Brown College, which is just down the road from the studio, and is an advisor at the acclaimed Ontario College of Art and Design. Blok also gets involved in a range of events outside graphic design – the team recently spoke at a food industry symposium, for instance.

Respect the work

However, the reason the studio’s so well respected is mainly because of its work. With the ‘value legacy’ philosophy behind it, projects are becoming more varied and more meaningful. “I think people are a little bit envious of the projects that we do. I get that sometimes – they can’t believe that we do these types of projects,” says Cutler. “They’re not corporate projects, they’re very diverse and they’re international in scope too.”

For Eckstein, ‘envious’ might be the wrong word. “I think we keep on changing. The one thing I haven’t found in this community is envy. Having worked in other cities, it’s been very open, very embracing, very warm. That’s the one thing I can say about Toronto.

“Maybe what attracts people is that we are always shifting. You can’t really pin us in one direction, we always have projects that are really different. Like we can go from an airline, to a book, to stationery. At the moment, we’re doing this lab in Mexico, for the government. We really do it our way, not because it’s our way and there’s no other way, but because we really try to be true to what we believe in and what we’re passionate about.”

City-wide programme

The project in Mexico City she refers to is Laboratoria para la Cuidad, a citywide programme of events that is ongoing, with creative, technological and social dimensions. Blok has designed a dynamic identity for the lab, which is explored in the Project Focus.

The airline, meanwhile, was launched by Roots, one of Canada’s best-known clothing brands. Back in 2001, the company wanted to expand into air travel, much as Virgin has done, and Blok came on board to design the identity.

The work covered everything from stationery to the graphics on the aircraft. The upholstery on the seats and the travel pillows featured the same fabric that Roots uses for its sweatshirts, and Blok helped design luxury airport lounges for the airline’s passengers. The trouble was, air travel in North America dipped hugely after 9/11 and neither Roots Air nor Blok could do anything about that.

Minimalism and clarity

More recent clients include global interior designer John Tong, an Ontario wine agency called The Vine, and the Los Angeles production studio Furlined. One of Blok’s strengths is in developing identities, and this is where much of its commercial work is focused.

Flick through the studio’s portfolio, however, and you’ll be surprised how few of the identity designs are driven by logos or icons. Instead, there’s a bias towards minimalism, clarity and elegant typography. It’s not just because that’s what they like – there’s strong reasoning behind it. Cutler explains: “At the start of a new branding or identity project, when we are doing an analysis of the brand, we say, ‘So tell us where you want to be now, but also tell us where you want to be 10 years from now.’ That’s really, really, really important.

"The second you start to think in that time span it immediately forces a different kind of graphic problem solving that doesn’t rely on something that is temporary or has a transitionary quality, like an icon or symbol, which can quickly fall out of date.”

Type trend

Of course, it’s not a rule at Blok that identities need to be based on type, it’s just something they’ve gravitated towards. “Businesses have so many levels and so much depth,” adds Eckstein. “Before, it was ‘the service that we do’. But it’s not about that anymore. It really is about bringing out the values. We find that sometimes, coming into it typographically, the entire way of speaking and the entire vocabulary is a much richer way of telling the story than trying to bring it down to a symbol.

“The really great symbols are timeless. On the other hand there was a time in our lives when those symbols were literally pushed into markets – they were really pushed out there. Sometimes it’s richer and deeper to express it typographically. We also have a love of type and I think it comes naturally.”

Getting involved

When Blok tackles an identity project, it starts by doing lots of research. It also asks its client to complete a questionnaire of classic strategic questions. The aim is to get the key players in the company to align their thinking, and it covers everything from the grand aims to the tiny details.

Blok also asks for five adjectives describing the company and its brand. However, the words ‘friendly’ and ‘approachable’ are banned.

The next stage moves from written words to spoken ones, as Blok sits down with the client to brainstorm. To begin with, everyone can talk openly about the brand, but then the focus turns more towards the adjectives used to describe it and how important these are.

Lots more discoveries are made when you get people talking. It’s only after this work has been done that the visual elements can be designed. In terms of the creative, Eckstein and Cutler take a hands-on approach, alongside the designers.

“For example, on Furlined we actually went down to LA to brainstorm with them and what came out was their understanding of not just storytelling, but adding depth, meaning and value to the work that they do. This was actually quite distinct from the way other film companies approach their directors, and the work they do, and that realisation led to development of the F-comma identity,” says Cutler.

New collaborations

Sometimes, client work leads to new collaborations, and again Furlined provides a good example. Blok is working with Furlined’s Diane McArter to launch a company called Love Child. Going well beyond graphic design, it aims to solve problems and put ideas and experiences out into the world. Though only just formed, Love Child already has one project under its belt and is pitching for another one, which has an environmental focus.

Like so many of Blok’s other recent projects, it seems as though Love Child will find its own space out there and define its own parameters. “It could be for brands, it could be passion projects, but it’ll be through narrative storytelling in many different formats,” explains Eckstein. “We could end up building a playground as part of that. It truly will be a collaborative entity. We’ll pull in cultural anthropologists, writers, digital artists and contemporary artists.”

Words: Garrick Webster

This article originally appeared in Computer Arts issue 218

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