The art of reinvention

Repainting studio walls might freshen things up, but sometimes a bigger overhaul is needed. Whether it’s a change of creative focus, a new company name or a different approach to sourcing projects, rethinking your image can inject new life into your design practice.

For graphic designer Gemma Germains and colleagues Doug Kerr, Joe Bramall and Matt Saint, this meant leaving Liverpool-based agency Mercy to start Well Made in December 2012, while Mercy continued as an arts and literature collective. “We were offering design, copywriting and illustration, acting as agents for illustrators and doing PR,” says Germains. “You can’t tell clients you’re good at everything. This was about focusing on what we really liked doing and how we wanted to be seen.”

Mercy’s identity was long established – but no longer served the right purpose. “We covered Liverpool with hundreds of posters before it was judged for European Capital of Culture. Projects like that meant we were seen as crazy, creative upstarts who did off-the-wall things,” she explains. “We wanted to be seen as designers.”

Starting a new company was the most effective way to create a new brand image. “We thought about keeping the name, or making Mercy take a new name, but renaming and rebranding has given us a fresh start,” adds Germains.

It doesn’t always take such bold action to rethink your image, however. Sometimes a more subtle approach is what’s needed, as was the case for Domani Studios in New York, which has moved away from digital production work for agencies in favour of more direct client relationships. “Our repositioning has been more of an internal update to our methodology than anything that might be instantly apparent on the outside,” says co-founder and executive creative director Jonathan Hills. “We wanted to focus on client partners where we could form a long-term bond. We had an office in Chicago and we were spread a little thin, taking on every opportunity that came our way. We felt we weren’t always building relationships we could nurture.”

Hills decided to close the Chicago office, but the biggest step was turning down work that didn’t align with Domani’s new direction. “With some of our work, we had to fight just as hard to get the second project as we did in winning the first,” he explains. “We needed to move away from those relationships, even if the project was really exciting. We don’t have a new business team, so relationships matter much more than individual projects.”

What’s really important, says Hills, is to be open to taking chances. “Often the things that bog a business down and hold it back are the things it’s most familiar with. Letting go can be very hard but, if you get to a point where you’re really clear on what needs to change, you can look at these risks as opportunities.”

Designer and illustrator Eric Frommelt certainly took a risk when he went from working as an art director at a New York advertising agency to freelancing in Los Angeles. “It was a leap of faith on my part,” he says. “I’d been in New York for 15 years, working as a web designer and then in digital advertising, and I realised it wasn’t what I really wanted to do.”

It wasn’t a hasty move, though. To test the waters, Frommelt rented a studio five blocks from his Brooklyn home, spending time there after work and at weekends. “I was making images and videos, working on all kinds of projects, just to see what I wanted to do,” he recalls.

Renting his own studio cemented his wish to take control of his time and career: he quit his job in April 2012, moved to LA in June and threw himself into freelancing. “I had visited and loved LA, and I thought the move would force me to focus on turning what I was doing into a real career,” says Frommelt. “It was a leap of faith on my part. I moved, started sending out promos, and made an effort to get my work out there and share it with people.”

Clear direction

It can be tempting to make changes as soon as possible, but careful strategy and research are vital first steps. Like Frommelt, the Well Made team did a lot of groundwork to ensure their new studio had clear direction from the start: “We spent nine months planning and putting it together,” recalls Germains. “It really galvanised the four of us. I spent a huge amount of time looking at where our money was coming from. I thought arts and culture provided a lot of our cash flow, but lifestyle had taken its place and luxury retail had become a big thing for us.”

“Strategise at the beginning and you’ll have a clear vision of how you want to position your brand,” agrees London-based graphic designer and illustrator Tim Smith, who is senior designer at multidisciplinary interactive design consultancy AllofUs and freelances under the moniker My Poor Brain. He recently relaunched his website, overhauling the structure of his freelance portfolio and introducing a new web platform. “I did a lot of strategy before I began the design process,” he says. “By the time you’ve done the strategy, you’ll have written yourself a brief.”

Smith distilled his services into two core focuses: graphic design and illustration. “My old portfolio was varied to the point where it was confusing,” he says. “Rather than having a showcase of my work and a contact page with a few links, I set out to create a My Poor Brain hub that integrates those networks.”

He also focused heavily on user experience, working with digital developer Ed Symington to develop the site – adding clear design credits to reflect this. “I didn’t want people to assume this was an off-the-shelf site,” he explains. “It’s a bespoke build for WordPress, designed according to how I wanted to reposition myself.”

It’s a prime example of how a distinctive brand image can serve freelancers as well as studios. “It’s so important to see yourself as a brand when you’re doing it on your own,” says Frommelt. “The better you communicate that, the more likely it is that you’ll get clients, they’ll respect you and you’ll get more work.”

Smith used a carefully planned PR campaign to promote his new site. He sent a press release to relevant contacts, entered competitions, sent personalised emails and created a newsletter. “I had a two-pronged email attack plan: I wrote individual emails to people I knew and sent out a newsletter using MailChimp – I’d been collecting addresses over the previous six months.”

Speaking out

Evolving from an existing business presented Well Made with some unexpected obstacles when it came to creating a communications strategy. People on the existing mailing list had signed up to receive emails from Mercy, so the studio had to start from scratch with its newsletter. Fortunately, relaunching the same Twitter feed with a new name and avatar, after letting followers know what was happening, proved more straightforward.

Launching a blog also helped to give the new studio a voice. “Originally, I was just going to write for clients on topics like project management and how to brief,” says Germains. “Then we wrote the first couple of blogs about being terrified of launching a new agency and wondering if anyone would care, and the feedback was great. It’s made us feel like designers, and we’ve been talking to other designers about running studios – the brilliant bits and the crap bits.”

Fellow designers can provide useful input during the process of rethinking your image. Smith asked creative friends to critique his plans, and received useful feedback from Dribbble and the Designers Talk forum. “Dribbble is a place to post work in progress, rather than a showcase site like Behance,” he explains. “It was really useful for feedback and testing. When you’re deep into a project, it can really help to seek outside opinions on your designs.”

Just don’t let others make or break your plans: “We mentioned our idea to a few people and all of them said: don’t do it,” laughs Germains. “And we completely ignored them. It’s clearly worked in our favour, as we have lots of good, high-profile work about to hit the portfolio.” Nor should you hang around waiting for the right time to present itself, as Frommelt advises. “I knew it was totally within my control to make this happen,” he says. “In hindsight, I should have done it much earlier.”

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