Director of Brand at fuseproject –Kristine Arth tells us about the importance of intimacy and transparency in a studio environment and to be brave! She elaborates on how it’s an incredible experience to define the emotional connection people have with a new company, and in a two week period she designed 16 new brand identities!
When did you fall in love with design and how did you get started?
Growing up I didn’t even know that graphic design was a practice. Going to school, I wanted to be like Edith Heath, one of the world’s most famous ceramists. I was intrigued by the physicality of the process and the amazing creations that could come out of subtle gestures. It wasn’t until one day when I walked past the computer lab and saw people working in Illustrator that I discovered graphic design. The speed at which I could iterate on concepts and ideas was so much faster than ceramics, it was mind blowing! I changed my major that week and quite literally slept in the computer lab until I got my first iMac.
In a way, entering the world of graphic design with a passion for creating physical materials completely transformed my outlook on the industry. I have an empathy for industrial design, and a deeper understanding of how my work will live with a physical product. It seems obvious now that working together across disciplines is fundamental to great design thinking; it allows designers the opportunity to expand their knowledge and grow their perspective.
What does a typical working day include for you right now? I don’t think a typical day exists for me. The first thing I usually do, before I even get out of bed, is thumb through Instagram or Pinterest to get inspired and catch up on what’s happening in design. I ride my bike to work, which really helps give me some solo time and space to think through ideas and talk to myself or sing – getting myself centered for the day (and to make sure I come into the office in a good mood). Throughout the day I essentially jump back and forth between meetings and work blocks, the time where I get to put my headphones on and really concentrate on design. This week in particular, my focus has been working with an industrial designer on packaging for a global brand, assessing new structural options and innovations together with the strategy team. I also have to balance this with managing my team, ensuring everyone is both challenged and supported in developing their work. Somewhere in there I eat lunch, and drink somewhere around 4-5 cups of coffee.
Give us the elevator pitch on what you do. I’m the Director of Brand at fuseproject. That means I’m a designer, art director, tap dancer, wrangler of cats, idea maker, laugher and joker. What I like to bring to the table is a positive outlook on how we can make whatever we are working on better, stronger, more interesting, but also simplified to its core. Though I manage a team of six multi-disciplinary designers, I am still hands-on and designing on a daily basis. I wear a lot of hats, but I think most people do these days. Some days I play strategist and think through brand framework, foundational attributes, mission, vision and values. Other days I am working on iterations for a new logo, sketching, talking, and debating concepts. So, I suppose in a way, I’m a design collaborator. I create brands from scratch and refresh heritage brands. But, I don’t do this alone, I work with an incredible team and we take into account every aspect of the brand experience: emotional, physical and social.
I’m fortunate enough to work in an environment, where there are no walls, literally an open space, where people from different disciplines contribute ideas just as fluidly as finishing each other’s sandwiches. To some this process sounds exciting, and to others this notion of sharing ideas, eliminating boundaries and allowing space for other people’s opinions can be scary. For me, walking into this type of environment forces a level of intimacy and transparency that I wasn’t sure that I wanted – but now it’s a design process I could never walk away from.
What has been your highlights since you started out? Redesigning the global brand for PayPal has definitely been one of my most exciting published projects. As a designer, it’s not often that you get to take a global brand, founded by Elon Musk, and make it new again. I can’t take all the credit though, I worked with an incredible team at fuseproject and we created some amazing concepts that really pushed the brand into their best future. On the other hand, I’ve been fortunate enough to work with many startups. For me, this is gratifying in a different way because we’re starting with just an idea – the name, identity and character are built from scratch based on this singular idea. It’s an incredible experience to define the emotional connection people have with a new company, especially some of the amazing entrepreneurs I’ve worked with on projects like Ori Systems, 500 Capp Street Foundation, and Wes Burger, to name few.
But probably one of the single most rewarding experiences for me has been to work on the SPRING Accelerator program – getting to work with entrepreneurs based in East Africa whose businesses directly impact the lives of adolescent girls living in poverty. For two weeks, we lived and worked with selected entrepreneurs in Nairobi, Kenya, and I got to learn all about their businesses and how they are making an impact. And, in two weeks, I designed 16 new brand identities. It was exhausting, exhilarating, and to this day, I feel so blessed anytime I see the successes these businesses are having, and the difference they are making in their communities. I believe this is the most profound gift you can have as a designer – to see your work making a difference in the world in some capacity.
What has been some of the biggest lessons you’ve learnt along the way?
Every project brings a new set of ideas, challenges, learnings and results. Some things continue to remain true, though, no matter what the project, client or working scenario. Here are a few of my key learnings:
1. Communicate. Get out of your seat and go talk to the people you work with. Face-to-face is always best. I know this sounds obvious, but it’s an incredible tool. Truly connecting with people and learning about what makes each other tick can make all the difference on a project.
2. Collaborate. This doesn’t mean design by committee, but rather, collaboration and transparency help to avoid the disparity in experiences. Indulge each other and listen to each other’s perspectives – being heard can be more important than being in control.
3. Be brave! Brave enough to critique and to be critiqued at any stage of your career. Designers are a lot like doctors (or so I tell my parents to put them at ease). We stitch together graphics based on our knowledge and experience, based on the references we have and what we were taught in school, but every client is different, every project is different…just like every body is different. And new tools and methods emerge everyday. Therefore, we live in a constant state of learning and flux. Even if you’re a tried and true veteran of design, you can still make mistakes and be wrong. So, be brave. Listen to each other and take it with a grain of salt.
4. Work with empathy, not sympathy (big difference). Truly try to understand how the people around you are feeling and their perspectives. This doesn’t mean taking pity on their situation, but to see where they are coming from and what they are trying to achieve. Learn about them as a person, their background, what they bring to the table, not just as the role they play in the process. You never know the strengths and hidden talents the people around you hold! Empathetic design ultimately leads to better work, and stronger relationships.
Where do you think design is heading in the next five years and how will you adapt?
I predict that in 5-10 years, the idea of working in silos will be obsolete. We will work in smaller, more efficient groups of specialties that will represent the three corners of holistic design: branding, product, and experience. Approaching design from a group perspective at the beginning of the process will avoid the disparity in experiences that we see today. In fact, I think we will see global brands taking bigger risks and reorganizing the way they staff projects to close the gap and unify the brand and product experience. The more we can foster collaboration, in any setting, and rebuild our human roots of direct interpersonal communication, the better our results will be for anything we do. And the happier we will become in the process!