Creative Process Study 11

06.14.2010 / Project: Million Monarchs

Design Kompany

Four major shifts happened during this identity design projects: our clients’ dynamics, their name, the scope of their business goals, and us.

A father-and-son team based in Bend, Ore., approached us for a brand identity design. Through the branding process, Sean Patrick and his father, Dennis Patrick, got to explore what made them really excited, and also, where and how they excel. Along the way, we were inspired to drop their original name, which was Western Renewables Alliance. Dennis, a longtime electrical contractor, said: “There’s always a way to do it. You just have to be innovative.”

And so the startup once known as Western Renewables Alliance augmented their ideas about what they could offer the world. The minute they did that, they started to embody the persona of brand now known as Million Monarchs.

Internet as Receptionist & Office

Design Kompany changed, too. Or more specifically, our process. Akira and I never would have imagined working virtually with anyone. That’s because we know just how important the words we don’t say are as the ones that we do. For past branding projects, we flew to LA to meet insurance advisors Ajay and Garima Gupta and to Charlotte to see firsthand the works of glass artist Mark Selleck.

We’d just relocated from Seattle to Durham, NC, and the Northwest suddenly seemed far. Million Monarchs wasn’t going to be able to fly us out, so we had to get creative. Branding a renewable energy company? That was just too exciting.

So for our first interview, I suggested Skype. “It’s a free video conferencing software, and a little more engaging than a phone call,” I said. “If we can’t meet in person, it’s the next best thing.”

DK’s Akira Morita (left) explains that Pantone colors don’t always print consistently. Also pictured: DK’s Dipika Kohli (center) and Million Monarchs’ Sean Patrick (screen).

Talking through a screen with family was fine. But using Skype for work? That seemed weird. I know people all over the world do it, but this was new for us. Dennis was a little reticent at first, but by the end of the interview he’d moved into the picture.

What I learned from this is how you can capture so much nonverbal subtlety in real-time video chats. Virtual meetings are tight and efficient, too. There’s less stress when it comes to the usual things that happen when you meet regularly: schedule changes, getting lost, and looking for parking.

That said, I did miss some things about being with our clients in a physical space. Last year, Akira and I bought a cool orange teapot from which to serve our guests a selection of rooibos, English, or green teas. Loved the teacups, too. We’d also splurged on an eight-person dining table, justifying it as a pre-Thanksgiving necessity, in part, but mostly because it was perfect for our mood board collage session. This time it was impossible to say, “Let’s get up now, walk around the table, see what’s there and what patterns emerge.”

That physical part is so vital to building rapport. I still feel that way. That’s why later this June, Akira flies to the Northwest to meet Sean as we explore Million Monarchs Phase II and beyond.

One major insight for me was to realize that the introduction to our company is now an online experience. More so today than ever. It’s almost like time is more valuable than money.

Our first office in Seattle was floored with slate and walled with glass. Fancy. I realize now that this is far less important than your shop’s very first “door,” your website. It’s becoming clear from the Milion Monarchs experience and new engagements in recent months that the video on the front page of our website is our new reception space. It is the first stage of, “Welcome.”

I like that. It’s doing its job.

Most people’s first point of contact with us is our online video, Say Hello to Design Kompany.

The Sandbox: Naming & Designing Million Monarchs

If you could encapsulate the experience designing a brand image for Million Monarchs as a Flickr image, it would rank really high for “interestingness.”

A name is a big deal. A name is your reputation. It precedes you. So when we’re talking and it comes up, “Hey, so, what do you guys think. Really. About our name. Should we change it?”—

—We said, “Yes, absolutely.”

To get to the new name, Sean brainstormed with us, and Akira and I scribbled everywhere—on napkins at a local panini shop or a scratchpad next to the stovetop while cooking (such things become intermingled when your design partner is also your spouse). We collaborated with Sean to create a shortlist, and circled one of the names.

Sean told us later his father hated it. “Million Monarchs? Sounds like a damn tea shop!”

Ouch. But that comment was honest. And imperative. A huge part of this process was creating a safe space to voice opinions like this without fear of judgement. Hard to do when you’re not meeting in person, but not impossible.

What we knew for sure was that if Sean and Dennis weren’t excited about their name, no one else would be, either. After some more conversation along these lines, the elder Mr. Patrick was convinced. He acknowledged it piques curiosity, maybe people will ask, “Wow, what do you do?” Opening the door for conversation was a definite plus.

And once the design drawings started appearing as sharp vectors, the new name won even more points. “I like the ll’s in ‘million,” Dennis said. By the time DK finalized Illustrator files and their RGB color schemes, you could see that Sean and Dennis really owned the Million Monarchs brand. It wasn’t us making something up anymore, it was them. I knew it when Sean’s video came up and he was confident, strong. “Here I am,” I thought, “Talking to Million Monarchs. This is cool.”

Here’s what Sean said after we’d delivered all the final files about working with DK:

“I’d love to say that you both are professional and talented, but working with you is comfortable – like working with close friends. This keeps ideas flowing and anxiety down; and there’s never any pressure to conform to a previous expectation that you have. Things are open and awesome.” —Sean Patrick, Million Monarchs.

Sean’s and Dennis’ natural proclivities emerged in a fascinating way. They were clearly in tune with one another’s strengths (and weaknesses), and weren’t afraid of sharing exactly what was on their mind. We saw a lot of affection, but also nervousness, as they dived headfirst into a business venture together. Slight disagreements gave way to larger counterpoints, but they stayed open. Concerns and hesitations came out as easily as stories from the time Sean was a kid. It was wonderful to see their dynamics crescendo towards real dialogue, where understanding one another laid a foundation for true cooperation.

Dennis’ family is Irish, as in the Republic of Ireland, so the Million Monarchs logo was not going to have any orange in it. Even if black-and-orange combo seemed like it made sense (the monarch’s colors), there was no way there would be orange. Orange would be very uncomfortable.

No orange. Done.

Hearing Irish humor again (we’d lived in southwest Ireland for three years) warmed our hearts, and reminded us of why we love this job so much. You get to play, like in a sandbox as wide as the beach. Akira and I began talking eagerly, “How can we better understand Sean and his father?” Okay, let’s ask for some reading suggestions. What’s that? The Handbook of Electrical Contracting. Wow, cool. Where can we get that?

We presented our first round of sketches as really rough pencil drawings. One of them was this:

Winning concept idea.

This image really stirred Dennis and Sean, and during a short break they’d printed out the .jpg we’d uploaded to the Basecamp locker and already started talking about it. I said, “Whoa, wait!,” and sent over a higher resolution version so they didn’t have to deal with the jaggedy printout. Some of the words that emerged and stuck with us in that first meeting were: iridescence, movement, and transformation. These inspired us in later stages of choosing typeface and color scheme.

Basecamp helped us keep track of files, notes, and schedules.

We look everywhere for inspiration once the concept idea is locked in.

Once the butterfly concept was clearly the leading candidate, Akira and I began to eat, sleep, and breathe butterflies. We visited the remarkable butterfly house at the Museum of Life and Science here in Durham. We studied a lot of drawings. We found other images to draw inspiration from, and built a mood board collage.

I browsed the stacks at the local library. I remembered that Vladimir Nabokov spent a lot of time chasing butterflies. In a volume of poems called Nabokov’s Butterflies were these words from “Lines Written in Oregon:”

Esmeralda! Now we rest
Here, in the bewitched and blest
Mountain forests of the West

Cornfields have befouled the prairies
But these canyons laugh! And there is
Still the forest with its fairies.

The photocopy image is a 1967 pen and ink drawing by Jeffries Mackey. We looked for images that suggested motion for design inspiration.

Question everything. Accept nothing as true at face value. Consider every angle. These are some of our credos, and how we hope to inspire our clients.

Here are some early sketches that eventually spawned our brand message: “The brand new game has begun.” (The name change happened halfway through design development, so most of our first sketches are of the original name, Western Renewables Alliance.)

It’s exciting because we’ve gotten to know Sean and Dennis well along this journey of brand identity design. It’s natural, when you share so much about who you are at your core, and what’s important, and why that should matter to anyone else.

Akira and I created this process for ourselves when we were trying to reinvent who DK wanted to be, back in 2006. Every time it looks like we’re floating without a compass, we’ll take a step back, a deep breath, and remind ourselves: “Trust the process.”

Even if it’s virtual, this process is pretty cool.

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6 comments, please join in the discussion

  1. Speider

    I LOVE Skype for international communications and client meetings! Nothing better.

    I’ve been interviewed for podcasts via Skype and my cat usually ends up stealing the scene.

    Nice article! Best of luck to you.

    • 06.16.2010

      Thanks for the note! I know what you mean about show-stealers. Sometimes our son decides to make a guest appearance 🙂

  2. Russel

    Nice to see that a personal approach doesn’t have to diminish the professional persona. Lovely work. Great article.

  3. 06.20.2010

    Interesting insights on the usage of Skype (pros and cons), as I too am still on the fence as to whether or not solid relationships can be properly cultivated this way. I agree it’s all about the process, but more (might I add) keeping the process ‘in check’ (so-to-speak), much like every stream needs a banking – otherwise it runs the risk of overflowing.

  4. Bikram Rai

    Great execution, the final design says it all. There’s so much in this article – skype, client handling, teamwork, fun & play and the process of coming out with the winning result. The logo is truly beautiful. Keep going guys and keep coming with many more beautiful designs in the future. One, simple question – how did you manage ORANGE in the final output? when it was a big NO.

  5. 10.05.2010

    @Russel Thanks for the comment. These days I think the only way to get authentic about it IS to get personal! Otherwise stuff looks very off-the-shelf.

    @Graeme Interesting. Curious to know more about what keeping the process “in-check” means to you?

    @Bikram Rai You know, as soon as we took the black out the orange looked a whole lot less orange-y. Strong associations come with certain color combinations, that was the lesson here. Soften it up, and voila: tangerine!