Manual is a design and branding studio based in San Francisco. Check out our conversation with their Founder and Creative Director Tom Crabtree below.
What did you set out to achieve when founding Manual in 2009?
There was no masterplan when I started Manual. I left a job at Apple with no business plan, no clients or contacts, and my first kid on the way. I just knew I wanted to start a small brand design studio in San Francisco. Compared to London, where there’s a lot of competition due to a saturation of small creative design studios, I felt that there wasn’t the same culture in SF. I saw an opportunity to bring my mixed experience in identity design and a somewhat European design sensibility to San Francisco’s varied sectors such as technology, food and drink, and culture.
At the end of the day I wanted a studio where we can enjoy working with like-minded clients to make beautiful things. Quite simple really.
How has the studio evolved since you started?
Manual started 7 years ago with me, one rented desk in a friend’s studio, one iMac, and working with a handful of local clients. After my first year or so in business my wife Patricia joined me as my partner to run the business side of Manual. Our intention has always been to keep the studio quite small with an eclectic range of clients from companies both large and small.
While the studio has grown organically over the years we've been in business, we work really hard to maintain a tight-knit team, and relentlessly take on only projects that play to our own interests — products we’d want, services we’d use, places we’d visit.
In terms of our process, while we are perfectionists and are always seeking to push things creatively, working for clients like Google has encouraged us to be more nimble and collaborative, and less precious about the way we work. It’s quite different to my days of working for studios in London.
Working at Apple was a valuable experience as a designer. It required a lot of patience and attention to detail. I spent almost a year working on the iPhone packaging and photo art direction. At the time I remember feeling impatient to see the results, but in hindsight it taught me to be patient and push every little detail as far as it could go to reach a level of design perfection that was almost absurd. This is something I’ve carried through to Manual — never being satisfied with ‘good enough’.
Working in-house for a brand also set me up for working with other ambitious technology clients in the Bay Area. I gained some invaluable experience collaborating with product managers, writers, industrial designers, and photographers to help launch a product. It helped me see things from the client’s perspective and understand what it takes to craft a story and launch a product.
The YBCA branding is extremely flexible and vibrant in its colour palette when compared to the muted tones of a lot of other art institutions. Why so?
The YBCA is a very progressive arts organisation with a unique mix of programming and social activities. From theatre, dance and visual arts, to social action, civic engagement, and community outreach, their outlook is vibrant and egalitarian.
Our goal of the rebrand was to clarify their position as a leading-edge arts organisation — active, vital, and energetic. With only two in-house graphic designers creating all materials for the organisation, it was crucial to develop a visual system and graphic toolset that was flexible, easy to work with, and could respond to the varied imagery and content that they have to work with. So we left the colour palette totally wide open in a move to encourage boldness and vibrancy.
Which company would you love to rebrand, and why?
SpaceX. Their brand identity and overall design language looks dated and seems squarely aimed at teenage boys. I would like to shift the notion that space travel should adopt a visual language that was defined in sci-fi movies from the 70s & 80s, and move it toward something simpler, more contemporary, more human.
And who doesn’t want to design a logo that floats about in space?
In your project description for your branding of Wove, you mention that the logo is designed for digital media. How does that differ from designing for print?
Designing a brand mark for predominantly digital use does not need to differ from a printed application per se, but it does offer the opportunity to use motion and variation in form which can lead to interesting outcomes. For Wove — a product brand aimed initially at digital artists and developers, with a unique user interface that could be customised to a high degree — we were interested in letting this influence the approach to the logo and identity.
The flexible Wove Band uses e-ink, which only shows 16 shades of grey. We let this notion of ‘shades’ inform our decision to treat the logotype with different character weights. The idea of a ‘flexible identity’ also seemed apt for a flexible hardware product with a customisable ‘canvas’. Through digital variable printing and use of animation and gifs, there is never one ‘master logo’.
The Wove product brand no longer exists due to some ongoing business challenges at the parent company — an unfortunate reality in the fast moving world of consumer technology.
What inspired the typographic choice for the Fort Point Beer Co. logotype?
We were inspired by the (awkward) typography found on the side of cable cars in San Francisco. We wanted to embed a small reference to the city not just in the illustration but in the typography itself. It is loosely based on GT Walsheim — the lead typeface for Fort Point Beer Co. — but incorporating the quirkiness of the angular ‘engravers’ style. It’s a little odd and has some unusual weight relationships within the type which is quite intentional.
Who inspires you, outside of the world of graphic design?
There are no singular figureheads in terms of inspiration. I am inspired by a wide range of music, photography, art, and industrial design.
What is the design culture like in San Francisco?
It’s increasingly vibrant. When I first moved to SF 10 years ago it felt a little non-existent on the surface. Maybe that’s partly due to the fact I was at Apple, but there wasn’t a very strong design community, other than the local AIGA chapter and few events throughout the year to bring designers together. It certainly didn't feel like London with lots of small design events and arts openings.
Now, SF Design Week is gaining strength year-on-year, and there seem to be more and more creative agencies popping up (and migrating from UK and Europe).
I’ve noticed that in this city the industry feels a bit split down the middle. What I mean by that is that so many designers (both designers established in their careers and graduates) are going to work in-house at the likes of Airbnb, Pinterest, Uber, Facebook, Google and Apple. So you have some of these students and graduates who are stuck in this funny position — their portfolios are full of books, posters, and print-based identities (many still aspire to be Sagmeister), but the reality and temptation is that many opportunities exist in the tech industry. I’ve spoken to many young designers who are unsure of how to navigate this environment.
You also have an event like SF Design Week, and so many of the events tailored to product design for tech (UX and UI design). It does indeed become apparent that SF is a tech bubble city. It’s one of the reasons Manual decided to curate a modernist graphic design poster exhibition as part of 2016 Design Week. We wanted to maintain some sense of ‘traditional graphic design’ in the city. And share our own poster obsession with our local community.
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