How do you actually brand your own design studio? We asked Koto, Studio Kiln and Vanderbrand
Design studios often have a very stripped-back, simple identity to represent and complement their work, however, some have an identity that’s as lavish as the work they produce for clients. What’s the thinking behind this decision, and how difficult is the process of branding yourself? Whether newly founded, or in need of an update, branding your own practice can be a challenging, introspective, and fundamentally pivotal time. To understand what goes on ‘behind the logo,’ we talked to three studios at different stages of their business (and lifespan), sharing their varying ideologies and approaches to self-branding.
We are constantly finding ways to improve our brand voice.
Vanderbrand is an award-winning, full-service creative agency based in Toronto. Initially launched as ‘Vander Design,’ the studio’s name – much like its ideas-led and collaborative approach – is deeply authentic, rooted in the family name of sisters and partners Anna and Julie Vander Herberg. “Prior to our current brand identity,” Creative Director Anna Vander Herberg recalls, “Vanderbrand existed as two words, accompanied by a decorative ‘V’ letterform as an icon.” The year 2018 was a turning point for the company, however, as Vander Herberg recalls “we had outgrown our office space, and our client list was rapidly expanding.” In response to this growth, the team realised that they had changed as an agency, and they knew that they needed to adapt the way they looked.
Rebranding for the new era, Vander Herberg explains further, “every one of our team members was involved” in the process, fitting with the studio’s belief that “collaboration is key to a successful project.” As client work is Vanderbrand’s “number one” priority, however, the studio knew that this was a pivotal era and dedicated a lot of time to the rebrand, ensuring that the new identity would have longevity. “With that being said,” Vander Herberg adds, “we do believe brands can evolve over time, so we are constantly finding ways to improve our brand voice and visual language.”
Vanderbrand value strong relationships with their clients, built on a solid foundation and clear communication. “We develop strong relationships with the people we work with and consider them as collaborators first and clients second.” Therefore, when it came to branding the agency, “we wanted the work we do for our clients to sit at the forefront because we are proud of the work we produce,” Vander Herberg reveals. This led them to a sleek, lightweight sans serif that works universally across their outputs, with an abundance of negative space and monotone palette allowing their client work to take centre stage. “Our brand identity for Vanderbrand allows our clients and peers to see that we value every project that we produce equally and reinforces our design approach to creating strategic solutions.”
A great studio is much more than the ego of the founders.
Koto is a multinational branding agency who are easily recognisable by their friendly logo and ubiquitous vibrant yellow. Since their inception in 2014 – as a joint venture between James Greenfield, Jowey Roden and Caroline Matthews – the company have grown impressively and now live in London, Berlin, New York and Los Angeles.
But before they had 100 employees and had worked with Nike, Airbnb and Uber, the founders sat down to figure out what the studio should be called. Looking for a short, memorable name with “meaning and a strong story,” the group arrived at ‘Koto,’ a Japanese word that describes an emotional experience, beyond pure aesthetics. The catchy name not only met the desired criteria, but also moved away from the traditional route of using surnames. “A great studio is much more than the ego of the founders in our opinion,” CEO and Co-founder James Greenfield reveals, “so we wanted to have a brand the whole team could feel like they own.”
Since the team knew they would be talking about their studio a lot, to a lot of people, the process wasn’t something that could be rushed and deserved a lot of thought. “When you’re starting you have so many things to consider, but your name will be with you forever and your brand hopefully for a good amount of time.”
In the early days of Koto, with a team a fraction of the original size, the branding process was quite straightforward. The group brainstormed their values “in a session at the Tate Modern on the roof,” which were then later narrowed down and polished. Roden and Greenfield then worked together in the first few weeks of starting out to create their now well-known logo and brand, driven by an abundance of ideas and passion. Reflecting on Koto’s growth since its initial launch, “I am sure branding it now as a 100-person company would be much more painful,” Greenfield jokes.
For many studios, a stripped-back approach to their branding is a popular route – as clients can easily navigate and understand the studio’s ‘offerings.’ However, this may not work for every practice, with many tailoring their branding to their values, culture or the goals of their workforce.
Greenfield suggests that many studios opt for the “minimal or non-brand approach,” in the belief that they should save their creative energies for clients. “But in the foundation of Koto,” he continues, “we knew we wanted to give our own brand the attention we felt it needed.” In the identity’s development, the founders wanted a visual language that matched their values, “specifically our uncompromising positivity,” he adds.
“If you go to any design conference you’ll see a lot of black and white presentations, brands that are essentially this plus a typeface. We consciously went with yellow to stand out in this space. Even our invoices are bright yellow, which has been commented on by CFOs in the past as really being distinctive.”
It’s harder than an external project but it’s just as much fun.
For Cornwall-based creative practice Studio Kiln – founded by former DesignStudio creative Charlie Hocking – branding the studio was an unfamiliar yet exciting experience. A new venture, Hocking launched Kiln in May 2022 with the ambition to bring brands and stories to life, with multidisciplinary growth on the cards. Hocking’s approach was to treat it like a usual branding project, however, “because it’s so personal, it’s that much harder to see the work objectively,” he reveals. “From that perspective, it’s harder than an external project but it’s just as much fun.”
For Kiln, the fact they were starting out small kept the process straightforward. “There were just two of us involved in the crafting of the identity and we had something we liked fairly quickly.” Mirroring Vander Herberg’s ethos of longevity, Hocking is keeping the future in mind. As the studio evolves and matures, he plans to build the studio’s brand comprehensively, beyond the visual identity, “but for the time being,” he adds, “we like where we’ve started.”
As a new studio, Hocking knew that their identity needed to make a statement, whilst clearly communicating the studio’s intention, opting for quirky but classy sans serif typography and a host of vibrant colours. Looking back at the initial launch, “we didn’t have any work to show,” he notes, so the visual identity had to do an “enormous amount” of heavy lifting. When translating the practice’s goals into the identity, much like Koto, Studio Kiln felt that a unique direction and colour palette could play a vital role in standing out in an extremely competitive field, in comparison to studios that opt for a “more neutral approach” to give the work centre stage. “This approach ended up feeling louder and more at home sitting alongside our other projects,” Hocking reveals.
Confident in where they ended up, Hocking feels that there was an “assuredness” about the logo and colour palette that set a clear standard for what is to come. “It’s solid but has these lovely playful, unexpected twists. We’d like those same ideas to exist across our wider portfolio.”
When working on a project as important as branding your own practice, it’s clear there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach, and can be as personal or collaborative as needs be.
As a growing studio relocates to bigger headquarters, the branding can evolve organically alongside it. Conversely, an agency looking to pursue a new direction may need a shift in style. For a young studio, boldness and individuality may come first. For an established large-scale team, maybe presenting high-profile work is the priority.
There are many factors to consider here, such as the age, scale, and experience of the company. For us, a winning identity reflects the company’s DNA in a clear, authentic way. It represents the workforce; it tells the story; and above all, isn’t afraid of change.
This article was written for and is part of TYPEONE Issue Five. As guest editor of the magazine, we curated 136 pages of articles that delve into the connections between branding and typography that haven’t been explored before.