Craig Parsons on how "a little old school decorum" helps PARSONS' client relationships flourish
PARSONS is a design studio in the heart of Cape Town that creates identities, campaigns, packaging and more for businesses from all over the world. We had a chat with Co-founder and Chief Creative Officer Craig Parsons to hear more about the studio’s recent work, design ethos and how they’re coping with working from home during the lockdown.
EM Hey Craig. Can you tell us about your team and the work you guys do together?
CP My wife Kim and I founded Parsons in 2010 and two years ago we relocated our family to Cape Town. Today we have an experienced team of seven, who come together each day as present, passionate creatives with a deep appreciation for the strategic thinking that informs our visual point of view. Our clients range from a host of start-ups located in LA, New York, London and South Africa to some established family-run businesses.
Our most loyal and long-standing relationship is Topline, they’ve been with us for 10 years and we continue to break into new territory with them across a wider portfolio of brands each year – over 30+ years of their good business journey has led them to the household name they are today. We love how they allow us to push the boundaries of creativity in what is globally a pretty staid market as far as brand experience goes. Belgotex has also given us a solid case study to reflect upon over the past four years, starting with an intimate journey with them to rediscover the brand’s DNA after some 30-years as Africa’s leading carpet manufacturer. In these unprecedented times, they are a brand who have stood by their people, putting them at the front of their agenda and continuing to supporting them with salaries despite the cease of production at the factory. They truly live by their founding value ‘Better Together’, a statement we wrote almost four years ago, but one that now echoes true to all of us.
It is critical that we keep looking forward, as far into the future as possible.
EM What has been the key factors in maintaining those long-term relationships?
CP First and foremost we want to produce results – we want to better their brands and create distance from their competitors. These results vary, and for many, it comes in the form of a conversation shift. When the conversation outside the world of a company changes, it shifts the brand narrative into an increasingly meaningful dialogue between two fully engaged parties; the brand and its audience. Secondly, we also need to keep reimagining where the brand ‘could’ be. It is critical that we keep looking forward, as far into the future as possible. We often have to challenge our clients on this point, it’s easy to keep getting stuck in the now. Finally, we never get too comfortable with our clients no matter how close we are – regardless of the length or depth of the relationship, we have entered into a partnership where they make the transaction with us and we want them to trust that we will always take their business as seriously as we did on day one. We believe that respect and professionalism in this sense are what has built up our strong relationships… a little old school decorum goes a long way, especially in a more conservative society like South Africa.
EM How have you found working remotely during this isolation period?
CP We have always encouraged a self-governing studio system, so the transition to remote working was really seamless and without a loss to productivity. We make a point of hiring great communicators and this is really put to the test at this time. When you’re a small team, everyone is accountable and needs to bring their best each day. Not because there is nowhere to hide, but because we genuinely love what we do and we’re proud of the work we put out there. That said, Kim and I have found the work-from-home-parent-hustle to be a new dynamic that we have to navigate with care. Our kids don’t really get what’s going on, so we’re documenting this time under our roof to give them a window to history one day and they can draw a real connection to how isolation impacted their daily life.
EM Are you itching to get back into the studio?
CP This one is easy. Yes!! Haha – it has been three weeks of a very strict lockdown in SA. We can’t go to the gym, or the ocean or even walk around your neighbourhood and we have at least another three weeks to go. We really respect our President for the swift and decisive action he has taken. That said, working at home means I don’t get to feel the energy of the good people we work with – no matter how connected we are, this human energy is difficult to match over any organisational platform or video call.
EM How would you describe your design ethos?
CP Our design ethos has always been about taking complicated problems and solving them in a simple way. We’ve built up a dynamic process over time that gives us the structure we need to unlock opportunities and collaborate with our clients on their brand strategy. We listen carefully and we distil these ideas, interviews, site visits, opinions down to a single sentence and once that foundation is set, we design. We have to intimately understand the culture of a business before we can solve anything with design. We also can’t build a bridge until we have a destination, so it’s really important the Brand DNA and vision are clear at the onset of any design project. We can only achieve results when the design we create reflects a brand’s culture and positioning in an authentic, relatable and distinctive way.
We have to intimately understand the culture of a business before we can solve anything with design.
EM On PARSONS’ Instagram, your work for Design Joburg is described as “an identity that would include, not simply speak to, aesthetes”. Are you able to expand on that point?
CP We didn’t want to create an identity that spoke ‘at’ the creators, makers and contributors to the show. We wanted their pieces to be integrated directly into the identity, front and centre, as the show is their platform to launch and connect with the design community or prospective buyers – the identity had to be shared with them. Our solution was to create the graphic parenthesis as a little piece of territory (much like their space at the show) to place their unique pieces into.
The deep-etched and treated product images also gave us a solution for the photographic language of the show. We didn’t want to show another decor setting on a billboard, when we had an opportunity to create totems of products that hero the very talented people who invest in contributing to the show – this also embodied the spirit of collaboration through design.
EM PARSONS’ own visual identity can be very expressive and layered in places, which doesn’t follow the ‘unbranded’ model chosen by a lot of studios. It would be interesting to hear your perspective on that?
CP Simply put, our process is layered and our approach to design solutions is unique to the way in which we partner with brands. Our visual identity is a reflection of that dynamic relation. It’s an expression of our ability to adapt to new people, the intuition we bring to every relationship and a more human approach. Our process isn’t a rigid one – it flexes and shifts inside the strategic guardrails we work within. That said, we use a single typeface across the full identity and in this way we show restraint and our drive to find clarity through the process.
EM Can you highlight a major challenge you’ve faced since starting the studio?
CP We founded our studio ten years ago, and for many years we battled to find likeminded individuals to work with. The world has really opened up to us over the past few years and it has allowed us to build a better team and better relationships. You’re only as good as the quality and standard of the people you surround yourself with, if you can’t find a way to speak the same language, it’s never going to work. Now we are fortunate to receive phenomenal portfolios from all over the world on a weekly basis and we work with really great clients across the world.
Today we face our most epic challenge of all time and we will forever refer to our time as pre-COVID-19 or post-coronavirus. This pandemic has asked us all to dig deep, but it has also given us a true perspective on life, forcing us to take a hard look behind the curtain of the society we live in. The way we navigate this period is going to determine how we survive the next five, ten years. We believe we will come out the other end of this with a deeper appreciation for what it means to be a business operating in the creative space, where we are free to move without borders, where design can reshape the way we share and experience the world around us. It’s a privilege, and I am grateful to have it.
EM What is the graphic design culture like in Cape Town?
CP We live in a city of incredibly talented creatives. From designers, illustrators and makers through to stylists and film production – the pool is deep and colourful. Cape Town is an inspiring place for creatives because it’s one of the most beautiful places in our country. The landscape is majestic at an epic level and one can really experience the seasons at the tip of Africa. There is something to be said about transitioning from summer months into winter time – it’s sensual and it refocuses you in a natural way. We love how we can connect with like-minded people here and we really enjoy our contact with the many hyper-skilled humans who we collaborate with when the right project calls. One of these humans is our preferred stylist, Anna Verloren van Themaat, who we have worked with for nine years. We conceive the majority of props seen in our photographic sets, opting to build unique pieces that make the images we create a little more special. Anna is as obsessed with the finer detail as much as we are and her heart is her work. There is a healthy abundance of craftsmen and women in this city who produce the most incredible things – it never ceases to blow our minds.
EM Are you able to give us an insight into what you’ll be working on over the next few months?
CP We are working with some really fresh businesses over the coming months ranging from an exciting podcast, to launch soon in the coming months, a fast-casual dining brand and an identity for a hairstylist booking app, these are all based in the US. Then from the US to Africa, where we will be working on developing a brand in the eMobility space launching in West Africa, a tech brand that focuses on home delivery, and a men’s hair loss range.