Decade’s Grace Robinson-Leo and Rob Matthews on how they work with big brands as a small studio
Co-founded by Grace Robinson-Leo and Rob Matthews, Decade is a New-York based creative team creating identities, campaigns, packaging and more for brands of all shapes and sizes. They favour storytelling and collaboration over a studio style; an approach that has seen them work with reputable clients such as Banana Republic. Having published a slew of their projects over the last few months, we took the chance to speak to Grace and Rob about how they do it all.
EM Hi guys, how are you both?
EM When and why did you decide to start a design studio together?
D We met while doing our MFAs in Graphic Design at Yale, so working together and talking about design was always a part of our relationship from the start. We were both interested in brands in the same way, and have always had similar references – we basically just really like each other’s taste.
At school, everyone would kind of put their book references on their desks in the studio. Both of us had the Bless books designed by Manuel Raeder and old issues of Kid’s Wear. But then we also both love advertising as a reference too. Rob loves this one and Grace loves this one.
The stuff we like isn’t really around genres or styles. We think a lot about the emotional tone of things – how something visual can feel a certain way, and how the tone is communicated through what it looks like and what it sounds like. Ultimately the formal execution is where you really control the feeling. It’s all in what you end up seeing, not the internal logic behind why we did what we did. We love things that communicate ideas, and we also love something just looking right or beautiful.
Over time and with more experience at different kinds of agencies and studios, we saw the kind of work we wanted to do was something we had to make for ourselves, and decided to start Decade. We’re four years old now.
EM How did you know when it was the right time to hire your first employee?
D Our designer Will was actually our first intern, and our first full-time employee (right now, he’s also our only full-time employee). We like a small team and just hire when someone is the right fit. We like doing all the work ourselves, but we often get to collaborate with illustrators, photographers, producers, developers and of course, our clients. It’s also a pretty powerful way to explain our work to potential new clients – everything you see in our portfolio was made by the people who currently work here and will be working on your project.
Working so collaboratively means that there isn’t a lot of ego.
EM Being small in size often means everyone wears multiple hats. How do you tackle that and stay organised?
D Collaboration and live feedback are really important to how we work. We check in on progress, share files back and forth, and chat about the projects. We (Rob and Grace) sit next to each other and actually see each other’s screens all day – we can see the progress we’re making and we crit each other’s work pretty constantly.
We trust each other, and working so collaboratively means that there isn’t a lot of ego – you don’t have time to get too attached to your own route before someone else is tweaking it or you’re working on something someone else started.
It’s actually important that we all work together, in the same room – we realised this when we worked remotely during COVID. We’d work on routes separately and then do Slack check-ins, and by the time we’d check-in, everyone would be so attached to what they’d already done that the check-ins felt more high-stakes and less iterative and fun. We like being able to look over at each other’s screens and just say “that looks good” – the highest compliment in the office is when someone takes an iPhone photo of someone else’s screen when they just make something cool :)
We work as a ‘creative team’ (which is a bit more common in advertising). Both of us have backgrounds in graphic design and art direction. We both make the creative: concepts, language, art direction, and design, but Rob is a bit more dominant on the design side, and Grace is more dominant on the language side.
EM Aside from the obvious, what tools and software do you use to aid your work and process?
D Dropbox and Instagram. A shared Notes doc – we’ve tried every kind of organisational tool and ultimately a simple shared to-do list is what works best for us. Our black and white laser printer for looking at type and logos and packaging designs. A scanner and art supplies – the Carea Cream logo for Soft Services, for example, was drawn with a Sharpie originally
But actually the best tool ‘to aid our process’ is definitely the ‘Clean Turkey’ sandwich at Court Street Grocers because we all order them when we’re under a deadline :)
EM Do larger clients – Banana Republic, for example – ever need convincing that you have the bandwidth?
D No :) This is an interesting question though, as a few years ago they may have. We’re definitely noticing a bit of a general shift in larger companies being more comfortable with smaller teams like us doing heavy lifts for them. It feels like more creatives are working both brand-side and agency-side or moving back and forth, and internal teams are willing to adjust or bend their process to work with small external teams and utilise them in a flexible way. It all comes down to trust in the exchange.
Ultimately, we feel like ‘the proof is in the pudding’ – if we are delivering work we are all proud of at the schedule we committed to, we’ve never had a client question whether there were three people on the project or 10. We’re also careful in how we schedule – we know we’re not going to get it right on the first try, so we build that into the schedule.
EM Do you have a process for finding and assessing new clients?
D No real process but just some things we look for!
This sounds simple but if a client values our opinion! This isn’t the same as a client just doing what we want :) We really feel that when we work with a client, it’s our responsibility to tell them what we think. Sometimes we’re right and sometimes we’re wrong, and a good client relationship is a discussion where we both respect each other’s views and work together to do what’s best for the work, and for the brand. We generally work with our clients for at least three-six months (with many clients for longer, some several years), so we don’t take them on if we don’t think it can be a good relationship on both sides.
The other thing is if we think they genuinely have a story to tell that they aren’t telling and we think we can tell it. We always look for projects we can really get behind, whether it’s a product we actually love as consumers or a brand story that has a lot to it. And we have to think we can really add value – if the brand is already great, there’s no need to hire us! We also avoid clients that want us to make some version of a thing that already exists, even if it’s a thing we made – we don’t want to repeat our work or anyone else’s.
We think a lot about the internal team and how they can carry the identity forward.
EM Can it be challenging to know how much to charge? How do you figure it out?
D It’s definitely challenging and we don’t have all the answers yet :) It’s a balance of our time, value add, and our interest in the project.
EM If you could only show one project, what would it be?
D We can’t choose! When we started the studio our motto was ‘only portfolio projects’ – we’re proud of all the projects in one way or another.
But Banana Republic was a really exciting one for us. When we work on brand identities, we think a lot about the internal team and how they can carry the identity forward. Brands just have so many touchpoints now, and we want to find a balance where the brand can stay fresh and have variety in it so it doesn’t get formulaic, but also it’s easy to use and simple for the internal team to have fun with. With Banana, we just felt that the brand had so much equity, and the original logo was really beautiful, so we commissioned a font with Colophon based on the letterforms in the logo, and that’s really the core of the new brand identity. Then, because that underlying system became so much more unified, there was room for all these expressive one-off elements like seals, handwriting, crests, marks, illustrations, etc. – it was so fun to work on and it was a great mix of this really clean system with just pure formal making. It was always how can we make heritage modern? How can we have this heritage approach but add in joy and play and imagination, and not take ourselves too seriously? And the entire team at Banana Republic was just great to work with, and Colophon did an amazing job with the font and we’ve always wanted to collaborate with them, so it was a nice bonus to be able to work together.
EM How did the pandemic affect you guys, your work and your business?
D It was pretty brutal – within a week, every client we had put projects and invoices on pause indefinitely. We had rent to pay and two employees at the time. Luckily, our clients slowly came back, and in the meantime, we focused on Family Meal, which was a studio project to raise money for New York restaurant employees while restaurants were closed. That ended up being a pretty big project and went from a little website to a self-published cookbook (with Rob’s apartment becoming a warehouse and all of us shipping out books every day), so it kept us busy and focused while we were all working remotely and grappling with the state of the world.
EM What do you have planned for the rest of the year?
D Wrapping everything up by mid-December so we can all get drinks at Fanelli’s and close for the winter holiday!