DNCO’s Patrick Eley on the studio’s celebratory rebrand, and the employee-driven process behind it
dn&co, the creative studio for place and culture, is now DNCO. Since 2006, the studio have worked with governments, corporations, cultural leaders and some of the world’s leading architects and developers to create meaningful destinations. Within that time, alongside many successful and notable projects, the creative practice itself has undergone several changes, including the move in 2019 to become an employee-owned company. Following the launch of the new name, alongside a shiny new identity, we caught up with Creative Director Patrick Eley to learn more about the business’ changes, ambitions and visions for the future.
PT Hello Patrick, how are you?
PE Doing great thanks – you guys all well I hope?
PT We’re all good, thank you! Following the roll-out of the new name and look, what is the energy like in the studio?
PE A combination of exhilaration and exhaustion. Designing your own studio identity must rank among the most uncomfortable jobs in the business and the opportunity for navel-gazing is at an all-time high. We’re glad the hard part is out of the way. We knew though, from years of conversations (and occasional confusion) around our name, that our brand would benefit from a wholesale review of the kind that never normally happens in the day-to-day running of a studio. After all, time spent working for yourself means time not spent working for others and that’s a tough call economically. But it was a great opportunity to involve the team that uses the identity on a daily basis and create a real sense of ownership – something that fits perfectly with our employee-owned credentials.
PT We last caught up with you in 2016, after your 10th anniversary – a lot has changed! What do you think has stayed the same?
PE It has! We’re well over double the size we were then; bursting at the seams of our Bermondsey studio. But the focus on place and culture hasn’t changed – we’re still as obsessed as ever. More so perhaps, after the events of the past couple of years. It’s clear that places have a value beyond bricks and mortar – they’re engrained deep in our psyche, and it’s never been more important than to think about what they mean and how we can make them better for everyone. We have a long-standing desire to challenge clone monoculture and placelessness; we’re a team on a mission to shape brands for the world we need next.
PT Was there a single catalyst behind the decision to rebrand? Or was this something building over time?
PE I think that the decision to rebrand has been building over time. DNCO is 16 years old now and it’s a very different business than when we began. Founded by Ben Dale and Joy Nazzari – the ‘d’ and ‘n’ of the original dn&co, the company was always about more than just the two directors – hence the &co. But we’re now a company of 40 and the work we do is bigger in scope and ambition than it ever was, our focus has grown far beyond the borders of our own city and indeed country and we’ve become employee-owned. It was perhaps this which tipped the balance. Employee ownership means that everyone has a stake in the business; everyone has a say in its future. There are some financial benefits like tax credits and profit shares, but above all, we wanted to protect our creative culture for the long term, and employee ownership means that we’re all responsible for creating and maintaining it. Our shared ethos is what makes us unique and provides the platform where we can produce great work, so it’s worth nurturing.
It’s easy to get caught up in circular thinking.
PT How long was the process from start to finish?
PE Top to bottom, we’ve spent about four months so far, but it’s a project that’s been brewing for some time and will inevitably continue for some time to come. It’s incredible how many places you unearth your own logo – from the obvious internal templates and social avatars to the sneakier areas like the login screens of administrative software and front door bell stickers. I’m sure we’ll keep finding things we have to change for weeks yet. But we’re a creative studio and always evolving and I can’t see us rigidly adopting the same style forever without people bringing their own individual twist to the brand as we go.
PT Branding your own practice can definitely be challenging. What did you learn from this rebrand that you would tell other studios going through their own changes?
PE We treated this project in the same way that we run client projects – with an assigned team of strategists, copywriters and designers, all led by a client manager. They carried out stakeholder interviews and workshops and followed a rigorous timeline with milestone meetings where the team even presented to the studio referring to everyone as ‘you’ rather than ‘we.’ A subtle distinction, if sometimes a tricky mask to maintain, but it helped everyone distinguish who had responsibility for creating the work and who was actually signing it off. The Slack channel for the project is even called dnco_client_team to help reinforce our roles.
Creating a brand for a studio like ours means that you’re talking to two or three different audiences and there are always competing voices vying for attention. You’re talking to your clients, your peers and of course, you’re also talking to yourselves. It’s that last echo chamber that can be the most disorientating though. It’s easy to get caught up in circular thinking and self-referential in-jokes that no one else is going to understand. The work you create needs to be given room to breathe, and the identity surrounding it has to be opinionated enough that people can get a sense of what you stand for and the attitude you have. Much more than that though and you risk your brand overshadowing the work you’re producing.
I think we’ve managed to create a simple, elegant design fit for the next few years at least. On the one hand, it’s quite a recessive identity, allowing the work we do for others to shine out, but on the other, it’s got an increased confidence and attitude, with the development of a stronger, more playful visual language we never had before. Looking back on presentations from the past few years, and even further back than that it’s interesting to see how our tone of voice has become more confident, yet visually richer at the same time.
We’re still in the depths of re-designing our website – another uncomfortable project – and when that launches this autumn there’ll be a more comprehensive view of how DNCO looks and sounds as a brand.
PT The new name and identity reflect “bigger ambitions and deeper changes in the business,” can you tell us a bit more about what this means for the future of DNCO?
PE We want to go further than we have in the past. As projects get bigger, they get longer and more complex, so we need people that do things differently. We love hiring people with different mindsets to our own; it brings a diversity of thinking that’s critical to preventing monotony; in how we work and what we create. But we’re three businesses in one – DNCO has two sister companies: our publishing arm Place Press and our digital twin Showhere – all of which are doing more than ever. And we’re expanding our wayfinding team and looking at opening a studio in the US. There‘s never a dull moment.
We love hiring people with different mindsets to our own.
PT As a 100% employee-owned company, how has this affected the day-to-day running of the studio versus being founder-owned?
PE There’s a difference between employee-owned and employee-managed. We still have a Leadership Team who are responsible for steering the company and a Management Team who head up the different teams within the studio (Client Services, Strategy, Design, Digital and Wayfinding). But now the studio itself also sits at the table; everything we do gets filtered through the lens of the people that own DNCO. Day-to-day, it often feels like nothing has changed, but then you look again and realise that everything has changed. It’s longer-term that the real effects of being EO will truly be felt as our business model is so much more sustainable. We can remain independent without the fear that an external buyout could gut the studio and destroy what we’ve built. There’s a chance for continuity (maybe even immortality) long after the founders and the crusty old-timers like myself have left and been forgotten.
PT Going forward, are there any projects on the horizon we should keep an eye out for?
PE We’re working on a couple of super interesting projects abroad; one in San Francisco and the other in Toronto. There’s an incredible hotel in Athens that will launch soon, and a really exciting cultural project in Scotland which we’ve been really proud to work on. We can’t wait to show them to the world.