Jacqueline Lane on Whitman Emorson’s strategy-led approach and their desire to create clever work
Whitman Emorson is a Toronto-based design studio that imbue a human touch onto every creative solution they provide. Founded by Whitney Geller and Yasemin Emory – long-time friends and creative collaborators – in New York in 2011, the studio has grown into a cohesive and thoughtful collective of designers, strategists, writers, editors and creative thinkers. Here to tell us more, Executive Creative Director Jaqueline Lane digs into the day-to-day life of the team and what makes them tick.
PT Hi Jacqueline! How are you and the team doing at the moment?
JL Hey, Hi! I’m good, really good! I just got back from a beach vacation in Mexico with my family and friends so I’m feeling relaxed and rejuvenated. It’s so nice to be barefoot and without all the winter layers, even if only for a moment.
The Whitman Emorson team is incredible, each and every single one of them! They are such a special and wildly talented group of humans. I’ve been doing this for a long time, leading a variety of teams at different studios and agencies, but there is something magical about the team here. They make going to work fun and not feel like ‘work,’ which is rare and a beautiful thing.
PT Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your role within the studio?
JL Gah! Talking about myself has never been easy for me, but I’ve found that the older I get and the more I (seemingly) have to do it, I feel a sense of accomplishment or pride in what I’ve done over the years. I grew up in Toronto, Canada, and always had a creative spirit. Through my teenage years and early twenties, I worked in skateboard shops and even had a stint as a sales rep (which came in handy for being equipped to sell work to clients) for some of the world’s top brands. I found myself most curious about the designs and graphics applied to the apparel and boards, so ended up going to school for Design at OCAD University here in Toronto. I got my first big job at Bruce Mau Design working on Laura Stein’s team with some of the world’s most recognisable brands. It was a trip, and I learned a lot about who I wanted to be as a designer. I met some of my closest friends at Bruce Mau, and it’s also where I met Whitney Geller, one of the two founding partners of Whitman Emorson and my current employer. It’s a full-circle moment for sure.
After working at Bruce Mau Design, I went on to work at a variety of agencies here in Toronto (Jackman, John St. Public Address, Loblaw Digital) where I created award-winning work with some of Canada’s top creative talent. I’ve also spent time teaching design and brand classes at Miami Ad School, as well as sitting on the jury for various award shows, which is always fun as you get to see (and award) the best work nationally.
Currently, I’m the Creative Director at Whitman Emorson as well as a member of the leadership team. I’m responsible for overseeing all creative (ideation, collaboration, process, etc.) as well as helping shape the studio, process, and culture. I’ve only been here for six months but it feels like I’m part of the family and settled into my role, which is great. There is so much opportunity here and I’m excited to dig in and produce some incredible work with our amazing team.
Being in-person and collaborating while in the same environment is key – for me.
PT What is the story behind the name Whitman Emorson?
JL I had to ask Whitney and Yasemin (founding partners of Whitman Emorson and Jems) about this one to make sure I didn’t get it wrong and here is what they had to say:
“So we named it Whitman Emorson for two reasons. One, we liked the idea that it didn’t say ‘design’ or words like ‘agency’ in it. It meant we could pivot it and turn it into a hotel brand one day if that’s what interested us! Not fixed – we liked the idea that the company was fluid and could morph! Two, it’s a hybrid of ‘Whitney and Emory’ but not totally recognizable because we never wanted it to be about us – but truly about a team. We liked the way it sounded – sort of like a law office – male pseudonym as so many of the companies were male-led back in 2011!”
PT What is your work setup like at the moment? What works best for the team?
JL Our work set-up is hybrid. We suggest (and encourage) the team to come into the studio Tuesdays and Thursdays, but it’s open for the team if they’d like to come in more often. We have such a beautiful and bright space, and a few of us are here almost every day, but I think it’s because I’m really sick of my house and working in it. I really overdid it during COVID, and then I had a baby, so I am looking for all and any opportunities to leave the house and get dressed.
In our industry I believe (and might be alone on this thinking) that being in-person and collaborating while in the same environment is key – for me, the shorthand and path to ideas have a fluidity and a particular quality with physical human presence and interaction.
Overall I think what works best for the team is being flexible, so hybrid feels right for us at the moment.
PT What does a typical Monday morning look like?
JL Monday morning typically starts at home with coffee, lots of coffee. Did I mention I have a toddler? Ha! Then we have a status meeting with the whole Whitman Emorson team. It’s a great way to kick off the week and understand what’s on everyone's plate, but more importantly, it’s a way to connect as a team and see how everyone is doing. It’s so easy to fall into focusing on clients, projects, timing, scopes, workload etc. etc. etc. but I like taking this time to see what the team got up to over the weekend, what gallery openings they went to, movies they saw, restaurants that they tried. In a way, these small details have such an impact on the overall vibe of a studio and how people work. When you’re invested in your team as people first, I’ve found it has a positive impact on the work and overall atmosphere of the studio. Angry and disgruntled employees don’t tend to do awesome work. I’ve also found that it's oddly not common to treat a team/employees as humans and they can become ‘resources’ or ‘a number,’ which I’ve experienced first-hand, so I’m happy to be in a position where I can shift that. What a novel idea… treating people like people…
PT As a female-led and predominantly female team, what do you think other studios could learn from you?
JL You know, being predominantly female wasn’t necessarily part of the overarching ethos or plan for Whitman Emorson. I mean yea, the right people for the job just so happened to be female at the moment, but if you had looked at the team a few years ago, the mix was quite different. We hope to continue to diversify the team and are striving to have a group of individuals (regardless of gender) that have different voices and points of view. It's having these different perspectives that allow different – and often more pointed – results. I think what we can all learn is that broadening perspectives will push things forward and create space for different voices to be heard and seen. This is important now more than ever, especially in our industry… Remember when men sold tampons and pantyhose? They likely still do, but you get my point ;)
The excitement we constantly get from our community keeps us going.
PT We absolutely loved your branding for Jems! What has the reception been like for Jems since it started?
Answered by Emmi Ojansivu, the Creative Director at Jems.
EO Thank you! We are fond of it too, but we might be biased. Jems has sparked so many fruitful conversations, and the excitement we constantly get from our community keeps us going. It’s so validating hearing the impact our vision for the design of condoms has had on people; finally feeling seen, feeling comfortable, feeling confident using and buying the product. Also, the reach Jems has gotten in just two years is amazing. We’ve been picked up by so many independent retailers across North America, Whole Foods Canada and we’ll be in a major US retailer at the end of March (2023) – stay tuned!
PT What was it like working on a project whilst simultaneously being the ‘client’?
EO It’s been an interesting creative challenge. We approach everything from a design lens, so it’s sometimes hard to scale back and not try something new. But I think the variety of work we put out makes the brand unique; that we’re constantly evolving and thinking of new ways to communicate as a brand. Overall, it’s comforting and nice to have total creative control of the brand’s creative output, since we’re used to handing that control over to the client after the identity work is done.
We tend to like our beauty with a side of brains.
PT Can you walk us through the key steps of the design process for a branding project?
JL Since Whitman Emorson opened its (preverbal) doors 11 years ago, strategy has been an integral part of the process of building brands. Creating meaning in the world underpins the studio’s approach and collaborative culture and it's what drew me to Whitman Emorson in the first place. I believe you truly can’t get to meaningful and insightful visual identities without being engaged and rooted in strategic thinking and research. It's why so much of the work produced by Whitman Emorson has had such a positive response over the years. I mean, yes, the work is beautiful, but it’s also smart, which is a successful (and rare) pairing that not every studio cares about. Don’t get me wrong, design can sometimes just be visually captivating, mind-bending, gorgenesses – but we tend to like our beauty with a side of brains ;)
So with that strategy as a foundational step, we often launch into ‘Schematic Design’ where we ideate and build ideas from the strategy. We try not to be too rigid in how we bring these ideas to life or how many people collaborate on a brand, and instead, try to do what feels appropriate for each project and its deliverables. However, on average we’ll have a lead designer paired with a support designer who are responsible for anywhere from 2-4 concepts.
Once the schematic concepts are shared and the client has selected a singular approach, we dive into ‘Design Development’ where we really ‘sharpen our pencils’ and dig into how the visual identity will flex and play. Beyond that, we spend time in this phase making sure we are providing brand tools that are appropriate for each specific client and end user. Which is why once we have final approval on ‘Design Development,’ we launch into building out brand guidelines.
And finally, once we have completed the guidelines, we usually provide support in rolling out all the templates and brand assets. More often than not, we have ongoing relationships with our clients, supporting them as needed as a partner and brand steward.
PT What do you think Whitman Emorson’s strengths are as a team?
JL I think we have so many strengths; solving problems with a human touch, having empathy for our clients because we’ve had first-hand experience in launching a brand (Jems), we have a collaborative process rooted in strategy and research AND we all really f*#@ing love what we do! But something specific that stands out is that Whitman Emorson is led and founded by two incredible humans, Whitney Geller and Yasemin Emory. We all know that the vibe and overall culture of a studio or any workplace starts from the top and trickles down, and I can’t say enough how truly wonderful both Whitney and Yasemin are as leaders. They lead by setting a positive example and that being a nice human goes further than you can imagine. When you feel valued, supported and inspired, it makes doing ‘the work’ a lot easier and at times quite fun! But beyond that, they’ve set up an incredible environment with very kind and (wickedly) smart humans, so producing stellar work is almost inevitable and for sure a superpower!
PT Which project do you think best showcases these qualities?
JL FUNCTION is a project we launched at the end of last year. It showcases collaboration and partnership at their finest as well as the impact research and strategy can have on a project. FUNCTION, a platform and event organiser that aims to push the boundaries of the Canadian Ballroom scene while remaining authentic to its origins through creativity, community and culture. We knew that with this project getting the tone right and understanding the history/cultural significance of the Ballroom scene was crucial. Research and strategy were an integral part of the process and the reason the end result was truly authentic. Plus the visual identity is so cool and it’s a result of the designer really loving what he does.
PT What projects are you currently working on that you can share with us?
JL We are busy working away on a variety of visual identities ranging from renewable energy to a category-defining insurance brokerage, ongoing work for the Toronto Sympathy Orchestra and of course, lots of incredible stuff happening with Jems as they gear up for an exciting year with some incredible partnerships, product launches and collaborations.