Kapono Chung on Combo’s innovation-driven model, lessons in leadership and their exciting future
Combo are an industry-leading strategy and design agency, offering full-service branding and innovation capabilities. They pride themselves on their solution-centred, emotionally resonant and market-ready approach, having worked with an impressive roster of clients; from Carnegie Mellon University to Adele. Founded by Kapono Chung, Combo have seen a bold shift in their approach, with the introduction of a new model that merges strategy and innovation. In conversation with Kapono, he revealed his own creative journey, how he launched and leads the agency, and the insights learned along the way.
PT Hello Kapono, how are you? How are things in the studio?
KC They’re great. We’ve got a lot happening right now, so we’re happily busy.
We’re fresh off a finalised merger with a strategy company. Exploring new ways of how we all work together. Just started a summer fellowship programme with Scope of Work. I just got back from parental leave with my first kid. And we’ve got more awesome stuff lined up for the summer.
It definitely feels like we’re in a new chapter at Combo. Things are really exciting at the moment.
PT Can you tell us a little bit about your creative background and what led you to start Combo?
KC I’ve always been led down the path of design even from a very young age. My father had a branding and design agency in Korea, called Sympact. His company was part of the wave that created marks for legacy companies in Korea. He branded KBS, Shinsagae, Korea Telacom etc. I knew about all the big designers at a young age, Dieter Rams, Vignelli, Terrance Conran.
I actually wanted to become a dancer and dropped all my art classes in high school for dance classes, but my parents weren’t having it. I picked my art classes back up and applied to Central Saint Martin and Pratt. I was accepted at both but Pratt allowed me to defer a year. Since then I moved around from BIG at Ogilvy, to the Brand Union, to AR New York to Mother. I’ve learned under Ali Madad at Pratt who brought me to BIG where I continued to learn under Allen Hori, Richard Bates, Chuck Rudy and Brian Collins. My mentor was Mark Aver who I met at BIG and basically got me my job at Mother where I met my current partners and was able to work under Michael Ian Kaye.
I had a vision for a more collaborative design practice. That’s why I started Combo.
The best work I’ve ever done has come from objectivity, not subjectivity.
PT How would you say the agency has evolved since you started out in 2016?
KC We went from a two-person company that worked in-house with brands as they were going through rebrands or changes to their identities. Did that at Cole Haan, Ann Taylor, then with GAP and ended up basically being employee #1 at the travel brand AWAY. Helped them stand up their brand and product and launch.
After that success, Combo’s model shifted more towards a traditional agency, still deeply embedded with our clients, but our size meant we needed to be our own thing. We focused on early-stage start-ups and fashion clients, repeating the process we did with AWAY. Working with 15-20 clients a year. Notably helping build and launch brands like Saie Beauty, Showfields and Shop by Shopify.
Today, we’re a company of 30ish people. We have larger enterprise clients and also focus, in the last few years, on civic engagement. We helped build and launch NY Forever, For Freedoms and Burdock Media.
PT Your new model merges strategy with innovation, can you tell us more about the thinking behind it?
KC Definitely. We started purely as a design shop, but now Combo is a strategy and design agency that focuses on doing branding and innovation projects. Here’s why that happened.
In all of my experience, the best work I’ve ever done has come from objectivity, not subjectivity. I wanted research, insights, and consumer needs to play a larger role in Combo’s process of branding so that the final product wasn’t my opinion, or the client’s opinion, but served the audience in the best way possible.
With that idea in mind, I sought out a partnership with a team of the best researchers and strategists I could find. And ended up working a lot with a consultancy called Verdes.
What we uncovered when we combined our projects, people and processes, was that if you apply research and a design-strategy approach to brand strategy, it results in a sort of objective creative process that gives the design so much more meaning and substance.
The Verdes crew and the Combo team all realised this was really special and unique, and that’s what led us to combine these offerings officially under the Combo name.
All companies have to look amazing these days. That’s a good thing!
PT How do you think branding is evolving and will look like in the future?
KC That’s a big question. You used the word branding, so I’m assuming you’re talking about the work we do, not what the brands of the future will be like? If so, here is potentially how things might change:
Increasingly Elevated Expectations. I proudly feel like we’ve played a small part in elevating consumer expectations when it comes to the American design standard. All companies have to look amazing these days. That’s a good thing!
Smaller Budgets. Faster Timelines. I remember the great recession and how moodboarding emerged as a faster way to work as branding budgets shrunk. Think we might be on the verge of a ‘necessity is the mother invention’ moment again.
Engagement Over Perfection. Design systems needing to work hard across more and more digital/social channels means brand systems need to prompt engagements. That is a different way of thinking about design.
Digital Collaboration the New Standard. I was always taught being in-person was absolutely necessary for creativity to thrive, but in my opinion, that’s been totally dispelled. We’re exploring how to collaborate with clients and employees in-person and digitally to create the same experience. I can’t see it going back to 2019.
Designing For More Than Millennials. This elevated American design aesthetic started for a millennial audience, but we find ourselves designing more and more for totally different age groups with different preferences and needs.
A More Competitive Industry. More freelancers are branding themselves as studios. So, we see the number of branding agencies increasing by a lot. I believe the industry will grow.
That’s where my head’s at today, but ask me next week and I will probably have completely different answers to this question.
PT What innovations are you most excited about?
KC We just wrapped a three-year project rethinking healthcare for seniors in America. Big systematic projects like this are really rewarding because we can really identify true barriers and completely understand an audience (esp. one that’s pretty much neglected by most companies.) When you really understand key barriers and drivers, the solutions present themselves.
On the other side of the coin, we do a lot of product innovation for a major beverage distributor. This work is fast-paced and super exciting. They’re bringing one of our first products to market soon (fingers crossed) and it will be really exciting to drink our own work.
Across the board, the type of innovation work that gets us most excited are the products and services that we know will make it to market. So much innovation is academic, and more for the execs within the org. What we love about graphic design and branding is that it’s made to be in the real world. It can impact so many people so quickly. We love when an innovation project is on the same track and great thinking makes its way into the real world.
PT How would you describe the culture at Combo?
KC Everyone is friendly and supportive of each other. We have a no yelling policy and we hold ourselves to a high degree of transparency with our entire staff. We’ve worked hard to create a safe environment where people can be creative and build without the fear of failure. We actually published our employee handbook for anyone to look through. I also asked one of our designers to answer this question.
“Combo promotes a creative, learning culture where you’re more than encouraged to add to the conversation no matter your experience. It’s an environment that consists of people who’ve each had their own unique paths in their journey, and bring different perspectives. With all these things combined, it creates a supportive group allowing you to grow, learn, take chances and feel comfortable in doing so.”
— Erick Sanchez, Designer at Combo
PT What type of creative leader do you consider yourself to be?
KC I consider myself a creative leader who cares about the creative development of the people that work with me. In the future, I hope people who have worked with me remember me as someone who nurtured creativity instead of demanding it and extracting it.
I believe the best creative work is done when you don’t fear, and when you can freely play. I’ve learned under some pretty toxic bosses (not ones I mentioned previously) who thought good work could only be done under extreme pressure and hard work after being tormented and yelled at. I think most designers can relate to crying in a bathroom after a bad critique.
People think this is just a job. But I know differently.
Each creative person always puts a piece of themselves on the table when they present their creative work. So when I critique someone's work, I keep that in mind. When I’m leading the creative I lean on each designer’s personal experience and ask them to draw inspiration from that. I think that is what makes the best creative work.
PT Who would you love to work with, moving forward?
KC Good people with ambitious visions and the scale to affect the most amount of people with the best designs possible.