“Make the one that makes your heart sing.” How Philly’s Smith & Diction are doing it their own way
Smith & Diction are a design studio in Philadelphia, working across the realms of branding, typography, logo design and art direction. One of their many strengths is their conceptual approach to identity design that really showcases the quirky, heartfelt and infectiously fun spirit of the team. Co-founder Mike Smith takes us on a tour of the past, present and future of the Philly-based studio, detailing the daily joys and challenges that the creative practice brings.
PT Hey Mike, how are you and the team?
MS Hello hello, we’re doing well! Weathering the post-pandemic, pre-recession, bank-collapsing hellscape economy as best as we can. Grateful to be busy and working on some fun stuff.
PT Can you tell us how Smith & Diction first began? Why launch your own studio?
MS Honestly, S&D launched because I was tired of working for other folks. I have pretty gnarly anxiety and I’m also really hard on myself workwise, so having a boss having expectations of me on top of my already insane expectations for myself was… not great.
If I were to answer this in a more positive way, though, it’s that I am extremely curious about everything so being stuck at an agency or studio that kinda specialises in one or two things or styles was not really for me. I love learning, I love meeting people that are so excited about what they are doing. I thrive off of their energy. So not having a creative director or account manager sterilising that energy is really important for me.
We’ve settled into our process and clients have responded really well to it over the years.
PT How has the studio changed over time?
MS Wow, good question. We’ve just become a lot more responsible. We’ve settled into our process and clients have responded really well to it over the years. When our studio was small, we’d answer a lot of emails like, “Why should I trust you?” And now we have a really well-written 10-step process that answers that question. Overall we just build our brands in smarter ways, we’ve seen how people use them over time so we can tailor our rollout a bit better. More templates, better style guides, better communication overall.
PT Who are the core members of Smith & Diction?
MS We have four beautiful souls that make up S&D. Mike Smith (Me), Creative Director. Chara Smith, Copy Chief and basically runs the entire studio. Dayan D’Aniello, Art Director. Summer McClure, Designer.
PT How are the studio’s strengths balanced across the team?
MS Chara is the glue that holds the entire studio together. She provides great feedback that isn’t bogged down in a designer mentality. She’s also a great writer so she’s always encouraging the team to think deeper about the concept and how everything can tie together as a whole.
I (Mike) am a bit more of a wild card. I’ve worked on everything under the sun and have found that I get the most excitement from projects that are a little bit quirky. I like making stuff that’s not easily defined, especially lately. Really into hand-painting logos or mashing up concepts that are sort of contradictory. I’m always encouraging the team to be a little more exploratory. Make the simple logo then put it in a folder and never look at it again, now make the weird one. Make the one that makes your heart sing. You know it’s good when your heart sort of feels light when you’re looking at it. So I really aim for that weird sort of heartfelt human kinda vibe.
Dayan is the master of type. The man can name almost every typeface and foundry that exists. He has an acute understanding of typographic relationships and how to make them evoke a certain era or emotion. His type pairings are always unique and incredible. He brings playful structure and wholehearted kindness to the table. It’s really an absolute joy to work with him every day.
Summer is a swiss army knife. She’s so young and can do anything. Illustration, editorial layouts, custom typography, 3D, lil bits of motion, pottery, great eye for colour… literally anything, she can do it flawlessly. She honestly is S&D’s secret weapon. Her work ethic is unbeatable and her attitude is absolutely lovely. She’s completely unshaken by any level of feedback. Vastly different than I was at her age. She brings a can-do attitude to every meeting, and it is contagious. Summer and I like to sit around and draw silly mascots for things, we really focus on balancing Dayan’s typography with a unique and playful illustration style.
Philly is great. It’s so honest and raw.
PT What is your work setup?
MS Ahh nothing really unique here. Just some computers, some monitors, an iPad and lots of books. We’re a remote-friendly studio so Dayan only comes in once a week and Summer is fully remote in Virginia.
PT Which projects that you’ve worked on have been the most impactful to you, personally?
MS The Rail Park was my sweet baby child. It was the most pure creative side of me. I’d go to sleep thinking about ways to make fun stuff for them and I’d wake up and just go make it. In the early days it was just a volunteer organisation so there were no rules creatively, and no boss, and just a few very busy board members at the helm, so they really let us run with it. They just wanted to gain momentum in the city, so edgy design was more than welcome. We got to make maps, signage, billboards, websites, pins, posters, you name it. It was such a great experience to be completely unchained creatively. They did eventually hire a new executive director, and she wanted to rein things in quite a bit creatively, so I had to walk away from the project. But I still look back at it with fondness and a warm heart.
PT We love the openness and conversational style of your blog. What led you to start it and what benefits does it bring?
MS Funny enough, I started that blog because I used to slap up wheatpastes when I was in college and it was just my way of documenting it before it got torn down. I’d always write a little bit about why we made the art and why we chose the location. So when I started crossing over purely into posting about design, I sort of kept that conversational style and just ran with it.
My blog is sort of my debrief on each project. Throughout every one of our projects, we learn so much. We learn about the client and their unique thing that they are doing, we learn about new design techniques, we learn about ourselves a bit, and sometimes we even learn about weird production techniques, so it’d be such a shame if all that only lived in my head. I didn’t really come from a traditional ‘designer-y’ background. So I like to be like, Hey! You don’t really need to know about all the BS to be a designer. You can also be a human person that’s kinda just figuring it out as you go. That’s totally normal too. I’m also a bit of an attention hog, and in a past life must have been a failed stand-up comedian because I just love bringing some playful joking sensibility to somewhat ‘serious’ design channels.
PT What is Philadelphia like to work in?
MS Philly is great. It’s so honest and raw. There’s really no one that’s like an untouchable god-level designer. It’s a small town, so we all sort of know each other. People here work so so hard but also don’t make it their entire lives. Every time I went out for drinks in NY it felt like I needed my resume on me and that’s just an exhausting atmosphere, where everyone’s looking to ‘make some moves.’ Here there are not really a tonne of moves you can make. You kinda just do what you want to do, make stuff, and move on with your life. Which is refreshing when you’re a bit older with a family. Philly is very creatively inspiring, tonnes of murals, tonnes of culture, tonnes of support from the community. We don’t get as much outside money flowing in here, but it kinda allows our community to be a bit more self-sufficient and allows us to have a bit of a chip on our shoulder for making it our own way.
Having a small studio/team costs more money than you’d think.
PT Why did you opt for the BOK building as your studio location? What’s the vibe there like?
MS I absolutely utterly love the BOK Building. To me, it’s one of the most inspiring places in the city. There are over 150 creative businesses in this building. You can walk down the hall and see a tattoo artist, a photographer, a jewellery designer, an interior designer, a glassblower, a muralist, a letterpress printer, a fashion designer, a rug maker, a bike shop, custom piano builders, inventors, a handmade skincare company, and so much more. It feels like I’m in college, with only the best people making their best work.
I was asked to do the wayfinding for the building in 2016-ish, about a year after it opened. And I was just so inspired with what they were doing that I knew that I had to be a part of this community. It’s an old technical school, so we work in a gorgeously lit classroom every day, with big blackboards on every wall, so we write up our schedules with actual chalk. It feels like I’m back in school, but I’m only in the best class with the coolest teacher all day every day. It feels like you’re getting away with something like you’re in the most secret, cool after-school club that exists.
PT What challenges do you face as a small studio?
MS Money and time, time and money. If anyone tells you any different they’re lying. Having a small studio/team costs more money than you’d think. So you’re always trying to balance that idea of creative freedom with budgets. I started this company because I wanted to be constantly inspired, I wanted to work with people that were doing interesting things. But a lot of the time the most interesting people don’t have an interesting amount of money if you know what I mean. So we try to balance that creativity as much as possible.
PT How do you overcome that?
MS We try to plan out our year in three-month chunks when possible. Corporate people call them quarters lol. But yeah we usually try to keep a bird's eye view of what’s coming into the studio and we’ll line up a big (maybe not-so-creative) project once a quarter, then backtrack to fill in a bunch of really fun projects.
A new-ish thing that we’ve been doing to really get a shot of creative adrenaline is brand sprints. During the pandemic, I was taking on alllllllll kinds of projects. Literally, anything that came to my door I’d take because I didn’t want to run out of money. I never knew when work would dry up, so I just said yes to everything. This led the way to some super super interesting fast-paced projects. I know it’s a bit controversial in the design world to do a sprint, but after 13 years of doing this sometimes we don’t need all the research and moodboards to make something that is simple and fun.
So now, after three years of sort of testing the waters we’ve actually developed a process around our sprints.
1. We have to know you before you come in for a sprint. We don’t offer them to cold clients.
2. You have to be somewhat proficient in Illustrator or Figma.
3. You have to be fully aware that we might not create something you like.
4. You get one round, no revisions.
5. It takes one week and it’s highly collaborative. We’ll sit on a video call and do things live. No secrets.
6. You get what you get. Usually, it’s an illustrator file full of all the things you need. If you need us to make more stuff that’s a new scope.
It’s been super fun and super energising to do projects like this but they do come with a risk. People get addicted to them and want to hire you to do them all the time and they drain you unbelievably quickly. It’s like a design from concentrate, when you’re finished there’s nothing but pulp left. So you deff can’t do like five of them back to back.
PT What are the perks of running a small studio?
MS The perks of running a small studio come down to one thing, creative freedom. Don’t like what you’re doing? No problem, finish the job and end the contract. We also get to meet endlessly inspiring people doing endlessly inspiring things. We’ve got the chance to work with public art curators, artists, people reinventing the piano, folks making custom tiles, scientists, beer brewers, coffee brewers, other designers, park builders, baby food makers, storytellers, restaurateurs, and a million other people. I’m so lucky that I get to go to work and be inspired all day every day.
PT What are your plans for the studio in the future?
MS We want to grow just a little bit more. We’d love to bring some dev partners in-house so we can confidently take on more web jobs. We’ve had a pretty rocky experience 1099’ing devs in the past, with people just straight-dropping projects and ghosting us. So we’d love to own that experience a bit more. I’d say we want to grow to about 10 full-time people overall and then keep it there for the foreseeable future. Just want to always be making stuff that makes you smile a bit, that’s all.