Public Address on the importance of collaboration and the challenges of running a small studio
Co-founded by Bruce Mau Design alumni Christa Muio and Chris Braden, Public Address is an independent creative studio that works with both start-ups and global names, from renowned winemaker Randall Grahm’s The Language of Yes to the Los Angeles 2028 Olympic Games. Predominantly based in Toronto but with a team working worldwide, their work not only transcends time zones but also industries, rules and aesthetics.
EM Why did you two decide to start a studio together in 2018?
CM I had two goals in my twenties – one was to open a bar, and the other was to open a design studio, and the timing for each was based on finding the right partner. I spent my thirties running a hot dog dive bar while still working as an Account Director, and in 2016, I started working at Bruce Mau Design, where I met Chris. I knew within six weeks that I had found my partner (at least I had hoped), but it wasn’t until a year or so later that we discovered that we both wanted to start our own studio.
From my side, Chris was the ideal partner because we have very different strengths and personalities, he’s incredible at what he does, and our core values are the same.
CB We spend a lot of time, care and energy helping people define and grow their organisations. In our work, we get brief, but intimate, glimpses into how leaders and entrepreneurs run all kinds of companies and build different cultures. Part of the reason we wanted to start a studio was to better understand our partners – it’s hard to really understand how to help entrepreneurs unless you’ve experienced it yourself.
Working in a larger studio (owned by a publicly-traded company) meant we weren’t always in control of our destiny, or be as nimble as our clients. We realised that if we wanted to be great creative partners, we needed to design a new structure.
PA We loved working together and wanted to take the learnings (good and bad) from our various jobs and apply them to Public Address. We wanted to create the studio that we would want to work at – a studio that provided great design opportunities while also prioritising people and their goals, inside and outside of design.
EM And why did you decide to call it ‘Public Address’?
PA We see our role as helping our partners amplify what makes them special – and naming ourselves after a public address (PA) system struck us as a good metaphor for that commitment.
We took our time planning the start of the studio, and went through a similar naming process as we would with our partners. We developed criteria for a name, developed a long list of potential options then slowly narrowed it down to our favourites. Before landing on Public Address, we were almost sure it was going to be named ‘No Good.’ We decided it wasn’t the right name for us, but it did become one of the few rules we have at the studio (along with no clients, no walls, no style, and no end).
Our ambition has always been to work with the best people around the world.
EM Did you go into the studio with a solid amount of client work lined up or was it a big risk initially?
CM It was definitely a risk. As with all things risky, emotions can often get in the way of making a smart decision, so we created clear criteria for the kind of project we felt confident would get us off to a solid start.
We agreed that if a project met the below three qualifications, we’d give our notice and take the leap.
A project we were excited about.
A budget that could keep us paying our bills for a few months.
A partner outside of Canada.
We love our Canadian partners, but our ambition has always been to work with the best people around the world, and felt it was important to start those international ambitions (and expectations) from day one.
CB We were in the fortunate situation of not hating the jobs we were at. In my case, I started at Bruce Mau the day after I left OCAD U. It was a dream job, and I spent over 10 years working with some incredibly talented people and inspiring clients.
Outside of the financial risk, there was also the creative risk. Working at an established studio gives you the luxury of working with some great organisations, and I knew it would take a lot of work to build up a reputation that would allow us to win the calibre of projects we wanted to work on.Thankfully, we had some great friends and collaborators who also helped us get our footing in the early days, and continue to help us grow today as we approach our fourth year as an agency. For example, Works Collective played a big role in our early days and continues to be an important collaborator. And many of our very first partners are people we are still working with today.
One thing we both felt strongly about was making sure it wasn’t about us.
EM Are there any experiences and learnings from your previous roles at larger companies that have particularly informed what you do now?
CM Absolutely. I’ve had the opportunity to work at a wide range of company sizes and structures – from a three-person design studio to Microsoft, and everything in between.
What I’ve learned over the years is that it’s crucial to understand and celebrate the whole person versus simply the ‘employee.’ For example, at Public Address, we have a designer who also wanted to be a farmer, and we supported him pursuing that goal by providing him with seasonal hours in the summer months. We also have a Business Lead who wanted to go back to school to change careers. She has been with us since the early days, and has been a key part of building PA and the overall culture. Last year, she asked if she could stay with PA while going to school virtually, and we supported that. This September, she’ll be leaving us to finish her last semester in person, and we couldn’t be happier for her. She doesn’t know it yet, but we’ll be paying for her last semester.
It’s as simple as asking the team what their goals are inside and outside of PA, and then genuinely helping them achieve both.
Another great learning came from an independently-run advertising agency where I had the opportunity to work closely with the founder. He empowered us to give each other days off or breaks when we needed them. If we worked long hours, he would give us gift certificates to take our friends or families out for dinner. The lesson for me was that he was watching and cared about this team, and I wanted to bring that same level of empathy and care to our team.
CB When Christa and I started the studio, one thing we both felt strongly about was making sure it wasn’t about us. We were more interested in creating a place and a platform for talented people we knew and admired to grow and succeed. It’s one of the reasons we didn’t include our own names in our company’s name.
We’ve also made a point of keeping our overhead as low as possible. We’d rather have creative freedom than a fancy office.
PA Transparency. We’ve both experienced working environments that were not transparent, which impacted the trust between ourselves and the leadership. At PA, we do our best to be transparent with our team about everything – financials, client feedback, and everything in between. It’s not always easy to say, or nice to hear, but it’s important for us that our team know the truth, and people can then choose to do what they want with that information.
We’d rather have creative freedom than a fancy office.
EM How has the studio, and the work you do, evolved since you started out?
PA When we started in 2018, the two of us worked out of each other’s living rooms, along with one freelance designer. We now have a team of fifteen people. The growth has kept things interesting and ever-changing.
When we were five people sitting around a single desk, we didn’t have to worry too much about defining a process, because we could pivot quickly. Everyone was working on the same projects, and had access to the same information.
Once the studio grew to 10, a fluid approach no longer worked, and a defined process was necessary to keep work moving, ensure role clarity and remove any bottlenecks.
And as we got closer to 15 people across four time zones, we learned the importance of establishing internal processes and operations to make sure we could continue to grow while improving our creative output.
Our challenge has been balancing structure with flexibility – we never want to stop trying new things, and always want to remain open to new ways of collaborating with our partners, but we also don’t want to have to rethink the basics for each project.
This doesn’t just refer to our workflow, but how we structured and reinforced our company culture, too. We had ideas for how to build our company culture, which we thought the team would love, but which ultimately fell flat. We quickly learned that certain great culture perks – such as an unlimited vacation policy – only work if leadership is also taking vacations. Without Chris and I leading by example and prioritising our own time off, no one took any vacations. These are lessons we continue to learn from and iterate on, as we grow.
As leaders, how we lead has changed significantly over the years. In year one, we made every decision ourselves. By year three, we now have senior teams who lead a lot of the day-to-day, who are empowered to make decisions that make the work better and deliver an exceptional experience for our partners and team. Ultimately, this also allows us to focus on other aspects of the business such as new business and creating opportunities for our team to keep learning and growing.
Running a business feels a lot like having a two-year-old. As soon as you think you’ve got everything under control, everything changes. Change is pretty much the only constant. And honestly, it’s exciting. We are constantly challenged to think of new and better ways to do things that benefit the studio and our partners.
In terms of the work, it’s constantly evolving. We’ve made a purposeful effort to keep a diverse range of partners (we don’t use the term client, and work hard not to be thought of as a vendor). The variety of our partner’s sizes, categories, and locations make sure we don’t get too comfortable creatively.
Through the approximately 150 projects we’ve created in the past three years, some ideas and approaches have become more clear – such as understanding that our partners are investing in design because they want to grow (creatively, in scale, or in most cases, both). In every project, we try to build brands to grow and change as opposed to striving for consistency and repetition.
For example, the identity we built for the LA28 Olympic and Paralympic Games really helped push our thinking to the next level, and helped us develop new strategies. It’s rare to work on a brand that won’t fully launch for close to a decade. We knew if we guessed what would be relevant in 10 years, we’d be wrong. So, instead, we developed a system that was meant to change, evolve and grow as the games approached. It is designed to build momentum. This unique design challenge has helped us create a new way of thinking and creating that we now bring to all our projects.
EM “Great brands are built when everyone is on the same side.” Can you tell us more about that?
PA Having worked on both agency and client-side, it was important for our own studio that we developed our relationships with clients as partnerships, versus short-term client/vendor transactions.
Partnerships take time to build, but they get better and stronger with time. For us, we value trust, collaboration, and long-term ambition in a partner. We believe that the best brands are built with our partners who make our work better.
EM How do you typically build relationships with potential new clients and discover if they’re right for you?
CM In our first meeting with a potential client, we ask them what they’re looking for in a partner. We then let them know what we value in a partner, including trust, ambition, investment of time/people in the project, and collaboration.
We also work with our partners to define new and personalised ways of working together. For example, we set up a small team in a client’s office for four months because that’s what was needed to get the job done. We’ve done two-day intensives for other clients throughout the project; while for others, it’s all remote work.
When it comes to the details, we ask our partners how they like to communicate. Sometimes it’s email, Slack, text, or a combination. We also ask them questions like when they prefer to have meetings or status calls, what tools they love using, and if we should adopt those tools, too.
We’re always open to giving and receiving feedback and optimising along the way.
For us, we start all relationships with a long-term partner relationship in mind. If it becomes clear that we aren’t aligned, we’ll discuss it immediately. If we can’t resolve it, we are likely not the right partner, but we would try and help them find the right partner.
CB Something our team is great at is understanding the core challenges our partners are up against so that we can really clearly define the ambitions and potential of the work. Once our partners feel like we ‘get’ them, there is a lot of trust and comfort, even if the work itself is risky.
EM What’s the key to creating a thriving and creative working environment for a small team?
PA Transparency and honesty, while fairly basic and fundamental, have served us well. We do our best to make sure the team knows what’s happening across all aspects of the studio and business – the more context everyone has, the better they are able to do great work.
Being a small studio, we also love the challenge of punching above our weight. When you’re running a new and small studio, you understand how important every opportunity is, both for the business and long term creative potential.
EM Which software or tools do you use to manage your projects and team?
PA We use a handful of tools across the studio.For project management, we use Notion and Float.
For design, we spend most of our day in Adobe.
For collaboration, we use Miro, Are.na, Slack and Google.
The adjustment to remote work wasn’t too hard for us. Thankfully, our team was already working all over the place and Christa and I spent half of our time on the road in the first couple years, so we already had a lot of the tools and processes we needed to transition to working remotely over the last year and a half.
EM What do you find to be the advantages of not having a house style?
PA It means we can be great partners. We aren’t trying to fit other people’s problems into our predetermined solutions. We’ve learned that a house philosophy is much more important – and freeing – than a house style.
EM If you could only show one piece of work, what would it be?
PA Two relationships that encapsulate a lot of our thinking and approach are the work we’ve done for Netflix and LA28. They are both complicated, multi-faceted, long term and made up of lots of iterative projects and collaborations.
Over the course of the last five-six years (split across both Bruce Mau Design and Public Address) we’ve worked with Netflix on everything from a global brand design system to a variety of editorial/social brands. It’s been amazing to work with smart partners like Noah Nathan, Tanya Kumar, and Noreen Morioka, to continue to evolve the brand.With LA28, we were able to collaborate with a wildly talented collection of people. Also, the challenge of designing a brand for 2028 in 2020 really stretched our thinking and has influenced how we think about all our work now. The identity is designed to build momentum as it approaches the games — more and more of the identity will come to life as we approach the Games.
We’re all missing the moments between the work that builds culture.
EM What would you like to be able to do as a studio that you haven’t been able to yet?
PA We’ve been incredibly lucky to work on some once-in-a-lifetime dream projects over the last three years.
From a studio perspective, we have a handful of studio initiatives that we hope to kick off this year (for example: maybe even a logo for ourselves!). During COVID, we’ve been inviting inspiring speakers to talk with the studio over Zoom, and we’d love to find a way to extend that into deeper engagements and collaborations.
EM What are you looking forward to over the rest of 2021?
PA Spending time with the team in person! We’ll be a virtual-first company from now on, but we will have a space for the team to get together. We’re all missing the moments between the work that builds culture.
We have some big projects that the team has been working hard on this year that we’re excited to launch in the fall… Stay tuned.