Design rebranding: things done right, lessons learnt, and the way forward

Studio South
What’s in a brand name? For a business that wants to make a name for itself, the first step is usually contacting a design agency. But what if the business is the design agency itself?

Feeling a need to shout from the rooftops of how great he was as a designer, Sam Southwell started his studio with the name “Aplus Design”, back in 2003.

Truthfully, however, he was doing little more than creating posters for his mates.

But twelve years on, Southwell has been the creative force behind a number of projects far greater than those decades-old posters, and has managed to amass a pretty talented team around him too.

Rebranding his business as Studio South, the designer believes the re-launch is a better reflection of where he is now, the team behind him, and the growth he’s experienced as a designer.

Idealog attended the re-launch party last night in the heart of Ponsonby, and got his take on the big rebranding, design, and some tips for graduate designers.

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Sam Southwell

What were some of the difficulties you encountered in rebranding your business?
The one thing to mention is that rebrands are designed to be easy. But it never is, because intricate details tend to get the better of people’s experience when they go through a rebrand. Most of the time we’re focused on making sure our customer experience is enjoyable – as a creative designer, my main responsibility is to install challenges to make sure whatever people are trying to get out of their business, I’m trying to make it better.

When we rebranded, we placed the same challenges in front of ourselves as we would our clients. We treated ourselves like a real client.

Where do you think New Zealand design is at, compared to the rest of the world?
Right now, we’re in a very good position. Auckland is actually a city now, in terms of being viewed by the rest of the world, and in the last five years I really feel like people have started to understand that leading business with design is the right way to be.

Taking the communication at hand and communicating using design rather than shouting from the rooftops with advertising – it’s a much more fluent and enjoyable way to understand what somebody’s offering.

I do feel like we’ve got a little bit of catching up to do compared to Scandinavian design or London, but I believe things like the Best Awards, New Zealand Designers Institute, the hunger and passion shown by young designers, and the competitive strides made by established designers – we’re starting to make some noise internationally.

What’s the timeframe for playing catch-up?
Now! We have work that is completely competitive on an international scale. I don’t believe we’re falling behind anybody. I just believe it’s more about creating in volume and covering a much wider landscape with quality, rather than just pockets of design.

You’re going from a personal brand to a team brand. What’s after that?
I’ve rebranded because I feel like my business is such a team effort now, and we have so many people contributing to that team – not just the people we have in-house, like partners and suppliers very closely connected to us. The future for me is to be able to bring that resource in-house and have a true one-stop-shop offering. You can get design, you can get digital, you can get advertising, and it’s all at the same quality.

So I know you said you’re not keen on trends.
Yes.

But what are some of the ‘now’ trends?
Oh man. I mean, trends for me come in waves. They come in things like food, or mediums like fashion, or all sorts of things like news and media, where I see things that are popular.

What I meant when I mentioned trends, is that it’s not just about decorating things with unnecessary clutter that confuses communication. There’s obviously the term ‘hipster’, and the associated trends that are popular worldwide. There’s the ‘barber’ trend, there’s the ‘nautical’ trend, there’s things that, when you see them, you know what they are. I think that’s just strong communication, but when you’re designing something for a client, you don’t want to go and look at the market. You have to look at the overall position that they already exist in.

You want to solve the problem they want to solve with key communication, taking away things rather than put things in. That’s what trends mean to me. So if you said ‘Oh, there’s a really nice clean white shirt, why don’t we put polka dots on there,’ I would say ‘Why don’t we put on stripes? Or a badge?’ Or ‘No! That shirt is perfect. It’s white. That’s it!’

What’s one piece of advice you would’ve given yourself when you first started?
Be open-minded. Stay humble. Don’t let anybody who makes a judgement call about what you’ve done affect you. Believe in what you’re doing and the pathway you’re on is the right one. But, at the same time, be adaptable. Take a different road when you get blocked.

I’ve changed a lot over my career. When I was young, I was very cocky, keen, and enthusiastic. I’m still enthusiastic, but now I’m also more humble in my approach. 

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