"Bring in wild and wooly outsiders. E-x-p-a-n-d the box." Tom Peters
Joy Panos Stauber, Creative Director & Designer of Stauber Design Studio, has led her own firm since 1997, developing comprehensive brand communications for a diverse clientele. Her work has been recognized by various awards shows and publications. Her job is to sift through context, goals, business needs, audience research and etc. to help determine the best communications strategy. And then figure out what that ought to look like, making sure that of all the details are well-executed along the way to fruition.
[Bio adapted from StauberDesign.com.]
tompeters.com asks ...
Joy, you say you're a communication designer. What does that mean?
JS: Design isn't only about making things look cool. Sometimes you're starting earlier in the process, where you're trying to help a client articulate their brand attributes and why their brand is relevant to the people they're trying to talk to or connect with.
Do a lot of clients live under the assumption that they should bring the designer in at the end a project to add the fancy veneer?
JS: Some do. It depends on the scope of what needs to be done. I'm pretty lucky that I work with people who understand a little more about what I can bring to the table. It takes a lot of work to develop a decent communication strategy. Making it look cool is the easy part.
What does it mean to be a designer? What's at the essence of what you're trying to do in your daily work?
JS: You're trying to help somebody connect with their constituency. At the end of the day, design just helps you communicate better.
That's a good tagline. I don't hear many designers saying that explicitly.
JS: They don't articulate it well, I think, because it's easy to get bogged down in jargon. Starting with what. What are you trying to communicate? Your brand? Your product? Your values? Your data? And with whom? Externally, you have constituents; internally, you need to get your team to "drink the Kool-Aid," so that they can be good representatives of the brand. Where are you trying to communicate, online or off? Your users may be trying to accomplish different things depending on if they're online or off.
Why do you need to communicate it? Are you trying to change behavior? Are you trying to grow a relationship? Are you just trying to report the quarterly results of your funds? Are you trying to explain or entertain?
Basically, as a designer, I'm gathering as much information as I can, trying to understand the parameters. On a website like tompeters.com, the parameters include basic limitations such as the page structure (the size of the header, etc.). There's a timeline and a budget. So, you sift through all this stuff and end up connecting the dots. You find out things that lead you to some sort of a strategy or an approach. Then you make it look cool.
Right. Full disclosure here, you design the banners at tompeters.com. So when you design something for Tom's site, you want it to reflect Tom's personality, right?
JS: Right. With more corporate kinds of communications, you're trying to acknowledge the audience in a different way than with Tom's audience. Tom's audience consists of fans, so what he can put out there is a reflection of him. It doesn't have to be so much a reflection of him plus them, necessarily.
Got it. You design corporate reports as well.
JS: Melinda [Cross] my writing partner, and I just finished a brand launch for a market research firm in New York, Radius. We did identity development, website, all their printed identity materials, and ads.
That sounds like fun.
JS: Really fun. You have to figure out what people are thinking when they're shopping for a market research firm, and why they'd choose this one. You're addressing the potential client's situation and mindset more directly than you are with something like Tom's site. His banners are these little narratives about what's going on in Tom's world versus his clients' world.
Right. Would you say you have a design philosophy?
JS: It's about helping people communicate better. And for me, it has to be something I can believe in. I can't fully act on behalf of a client if they're selling cigarettes, for example.
I'm so glad to hear that. I've been on a rampage recently because I read about someone celebrating landing a marketing gig with Quiznos. I'm not sure that what Quiznos serves can actually be called food. The celebrating had to be all about the money, because it couldn't have been about the quality of the product.
JS: You have to use your powers for good. It sounds so corny, but it's true. I am an organic gardener and I'm interested in healthy food and wellness in general. So working for clients in that realm, such as Enjoy Life, has been good — for the client and for me.
It's hard to work when you have strong convictions, isn't it?
JS: I think it's easier. It's easier to do the work because it's more enjoyable.
Well, that's true. You're never conflicted. When you're working on something, you're into it because you're not just doing it for the money. You believe in whatever you're doing.
JS: Right. I believe in keeping a business small, bringing in freelancers when needed, so there's no big monster to feed. You don't have to have those types of big utility clients just to cover the overhead.
Do you have a favorite thing you like designing?
JS: I like working across a lot of different media for one client. For example, with 800-CEO-READ, I started out working on their brochure, then it expanded to web work and ChangeThis. I was able to gain an understanding of what their business is all about and how that plays out in different situations and with different audiences. I like figuring that out.
Your challenge is getting all of those different channels or types of media to sing the same message?
JS: Right, sing the same message and have it reflect the personality of the brand. People used to think of corporate identity as being very—
JS: Yes. "The logo needs to be this size and half an inch from the top and one inch from the side." Very regimented. Now, it's more like a person. A person has a personality, values, and they adapt to different situations. It's the same thing with an identity or brand communications.
You've designed the seasonal banners at tompeters.com for a few years now. We change the banner seasonally because we still think of the website as a kind of magazine. Magazines have a new cover each month; we have a new banner each season.
How has this changed over the years? There's quite a difference between the earlier ones and the more recent. Is that showing your development? Or is it a matter of what you thought we could handle at any given point?
JS: I think it's probably both. The longer we work together, the better I know you, and the more things I can try. The site, before I started working on the banners, was a lot blockier. I think that probably carried over into the earlier banners.
Right, the earlier banners had more squares and rectangles. The whole space was filled up.
JS: One of the things that's really great about working on these banners is that I feel like I can try anything. Tom can't say anything is too weird because he talks about experimenting. Seriously, I feel like he's never going to say, "Oh, that's inappropriate," or, "Oh, that's too weird."
Yet they still all do have a certain sensibility. We've used a lot of photos that Tom took himself. When he takes photos, they often include the natural world, processes, and being an observer in life. There's still that common thread, even if the form changes.
Tom hasn't been taking many photos lately.
JS: I know. I've been able to find photos that kind of feel like his, and then also take some of my own. That's when I started just making stuff up, like using my son's blocks.
That was actually one of my favorite things, you built an E for Excellence out of blocks. That's something you will never find at a stock agency.
JS: No. I think stock photos need to be used in small amounts or only when you can find one that is an outtake or feels like a real photo.
I think sites that use lots of the usual business stock photos send the message, "We don't care that much about how we present ourselves."
JS: From a branding point of view, it makes no sense. You can go to iStock and get that photo for ten bucks. But so can your competitor. Do you want to show up at a meeting using the same photos on your materials as your competitor?
How has your perception of what you do changed over the years?
JS: Wow, that's a hard question. Andrea Learned and I have talked about how when you're in your twenties, you think there's this correct way to do things that you're trying to figure out. Later, you realize that your own way is valid. Your point of view and your own approach is what makes you special and valuable for someone to work with.
I agree. I'm in my fifties now and I've never felt so sure of things.
Or at least you become comfortable with yourself, and you're aware of your shortfalls. They don't bug you as much. It's part of the wonderfulness of growing older. Of course, you wish you could have been more relaxed when you were younger. Although, on the other hand, Tom [Peters] has mentioned that Mathematics Nobel Prize winners receive it for work they did in their twenties. At that age, you don't know what you don't know. I think some people take risks without even knowing they're taking risks.
JS: You don't really have anything to lose at that point in your life, right? You're not so worried about your retirement fund and your kids' college fund. In my twenties I used to work like a maniac, until 11 o'clock at night, come home, eat dinner, get up, go back to work. I think your work is actually much better when you don't do that because taking a walk or going to your kid's basketball game or whatever, allows your brain to do something else. The more things you learn about life, the more you have to apply to your work.
Yes, in one of our other Cool Friend interviews, Matt May explained that Eureka! moments happen when you've disconnected from your work and allow the subconscious parts of your brain to work.
JS: Not to mention that if all you're doing is working, and looking at the work of the other people in your office, then everybody's work starts to look the same. You also lack life experience. If you're working on a project about food allergies, but you've never dealt with just how scary it is to have a child with food allergies, you can't understand the audience in the same way.
Your empathy levels go way up. Now, you worked with us on the design of The Little BIG Things, the book. I recall you saying that one of the challenges was the fact that Tom's material isn't really book-content. What was the challenge of working with Tom Peters' written material?
JS: It wasn't defined simply as "a book." It was defined more specifically as a standard business book: hard cover, 6" x 9", uncoated paper, with a common template applied to all pages. It wasn't a book like Re-imagine!, where you had the freedom to change the overall size or to change layouts from spread to spread.
I think it's actually one inch less in each dimension.
JS: Right, so it's even harder to fit it all, right?
JS: But you don't approach it like a brochure, designing every page, hands-on. This was a book where you needed a template that the content would flow into.
Because all 163 items needed to follow the same structure.
JS: Right. But then you look at the manuscript, and it's still a fairly typical Tom manuscript, with a million different levels of content. It's not all text in one style with a few things highlighted here and there, like a normal book would be.
No, a lot of levels of emphasis.
JS: Basically, the content itself and the structure it was supposed to fit into were on polar ends of a spectrum, and needed to be made to meet somewhere in the middle. One of the big things that we did was to dial down the amount of highlighting contained in the manuscript.
Which will surprise a couple of people who've commented that they feel the finished book is unreadable due to all the emphasis. They should have seen what it might have been.
I've grown accustomed to his writing style. He does it because he's excited about these things. He's been tweeting like a madman over at Twitter. People have asked him there about his heavy use of exclamation marks. His answer is that it means he's passionate about something. It's his signal that this really matters to him.
JS: Well, that's the thing. If you picked up the book and it looked like just a standard business book—all serif type and some chapter headings that were bold—it wouldn't feel anything like Tom. It would seem strange if you knew him and you'd read his earlier books.
Somewhere in the development of the book, there was a moment where I considered the radical possibility of designing it very plainly, having it look like every other book out there. But I think we would all be a little disappointed in that. It wouldn't look like Tom. The people who hate how it turned out are people who wouldn't like Tom anyway.
JS: Right. They're probably not his audience. What I think is neat about the book is that it's the black-and-white line art version of what happens in the banners a little bit.
JS: You can see blocks of things coming later in the book because of the light weight of the paper. You see what's to come and things moving around a little bit, and chunks of black or gray showing through. I like that it has that kind of motion that's similar to what's happening in the banners with imagery.
JS: That's kind of what I mean when I think about the attributes or behaviors of brands. Tom is his own brand. And the brand manifests itself in different ways, depending on the form you're delivering things in. There's a common thread running through it, whether people realize it consciously or not.
Most people don't know what's involved in designing a book. For instance, they wouldn't know that someone else designed the removable dust jacket. There was a comment from a friend of ours who said that, if everything else fails, she could use the book as a flashlight in her apartment late at night. [Laughter]
JS: I guess it makes sense the publishers do that, because the book is like the cereal, and the jacket is like the box it goes in.
I love the way the word big is BIG. Although someone said to me that the word little should have been oversized and big should have been small.
JS: That's probably what I would have done. But in a retail context, I think the jacket works really well, especially if you look in the business section of any bookstore. They're mostly Good to Great rip-offs, with red covers and white and black type.
Orange seems to be the color of the moment. Next question: what's the power of design?
JS: It can elevate everyday experiences. If something is well designed, it's just pleasant.
Pleasant, that's a nice word.
JS: No, it really is. An instructor of mine at school once explained that you don't burn yourself in the shower because you know the little red dot is hot and the little blue dot is cold. People don't realize that everything they encounter all day long is designed. And the designer either can make your life better or worse, depending on how well they did their job.
That is powerful. What's the joy of design?
JS: [Laughter] I think it's fun to help people figure out their visual and verbal language. They get excited when they first see it. If you're an entrepreneur, and you have this great idea for a business, and then you work with a designer on your packaging or your trade show booth or whatever, it's exciting. When you see the mock up, the reaction is, "Wow, we're for real. We have something to say and people are going to be able to understand it now."
You make that idea visual.
JS: Tangible. I have a post at my site called, "Design: It's Powerful Stuff" about this.
Why did you become a designer?
JS: I started out in architecture at Carnegie Mellon. I didn't have the attention span for that. Working away, literally for years, drawing out a plan of a bathroom or whatever in a building. I transferred to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. I didn't feel like I had anything really great to say as an artist, because I feel like anything I need to say, I can say with words. Art that I think is interesting usually comes from people who are maybe more introverted and can't get that stuff out in other ways.
I like design and figuring out how to communicate things. I like just playing around with formal aspects of all the Viscom 101 things that you do with form and color and spacing. And, unlike architecture, you can work through things fast, and get tangible results. For me, that's fun.
Interesting. Do you know the High Line in New York?
JS: Yes, but I haven't seen it.
My wife got the book that was originally made in 2001. It's photos of that area, before anybody started talking about transforming it. The High Line is an elevated railroad track in New York City on the West Side that was an eyesore for years. Now they've turned it into an elevated walking trail. There were real estate developers who were anxious to take it down. Joel Sternfeld worked with a publisher and put this book out in six weeks. It was their manifesto for keeping this thing alive.
I think it's a great example of your notion of a book as a communication. This book of photos with a few essays really helped to save it.
JS: Six weeks! I think it's really great, now, to have these on demand publishing sites like Lulu. "Power to the people!" Right? People have access to these things that they didn't have so easily before.
It's a very exciting time. On the other hand, some people, like Andrew Keen, who's written a book called The Cult of the Amateur think it's become Amateur Hour on the web.
JS: That's true. But it's meaningful to the person making that content. And if they can find the other people that think so too, that's great. They can get organized and get some things done.
Working with you is a very collaborative process. There's a lot of back-and-forth about ideas. Do you work that way with everyone?
JS: No. It depends on the person. Some people aren't used to looking at sketches. They think, "Oh no. I'm paying this person money and they're giving me this thing that doesn't make any sense yet." Sometimes I work more formally, and sometimes I work as if I'm inserting myself as part of the existing team.
How do you make that determination?
JS: Oh, you can tell. You can tell what they can handle, what will scare them, and what will make them involved and interested. Some clients just want you to do the work.
Just do it and give them a finished thing.
JS: Right. They have other things to do. They're working on other aspects of their business.
It's been fun, Joy. Thank you.
JS: Thanks Erik.
Email: jps (at) stauberdesign (dot) com