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The term “experiential design” takes on a whole new meaning at Chicago-based Grip Design. Here, design is not just what a package might look like, or how a web page might read. At Grip, design is redesigned to include the entire transaction of a brand—in every aspect that’s meaningful: what it looks like, how it feels, what the consumer might wear while interacting with said brand, what he/she might listen to, read, watch, even think. And, most important to principals Kevin McConkey and Kelly Kaminski, a Grip Design is created to redesign a client’s bottom line.

“We’re commercial artists, not fine artists. A lot of people in our field forget that,” says McConkey. “We believe that our work needs to be valued as what it can do for our clients’ profitability.” And this leads to the most salient redesign of all—the firm’s own approach to the standard design offering. Self-named “A New Model Agency,” Grip, established in 1999, works with clients in one of three ways: traditional, fee-based design work; fee plus equity; and creating consumer goods. In the fee-plus-equity bucket, Grip takes its pay by shares, thereby owning a piece of the business. Currently, they have this arrangement with four companies—Death’s DoorSpirits, Hooray Purée natural foods, Exhale Fans and Virtue Brands.

Identifying the seam of opportunity and tailoring content to a specific audience was at the core of this campaign's success for Whole Foods Market.

These relationships have allowed the firm a unique window—a door, really—into the inner workings of its client-partners. “When you design a ‘thing,’ you tend to just do the thing and then you’re out,” Kevin says. “When you have a seat at the table, they take you seriously.” Being privy to profit margins, material costs, management styles and more, gives Grip an informed, responsible view of their part of the puzzle: consumer experience. As McConkey says, “I’m thinking about Death’s Door all the time. Knowing exactly how the gin and vodka blends are truly unique, knowing what the packaging really costs—it helps us contribute at a much deeper level.”

Death’s Door Spirits, which makes vodkas, gins and white whiskeys, are grown from organic red winter wheat and juniper berries harvested on idyllic 22-square-mile Washington Island, located in Wisconsin. The name comes from a strait of water between Washington Island and neighboring Door County Peninsula, called Port de Mortes, or Door of Death, by French traders in the 1840s. Although the name is rooted in history, one can’t help smile at its evocative, fun tone. For Grip, the name possessed the perfect tone for what they saw as the spirits’ gold: gifting. “People want to take something to a party that says two things,” McConkey posits. “I’m thinking about you and I want to give you some-thing cool, and I’m showing how cool I am by giving you this.” Grip’s pack-aging for the bottles is whimsical and beautiful, each one designed to confer a coolness and visual esthetic to any bar or home cocktail table. And, true to Grip’s mission for each client, whether an equity partner or not, the marketing is paying off. Because its client/partner has been highly successful, Grip’s shares in the company have grown exponentially since 2005.

For Death's Door Spirits, succeeding in the ultra-premium spirits market required a "gift-able" design and careful attention to production.

Of course, building equity clients requires certain business acumen. Kaminski notes, “I am first and foremost a designer at heart, but the business and management side of things has been surprisingly fulfilling as well—and challenging, which I love.” McConkey and Kaminski previously spent time at Ibbotson Associates, an economic think tank. McConkey also served as design director at Crain Publications, helping to launch their first foray into online publishing. 

Introducing a new product category is particularly challenging, and this Hooray Purée project required packaging to do most of the heavy lifting.

Securing a fee-plus-equity client is a case-by-case proposition. Hooray Purée started as a conversation with a venture capital consultant who had a passion for natural foods, and she developed a line of pure, pureed foods. The team developed the brand identity and packaging to reflect the fresh, vitamin-packed, vibrantly-hued fruits and veggies. Each situation takes the kind of strategic thinking not often associated with a group of designers. McConkey thinks this an area ripe for change. “I feel an obligation to share what we’ve learned,” he says. “We’re in an era of sharing, as the world keeps shifting. Ten years ago, people wouldn’t put their credit cards into a computer, yet they would hand it off to a waiter they never laid eyes on.” In Grip’s view, marketing has to be about understanding where a consumer’s heart is, and connecting emotionally. That can take many forms. “Design is simply a good idea,” he says. “That can mean anything. The future of our business is to provide a blend of offerings. And by having that blended approach, you talk to a consumer on many levels.”

With a core team of the two principals, senior designer Joshua Blaylock, designers Camay Ho and Jenn McHale and producer/strategist Lonnie Tapia, the group is buttressed by a roster of many, trusted freelance artists, designers and writers. A Grip team leader takes ownership of a given project, which might range from product design to stylized apartment and lifestyle complexes to a medical brand launch. The “thing” really doesn’t matter. What matters is to take the client’s problem/opportunity to the next level of profitability, in whatever way that works. It’s telling that McConkey says, “To get hired at Grip, the only skill you need is the ability to learn new things.” A Grip project may take a team of four or a crew of one hundred; each scenario may employ set construction, design, photography, illustration, film, a manifesto, a blog or something else entirely.

Blaylock says, “The gamut of projects that we work on for each client is so expansive that, as a designer, we are given this great opportunity to take ownership of a brand in its entirety. With this we also take on a great deal of accountability for their success.” Tapia adds, “Everyone at Grip has an x-factor that makes our work stand out. For the designers, it may be their innate skills in typography or illustration. As a strategist, my x-factor is empathy. In the business world it helps me understand a client’s drive, desires and/or fears, in addition to the actual words exchanged. For me, empathy is about knowing what people really want and need—clients or studio mates—then helping make those things happen.” The clients who come to Grip pose questions infused with potential. As examples—“I’ve got x amount of square footage. What can I do with it?” “We’re underperforming in area x. We’d like to increase transactions by five percent. What should we do?” “How can we re-envision Valentine’s Day?”

For AMLI River North, reframing the voice of how condo-living is marketed was a tall order—injecting humor was an even harder sell.

One such challenge, for fee-based client AMLI Residential, was to position a Chicago apartment development in a neighborhood called River North. Formerly a bleak sea of abandoned factories, the district, just north of The Loop, one of the city’s main traffic hubs, was evolving into what is now a magnet for galleries, celebrity-chef restaurants and popular shops. But at the time, selling the area was just as important as marketing the complex. Grip took an editorial approach, educating prospective renters, but also, as a secondary target, informing the neighborhood itself on what it could become. It was a 360-degree view of living, not just inhabiting four walls. Tagging AMLI River North as “a lifestyle worth living,” Grip redefined the district as “the only true 24/7 neighborhood in Chicago.” Taking a distinct left turn from typical housing marketing materials, Grip advised that AMLI pieces show local night spots, galleries, shops and more.

On the fashion front, Grip developed the brand positioning and web presence for Eyefly.com, a partnership between online designer brand retailer Bluefly and A+D Labs, a noted fashion eye-wear developer and manufacturer. “One thing we knew about designer frames—it’s really hard to have more than one pair because they’re so expensive,” McConkey says. “And yet they’ve become a huge fashion statement. Athletes show up at press conferences wearing frames with no lenses just to have that look.” So Grip decided that the marketplace was ready for high-end eyewear at medium-ish prices, which would allow buyers to pair frames with lots of different outfits. Employing street-style photography, lookbooks for men and women, on-trend fashion pairings and suggestions, and even a “Virtual Try-On” feature that shows a shopper how she would look in a frame, Eyefly.com is more a fashion destination and idea generator than a glasses purveyor. Which is why it works.

Encouraging the purchase of multiples and repositioning eyewear as a fashion accessory instead of a medical necessity drove this line extension for Eyefly.

Most striking in many Grip campaigns—the deliverable is simply a PDF showing their ideas and execution, rather than film, video or elaborate storyboards. Grip gets hired for what it does best, which is to strategize from the inside out. “I’m into habit loops and influencing emotion,” McConkey says. “To us, the next gene-ration of great agencies is to relate to the consumer. If you’re talking to a plumber, talk like a plumber. Own it. Really get into it.” 

For Grip’s clients, this means working with a design firm that is its own brand, whose value proposition is to put its clients’ successes and profits first. McConkey says, “In the slippery world of business, we’re here to provide traction.” ca

Julie Prendiville Roux is cofounder of Handmade, a full-service creative agency based in Los Angeles. Alongside her work in advertising, she is a screenwriter and author.


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