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I love interviewing people in visual communications who have a background in art history and work experience at galleries! How did you discover your interest in curation? I studied art history for my undergraduate degree and loved learning about art. No matter the period—whether Renaissance or French impressionism—fine art reflects and delves deeply into the culture of the time. We can learn so much about history and contemporaneous societal issues by looking at art.

Working at a museum was my dream job coming out of college, and I was lucky enough to land my first position at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. That led to me getting my masters of art history from New York University and a seven-year career in the arts, including blue-chip art galleries, the Ansel Adams Center for Photography and starting a nonprofit arts organization that supported emerging artists.

What interested you about design and advertising that led you to take on the role of chief operations officer at creative agency Turner Duckworth’s San Francisco office? After that seven-year career in the nonprofit sector, I was heavily in debt and in need of a change. Because of my love of art, I had no other passion to guide me, so I interviewed 50 women from my alma mater and asked them: “What do you do?”, “How did you get there?” And “Do you like it?” I learned that I could still work with creatives in design or advertising, so I focused my job search. Eventually, I got two offers: one from Goodby Silverstein, and one from Turner Duckworth, then an unknown tiny agency. I didn’t want to start at the “bottom rung” at a large agency since I already had years of work experience. I took a chance and became employee number two at Turner Duckworth—and never looked back. I started out as an account manager and grew over time to first become head of client services and then chief operations officer.

How was your experience helping the agency grow in the United States? We started off as a packaging design agency, and our first client was Levi Strauss & Co. Within a few years, we started reshaping our case studies to present ourselves as a visual identity design agency. In 2000, we designed the Amazon logo. In 2005, we started working for Coca-Cola, doing highly strategic, idea-based design that hadn’t been done at that level. The iconic work we did for Coca-Cola put us on the map and allowed us to grow our expertise in branding. We always valued creative culture and championed our love for the work and the pursuit of brilliant ideas. Our growth was organic yet purposeful. We took leaps and risks at various points, driven by the founders David Turner and Bruce Duckworth. The legacy of their partnership and sense of adventure lives on.

What excites you about your current position as chief executive officer of Turner Duckworth’s three branches? My job now is very different compared to when I was focused on client services and Turner Duckworth was independent. Since our acquisition by Publicis Groupe in 2014, I have worked to conserve our unique culture while also being a team player within a larger holding company. Sarah Moffat, our chief creative officer, has also been with Turner Duckworth for more than 20 years. David and Bruce placed us in charge of the global agency when they stepped down at the end of 2018. Since then, we’ve dealt with succession, double-digit growth, the pandemic and figuring out how to manage our teams remotely while maintaining our cohesive culture. I’m sure we’ve made mistakes, but we’ve tried our best to hold our brand, our agency, our people and our clients near and dear. As for continued growth, we have many plans, including the celebration of our 30th anniversary this year in 2022. More to come on that!

A great idea will never let you down, whatever’s on the horizon—especially an idea that’s rooted in a brand’s philosophy. It will be as relevant today as it is tomorrow.”

You oversaw Turner Duckworth’s rebrand of Amazon with the smile logo that instantly became iconic. What advice do you have for designers about approaching branding on both a long-term and short-term scale? It’s impossible to know what the future might hold, and technology is shaping our world at an exponential rate. A great idea will never let you down, whatever’s on the horizon—especially an idea that’s rooted in a brand’s philosophy. It will be as relevant today as it is tomorrow. Fashion is for fun, not to follow. Don’t submit to trends in the short term and have one eye on the world that is yet to exist, not just the next big thing.

What is a good example of awkward branding that created an impact? Sometimes distinctive brand assets are memorable because they are a bit awkward. The red of Coca-Cola is counterintuitive to cold and refreshing since red is associated with burning heat. Getting noticed and standing out from the crowd in a world of visual clutter is easier to do when we defy the norm. Idiosyncrasies are good when it comes to being distinctive and memorable.

How is the rise of technology helping or hurting the brands Turner Duckworth works with? We have worked with such a wide range of clients in different categories. The rise of tech and the evolution of media from print to broadcast to social media to Web 3.0 requires brands to constantly evolve. Sometimes it happens incrementally. Other times, a brand can catapult rapidly or crash and burn. A brand is most successful if it maintains cultural relevance and makes its presence felt regardless of the medium or context.

What are the biggest challenges currently facing creative agencies? During the pandemic, the biggest challenge was communication. Designing brand interactions that feel like human interactions requires that we practice what we preach. We need to interact as humans and truly see each other’s whole selves. One thing we noticed while remote working is how much our ability to understand one another relies upon body language, which you can’t read through a screen. “Reading the room” in real life involves an awareness of every person’s body language in the room: Who is leaning in? Does anyone have their arms crossed? Who’s fidgeting with excitement? We miss a lot of social cues, and too much emphasis is place on how (not what) we are saying or the expressions on our faces.

Remarkably, the hyper focus on faces and voices often leads to misunderstandings. Humans are not experts at listening with such limited inputs. On top of the communication challenges, we also had more distractions during meetings with more comms channels than ever. During a Teams or Zoom call, people can easily be distracted by their emails, Slack messages, mobile texts, Teams side conversations and Google notifications—not to mention their kids, dogs, cats, spouses and myriad other things.

Now, as we face returning to the studios with a hybrid-work model, we need to find the right balance of working from home and in the office and redefine studio life. We know our people need to be back together, but they also need to have more autonomy and control over when and how they show up. It feels like a brave new world—history’s biggest social experiment is just beginning. We will need to be flexible and see how it goes.

As a woman of color working at a high level in a white male–dominated industry, what have you found challenging and what have you found rewarding? Most people, regardless of gender or color, have their own sets of fears, hopes and dreams. Sometimes the most privileged person in the room is also the saddest. What I’ve found most rewarding is working with people who do good and hard work to make every room more accessible to a diverse range of people.

Do you have any advice for people just entering the profession? Find a strong mentor who is sincerely interested in supporting your professional development. Never stop learning. Sometimes follow your whims. Occasionally make brave decisions. Frequently evolve your intentions. And always be a kind human. ca

Joanne Chan is chief executive officer of Turner Duckworth, a world-class branding agency with studios in San Francisco, London and New York. Her first career was in the art world, working at the Guggenheim Museum and prestigious art galleries in New York, Monaco and San Francisco. After deciding on a career shift, Chan became employee number two at Turner Duckworth, establishing and growing its design business in the United States. Over 24 years, she went from managing brand identity and packaging projects for clients like Amazon, Coca-Cola, Levi Strauss & Co. and Samsung to focusing on new business, operations, finance and management. Chan holds an MA. in art history from New York University and a BA in psychology and art history from Wellesley College. She was honored as one of AdAge’s Leading Women in 2021. She lives in Marin County, California, with her husband and daughter, where they are outnumbered by their four cats.


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