How did you first become interested in design? Growing up in the Philippines in the ’80s, I didn’t have the opportunity to learn about design masters like Paul Rand, Paula Scher and Saul Bass, nor did I have exposure to design publications like Communication Arts, Emigre, The Face and Graphis. What I knew about design, I learned by reading mainstream fashion and interior design magazines that I had access to in the Philippines. I had a voracious appetite for magazines. Around the time I was graduating with my first degree from Ateneo de Manila University, my favorite magazine was Harper’s Bazaar, then under creative director Fabien Baron, who had been hired by editor-in-chief Liz Tilberis. Under his direction, type was image and image was messaging.
As a communication arts major at Ateneo de Manila, I thought my chosen profession would be journalism. However, after dabbling in journalism for a short period, I decided I needed to explore how to use type and image to communicate, so I enrolled in art school in the United States. When I pursued my second degree at the California College of the Arts, I knew immediately that I would study graphic design.
After graduating from school, you worked at the publisher Chronicle Books. What did you learn from your experience there? I learned that design is not a lonely endeavor. I also learned that the best design is often the most collaborative. From writers and editors to photographers and illustrators to designers and the design director, each person involved in the design process touches the final product and is a cocreator of it. It was at Chronicle that I learned that I love seeing design from a wider perspective, realizing the overall creative direction in addition to crafting and fine-tuning the design details. When I started Character, I was able to take these skills with me and further hone them.
You cofounded the design and branding agency Character in 1999. What was it like working in San Francisco during the early 2000s? It was an exciting time. The internet was starting to take shape, and it proved more useful to brands for reaching wider audiences. As a result, traditional graphic designers started to feel pressure and urgency to hone their digital craft. At Character, we wanted to stay true to our roots in traditional graphic design, but we also saw an opportunity in the digital arena to tell deeper stories for our clients and their brands. We took our time deepening our capabilities until we were truly able to say that we were a full-service branding agency.
Character landed its first big account—for Pottery Barn Kids—pretty quickly. Did you have to learn any lessons on the job? We learned the importance of identifying and understanding the core consumer. Pottery Barn Kids’ consumers are not kids—since young children rarely ask to go furniture shopping—but rather, parents, grandparents and other grown-ups. It was necessary for us to appeal to the childlike wonder within every grown-up.
What do you think makes your work for Pottery Barn Kids so timeless? When developing the Pottery Barn Kids branding system, we intentionally avoided trend-driven approaches. Instead, we found inspiration in Victorian paper cutouts and the bright-eyed depiction of childhood found in Norman Rockwell’s work. In the end, our work was grounded in ideas rather than style.
Character has worked with both startups and established companies. How has working with both types of companies changed you as a designer? When working with larger organizations like Nike, Facebook and Peet’s Coffee, you collaborate with more stakeholders. With startups, you work directly with the founders. From one project to the next, we need to be more agile and flexible in our process and adapt to the culture of a big business versus that of a scrappier entrepreneur.
What’s one thing designers have come to overlook in the realm of branding? Because designers have such a deep visual vocabulary, some have a tendency to underestimate the written word and overlook the power of verbal identity. However, both should work hand-in-hand to express the brand experience.
What excites you about design right now? Design is less meta nowadays. Instead, it’s become more about people—human problems, needs and desires—and it speaks to interconnectedness and shows grounding in reality.
Is there a trick to helping brands seem relatable? There is a need today for companies to behave in a transparent manner. Consumers are savvier. They now have a working understanding of branding and feel a need to interact with authentic companies. It is our job—through communication and design—to help our clients stay true to who they really are. Then consumers will find something to relate to.