They’re young. They’re bold, ambitious and supertalented. There are only six of them, yet they’re taking over the world.
Usually, when they’re not visiting clients at top cultural and entertainment institutions or traveling around the country to consult or present, they’re working in a small storefront office on Avenue A in the East Village in New York City. At the time of this writing, however, due to COVID-19—like the teams at every other design firm and ad agency—they’re working remotely.
The firm was founded in 2010 by Jennifer Kinon and Bobby C. Martin Jr. as OCD | The Original Champions of Design. When the partners concluded after a long internal debate that the acronym OCD, while cheeky, had hurtful implications, they underwent the same kind of rigorous rebranding they engage in with their clients, a process that last year led to renaming themselves Champions Design. It’s an apt name for a firm whose client list is filled with the kind of boldface organizations known to gravitate toward global firms that have been around since “graphic design” first made it into the mainstream dictionary.
Kinon is a University of Michigan graduate whose college claim to fame was varsity athletics—the rowing team—not winning student design awards. Inspired by a short-term consulting gig, she came to New York in 2001 to attend the MFA Design program at New York’s School of Visual Arts (SVA). After graduation, she became, in rapid succession, art director at Graphis, design director for New York City’s bid to host the 2012 Olympic Games and a member of Michael Bierut’s team at Pentagram. Six years after cofounding Champions, she took a hiatus to lead the design efforts for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. She still cites the “Love Trumps Hate” slogan as one of her favorite projects.
Martin, a graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University, came to New York at the same time as Kinon, for the same reasons. After receiving his MFA, he worked with Brian Collins at Ogilvy’s Brand Integration Group and alongside Wynton Marsalis as design director of Jazz at Lincoln Center. He then spent two years in London, leading Nokia’s packaging design team, before returning to New York. He’s been elected to the boards of both the Type Directors Club and AIGA/NY. In 2017, Fast Company named him one of the “most creative people in business.” Yet he still refers to himself as “a Virginia country boy.”
At SVA, MFA Design cochairs Steven Heller and Lita Talarico noticed an affinity between them. “When the chemistry works, like it does with these two, you could just sense it,” Heller says. “You could also sense that with her talent and skills, Jennifer was destined for success,” Talarico adds. “And Bobby was the first student in the program who collaborated with an actual client for his thesis, rebranding the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem.”
Now they both teach in the program, guiding the next generation of students to become design leaders and entrepreneurs. Their secret sauce is made of many ingredients; after talent, there’s the right kind of design education and an incredibly positive, can-do attitude. Martin can speak at length about design as a profession, a practice and a craft—and about the drive to be the best at it. “Our strategy is to overdeliver,” he asserts. “If a client asks us to do three things, we do five. And we only take on projects we believe in, the ones that get us really excited to work on.” Kinon says, “From the beginning, we envisioned ourselves as a bold, unapologetic team, with a focus on social justice and diversity—a team that could take on the world.”
According to Laurel Richie, chair of Dartmouth College’s board of trustees, who’s worked with Champions on projects for several clients, “What sets Champions Design apart from all others—and I have worked with many leading design firms—is their process: deep research into the brand’s history and DNA, an inclusive engagement process, a crisp articulation of client aspirations, and the creativity and precision required to deliver big brand ideas.”
Carina Sandoval, Champions’ lead strategist and a graduate of SVA’s Masters in Branding program, describes that process as “four phases: research, strategy, design, implementation.” There’s nothing revolutionary about the phases, but the difference is the fire in their belly, and their need to do them more thoroughly, wholeheartedly and as a close-knit team. “We dive in and get immersed in the brand,” Sandoval explains, “then condense it to the essence or core and create a strategic framework.”
That deep dive is what clients who want differentiation—not another easy answer—are after. Thomas Berger, head of creative at MTV, calls Champions’ work “dynamic” and “rooted in strong concepts that transcend trend.” He chose them to bring a fresh point of view to the MTV Video Music Awards (VMAs) logo. “The work they presented immediately resonated, and it’s one of the few times I’ve been sure of something right out of the gate,” he says. “The mark we use today is virtually unchanged from the first round they proposed.” Champions’ VMAs mark pays tribute to Manhattan Design’s 1981 MTV logo, but its typographic forms are 2021, loud and clear.
The Girl Scouts of the USA project is another example. What was wrong with Saul Bass’s iconic 1978 logo? Very little. Thus, when the Girl Scouts called, saying, “We need a new logo,” Champions replied, “Let’s do some research and work on a brief together,” a response that builds trust and collaboration. The changes Champions ultimately made are subtle but important: the trefoil comes to a graceful, more distinctive point, and the girls’ profiles that fill it are more stylish, with perky noses and youthful bangs. More importantly, the research from the deep dive culminated in a program that includes a poster Kinon calls “the synopsis of the whole identity system.” Also referred to as “the cheat sheet,” the poster could be described as a representation of eight key pages of a brand guidelines manual—one designed and written from the point of view of a friendly adviser. That cheat sheet, Martin jokes, “brought us about 75 percent of our business. If everyone wants one, it’s for good reason.” For example, a Girl Scout troop leader can learn from the poster how to use the colors, the signatures of the various grade levels of members—daisies, brownies, cadettes—the typography and even the imagery; the sketchbook-like line drawings created by her troop could be ideal illustrations, because they’re “personal and on-brand.” And all that information is on her wall in a clean, accessible format.
Right now, the results of the work for the Studio Museum in Harlem are only on the walls of the people working on the project. But both designers and client talk excitedly about it. Says the museum’s director and chief curator, Thelma Golden, “Champions Design consistently exceeds expectations, delivering thrilling, innovative designs that a firm the Museum’s mission of being the nexus for artists of African descent. Throughout our multiyear collaboration, Champions have provided design direction that honors our history while propelling the institution forward.”
However, getting projects and nurturing client relationships worthy of accolades like “thrilling” isn’t always easy, Martin admits. A firm headed by a White woman and a Black man has its challenges. “We encounter explicit and implicit bias whether we’re running our company or sitting on boards of organizations. It’s the world we live and work in. We address bias and discrimination when we can. And when we can’t, we roll our sleeves up and figure out how to get stuff done. The hope is our work will open doors to make it easier for those coming after us,” he explains. “Basically, we have to work harder. We have to do more. We have to be smarter. Especially now, with the virus. It’s a juggling act to keep the right bodies in the right place. We turned on a dime from being together every day, collaborating in person and having regular ‘coffee and creative’ meetings, to successfully interacting with each other and our clients on our screens.”
A good part of that success can also be attributed to project manager Haley Kattner Allen, who, before joining Champions, worked on the agency side as well as in-house. “I keep a bird’s-eye view of all projects so we can balance workloads and timelines to ensure each project receives the care and attention it deserves,” she says. “I also work directly with clients to maintain clear lines of communication. I’m proud to be part of every project not only because of the incredible caliber of work, but because each project really stands for something.” The staff’s ability to work together successfully can also be attributed to the workplace the partners cultivate, according to Allen, “which gives everyone ownership of their projects and plenty of room for advancement.” Case in point: design director Michael McCaughley began as an intern and “moved up the ranks to where I’m at now.”
And then there’s the aspect of fun that Slack can’t duplicate. The East Village, though gentrifying, is still one of the hippest, most happening places in New York City, with a vibe that’s remained since the days Allen Ginsberg read his poetry at St. Mark’s Church. Just outside the office, there’s no shortage of entertainment venues and interesting places to eat. Inside, a Swiss mountain dog sleeps at the designers’ feet while they work to the rhythms of an eclectic playlist everyone helped curate.
All of them are hoping that by the time you read this, they’ll be back there again, together, continuing to prove that they deserve being named by Fast Company as one of “the 30 most important design companies of 2019.” ca