When designer Joshua Chen met chef William Werner, they sensed an instant rapport. Werner wanted to start a high-end patisserie using local sourcing, high-quality ingredients and exciting new flavor combinations. He interviewed several designers and recognized Chen as someone equally passionate about his craft. “I had all this branding imagery, photos of my work, ideas I thought would be helpful and some of the designers didn’t even want to look at them,” Werner said. “But Josh just pored over it.” In the process of working together, what began as a traditional designer/client relationship has now evolved into an exciting new business venture that gives Chen the opportunity to shape and communicate ideas on a foundational level while developing products with mystique, emotion and, even, brand love.
Chen Design Associates is located on a quiet side street in the heart of San Francisco’s Financial District. Flanked by the rare bench and tree, the formal architecture of the 105-year-old building complements the casual, industrious vibe of CDA up on the fifth floor. The large, sky-lit studio is bright and open, while Chen’s office is more like an elegant man-cave with a balcony and tabletops casually spread with his books and ephemera. During his 21 years in business, Chen, 45, and CDA have survived both the dot-com and real estate recessions, and now a staff of ten cultivates work with diverse clients and products. “You hear that, in order to survive, you have to specialize,” said Max Spector, art director and design director. “But it seems like what’s worked for us is the opposite. We want to expand what we offer, not specialize.”
CDA’s clients include Chronicle Books, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, The North Face, Stanford University, Masons of California, the University of California, Berkeley and People’s Harvest, to name a few. Its creative approach blends intuition with analysis of what a design solution says, how it speaks to the end user and what it communicates to the audience. “We really value the intuitive part, the uniqueness, the unexpected,” Spector said. “Ultimately some of that has got to be there if your design solution is going to make the audience pause and take notice.” As an art director, he has no interest in CDA’s creatives fostering an identifiable look in their designs. “We work against it when we recognize traits or stylistic leanings. As Stefan Sagmeister says, ‘Style equals fart.’ I interpret that to mean there’s no good reason to actively cultivate your own style. We want to have more tools in our arsenal.” Before CDA developed the look for Werner’s brand, Tell Tale Preserve Company, it began with its identity. Why is the logo a strawberry, held by a caliper with a tiny rolling pin attached to it? “I think it just invites people to ask those questions,” Chen said. “Maybe it’s a twist, maybe it’s a new way of presenting this food or maybe it’s a juxtaposition of the modern versus the old and how those two things work together.”
CDA developed Tell Tale’s entire brand from logo and stationery to packaging and the look of the retail store, but when the investor financing fell through, the patisserie already had a sizable following established. A new company, Outfit Generic, was formed and Chen became chief design officer, one of the company’s five partners. The idea was to come up with a name that would be intriguing, but also wouldn’t limit creativity. “Curiosity is a lost art,” Chen said. “We're bombarded everyday with all these messages telling us to do this, think that, buy this or act this way. Building intrigue is much more interesting and more layered. There’s depth and a continuation of the story. That doesn’t happen if it’s just one-dimensional.” Outfit Generic recently opened its new patisserie, Craftsman and Wolves, in the Valencia corridor of San Francisco’s Mission District.
Diversity is key to Josh Chen’s history. By the time he was ten years old, he had already lived on three continents. His father’s missionary work relocated the family from Taiwan, where Chen was born, to Singapore, Paris, Brussels, Springfield, Missouri, and back to Taiwan before they finally settled in California. Chen remembered Springfield as a difficult transition. “I was probably the only Chinese kid in grammar school and I had a really hard time,” he said. “They assumed, of course, that I was fresh off the boat from China, but I was like, ‘No. I came from Europe. I speak French and Flemish.’”
The richness of his European education in culture and art had a profound effect on him. Every Wednesday afternoon, Chen’s elementary school in Rhode-Saint-Genèse, just south of Brussels, would visit a museum. He loved to draw throughout his childhood, especially cars, houses and, specifically, tour buses. “I think that thread wove through the story of my life, wanting those connections, wanting people to understand, wanting to cross the cultural and social borders we put up between each other.”
With its diverse ethnic population and small size, Albany, California, proved to be a comfortable permanent home for Chen and his family during his junior and high school years. San Francisco is just 30 minutes across the bay and he attended San Francisco State University studying broadcast communications. Though he really enjoyed the behind-the-scenes role of a producer, he had no idea about how to use his degree. Fortunately, a publication design class gave him new direction. His instructor’s wife hired him at $5 an hour to work in her home-based graphic design business. Being a learn-in-the-trenches kind of guy, he found Betsy Brill was a helpful mentor who taught him the fundamentals of the industry. “I learned about being resourceful, how to manage my time and about being flexible and in the moment,” he said. Brill decided to focus on writing and her clients were soon handed off to Chen, who juggled freelance work with a few years spent in the marketing communications department at Bechtel Corporation.
His client list grew with Apple, Adobe, nonprofits and local arts organizations, such as the San Francisco Symphony. Chen’s family had grown, as well. He married Pamela, whom he’d met in college and had two children, Rachel and Ethan. By 1999, he started entering his work in competitions and one of the first pieces that gave his company visibility was a promotional piece called Methodology. This hand-assembled calendar was a play on the unfounded Y2K fear of a technological crisis occurring at the start of the new millennium. Chen’s calendar offered an alternative of twelve elements; each month a different example showing what makes good design timeless, regardless of technology. “Methodology gave the design firm credibility and, while it was fun for the studio, it was also promoted in numerous design books and became a great tool to prequalify a client.”
That success sparked an interest in producing more design products that would put their energies toward a greater cause. “At some point during the dot-com era, everyone had big egos, unlimited amounts of money to spend and promotional pieces from paper companies were equally lavish,” Chen said. “To what end, what purpose?” conversations kept reoccurring within the CDA team. “In 2001, post 9/11, there was a lot of talk about Good vs. Evil and Us vs. Them. We went to war and made rash decisions about who the enemy was.” Chen and Dr. David Krieger, founder of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, co-authored Peace: 100 Ideas, CDA’s next full-color illustrated book. The 100 ideas suggest simple, but contemplative acts of peace, for example: Erase a border in your mind. “We were hoping to start the conversation, ‘What do we really mean by peace?’” He opened the book at random and laughed. It read: Let someone else go first. “I have trouble with this one when I’m driving,” he said. Peace: 100 Ideas found distribution, was sold at the Museum of Modern Art, Urban Outfitters and entered in several design competitions.
CDA’s numerous awards for design and packaging include American Packaging Design, Communication Arts, Graphis and Print design annuals, AIGA, the Type Directors Club and the Addy Awards. As much as publications hold an important place in its body of work, most of its designs are rooted in branding. Archetypes in Branding: A Toolkit for Creatives and Strategists is a resource for designers and their clients co-authored by Chen and Margaret Pott Hartwell, brand strategy director for CDA. The toolkit is a deck of cards that features 60 illustrated archetypes with detailed information to help better understand a brand's customer base. The cards have many uses, including brainstorming, ideas for mood board imagery explorations and developing the look and feel of brand vocabulary.
“Archetypes are part of the collective unconscious,” Chen said. “Understanding what roles the brand plays, whether it’s a storyteller brand, an idealist brand or a heroic brand is another way to create content for people to wrap their hearts and brains around.” Archetypes in Branding, to be published by HOW Books in September 2012, helps define a brand’s deeper level of needs and motivations. Spector led the creative team on this project and said, “A strategic approach that targets an archetype is going to be massively more successful. It means more audience base, more sales and more brand loyalty.”
Chen sees a dual future for CDA. One part is continuing with products like Archetypes and Fingerprint No. 2, the follow-up to the successful first book on graphic design that uses handmade elements. He’s also excited about the work with diverse clients, whether they’re startups or established corporations that need brand refreshes or product lines that might have a positive impact on the world. “We just want to work with good people and push the envelope in the best way to help take them to the next level.”ca