Naming their business Design Army might have appeared a bit over-confident back in 2003 when it was just Pum and Jake Lefebure working out of their home, but today, the ten-person firm, in their custom-designed offices, appears prophetically titled.
“We knew we didn’t want our names on it—Lefebure and Mek-aroonreung—come on,” Jake says.
But Design Army? “We see Design Army as a brand rather than a design shop,” Pum says. “Yes, we’re a design firm in Washington, DC, but we don’t want to limit ourselves to anything.”
Jake, from the mountains of Pennsylvania and trained at Pennsylvania State University, and Pum, from the sprawling city of Bangkok and educated at Radford University, met at DC-based Supon Design Group, where Jake eventually became the creative director and Pum the sole senior art director. “After many late nights and weekends at the office it just seemed natural that we start dating,” Pum says. “Soon we were doing laundry, grocery shopping and everything else together, and it wasn't long before we were together 24/7.”
A change in ownership at the firm convinced the married couple it was time to strike out on their own. “The first couple of months were a bit of a shock,” Jake explains. “We basically worked at our kitchen table, staying up until 3:00 in the morning to do an annual report. We had to build a portfolio to show clients, so we treated each project like it was the last project we were going to do.”
Their big break came quickly and from an unlikely source. “One of our first clients came from a yard-sale flyer we did,” Jake says. “He said, ‘This is the best yard-sale flyer I’ve ever seen in my life. Are you guys designers? I’ve started a company with my partner...’ He was part of the Clinton administration and he knew everybody. So we took his project on for not a lot of money thinking if this guy knows as many people as he says he does, this is the kind of client we want.”
“He led us to the Washington Ballet and the Human Rights Campaign,” Pum says.
“Within six months, we had to start hiring,” Jake adds.
Another great source of new clients has come from designing invitations for gala events. “There’s a lot of fundraising in this town—$1,000-a-seat tickets,” Pum says.
“All the invitation work we do goes out to business owners and marketing executives,” Jake says. “It doesn’t pay well, but it reaches the right people.”
A year later, Design Army had moved into a small row house office, taking over two floors; eventually occupying all three. A growing staff and workload convinced the pair to look for a more permanent space. “We purchased a burnt-out commercial building in the northeast part of DC that had been sitting empty since 1972,” Jake says. “From 2005 to 2007 we renovated the old two-story building into a three-and-a-half-story space. The only original detail we kept was the façade.”
Considering their rapid growth, is the current configuration of nine workstations and two private offices enough? “We have no desire to go larger,” Jake says. “It’s great to keep control of the creative. We’ve got our finger on every project that comes in and goes out the door.”
“We already experienced too big at Supon Design when we got up to 40 designers,” Pum adds. “We know what size is best for us if we want to do good work.”
Bucking the trend of design firms pushing for larger-scale, longer-term programs, Design Army is a project-based studio, producing approximately 400 projects per year—60 percent for fashion/arts/entertainment-based clients, 20 percent for corporate and 20 percent for nonprofit and other clients. “I try to limit the amount of brand projects because they can take like six-to-eight months to finish, and I want to get paid,” Jake says.
“The best project for us is one that has a deadline,” Pum adds.
Bucking another trend, 75 percent of their work is print-based. “There’s always going to be print design around in some form or fashion,” Jake says. “And there are certain industries where it’s never going to go away.”
When describing the firm’s approach to creative problem solving, Jake is succinct. “Our style is very direct: verbal/visual. You put the two together, you make a connection, that’s what we do,” he says. “It’s very old school. It doesn’t matter if it’s film, pixels or print. A good idea is a good idea.”
“We’re really good at subtracting things that are not necessary,” Pum adds.
Old school could also describe their ideation methodology—everyone on staff is required to sketch their ideas in notebooks. “If you can’t get a concept down on a piece of paper, don’t bother with the execution,” Pum says. “Our designers focus on the concept, not on what font or style of execution to use, but on what we’re trying to say.
“We hire a lot of people right out of school because it doesn’t matter if they have five years or no experience,” she says. “They have to work the Design Army way. Sketch. If they don’t know how to sketch, they have to learn. That’s how we get the idea across. It works. We cut 50 percent of unnecessary execution and the client totally focuses on the idea.”
“We can’t do this with every client,” Jake says. “Arts and entertainment clients are more creative and can envision, but for corporate clients we have to do full comps.”
That’s not to say that Design Army plays it safe with their corporate clients.
“We are risk-takers and will show a conservative client a limit-pushing design,” Jake says. “We always have a very good reason for what we do and we’ve gotten some pretty conservative people to go for it; it paid off for them because they stood out.”
“If the client feels we are a part of their team and share in their success or failure, they’re willing to listen to us more,” Pum says. “It’s better to go crazy and then tone it down, than to have the client say, ‘We were expecting to be blown-away.’”
“We also tend to deal with owners of companies,” Jake says. “They’re the best clients because they can quickly say ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ We don’t have a lot of clients where it’s an up-chain situation, except for our corporate clients, but even then the up-chain is only two steps.”
The partners operate from clearly defined roles: Jake handles all new business inquiries, RFPs and most of the print buying; Pum is the creative director, designs and works with any photographers needed on a project. Both will work with writers depending on the project. Still, the partners do have an occasional disagreement over the creative direction on some projects.
“We disagree all the time,” Jake says. “We yell at each other and our designers just put in their ear buds. Five minutes later I’m like, ‘I’m going to get something to eat. You want something?’ We’ve been able to turn it on and off. When it’s business, it’s business and when it’s us, it’s us."
The short-term nature of most of Design Army’s work means each designer is juggling multiple projects at any given time. Paperwork is kept to a minimum. “We don't do time sheets,” Jake says. “I’d rather have our staff spend that half hour being creative than filling out time sheets each day. We’re small enough to know what’s going on.
“We like being creative and 95 percent of the time our staff knows that coming into work is going to be fun,” Jake says. “They’re always trying to wrap up projects because they know there’s something new going on.”
In the future, that “something new” may not be limited graphic design.
“We don’t know where Design Army is going to be ten years from now, but things have to evolve,” Pum says. “We might even do a Design Army product line. We’ve been looking at manufacturing in Asia. In this economy, you can’t look at the design market as American only—we can sell product to the entire world.” ca