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A visit to Hambly & Woolley Inc. is a bit like time traveling. Although you’re very much in the present and the future, you’re also stepping back to the days when the design business was kinder and gentler, less competitive, when clients were concerned more with quality than getting everything at the lowest cost.

Clients hire Hambly & Woolley to design and produce the brand identity and the big image pieces, as well as the one-column ads, the business cards and the 300-page reports. For Ontario College of Art & Design, for example, they’ve done everything from the identity, signage, stationery and graphic standards manual to the recruiting and fundraising materials, the ads and event invitations, even the diplomas. Hambly & Woolley clients don’t seem to have the “just send us the template” and “we can do it all in-house” attitude that’s so prevalent south of the U.S.-Canadian border, and maybe everywhere else in the world, these days.

Is this the way things are all over Canada, or just in Toronto, or just at the offices of Hambly & Woolley? Perhaps the latter. The quietly powerful, meticulously-crafted design they do here is like a breath of fresh air. And thankfully, it’s appreciated by enough retailers, professional firms, entrepreneurial businesses, government and educational institutions and cultural and arts organizations to have kept the firm thriving for fifteen years.

Bob Hambly and Barb Woolley met in 1984 and founded their firm six years later. Theirs is a love story as well as a business success story. “It was love at first sight,” they say in unison when describing the day that Bob, an Ontario-born illustrator newly graduated from Philadelphia College of Art, brought his sketches to Barb, a magazine art director at the Toronto’s Saturday Night magazine. It took a little while for Bob to work up the courage to ask her out on a real first date, not just a working lunch, and for Barb to shed her then-boyfriend. They had a big church wedding. Now they have a 12-year-old daughter, Emma, and a $2.3 million business with 12 employees, 40 active clients and a 5-page job docket with 100 projects at different stages of production.

“I couldn’t do it without him,” says Barb of Bob. “We support each other in everything we do,” adds Bob. They just celebrated their nineteenth wedding anniversary.

Hambly & Woolley is a genuine family business. Barb’s mom, Diane, is the bookkeeper. Her brother, Gord, a business school graduate, came in to set up the systems and network and never left. Now he’s a senior associate, heading up a five-month, bilingual communications project for the organization that’s advising the Canadian government on what to do with nuclear waste. Theresa, a sister-in-law, is controller. “There are a lot of Woolleys around,” says Barb. “We’re a close family, but we’ve never given family members unfair advantages,” Bob insists.

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“They’re here because they’re the best people for the job.” If employees aren’t family, they might be neighbors and are surely friends. Freelance production manager Sonja Kloss lives across the street from Bob, Barb and Emma. “This firm has the best mix of people in town,” she agrees, “and I’ve worked at a lot of places. Just show that you’re trustworthy, and you can take the ball as far as you can carry it.”

Last year, the firm moved to new offices in a renovated loft building in Toronto’s eclectic fashion district, near the CN Tower, clubs, restaurants, fashion ateliers, a big Harley-Davidson show-room and big client Ontario College of Art & Design (OCAD, alma mater of Barb and half the employees). The office is so quiet and serene, it’s hard to believe that fourteen people are working here. It’s a tribute to architect Cindy Rendely that the 5,000-square-foot floor feels like wide open, uninhabited space even when it’s occupied by two principals, six designers, two production people and four support staff—each in his or her own office—and up to four dogs, plus neatly aligned collections of books, rocks, shells and tin globes. In the reception area, central hub with common areas, conference room and library, the walls are pristine white—and the exact hues of orange, pink, chocolate, green and blue that match the colors of the Hambly & Woolley pig and sheep logo and pattern on their presentation folder and whimsical holiday gifts.

Other than sending clients an annual pig-and-sheep-themed umbrella, pencil set or pair of socks, the firm does no overt marketing and promotion. No cold-calling. No sales staff. They rely on referrals, word of mouth and the stealth marketing conducted by the work itself, the pieces they’ve designed that are circulating in the world. “If it’s good and it’s out there, it will come back to us,” says Bob.

The firm’s philosophy was developed with the guidance of Roger Martin, dean of the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management. “Roger is a friend as well as a great advisor and a huge proponent for design,” Bob explains. “He taught us to only do the kind of work we want to keep doing.” Luckily, Hambly & Woolley have been able to adhere to that selective mode of thinking, turning down projects that won’t lead where they want to go, and making their own way without following trends. “We go about our design quietly,” says Barb. “The work is about them, our clients, not about us.”

As a former magazine art director, Barb’s favorite project is harry, a 108-page, oversized, full-color magazine that’s sold on newsstands and mailed to preferred clients of Harry Rosen Inc., a chain of 15 upscale menswear stores across Canada. For nearly six years she’s been going to merchandising meetings, figuring out how to tell the season’s stories, art directing the photography, laying out the pages, and bringing the clothing to all-night press checks to make sure the ink on paper matches the colors and textures of the fabrics. “In the beginning Harry took a leap of faith with us,” she admits. “Now we are menswear experts.” Sonja Kloss, who’s been working with Barb on the project for five years, is more direct: “Harry is a tailor of bespoke, or custom-made, suits,” she says. “We provide bespoke design, beautifully tailored to his needs.” She gives Barb’s expert art direction and exacting eye for detail most of the credit. “She makes it look so easy.”

We go about our design quietly. The work is about them, our clients, not about us.” —Barb Woolley

Bob’s affinity is for visual identity and branding. “It’s the illustrator in me,” he says, “that likes to distill things to their essence.” For more than seven years he’s been doing the iconic brush-and-ink illustrations for the “Lives” feature on the back page of the Sunday New York Times Magazine. The Toronto Zoo rebranding project is an example of his consensus-building yet uncompromising design management style. The client requested that elements from the existing mark be retained, and rather than seeing this as an unfair restriction, Bob headed the team that built a friendly new system around it. “The process of working with large committees and getting agreement isn’t daunting any more,” he says. Bob also directs the visual identity and all collateral materials for the Peel District School Board, second-largest in Canada—the kind of client that doesn’t usually invest in high-end photography and printing. “This is a story about the value of design,” he says, “and of the client getting great results.”

Hambly & Woolley’s identity and marketing communications for the Nightwood Theatre could be a paradigm for all non-profit organizations. Most pieces in the system are one color, orange (a Hambly & Woolley favorite) or two colors, orange and gray, with stripes and patterns (other hallmarks). The work is clean, bright, witty and demonstrates how beautifully-set type and smart thinking can make production dollars go farther. For example, a sheet of stickers in different shapes and sizes lets the client make custom press kits from off-the-shelf folders and affix theater slogans (“inspiring,” “dynamic”) just about anywhere. “We do all type projects like this by choice, integrating word and image using only letterforms,” Barb points out. The work for the Donald Ellis Gallery has solidified the gallery’s reputation as experts in North American Indian art and artifacts. The color printing is dazzling, and every one of the 48 pages is a French fold. “This piece had to have incredible quality to align with the collector audience and the value of the works of art,” says Bob. Unlike other clients who might still be arguing about the extra production costs, gallery owner Donald Ellis calls working with Hambly & Woolley on his annual catalog a highlight of the year. “In no other professional relationship is the process so seamless and intuitive,” he says.

Are clients really more appreciative in Toronto, and is life at design firms here kinder and gentler? Or is this just the impression of a visitor from cutthroat New York? “It’s all about that word again, trust” is Barb’s answer. “Our clients trust us to do the right thing. Toronto designers respect each other, and the competition is friendly. We don’t compete on price. Only about five percent of work is awarded by competitive bidding.” Does the professional accreditation of designers by RGD Ontario help? “Yes” is the answer from both. “We’re positioned as thinkers, not just dabblers.” As longtime firm principals active in the Toronto design community who teach and mentor young designers, both were “grandfathered in” as Registered Graphic Designers, but still had to meet with the accreditation board and present work. “Whether clients know the difference right now isn’t relevant, but it will be in the future,” predicts Barb. “RGD is supporting the design community with advocacy and setting standards, like no spec work.” The partners are also interested in setting standards for their own staff. “We are always trying to understand what keeps creative people together and motivated,” Bob maintains. It’s a nine-to-five-thirty office, except when there’s a deadline, which is a lot of the time. When staff members work nights and weekends, though, they get extra time off. The whole office goes out for birthdays and excursions. According to “resident nerd” Benjamin Rivers, “there’s a lot of fun stuff like an annual scavenger hunt when people look for best type, worst mistranslation or misspelling.” More important, everybody gets to be the author of his or her work, and gets recognized for it. For Rivers, that’s been the opportunity to supervise the outside Web developers who program the big sites, and to do the programming himself on sites like nightwoodtheatre.net. “It’s clean and minimalist and everything’s right where it needs to be,” he says.

Roger [Martin] is a friend as well as a great advisor and a huge proponent for design. He taught us to only do the kind of work we want to keep doing.” —Bob Hambly

“I guess I’m pretty lucky. It was a natural fit here,” asserts Emese Ungar-Walker, a designer born in Hungary. Hambly & Woolley is her first job, and after four years she’s an integral part of the team, heading up the branding effort for the Toronto Botanical Garden and developing exhibit models for OCAD. Philip Mondor, an OCAD graduate whose newly expanded responsibilities as an associate include doing a lot of the talking and project managing, calls the office an inspiring place where you are nurtured and pushed at the same time. Designer Francis Chen, a 1999 OCAD graduate who’s been with the firm for just over a year, also likes the mix of support and freedom. “It’s great working here because all of us get involved in design decisions from the very beginning,” she says.

“Taking a leadership role,” is what associate Dominic Ayre, educated at St. Clair College in Ontario and Bournemouth & Poole College of Design in England, sees as the future of the firm. Ayre says that his six years with Hambly & Woolley have taught him about leadership in graphic design; he’s planning to teach a class on the subject. “It’s about being driven by business needs as well as by love for type and concept, and about not doing things in a standard or formulaic way,” he advises. To illustrate this, he points to an anniversary event invitation-retrospective for Sutherland Models. Featuring twenty years of silhouettes of models, icons well known in Canada’s fashion industry, it looks like a glossy insert in a women’s-wear tabloid. Looking more closely, the silhouettes are filled with painterly photographic images from this year’s ad campaigns. Like much of the firm’s work, it doesn’t scream at you, but it’s unlike anything in its genre you’ve ever seen.

Bob Hambly and Barb Woolley are doing all the right things. They’re building a business that may have value for decades to come. They’ve built enough trust among their clients and employees so that they might be able to spend a little more time doing other things they love, like horseback riding with Emma, skiing Utah and Colorado, and exploring Georgian Bay’s 30,000 islands. They say the firm has reached its optimum size, but it’s almost a given that more and more companies will be calling on the Toronto firm with the pig and sheep logo that does the quietly powerful, meticulously-crafted design. And it’s likely that after the first creative presentation those clients will echo the sentiments of Mark Jamison, CEO of Magazines Canada, for which Hambly & Woolley designed the logo: “Our new look speaks for itself. It’s unique, clever and timeless.” ca

Ellen Shapiro (visualanguage.net) is a graphic designer and writer based in Irvington, New York. The author of The Graphic Designer’s Guide to Clients (Allworth Press) and nearly 200 magazine articles about design, illustration, photography and visual culture around the world, Shapiro has been contributing to CA since 1991.

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