Is there anything that peeves Joey Parlett and Roger Frank about the branding and design worlds?
“No peeves. I’m a perfect Pollyanna. I have more of a fear than a peeve,” says Parlett, Skyping in from Little Jacket’s Brooklyn outpost. Which is? “You follow a formula, you get formulaic work. We have to apply rigor first, but you also need that play element.”
Frank, chiming in from the branding studio’s home base in Cleveland, explains further. “Everyone has a [creative] model. You would not be a good practitioner if you didn’t have a model. But you also have to allow for happenstance, those great imaginative leaps.”
Parlett interjects. Turns out he does have a peeve.
“That thing in branding when people say look at me, look at me, and don’t acknowledge no one wants to look at you. It’s our job to start a conversation worth having. No one cares about what you want to say [as a brand]. You have to say it in a way that provokes [people] to care or gets them to stop for a moment.” Parlett pauses for emphasis, embodying two qualities that are rarely mixed: Midwestern-nice and Brooklyn-straight.
This exchange happened relatively late in our 90-minute call. But within minutes of our conversation, I was left with some interestingly conflicted thoughts. First, is it possible to reek of integrity? Because these guys do. Second: their brand of Midwestern-nice entails its own forms of bluntness. Third, and perhaps most important: play can have weight. All these enigmas reveal themselves in Little Jacket’s work style and approach, best described as straightforward, humble and dogged.
Little Jacket began in 2004 when Parlett and fellow cofounders Ken Hejduk and Mikey Burton, then all students at Kent State University, began designing concert posters in their basement. “We were really into this single by [the band] LCD Soundsystem, ‘Losing My Edge,’” Parlett recalls. “It was basically about getting a little older in New York and losing your edge to some 22-year-olds. There’s a line in the song: ‘Little jackets and borrowed nostalgia from the unremembered eighties.’ Being that we started in the music industry, we called ourselves Little Jacket based on that really small lyric that isn’t even quoted correctly from that song.” (Even this remark reveals Little Jacket’s precision and modesty—that lyric quote is absolutely correct.) The team moved from one-off poster design to branding work over time. Burton later left Little Jacket to pursue illustration full-time, while Hejduk left in 2017 to work on product design. Both partings were amicable: Hejduk remains a minority owner, and his wife still works as Little Jacket’s office manager. Parlett stayed on as a designer, and Frank joined in 2009 as a partner and creative director. (The transition was an easy one for Frank because he had frequently collaborated with Little Jacket while he was vice president/associate creative director at Cleveland-based ad agency Marcus Thomas.) Today, Parlett and Frank lead a team of four full-time staff with two part-timers they call “instrumental” to the firm.
Teamwork runs deep for Little Jacket, as does a strong multidisciplinary streak. Not so for shallow eye candy and splashy, thoughtless execution. “We are small but mighty,” says Parlett. “There’s no one allowed on our island who doesn’t plus-up what we do.” Design director Christian Woltman says, “I always felt like an owner, even though I’m not.” What attracted him to work at Little Jacket (a job that he secured by accosting Hejduk in the bathroom at an AIGA event) was that “the idea and the execution always matched. Lots of agencies have a good idea that they don’t fully finish. Or beautiful work that doesn’t necessarily have a real idea underneath. Little Jacket had that marriage of idea, design, writing and strategy.”
A recent project for the American Library Association (ALA) offers an ideal case in point. Tasked in 2015 with developing the Libraries Transform national public awareness campaign for the ALA, Little Jacket “faced the double whammy of developing a ‘sticky’ and succinct message that shifted traditional perceptions of libraries,” says Sari Feldman, then ALA’s president. Oh, and with almost no paid-media budget.
Little Jacket started by uncovering the deeper need behind the brief—the question behind the question. “It’s not that the library has books,” Frank says. “It’s that it enables people to gain knowledge, and that knowledge might be digital. It might be something in the maker space. It might be access to 3-D printers. It might be that they’re going through a career transition or they’re underemployed and they need help. [The library] has staff for that.” The campaign revolved around a single potent word: because. By using this word as the linchpin of the campaign, Little Jacket answered the question of “Why do we need libraries?” with a plethora of answers, such as “Because more than a quarter of US households don’t have a computer with an internet connection” and “Because the world is at their fingertips, and the world can be a scary place.” The approach worked wonders in explaining the multifaceted civic value of the public library system and encouraged library-boosters to supply their own “because” statements. To solve the problem of reach, Little Jacket harnessed the ALA’s wide physical footprint—nearly 120,000 libraries across the United States—by creating branded print and digital materials that could be shared with all participating libraries. At one Washington, DC–based launch event, librarians invited “members of the public to ‘test’ their knowledge of libraries, and surprised them with free cups of coffee. [It] prompted people to spend a moment thinking about libraries and consider how the library might fit into their lives.”
Three years into the campaign, the results are strong. In Indiana alone, the campaign helped generate $3 million in government funding to close the digital divide, giving underprivileged library-goers both free internet access and training to use the web effectively. Frank recalls a proud moment in Little Jacket’s work for the ALA: “One [Indiana] state legislator said, ‘Without this campaign, we might not have connected how important the library is as a link for these constituents.’” He continues: “But just as exciting are the interesting ways that [member libraries] evolved the campaign. They’ve made it their own. They make their own ‘because’ statements, their own expressions.” Currently, 7,500 of ALA’s more than 50,000 member libraries are participating, so there’s a lot more runway ahead.
Open Doors Academy (ODA), a Cleveland-based nonprofit, demonstrates that same strain of cheerfully crowdsourced optimism that Little Jacket brings to all of its projects. By engaging middle and high school youth with out-of-school programming, ODA hopes to help them reach their full potential. Frank has served on ODA’s board of directors in various capacities, including as president, since joining Little Jacket.
To develop content for ODA’s brand guide and annual reports, Little Jacket cohosts a one-week camp for the kids every summer. “The kids are our compass,” Frank says. “If you try to do an annual report for the kids on how hopeless their lives are, even though many of them are low income with challenges, you wouldn’t do that annual report if you’re being honest. These kids are filled with so much hope and believe so strongly in their future.”
“We use [the camp experience] to define what the annual reports will be for the year, and we teach them a little bit about design. … Turns out you can’t teach kids design in a week,” Frank says with a laugh. “But you can teach them our writing techniques and how to interview. They can concept. You can help them ask better questions.” The rigor of Little Jacket’s creative methods—extensive research, close listening, active questioning, constant ego-free iteration—makes it a natural match to work with teenagers.
Dr. Annemarie M. Grassi, chief executive officer of ODA, considers this iterative approach key to the studio’s success. “Little Jacket’s drive for perfection for beauty, emotion and a higher level of thought is one of my favorite qualities in the partnership. I love when we come together to review the work being done, argue back and forth about whether or not it meets expectations. When it does, great. But when it doesn’t it is even greater, because while it may be tough to hear initially, they always come back ten times stronger, with a second revision.” In describing Little Jacket’s communication style, Parlett says, “We don’t sugarcoat, but we’re also respectful. I think the most disrespectful thing is not sharing your full opinion with someone.”
When asked to describe the ideal Little Jacket client, Parlett remarks, “They find us way more than we find them. Whether nonprofit or for profit, there’s a weight to what we do, but also a joy to it.”
Frank adds, “The design starts to feel right when you define the problem really well, you understand where you need to go—the strategy and all that stuff. Then you just play around a little bit. We use fun all the time, where we’re like, ‘Oh, that one’s starting to feel fun.’ That means it doesn’t feel as tense or rigid.”
Here’s perhaps the best expression of Little Jacket’s philosophy: its work derives weight from intense research, but that weight can only be fully unleashed through play.
“Play is humble,” Parlett says. “It’s like learning an instrument: You practice all your scales and everything. Then when you really learn how to master your instrument, you forget all that stuff, and you just play.” ca