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There’s something funny going on at Sandstrom Design, Inc. Whether it’s the dog biscuit packaging they designed or their own Web site, you may find yourself laughing. How can you not, when the box reads, “There’s no such thing as a bad dog” and the text-heavy www.sandstromdesign.com features a Stupid Design Trick?

But this award-winning Portland, Oregon, design firm does more than goad a guffaw. “We’re particularly good at telling stories—other people’s,” says Rick Braithwaite, the company’s president and partner. “There’s no DNA-type style that drives everything we do. Rather, we try to find the client’s own story, and then tell that in a unique way. It’s easy to get attention; it’s hard to get relevant attention, which is only possible by conveying something deep and important about the client.”

Getting to the heart of their clients’ design needs, Sandstrom Design is often misperceived by newcomers as an ad agency. “Because our ideas are so strong, or the written copy gets almost as much attention as the visual presentation,” says creative director and partner, Steve Sandstrom. “We consider ourselves a conceptual design firm. We like to create concepts that have clarity and that communicate with big ideas.”

No design as decoration here. In fact, sometimes there are no visuals at all. They’re nearly excluded from Sandstrom’s Web site, where the Alice-and-Jerry typeface fills Easter-egg-colored pages that read like a scholastic workbook. It admits to “squandering your time away” and begs you not to “send us any nasty e-mails.” But you know they’re serious when you get to the firm’s diverse client list with names like Nike, Levi Strauss and more than 40 advertising agencies. And on the site’s “What’s in the Fridge” page, instead of a photo of it stocked with goodies for guests, there they are—local, national and international trophies, among the hundreds they’ve won, since the firm was founded in 1990.

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That year, Braithwaite and Sandstrom left their jobs at Borders Perrin Norrander, a Portland ad agency (one of the nation’s best, since 1977), and started Sandstrom Design, hiring two designers and a production manager. Their first clients came from BPN, with much of Sandstrom’s work restricted to the look and feel that the ad agency had already created. “We soon realized that we needed to define ourselves as an independent, and do more work outside of our shared client relation-ships,” says Braithwaite.

For one of those shared clients, the Portland-based fast-food chain Burgerville, the firm’s work (’60s-style 30th anniversary advertising) caught the eye of local ad agency Wieden Kennedy, who was working on the launch of a new beer called Black Star. For this client’s elaborate television and print campaign, Sandstrom Design dreamed up 100 years of fictitious product packaging and promotional materials. “With enough historical accuracy to suspend your disbelief,” says Sandstrom.

A steady stream of W K clients meant the burgeoning design firm didn’t need to promote itself beyond its already-frequent design-periodical presence. Its work for Tazo Tea, in 1994, didn’t hurt, either. “The distinct ancient-Chinese-apothecary-themed design quickly made them our most important client,” says Braithwaite. “More than half of our clients have come as a result of the visibility and credibility we gained from Tazo, turning us into a nationally-known packaging studio.” Miller Brewing Company and Seagram, Kombucha Wonder Drink and Masterfoods soon followed.

Today, with 18 on staff, Sandstrom Design is still in the same, 8-story downtown office building they’ve always been, now in a 5,000-square-foot sixth-floor space, with its exposed ceiling and peeled-paint beams, and neutral-toned and angled, open workspaces. Just inside their doors, a gallery displays mostly identity and packaging designs for some of their 30-50 clients a year—from Full Sail Brewing’s latest start-up, Session Lager, to international corporations like Fiskars.

While strategic and effective, Sandstrom Design’s work can appear to be as simple as the collateral and video packaging it did for Food Chain Films, a Portland independent film company. Playing off the company’s existing name, Sandstrom came up with color photos of raw meat on a blue background. The client bought their own shrink-wrap machine to package their videos, on white Styrofoam grocery trays. Among their most elaborate creations are the 1999 and 2002 traveling installations designed for ESPN—inside eighteen-wheel tractor-trailer rigs. The back end opens out horizontally, with a mock SportsCenter desk and teleprompter, a video bar and espn.com online booths, transporting the concept of electronic entertainment into a three-dimensional “mini-amusement-park” experience.

Media buyers get the same sales pitch all the time, so we just gave it to them in a way they would’ve never considered.” —Steve Sandstrom

For a brand that had all but disappeared, Converse has been one of Sandstrom Design’s biggest clients, since 2002. Working closely with the new management team, the firm revitalized their logo, thinning and spreading the type, while maintaining a visual bridge to the company’s last successful period in its 98-year history. Next came shoe boxes that mimicked their contents, both with side-vent grommets, a brand book, product hangtags and Chuck Taylor All Star shoes adorned with John Lennon’s signature and lyrics.

“People who have seen our work know it’s different, so they usually come to us because of that,” says Kelly Bohls, principal and senior project manager. Staff members’ different influences, experiences and tastes have helped take Sandstrom Design into continually new directions. “Partnering with outside writers and photographers provides inspiration and opens us up beyond where any of us would get individually,” says Jon Olsen, principal and associate creative director.

To arrive at such unexpected and compelling solutions, the firm’s designers willingly push themselves out of their comfort zones. “But we push our clients more,” says Braithwaite. “We ask lots of questions, to our clients and ourselves, then urge a strategic move past where they normally would go, so they can gain recognition instead of blending in with everyone else.”

Often, humor does the job. “When it’s the right kind,” says Sally Morrow, principal and associate creative director, “it can break down barriers and open your audience up to acceptance.” A sales brochure designed in 1993 for a local radio station, KINK, reduced mounds of listener demographic data to a few scribbled charts and graphs. One was a timeline that spanned from “Your first bong hit” to “Your first RV,” with the caption, “KINKfm is what happens between the two.” Says Sandstrom, “Media buyers get the same sales pitch all the time, so we just gave it to them in a way they would’ve never considered.”

It’s easy to get attention; it’s hard to get relevant attention, which is only possible by conveying something deep and important about the client.” —Rick Braithwaite

Every Sandstrom Design creation may not strive to be humorous, but they all are smart, especially the packaging for Gerber Blades, makers of innovatively engineered multi-tools and sporting knives. “We thought that the design itself should take a back seat and let the product shine,” says Olsen. For starters, he replaced the company’s 250 plastic-molded covers (a different one for each SKU) with just six shapes, all with feet on the back and matching indentations on the front, so they nest together during shipping and on display racks. Securing each cutting tool is an orange rubber band, “a hallmark color for this client’s customers, and a visual magnet in the stores,” says Braithwaite. “The packaging reflects the product, both of which have been engineered with precision.”

There’s much beauty in the studio’s designs—even when they’re ugly, as Sandstrom puts it. “Sometimes the concept communicates more effectively that way.” He points to a collateral design the firm did for a division of Sony Pictures specializing in television commercials, which Sandstrom Design named Pavlov Productions. Borrowing from generic office-products forms, the resultant black ink on manila paper winks at just enough design (a little die cut here, some embossed ink there) for the creative-community audience to appreciate it.

Though they receive several calls a month from prospective clients, Sandstrom Design is selective about what they choose. Their four creative teams (a creative director or associate creative director, project manager and supporting designers) decide that “we won’t do anything that we’re not excited about,” says Bohls. “Otherwise, we’re not going to do our best work.” Adds Braithwaite, “If you settle for a project, then you’re really limiting your opportunities—and those of the client. The work you take on today defines the work you’ll be doing tomorrow.” It’s inevitable that they’ll be doing more interactive and Web site design, partnering with other experts, as the request for it continues to grow.
The same technology that further fulfills their client’s design needs continues to allow Sandstrom Design to do business with anyone, anywhere in the world. So why ever leave Portland? The city is recognized now as a growing creative Mecca, thanks to a couple of the world’s most respected ad agencies and more than a few darn good graphic design firms based here, including, of course, Sandstrom Design—who you can bet are laughing. ca

Claire Sykes (sykeswrites.com) is a freelance writer in Portland, Oregon. She covers design, the visual and other arts, business, community, philanthropy and health for national magazines. She also writes website pages, blog posts and annual reports; and works with authors on their nonfiction books.


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