Ben Graham hates walking into a studio and finding it dead quiet; a sea of people, yet the only sounds are keyboards click, click, clicking away. At Turnstyle, a graphic design firm in Seattle, music is always on. Graham and partners Steven Watson and Matt Diefenbach have figured out a way to let music drive creativity without driving the staff crazy. The office soundtrack is an equal opportunity playlist, and everyone can add their diverse musical tastes to the mix.
This year, Turnstyle celebrates its tenth anniversary, and the firm’s reputation for identity and packaging has grown along with the changing city it calls home. Seattle’s appetite for both sophistication and opportunity has made it a serious contender in the design world, no longer relegated to an outpost of the San Francisco Bay Area. An eclectic mix of clients, from start-ups and restaurants to corporate heavyweights like Nordstrom, Microsoft and Starbucks, knock on Turnstyle’s door seeking the studio’s distinctive blend of crisp and bold graphics coupled with warmth and wit.
From the outset, creative directors Graham and Watson didn’t want their work to have a certain Seattle aesthetic. “When we started this company, design in Seattle was best known for an outdoorsy, Northwesty, grungy look,” Graham says. Watson agrees, adding, “Our design influences were much more international than regional. For us, it was a positive thing if people couldn’t pinpoint where the work was done.”
An innovative start-up played a pivotal role in putting them on the map. In 2005, Turnstyle helped launch DRY Soda, a line of all-natural sodas that are made to complement food like fine wines. Turnstyle’s Swiss-inspired, minimalist packaging evokes the purity and simplicity of the ingredients with illustration that is reduced to its essential details. “It’s a different take on the overwrought design you might see in traditional American food packaging, with multiple overt and redundant flavor cues on the package,” Watson says. “It’s everything it should be, nothing it shouldn’t be.” Watson also captured DRY Soda’s spirited attitude with his tagline: “I like my soda how I like my summer… DRY.” “It was the first project that garnered us a lot of attention in the food and beverage industries, as well as the design industry,” he says. “We promoted it everywhere and began getting lots of packaging calls. The DRY work continues to generate new business today.”
Developing a variety of styles, Turnstyle’s designers bring their own personal aesthetics to their projects, adding humor whenever it fits the personality of a brand. The result is authentic, approachable and memorable. One example is the logo for the Ballard Annex restaurant, which includes a bottle of vodka captured in the tentacles of an octopus. “It’s hard to love something that doesn’t have personality,” Graham says. “We’re trying to inspire love for a brand through the way it looks, acts and speaks.”
Turnstyle’s irreverent humor is evident in the firm’s own holiday promotions. One year, they gifted a “make-your-own-cowboy-hat kit,” which included a disposable toilet seat cover. An accompanying limited-edition silkscreened poster contained assembly instructions for fashioning the hat out of the paper seat cover. Another year, Turnstyle sent out a mailing that asked, “Does your brand stink?” It was accompanied by six “inspirational” air fresheners called BrandScents, which included fragrances of cherry and pine, as well as cabbage and aged cheese. The tagline read: “Be Different. Smell Different.”
In partnership, Graham and Watson have contrasting approaches to their work. Watson starts with intuitive ideas and adds an analytical structure to his spontaneity. Graham starts with a structure and infuses it with art. They recognized that their differences made a good balance when the pair worked with Diefenbach at the Seattle office of Fitch, the global brand consultancy. Each partner had taken a different route to get there. Watson, 42, discovered design through a love of drawing cars and superheroes during his childhood in Boston. His classes in the design department at Brigham Young University in Utah were rooted in modernist fundamentals with a heavy emphasis on typography.
Graham, 39, arrived at the University of Washington carrying his shiny new Commodore Amiga and an expensive software package, expecting to pursue 3-D modeling and animation. But when he found there was no program whatsoever to support his interest, the school counselor directed him to graphic design. As for Diefenbach, 38, his experience working with at-risk youth led him to study social psychology at Seattle University. He jokes about being the “dark horse” of the trio. “I can’t design my way out of a box, and I didn’t bother to take one business class in college,” he says. “Yet, I run the business side of a graphic design and branding firm. Go figure.”
After nearly eight years at Fitch, they were ready for change. “That’s a long time to be somewhere at the beginning of your career,” Watson says. “We just wanted variety and something more consumer-oriented, with a little more energy, a little more freedom and a little more fun.” For six months, they met every week to plan their “strategy,” which was actually more about debating names for their company and fantasizing about clients than business planning. Finally, in 2004, Diefenbach’s spare room became their first studio, and a few months later they found an office in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood. Ballard is now a trendy enclave for restaurants and retail, but a decade ago it was a blue-collar neighborhood known as the homeport for the North Pacific Fishing Fleet.
None of the founders had any experience running a business when they began. They were self-funded from home equity lines of credit, which were soon nearly maxed out. “We had been fairly busy the first four months, but we hadn’t been billing in a timely manner or taking into account net-30 or net-60 turnarounds,” Diefenbach says. “The next month we got paid all at once and our coffers bounced back up, but we were almost a casualty. The cash-flow problem was a good lesson to learn in the early days when payroll and overhead were much less significant.”
Turnstyle’s move to its current 5,800-square-foot office in 2010 was a milestone, a declaration that the six-year-old firm had grown up. Designed by Seattle’s Graham Baba Architects, the former marine supply building is an industrial showplace of exposed concrete and modern furnishings that has retained the character of the brick walls and signage of the original 1910 building. “That was my baby,” Graham says. “For a year I had two jobs: my regular creative director role, and manager of the design and build-out of the space.” The heart of the office is one big studio designed to accommodate the entire thirteen-member staff.
“We always wanted to have an open studio because being in the trenches with everyone fosters a much better culture. It’s also a mentally healthy space,” Watson says. If designers need to brainstorm, they can move to different rooms and enjoy a different atmosphere. Graham thinks of the space as a metaphor for Turnstyle’s values. “The historic structure parallels our appreciation of the fundamentals of design and all the traditional production techniques, like letterpress printing,” he says. “We’re also interested in pushing on the edges of design and new frontiers like digital media. It’s about respecting the old, while throwing out what doesn’t work and replacing it with something new, fresh and entertaining.”
Turnstyle is positioned to grow, but the founders’ sights are on a growth in influence and opportunity, rather than size. They’ve opened a second office in Portland, Oregon, and envision more national and international projects, while remaining hands-on and involved in their daily work. Creating design is still the passion and, as Watson says, “that’s what makes my socks go up and down.” Graham, Watson and Diefenbach like the work-life balance they’ve created and the family and friendships they’ve established in Ballard. The strength of their relationships may be one reason their firm is successful while others rise and fall.
Another reason is their ability to connect emotionally with audiences by capturing the essence of a brand and communicating it with a compelling style. “You can put on the latest frock from Dolce & Gabbana and instantly become fashionable,” Graham says. “But there’s a difference between fashion and style. It’s the people who can get up in the morning and put together a completely new outfit—even a new way of wearing the same old things—that represent the ultimate idea of style.”
Turnstyle’s founders talk about going deep, “down to the core,” and uncovering a brand’s authentic personality to bring its message to life. “That’s the spirit of what we’re trying to accomplish in our design work,” Watson says, “to help our clients find that unique and charismatic voice that will set them apart and make people love them.” ca