There’s a bit of an Alice in Wonderland feeling about Visual Dialogue. When you ring the bell in their neat but narrow entry in Boston’s South End, on a tree-lined street of nineteenth-century brick buildings with brick sidewalks, you don’t expect the door to open to the bright and expansive studio within. But it’s the first sign that, when it comes to this award-winning brand identity and design firm, small is big.
When originally built, their 1,900-square-foot row house would have had a store on the ground level and living space above. A sustainable renovation revived that configuration, perfect for a modern non-commuting lifestyle. The open floor plans throughout contrast white surfaces and eco-harvested whitewashed wood-paneled walls with dark stained hardwood floors—a nifty way to visually expand the rooms. The first floor is the studio space with windows through which one hears snatches of sometimes colorful chatter from the neighborhood and shelving with integrated storage that cleverly hides clutter, muting visual noise. “I always appreciate the pictures you see of the Eameses where their workspace is just chock full of stuff,” notes Visual Dialogue founder and principal Fritz Klaetke (pronounced “Klet-key”). “But for me, I need the blank slate because we’re always visually creating things. I need that almost Zen-like, ‘take a deep breath, look at the ocean’ feeling. I guess it was in my blood because my dad was an architect and we lived in a Mies van der Rohe house in Detroit. So that typical high-modernism, minimalism was just ‘oh, this is how it should be.’”
Klaetke and his partner, marketing strategist Susan Battista, live in the three upper floors with their daughter Ava Detroit. From the house’s tiny footprint, the residence levels open up as one climbs the continuous winding wood staircase (built on top of the original risers) into modern yet comfortable spaces looking out at leafy treetops and the Boston’s Prudential Tower. Their renovation has been celebrated for both its style and sustainability in Dwell and on Planet Green channel’s World’s Greenest Homes.
Even with only a handful of people, Visual Dialogue has been a well-known and respected design studio in Boston for over twenty years. For many of those years, in fact, it was just Klaetke and an assistant—a business model, he observes, that worked well for Paul Rand. Today, the company includes strategy director Battista, copy director Joe Fox, senior developer Jesse Hart, designer/developer Kimber Lynch and a student intern. Their clients range from some of Boston’s top restaurants to its top schools. The list also includes architects, museums, investment firms and music labels. A stack of silver bones that their work has garnered from the Boston AIGA’s Best of Boston New England (BoNE) show shines on the studio shelf, along with an impressive array of other trophies.
Among their clients is acclaimed chef Barbara Lynch and her many restaurants and bars like No. 9 Park, Sportello and Drink, her catering business 9 at Home and her demonstration kitchen Stir. For Lynch, who became a client about five years ago, Visual Dialogue has provided comprehensive services including web design, marketing, packaging and more. In addition, they created a much needed brand identity and website for her umbrella company Barbara Lynch Gruppo. In fact, many of the area’s hippest eateries and “enotecas” are Visual Dialogue clients: Belly, The Blue Room and Central Bottle near MIT, Harvest in Harvard Square, Grill 23 and Post 390 in the Back Bay.
The diversity and specificity of their work for Lynch’s properties is indicative of Klaetke’s design philosophy that, while offering clients “smarts and style,” it isn’t one signature style. “I don’t think that if you take an assortment of things we’ve produced, you would necessarily say, ‘Oh, that’s Visual Dialogue.’ There are some things that unify everything we do, like a sensitivity to typography. But stylistically, we try to reflect the subject. Our approach is grounded in strategy: what’s the messaging, how is this different from the competition, who’s the audience? We pose these questions at the start of each project, but the end product—the end visual form—reflects the differences in the answers.”
Other clients include the many educational institutions in Boston. For Harvard’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences they produce Colloquy, reinventing a formerly staid academic periodical into a lively, contemporary magazine where the typography, images and layout enhance the content and engage the reader. They also infused a contemporary magazine zest into the Harvard Medical School’s Department of Ophthalmology/Mass Eye & Ear report Frontiers in Ophthalmology, a 168-page book that spotlights some of the top minds in medicine, and into the award-winning Ed. magazine for the Harvard Graduate School of Education, part of a larger, long-term project of providing overall cohesive branding for the school. “Doing work for higher ed is almost a default in Boston. These are brilliant people you are profiling. How do you make them the ‘rock stars’ as opposed to some reality show personality or latest celebrity-of-the-week? For example, we’ve done profiles on a Nobel Prize winner and another on someone who invented a bionic eye. Rather than the usual depiction where it’s a headshot on a boring gray background, we make what they do compelling with interesting visuals. Why shouldn’t a story about a leading-edge scientist who is actually making the world a better place get the same design attention as a pop culture piece?”
Klaetke has had a long professional relationship with Smithsonian Folkways, a music label that has been around since the 1940s, creating CD covers that bring a fresh and current sensibility while maintaining a visual nod to the label’s rich heritage. Recently, Visual Dialogue has produced two keepsake CD box sets. Woody at 100: The Woody Guthrie Centennial Collection is a thick book dense with information, images, Guthrie’s own drawings, lyrics and more. The long-needed update of The Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz, for years the “go-to” gift on vinyl for anyone wanting an essential jazz primer, into the retitled Jazz: The Smithsonian Anthology, is a slipcase book full of the types of photos, essays and session personnel breakdowns that jazz fans love to pore over. Visual Dialogue has also redesigned three interrelated websites for the Smithsonian Center for Folklife & Cultural Heritage, helping enhance and more easily navigate the Smithsonian’s deep archives.
Strategic research is an important service Visual Dialogue offers their clients. It was key in creating a successful admissions book for the Art Institute of Boston, which began with direct feedback from prospective freshmen. Battista interviewed high school students interested in art school, asking them questions like what they thought of AIB, its strengths and weaknesses and what other schools they were considering. “We had this really helpful research to start the design process, it drove the design direction,” recalls Klaetke. “We used all the responses—good, bad and indifferent—on the cover itself in small type. For the front matter, we have a set of clean, open pages with some running text along the bottom to encourage them to start sketching right in the book.” AIB alums are featured inside with photos taken by current AIB students. “In the survey, something respondents said often was that they wished they had a friend at the school who could show them around. So we hired four student photographers, paid them a professional budget and said, ‘Here’s an alum in New York, here’s one in Denver. Just fill your disc up with images that represent the school.’ They took all the photographs in the book, including locations shots at AIB. And the starting point was the research, which also drove the website redesign. No other changes happened in that admissions cycle process except for our work and applications doubled. It really showed that good research provides a grounding for good design.”
It’s not surprising that, when not creating, Klaetke and Battista find inspiration in others’ creativity. “For the past two years, Susan and I have gone to Art Basel Miami and we know several artists who participate there. It’s an unbelievable visual stimulus, an intense overload. I’m a big believer that, as a designer, you’re constantly giving output, so you have to fill the tank.” Meeting up with other designers for lunch also is tank-filling, as is Klaetke’s two basketball leagues. “It’s mostly for stress relief. Basketball is the ultimate collaborative game. There’s the playmaker, there’s the steady rebounder. But more importantly, it wipes the slate clean. You have to keep your head in the game; if you’re thinking about something else when you’re getting the ball, you might get your teeth knocked out.”
Visual Dialogue’s design process is also a team effort, with clients guaranteed that, unlike many established design firms, Klaetke is involved no matter how small the project. “Someone my age (46) is often off in the corner office, just meeting with clients. But here it’s a pretty close collaboration and part of why I like keeping the studio so small. My favorite thing is designing.”
While design continues to drive everything they do, Visual Dialogue is extending its creative and strategic services to meet the diverse needs of its growing client base. Three areas of particular interest to Klaetke and the team are hospitality, public art and political campaigns. “Our hospitality work has focused on restaurants where we’ve developed logos, signage, menus, websites, videos, uniforms and ad campaigns. We’d also like to help hospitality clients create the overall space so it’s holistically branded (as much as I hate that word—it reminds me of cattle). The experience doesn’t stop at the logo or the website, but should inform every customer touch-point.”
Visual Dialogue already has some experience in public art, collaborating with landscape architect Shauna Gillies-Smith on LandWave, a shimmering blue-tiled planted wave form in a South End park that commemorates the historic “neck” that once linked the downtown Boston peninsula to the mainland. As for political campaigns, something might be in the works, although Klaetke is not at liberty to discuss it. This area, though, has great potential for both the designers and the candidates. “President Obama’s campaign in 2008 proved how design can play an important role in positioning a candidate and framing arguments.”
Visual Dialogue’s reach may be widening, but they plan to stay intimate in the process while focusing on research and strategy, copy and design. “Research and strategy are about understanding audiences and what we want to tell them. That leads to messaging, from big picture positioning right down to the details of copy. And design brings it all to life visually. Those three legs of the stool are what we think really creates great work. Work that is visually compelling but also communicates something meaningful and memorable—a ‘visual dialogue,’ if you will.” ca