NEWSLooking back: DesignThinkers 2009 Branding with Hambly & Woolley

What did taking on the DesignThinkers conference branding mean to you and your team at the time?

It was a huge responsibility, to be honest. It was the tenth year. We knew as a studio that we wanted to be involved; we always saw the value in RGD and DesignThinkers, and at the time we had a few RGD Members on our team that definitely wanted to create the 2009 visual branding. With most projects, we, as designers, don’t tend to be the demographic focus of our client’s work, but with DesignThinkers the demographic was us. We didn’t take that lightly. Knowing that 1000s of our peers would be receiving, opening and critiquing our concept and execution. We embraced the fact that there would be positive and negative reactions, but at the end of the day we needed to make sure that the work didn’t get in the way of getting people in seats.

Explain your concept and how you and/or your team got there?

As with any of our projects, the designers were briefed and given time to let the ideas percolate. Everyone came with sketches and visual examples and we worked collectively to bring it down to 3 ideas for presentation. The ideas included a saturated photographic approach honouring street art/signage, a tribute to B Movie posters and their typography and an exciting one using Rorschach tests. The B Movie idea was chosen. We and the RGD team knew for the idea to be successful we needed the copywriting to embrace the visual genre. Our writer Doug Dolan loved the potential for the marriage between the words and the visuals and immediately dug into creating thematic headlines for the posters and advertising.

As soon as we read lines like; Out of Our Minds, They Walk Among Us, We Are Not Alone and They Want Your Brain, we knew the idea was going to be great. Not only was it funny but the metaphors for a design conference were rich. Dominic Ayre, the Senior Designer on the project, suggested that the only way for the materials to feel custom was if all of the typography was actually done by hand. So for the next 2 ½ months, Dom sat at his dining table in the evenings and created ALL of the display copy for the campaign. Approximately 70 individual headlines, speaker names and wayfinding assets were pencilled, inked and scanned over the summer.

What was your biggest challenge being the Design Partner for DesignThinkers?

The biggest challenge came when it was brought to our attention that not everyone was as giddy about the humour in our approach. As the campaign started to appear in advertising and preview mailers the RGD started to get some negative feedback suggesting that the B movie was undervaluing the importance of design as a strategic business objective. Comments were made that the B Movie metaphor was just that, a B level idea. So rather than get twisted about it we doubled down on how strong the writing need to be. Doug Dolan killed it. From the headlines to the signage to the custom designed partners ads Doug made the idea sing beautifully.

How did it feel to present your work to a bunch of designers? And then see your work live during the event and witness people’s reactions to it?

Quite honestly, once we got there, it was a little anticlimactic. Ba ha ha. As a studio we were very proud of the work. Not only did we create a visual brand and campaign that was engaging and exuberant but its written foundation was intelligent, insightful and really funny. We took a vernacular that has such richness and such history and flipped it to be the language of a serious design and business conference. We were just a little sad, and somewhat surprised, at how little the attendees were ‘reading’ the materials. It felt like designers were taking themselves too seriously.

What are you most proud of from your own experience? Is there anything you would have done differently?

When we were closer to the release of the ’09 look and feel, we stepped back and had a post-mortem. Sure there were things we could have streamlined; but now, 10 years later, we love the stories that came out of the creative process. It is fun to look back at the insane amount of work Dom put into the lettering. Though he may not agree! We are still really proud of Doug’s writing. In hindsight maybe we just put an extra layer of complexity in the design that caused some people to not engage fully with the copy. Without that connection between the words and the idiosyncratic typography, the effect does lessen.

What has been your favourite DesignThinkers branding, besides your own, and why?

There have been bits from a lot of them that we remember. The Einstein concept from Pylon was batty. The stickers from the 2006 booklet we loved. The Illuminati idea the City of Mississauga. The sculpture by Overdrive. The bathroom stickers from Zulu Alpha Kilo in 2018. The telephone wires from Blok’s were great. However, we took a quick vote internally and found that the one that was most loved was Rethink’s “Perspective” concept. It was great in its simplicity. The animated eyes and the never ending variations were so well rolled out.