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October 24th, 2022

Earning Our Keep

“The only way to communicate is to understand what it is like not to understand.” – R.S. Wurman

This is a quote that I love to use with clients, peers, and students to help generally describe what I have done for a living for the last 30-something years, and to specifically define the meaning of brand and design at BOLTGROUP. Today, I find it more compelling than ever before. As our industry continues to adjust to this new century and the seismic shift in business management and culture, we too as designers must embrace the true needs of our clients, their businesses, brands, products, and services, as defined through our design practices. This also allows us to maintain relevance and preference, and to build greater value in our industry and individual practices. Design is the business of the 21st century, and we will operate at the intersections of design, business, and culture.

As Richard Grefé so succinctly worded it in an AIGA article a decade ago, “What makes designers most valuable are the interrelated dimensions of their contribution: head, heart and hand.” Through our design thinking process, our firm has been focused on head, heart, and hand for over 35 years.

What drove me to become a designer in the first place was admiring the ability to communicate ideas and concepts thoughtfully and creatively, not to mention strategically, through physical, visual, and verbal information.

It was that notion that pushed me to begin writing articles about design, and specifically brand strategy, for Fast Company, over 10 years ago. Most of my rants circled back to three foundational elements of the designer’s role in business—strategy, empathy, and craft—and how they so often failed to come together on major programs because of intrinsic or extrinsic forces. As designers, we are driven to be more than just artists creating beauty, or engineers designing functionality, or marketeers driving perception and desire. In today’s business climate, we are all those things at once. Strategy, empathy, and craft manifest themselves at BOLTGROUP in our own brand pillars—the compelling truths of our brand: design excellence (our lifeblood), strategic innovation (our hallmark), and thoughtful leadership (our compass).

Every design innovation project at BOLTGROUP has a communication objective, manifested either physically, visually, or verbally, and often all three. And every objective is grounded in strategy, which is where we always begin. Our process starts with understanding the why, defining or refining the strategy (head) that will lead the initiative and become the filter for the craft (hand).

Our first step is a deep immersion into the brand, the company, and its products, digging into the foundational elements to uncover the latent opportunities that inevitably exist. Shedding ourselves of pre-existing constructs, bias, and prejudice is key in allowing ourselves to openly explore and understand the situation and opportunities that may exist. It is often in this immersion that we discover the underlying issues that may be plaguing the brand, and not just the symptoms of the problem.

This initial work also helps us to develop a true sense of empathy (heart) with the consumer or end user, along with the inspiration, intuition, and design thinking that we will need as we assimilate those insights into ideas that transform the brand and product strategy into thoughtful and meaningful creative design solutions. Meaningful design builds value. And value drives preference.

Grounding our design work in both strategy and empathy for our target audience gives us unique insights into determining how the craft will manifest itself—developing the most appropriate direction, not just the most handsome. Constantly using these elements as filters help guide direction, set the tone and manner for execution, and allow for more objective interpretation of the creative.

The result is design that communicates the purpose and promise of the brand with passion and conviction. And it is at that moment that we, as designers, earn our keep.

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