Donerik Dela Cruz and Aaron Pou describe their business as a “design start-up in challenging times,” but since launching Autograph, a brand consulting, art direction, and graphic design company, in April 2008, staying busy has been anything but challenging. In its first year of operations, Autograph has developed designs and campaigns for high-profile companies including Adidas, Levi’s, and Method Homes, to name a few.
The Berkeley, California-based co-principals and creative directors say “design and brand are one and the same.” But the two are not just about creating a logo. “That’s just one component of it,” Dela Cruz says. We spoke with Dela Cruz and Pou about their company and how graphic design and brand development intersect.
You founded Autograph a year ago. What were you both doing before that?
Donerik Dela Cruz: I was running my own freelance firm in San Francisco. It was predominantly graphic design work for print and the web. I met Aaron when I hired him on for a project I was doing.
Aaron Pou: I had been living in New York since 2001 working at several cool little boutique design agencies but then moved to San Francisco and was working at a studio in the Mission when Donny contacted me. It was for a project for Adidas called Grün, which is German for “green.” The concept was focused on Earth-friendly style and their products that were made from recycled materials.
DDC: It’s been pretty much like clockwork with us since. We have a very dynamic relationship.
DDC: One of our mantras is “Power in numbers.” Aaron brings a different aesthetic: he’s traditionally trained whereas I have more street credibility. We play off each others’ dynamics and expertise. But we’re a small firm, just four people, so we bring an intimacy that you can’t get from a larger design firm. We pride ourselves in always being hands-on with a project.
You share a building with WA Design architects in Berkeley. What is your relationship with them?
AP: WA Design built the building and their offices are upstairs and we are downstairs so the whole building is filled with creative people.
DDC: Being in this industry as a designer you want to be situated in a creative environment. The actual space we have is very industrial but it’s also chic and modern. It reflects our aesthetics and design sense as well.
What is the importance of design when it comes to brand identity?
AP: The brand is probably the most important thing next to the product itself—without good brand identity the product gets lost in the shuffle.
DDC: And when we say “brand” we’re not just talking about a logo; that’s just one component of it. It’s also the tone of voice, the art direction at the photo shoots, even the paper on which the material is printed.
AP: As a brand consultancy we do everything from researching the company and creating the brand identity to the art direction, photography, copywriting, and print and web material.
DC: We also source materials to find what is both user- and environmentally-friendly. For the Adidas’ Grün campaign we printed all materials in soy ink and made the crates that held the marketing material out of bamboo so it was out of a green material and could be reused.
What have you seen as the latest trend in brand design and development?
AP: Companies are less focused on print materials because it’s something that, when well done, costs a lot of money. Companies are tightening their belts and their budgets are not allowing that kind of marketing. I haven’t noticed a trend per se for web-based marketing, but I have seen less print marketing.
DDC: There has been, however and as we’ve seen, a huge explosion in viral marketing. It can touch a wider audience, from kids to senior citizens, which is why a lot of companies are gravitating in that direction.
How does this move to web-based marketing affect what you do as a company?
DDC: The whole point of design—be it fashion, graphic, print, or so on—is to solve a problem. We try to solve the problem with a holistic package. Websites reach a lot of people but there’s still truth in print. Something tangible, something that you can touch, speaks volumes more than just typing www dot whatever into a computer.
AP: It says a lot about your business when you give people something that’s tactile. With everything now in email or on Twitter, getting a handwritten letter or something that comes in a package means more to people and should be celebrated and appreciated. I think that people who are afraid to spend money on print are probably the younger crowd who are not as appreciative of print and printing techniques. It’s a different experience to go to nytimes.com versus picking up the $5 Sunday New York Times.
What can companies do to maintain a strong brand identity in the current economic climate?
AP: A lot of companies look at their budgets and set aside 25 percent for advertising but then it comes time to pay rent and payroll and they don’t have that 25 percent available any more. What you’re seeing is people not spending that money on printing and sourcing but only paying for online advertising. But going with different printers, printing things that are more effective in terms of getting your message across, using less-fancy printing techniques are all ways you can save money.
DDC: There’s a quote we always repeat to our clients: “The meaning of luxury may fade but the experience shouldn’t.” So our job is to create print and web material most cost effectively—because you can do it.
To view examples of Autograph’s work as well as photos of their creative space, click the “View Slideshow” button at the top right-hand corner of this post. Visit Autograph online at autographcreative.com.