As a preface to this post, let me start off by describing my first morning as a new Nomadic employee:
Nomadic | Day 1: 9:00am – Get new hire packet. 9:15am – Get assigned to major jerky brand redesign. 9:30am – Find my desk. Not gonna lie. I was a little intimidated. Really excited, but a little intimidated.
Talk about trial by fire…First day at a new job, living in a new city, working with a brand new group of people, unfamiliar processes, a new workstation worthy of the Worst Desk in the Office™ (award it eventually won), and—not least of all—tackling a redesign of a prominent beef jerky brand as my first assignment here.
Approaching the Pemmican redesign, we were presented with unique challenges and numerous opportunities for us as an agency (and myself as a creative professional) to learn, refine our own processes, experiment, and push ourselves into new areas. For me, at least, it ended up being one of those landmark projects that has been (and certainly will continue being) a reference point for later projects.
Below are just a few of the insights I learned in our process along the way:
Insight 1 :: “To know that you do not know is the best”—Lao Tzu
Over the years, I’ve found that there’s a moment in every project kickoff meeting where I have a vivid, clear picture come into my head of what I see the creative solution being for that project. And I’ve also learned that those brilliant revelations usually end up being wrong. I say this because I’m reminded again and again with each new project that the right solutions for that project depend entirely on properly knowing the problem. And more often than not, the problem you really need to solve ends up being totally different than the one you all thought you needed to solve in the first place.
Originally, Pemmican came to us simply wanting an update to their existing packaging hoping to boost sales. What we found as we looked closer, though, was a real underlying need and opportunity to refocus and reposition the brand to connect with a heritage and loyal following that Pemmican once had.
Pemmican, the jerky underdog brand, had spent so long competing with category leaders that had become so commercialized that they didn’t realize in the process they had left behind what made their consumers fall in love with them in the first place.
The solution was counter-intuitive to my original thinking—We needed to distance from the competition and reestablish Pemmican as the sophisticated brand that it used to be.
Pemmican was not the cheap jerky for the poker night or the dorm room—it needed to be the brand you take with you on special occasions. It needed to be the brand your dad brought along when he took you fishing or camping. It needed to be the brand that understands what it means to make your own adventures, and be there along the way.
So, what originally was supposed to be a simple package redesign turned into a full brand redesign and a whole new positioning strategy.
We developed a brand book—essentially a positioning manifesto—that served as our point of reference to hold all future projects against. Designed as a way to encompass the story, the tone and emotion, and the promise of the brand. This was something the executives and sales managers could hold in their hands and say “this—this is Pemmican”. We spent time gathering reference for look and feel of illustration, photography, typography, color, etc. that would be a solid base for building the brand moving forward.
Select spreads from the brand book (click to view larger)…
Insight 2 :: To do less work, there’s a lot of work to do before you do any work.
I used to use the Shotgun Approach to design. I never felt successful on a project unless I worked and worked and worked to exhaust as many different creative solution I could think of, hoping one of them nailed it and the client loved it.
Worst. Idea. Ever.
I’m a convert to the Broad Strokes and Drill Down method of creative thinking. Work smart, work with an objective, involve the client along the way to qualify your efforts (this is key!!!). Work on the big picture and realize that there are a lot of decisions you can make even before you pick up a pencil to sketch thumbnails that will eliminate a lot of unnecessary work. Identifying your specific creative goals and restrictions can go a long way to making key design decisions up front and save you from wasting time and energy on misguided efforts.
For the Pemmican packaging, for instance, we knew the bag had to be blue. It had been blue for 30 years. We knew there had to be an illustration of the Pemmican Chief. We now had a brand playbook to guide what key differentiators our brand should have from the competition. We even had research on how consumers are conditioned to shop for jerky on-shelf, so we effectively were able to design a wireframe for the hierarchy of information on-pack across the entire product line.
From there we went into art direction for the brand and packaging. Basing off our brand book, we refined our type, our color palette, our illustration style, etc. This sort of “inspiration board” step was new to me, and a foreign concept in the shotgun approach I had used previously. Now, though, it seems absolutely intuitive and essential. Seeing the client’s reaction to different combinations of visual elements was indispensable to directing the rest of the process, and once we were at a place we were all happy with, that served as our art direction style guide for the packs.
One thing I think we as creatives sometimes forget is that the client knows their product way better than we do. They know their audience. They know their competition. They’ve been doing this for years. We, as creatives, are really just consultants that have the talent to jump mid-stream into the river of problem-solving the client is already in and provide fresh perspectives.
With Pemmican we tried to get a lot of participation from the client in the creative process. And I don’t mean micro-managing design or having them send sketches or anything like that. What I mean is that we tried to get them to think through the issues like we were, and generate discussion with them that informed our creative decisions. That served two purposes: 1) The more the client became part of the creative problem-solving process, the more they were personally invested in the solutions, which made getting their blessing that much easier. 2) By getting the client insight throughout the process, any creative solution would, by nature, be more qualified and relevant to the specific objectives of the project.
The result of this approach was that as we came back to them with our solutions, we weren’t just presenting our solutions—we were presenting ideas they helped generate and they could get just as excited as we were about the direction we were heading.
Insight 4 :: No design is an island.
Even a good-looking design can be a failure when it doesn’t address the needs of its purpose. One of the most startling revelations to us (well, me, at least) in the process was that after all the work coming up with designs we loved, the instant we held them up next to a competitive lineup our favorite designs were often not the ones that performed the best because we hadn’t addressed the design as part of its context.
This principle applies at every stage of the process. You can’t effectively position your brand unless you take into account its market environment and competition. A brand only has value in relation to something. You don’t design a single piece of stand-alone packaging—rather, you design a small space that lives within a large patchwork of a retail shelf, and the success of that little space is determined in relation to the composition of items around it.
Insight 5 :: “God is in the details”—Mies van der Rohe
The great thing about the process we went through was that it produced design based on sound thinking. Solid thinking always makes any solution a correct solution. The magic, though—the part that takes it to the next level—comes by finessing the details. Call me a type nerd (my wife does…), call me a software geek, call me anal or OCD, but this is one of my favorite parts of design. I love getting into the textures, layers, the weights of lines, hand-drawing type—all the little things that no one but me might consciously pay attention to, but that really add the finishing touch.
I think Adobe Illustrator hates me now (click to enlarge)…
Illustration development and final designs…
All in all, not a bad little first project for me at Nomadic. We turned out a really great final product, but in the end I think it was the process and the learning that we’ll all remember the most.