Case Study by Vanessa Eckstein RGD and Marta Cutler, Blok Design
Just over a year ago, noted Canadian architecture firm superkül invited Blok to design a book commemorating their tenth anniversary. The project was a true meeting of minds and values, and the result was an editorial experience that veered from the glossy, formal monographs so often found in this space to offer a sensual, thoughtful and personal journey into the philosophy and processes that define the firm’s practice.
To our great delight, six months after the book’s release we received a second invitation: to re-design superkül’s brand identity and website. As founders Meg Graham and Andre D’Elia explained when we met to discuss the project, the intense process of working with us to bring the book to fruition had helped to crystalize their thinking about the company – what distinguished it, what kind of firm they wanted to be and the type of projects they wanted to do. What also emerged was the realization that a new identity was needed, one that would continue the story begun in the book and that would more accurately reflect the organization that superkül was becoming.
Expanding and honing the brand story + voice
Whether we’re designing a book, an identity or a digital experience, the foundation that informs all of our work is that of storytelling. Before we put pen to paper, we spend a great deal of time uncovering the unique story and tone of voice that truly differentiates a brand in the marketplace, and in the minds and hearts of its intended audiences; both must be true and authentic to the vision and values of the people behind it.
Although we had done a deep dive into superkül’s ethos and essence for our work on the tenth anniversary book, we realized after our initial briefing meeting with Meg and Andre that we would need to mine for even deeper insights in order to arrive at an identity and online experience that would truly mirror and reflect Meg and Andre’s vision for the firm.
Thus, we began as we do with every project: by issuing our Strategic Questionnaire. This is a document that is sent to all key decision makers. It includes a series of questions that are designed for the context of the project that help us analyze a brand in all of its dimensions, from its pragmatic side to the ambiguities, paradoxes and values that form the backbone of its soul.
As part of the questionnaire we ask our clients to come up with five adjectives that define the brand’s personality. In our experience, any more are superfluous and any fewer don’t offer enough depth.
We can say with absolute certainty that the adjectives we receive from the initial questionnaire are rarely the ones we end up working with. In fact, the insights that inform our work aren’t found on the written page at all. The true role of the questionnaire is to serve as a springboard for a deeper conversation about the brand. Getting our clients into a room and listening to them to talk about their answers is where we uncover the clues that help us determine where the brand can live and, just as importantly, where it shouldn’t.
These strategic workshops, which can be as small as two people or as large as 18, are rich, dynamic sessions where we challenge ideas, dismantle preconceptions and expand the parameters of our thinking and often of the project itself. Only by going through this process can we arrive at a space of truly original thought.
During the workshop, we also spend time analyzing the international markets, sifting through trends and looking for trailblazers within the same category and outside. Perhaps it’s because we work with clients in many different countries, but we find this perspective invaluable. Brands must now operate in a global environment; it’s critical that we bring that awareness into a project.
As with our previous workshop with Meg and Andre, this subsequent session was equally as rewarding. We dug into their ethos and what truly differentiated their practice from other architecture firms in Canada and around the world. This exercise was particularly important in guiding our website design, as we found that most portfolio sites were virtually interchangeable. This illuminated the critical need, and the opportunity, to approach superkül’s site from a different perspective.
It was during this meeting that we uncovered the phrase that would prove to be one of the most important keys in unlocking the identity: “quiet gravitas”. Meg and Andre had written it down as one of the qualities that defined their practice. We couldn’t have agreed more. For us, it evoked the depth of thought that anchors the firm’s work, their relentless pursuit of the qualities and values that make a building endure, and the genuine personal commitment and care they bring to each project, no matter how big or small.
Two other characteristics emerged to help round out our understanding of the brand. The first was that of understated boldness, the singular balance of subtlety and spatial richness that can be found in superkül’s architecture. The second was a sense of honesty born from their quest to find the essence of each project and then to express this through strength, clarity and simplicity.
We also analyzed the equity of their current branding to see what, if anything, should be carried forward. Although the logo was outdated, we liked the simplicity and approachability of using all lowercase typography. After exploring many options for the wordmark, we wound up incorporating both qualities into the new identity.
Finally, just as we were finishing writing the brand story, Meg sent us an email with a text that Andre had written down months before a new identity was even being considered. In it was the phrase, “Great design is a process; the poetry matters to us. So, too, does the detail.”
As with the phrase “quiet gravitas”, this simple eloquence helped us see clearly where we needed to take the identity.
The architecture of an identity
It is said that only with the senses can architecture truly be understood. From the onset, we set out to create a sensual conversation and interplay between process, colour and materiality and to balance this sensuality with a boldness and solidity that can be found in superkül’s consistent use of steel, concrete and wood.
Architecture is not simply about the solid, constructed form but also about the spaces in between: the unoccupied spaces. Again, these are very much present in superkül’s work, and so we set out to create these spaces throughout the identity, in the deliberate absence of the “u” in the logo and in the construct of the graphic shapes. These were inspired by the geometric purity of superkül’s forms and play with dimensionality and planes much the same way that their architecture does.
Diversity of processes and subtlety of materiality became important considerations. For the business cards, postcards and notecards, we chose a paper stock because it felt closer to concrete than paper, with small imperfections and a sense of rawness that we then contrasted with smooth paper for other stationery elements.
Funnily enough, sourcing this paper proved to be one of the biggest challenges of the entire project. We had found a heavy grey board that was close to what we envisioned. The task was to find it in a printable weight. We searched everywhere, sending out samples of the heavier board across North America and to Italy and Spain in the hopes that someone might come through. In the end, Flash Reproductions, who printed the identity for us, managed to find exactly what we wanted.
Working with the paper, we printed offset then silkscreened overlays for an element of translucency. This play of light and shadow, which was an important feature of the book, became equally as significant in the identity and can be found in other elements, such as the gradations of grey that appear on the brand labels.
As we do with all of our identities, we were careful to create both movement and cohesiveness. A rich vocabulary ensures that the identity has the flexibility to expand with the organization while also having longevity, one of the most important qualities we strive for. Each element stands strong individually, but when viewed as a whole the lines between them disappear and they build a sculpture of meaning that tells the larger story universe of the brand.
We presented just one concept to Meg and Andre. Their reaction was overwhelmingly positive. Both loved it immediately – they smiled when they saw the empty space beneath the umlaut - and felt it represented who they were and who they were becoming. There were some very minor revisions on the notecards and brand stickers – an adjustment of sizing and clarifying particular needs – but everything else went forward as originally designed.
The most meaningful result is the response from superkül. They felt that we had truly captured and reflected the essence of what they are, and are becoming, as a company. For our part, given that finding the essence of the built form is one of their highest ideals, we couldn’t have asked for any greater collaboration.
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