Excerpted from Brand Thinking and Other Noble Pursuits
by Debbie Millman
Copyright © 2011. Used with permission of Allworth Press
Joe Duffy has built his design DNA from a collection of experiences that have added up to an extraordinary proficiency in branding and design. Each piece of his history has provided him with an aesthestic chromosome that informs his design work today. In college, Duffy was a painter, and he still wanted to be a painter when he graduated, so illustration and design seemed like a logical career if not his initial dream. The first company he launched, in 1975, was a design and illustration studio. After a couple of years running that business, he started an advertising agency where he was a partner before eventually launching Duffy Design, a partnership with the ad conglomerate Fallon Worldwide, in 1984.
After breaking off from Fallon, he relaunched Duffy & Partners in 2004. The payoff of the individual experiences is evident in his successes: Duffy had such a long and fruitful partnership with Fallon because he nimbly understood the deep interconnections between design, advertising, and branding. He has been praised again and again for his ability to integrate these into compelling branding stories via design.
Duffy’s crafted a slew of classic projects. His studio has redesigned the ubiquitous Diet Coke can; he’s created a new design iconography for International Truck and Engine Corporation, and has created packaging and identity work for Wolfgang Puck and Jim Beam. For the Islands of the Bahamas, Duffy & Partners created an identity system that is nothing less than a design and branding masterpiece. Joe is able to tailor his studio’s design vocabulary to fit the client in a way that is überflexible, far beyond the range of most design and branding consultancies. His design work perfectly fits the bill, reflecting an unwillingness to relinquish to design clichés. That commitment to creativity is evident in the fact that Joe Duffy continues painting to this day—no doubt part of what makes his consulting work still vibrant.
The breadth of Duffy’s work is another measure of his appeal and insight. He works with big and small clients—from local restaurateurs to multibillion-dollar companies—in an eclectic range of industries. He’s not just a food guy, a technology guy, or a car guy—he has a healthy agnosticism about his clients.
But what he is not ambivalent about is his commitment to doing exemplary work. As part of that ethos, he’s chosen to work only with clients who will let him do the work that he feels will best serve their interests. Unlike brand and advertising firms that bloat up with benefactors where there’s no true synchronicity of sensibility, Duffy isn’t content to have anything less than meaningful resonance. This means that Duffy has stayed small and even sized down when necessary—as he did after the downturn of 2008—in order to preserve the integrity of the firm’s work. Joe gets to the nuts and bolts of what it takes to be authentic—he gave me a list of criteria that must be considered when considering new clients. “I don’t want to work with clients who simply manage design as a necessary evil,” he says.
What I like and respect most about Joe Duffy is that he doesn’t have to.
I think the real question really is, “Why design?”
Because I couldn’t make any money as a painter.
Yes. I went to school for fine art and wanted nothing whatsoever to do with any form of commercial art. In fact, the situation back then was more like the “jocks versus geeks” situation now. If you were involved in fine art, you were in one camp, and if you were involved in art direction or design, you were in another. The people in one group would have nothing whatsoever to do with those in the other. Anything that was commercial was seen as selling out. And I didn’t want to have anything to do with that. When I found out that I couldn’t sell my artwork enough to support myself, I decided it might not be so bad to pursue a career in commercial art.
I knew in kindergarten, from the time when the teacher gave us an assignment to draw our favorite saint.
I did. And I drew a picture of St. Michael the Archangel. The teacher put the students’ drawings up on the board, and all the kids gathered around mine and could not believe how good it was. No one could believe I did it. Right then and there, I knew I could do something better than anyone else. I wish I still had that drawing.
Absolutely. I think that generating that feeling is the desire of anyone who runs a big consumer-branding company. Well, perhaps not everyone. Fortunately, the people who I’ve worked for over the years have all wanted to be the best. They want their company, their brand, and the products they make to rise above the fray. I think that aspiration is a basic part of human nature. And it really is what branding is all about.
First of all, a company needs to understand that “someone.” Understanding the audience of any brand is absolutely critical. A brand needs to be honest about who it’s right for, and why. Once that’s defined, it becomes much easier to encourage mutuality with an audience. But people choose certain brands for all kinds of reasons. If you believe that something is going to make you feel superior, regardless of whether that belief is right or wrong, it makes you feel better about yourself. Of course, the feeling is false. But that falseness is not the fault of the brand—that’s your own personal construct.
Sure they are. Especially in this day and age, when cynicism is at an all-time high. Everyone has the ability to investigate things online, and to find out where something is made, who’s making it, how it’s made, what the ingredients are, and so forth.
At the end of the day, successful branding is about making someone feel that they’ve made the right choice, that they are better for it, and that their life is going to be better as a result. Whether that involves putting on a pair of Levi’s or putting on a pair of work boots, if you feel that this choice is absolutely right for you, then you’re going to have a better experience as a person.
We all have a portfolio of brands we live with. We have a fine-tuned control over how these brands enter our life, convey their messages to us, and sell to us. If someone sees a brand on a supermarket shelf, and they choose that one over another brand, what they’re saying is that this particular brand relates better to them. Perhaps they think it tastes better, but more importantly, they feel that the brand relates to them better.
Every brand becomes a badge. Whether you experience that when you open your refrigerator, your pantry, your closet, or your whatever, the brands we choose to live with become statements about who we are as people. Most people don’t talk about brands in the way that I’m talking about them right now. But it is the way that we think. Every brand we choose helps express our own personal individuality.
I learned on the job. I wasn’t trained in art direction or design. I was just a kid who wanted to be an artist. In the beginning, I designed everything from window displays to signs for head shops and organic food stores. You name it, I did it. Then I started doing illustrations for advertising agencies. An art director would hire me, and I would do an illustration for an outdoor billboard or a print campaign. Inevitably, it would be incredibly frustrating working with art directors because they would insist that I “change this and do that,” and I hated it. I felt like a pawn. So I said, “You know what? I’m going to be an art director.” And I got a job as an art director.
I did some ads for my dad’s bar. My father was a very successful Irish saloonkeeper in Minneapolis. He owned a bar and nightclub called Duff’s. I had been doing some illustrations and ads for his menus and table tents, and I created posters for the bands that played there. I put together a portfolio primarily showcasing this work, and got hired as an art director. I did that for a while, and then broke off to start an ad agency with some of the people I worked with. I was creative director there for four years, but got tired of the compromise and politics required in advertising, and I decided to go back to design. I wanted to get my hands dirty again. I started Duffy Design in 1984. I started out in this business with the philosophy that I am not going to work with anybody who won’t allow me to do work that I am proud of. Right now, I have an independent company with my kids and a few other people. Altogether, we’re twelve people.
I have to keep the firm small. I think the only way you can continually do work that you’re proud of is to work with a short list of clients. Most clients won’t allow you to do what’s right. But, fortunately for designers everywhere, there are more and more clients—especially the big ones—who are beginning to understand the power of design. They’re realizing the importance of standing out and being different.
The list of clients you can convince to do the right thing is growing. Despite the economy, I think design is in a damn good position right now.
I don’t want to work with clients who believe they have all the answers. I don’t want to work with clients who are successful in spite of their lack of design or in spite of their bad design. I don’t want to work with clients who simply manage design as a necessary evil.
Absolutely. Most of them are like that. But, as I said, more and more of them are getting it every day. And they are seeing results from brands like Apple. That’s design, period. Yes, it’s also technology, but it’s more than that: It’s design.
We keep serving up good design. If it gets to a point where it’s absolutely fruitless, and they keep saying, “No,” or they try to tell us to do something in a prescriptive way, then we part company. But I try to have really honest, intelligent conversations before I start a relationship with any client.
You can’t let yourself rationalize that it’s okay to work for a bad client because you’re getting a big fee. There are always a few telling questions you can ask to find out whether you’re going to be able to do really great design for someone. But you have to be honest. I think an awful lot of people working with bad clients start out believing that during the project, they can convince the clients to understand great design. They think great design will convince them. Bullshit. Ask the right questions before designing and listen to the answers, and nine times out of ten, you’ll know whether or not you’ll be able to do great work that you’ll be proud of.
Obviously, the questions vary, depending on the prospect and their business situation, not to mention their corporate structure. However, there are some general questions that can help determine what you’re in for. In no particular order, they are,
- How would you define success as it relates to this design initiative?
- Who will be involved in the approval process, and what roles will they play in our collaborative effort?
- Will we have regular access to the finaldecision maker?
- Can you describe previous design projects and the experiences with outside design firms, both good and bad?
- Will your internal design team also be developing design directions? This is an important question, because we’ve found ourselves in this situation twice recently without our knowledge of it going in.
- Who do you consider your strongest competitor, and how would you rate their brand design?
- What attracted you to our firm?
- Will we have access to and be able to collaborate with your other marketing communications partners—your ad agency, PR firm, web developer?
- What is your position on research? How will qualitative and quantitative research be conducted on this design?
- What’s the design fee?
Perseverance is part of it. Don’t put money before your standards. Don’t put money before your integrity and your knowledge of what’s right and what’s wrong. What you do as a designer—and what you believe in and stand for—is going to be evident in your work. It’s no more complicated than that.
It’s also critical to work with people who are actually capable of doing great creative work. In this regard, I’ve been very fortunate. But I’ve also been very diligent in maintaining an environment where the best young designers want to work. Think about it from a young designer’s point of view. All they want to do is build a portfolio. When applying for a job, they’ll apply first at firms that are doing work they admire. It’s as simple as that. If I start compromising and start doing shit work, I can’t get the best designers to work here.
And I’ve surrounded myself with absolutely brilliant young designers. They create great work all the time! And if you make sure they’re working on projects that they’re really proud of—and if you help foster great design—they’re going to wake up every morning and look forward to going to work. Most importantly, they’re going to have great careers.
I guess I’ve always gone about it in a rather naive and simplistic way. If there aren’t enough clients out there who want the kind of design work we do, I have to cut back. This is the worst thing about my business. I dread it and I hate it. But if there aren’t enough clients to pay the freight, and allow us to do good work, then I have to cut back. It starts with my salary and then—unfortunately—sometimes I have to let people go. This is the main reason we are twelve people right now. Given this economy, I expect we’re going to be on a roller coaster for some time. We’ll be fine with the overhead that we have now. But if it turns out that the only way to get by with my current overhead is to do bad work, I will cut back. I will make less money. I’ve put my need to be happy and complete in what I do ahead of concerns about money.
Design is really so damn simple. It’s so straightforward. Anyone who tries to make it complicated or convoluted does a disservice to designers everywhere. Anyone who buys crap gets what they deserve.