Brand Architecture: Your epidermis is showing

"If you name your firm after a mountain, you have to climb that mountain, says Snøhetta’s Craig Dykers, AIA. True to these words, members of Dykers' Oslo- and New York-based architecture, landscape and design firm make an annual pilgrimage up the slopes of their namesake, a stone’s throw from the Arctic Circle.

Companies spend a lot of money and time developing their brand identity—and often turn to design firms for assistance. But how do design firms go through the process of defining themselves? Sure, there’s some alchemy in finding just the right expression, but at the end of the day, it’s about a design process.

“You have to have attitude,” says D.J. Stout, a graphic designer and partner at Pentagram. “You need to be confident about who you are and present that to the world. It is problem-solving.”

And, as Stout explains, solving the problem begins with three simple questions: Who are you? What do you do? How do you say it?

Last month, the firm PageSoutherlandPage announced that moving forward the company would be known simply as Page. With offices in Texas (Austin, Dallas, and Houston), Denver, Washington D.C., as well as international affiliate offices, the transition is representative of an incoming new generation of leadership and the evolution of the 116-year-old firm into a robust organization where all employees will soon share in ownership.

“We are redefining the culture of the firm,” explains Page principal Larry Speck, FAIA. “We are making a much flatter organization with the goal of encouraging an entrepreneurial spirit among our people and increasing collaboration among our various offices.”

With a company like Page, however, charting a new path forward means balancing a substantial legacy with a firm-wide desire to rethink nearly every element of the business.

“Page’s longevity can be perceived as either venerable and vital or just plain old,” says Larry Paul Fuller, an Austin, Texas–based consultant who has collaborated with Herman Dyal, FAIA, on the firm’s rebranding assignment. At the center of that project is what Page is calling “design that makes lives better.” The firm’s new graphic identity, consisting of its name followed by a slash—Page/—speaks to the forward-thinking design the firm is known for bringing to 
complex projects.

Page began this process just over a year ago, and will roll out a new website and an integrated communications plan to help get the word out about its new name. An essential key to the evolution of the brand, however, is the representation of how the firm is working today and has been for a while. It is about the people who are engaged with Page.

“The importance of creating an integrated brand for our firm is to enable us to do better work,” says Speck. “It keeps us focused on our values and our priorities, and it enables us to clearly communicate to clients, potential clients, and others what we stand for in architecture and what we have to offer.”

As many architecture firms are embracing horizontal structures with collaborative workflows and multidisciplinary practices, their identities are evolving away from emphasizing the founders or a few partners to recognizing a collective whole founded on a particular design ethos. It’s not uncommon for architecture firms to practice architecture, planning, landscape architecture, and interior design under one roof. Some have branched out into fabrication and construction, while others have pursued product design, branding services, or art installations.

The brand itself, then, has to do more heavy lifting by communicating all of these multidisciplinary elements in a clear, concise, and consistent manner. It’s a fraught process for a sole practitioner, small firm, or even medium-sized firm. But what happens when you have offices in 15 countries?

Gensler dropped “architects” from its name in the 1990s, after moving away from M. Arthur Gensler & Associates in the 1980s. Now, just shy of its 50th anniversary, the firm has grown from a small office on Clay Street in San Francisco to 45 offices across 20 practice areas. The more the firm grew, the greater the need to find a single expression of its identity, so, just before the end of the last century, it became simply Gensler.

“We were beginning to really focus on a much bigger and broader offering that was not typical in an architecture firm,” says Gensler’s co-CEO Diane Hoskins, FAIA. Gensler was already providing multidisciplinary services as part of their portfolio, and the in-house team developed the larger strategy. “We wanted to define ourselves as being different from the rest and to really say to the world that we are a new paradigm of a global design firm.”

The firm’s previous logo had been Helvetica in light green. They went for a strong modern typeface in red to deliver the new message in the redesigned logo. “It was a much bolder statement and reflected greater confidence about design in a noticeable way,” Hoskins says.

Gensler’s name and the new graphic presence helped broadcast its identity externally, but its size and multiple locations required internal cohesion as well. “Our brand is evident from every touchpoint with our organization,” says Hoskins. “The innovative spaces that we work in are an important and very tangible way of demonstrating and experiencing the brand for our clients.”

With a focus on what Hoskins calls design thinking and thought leadership, Gensler seeks to engage its clients and communities in a larger discussion, in part by occupying ground-floor spaces with a street presence in urban areas. Its offices also emphasize collaboration in their layouts, and Gensler’s identity is underscored through an internal communications strategy that includes two magazines, Dialogue and Forecast Design, both of which are substantial publications that detail current trends in the various disciplines they represent.

All of this is essential to cultivating the firm’s culture. Not every firm can reasonably carry two internal publications, but Gensler is an exception. And any firm can take advantage of social media to reinforce its brand, both internally and externally.

“We encourage the principals and associates at Page to tweet and write blog posts,” Speck says. This is also an approach shared by Pentagram: “Social media is inexpensive and, when focused, it is very efficient,” Stout says.

Gregg Pasquarelli, AIA, founding principal of SHoP Architects and SHoP Construction, says that Instagram has proven to be an excellent tool for the New York–based firm to share with the world and, in turn, its own people.

“I can take a picture of a design detail, somewhere I am visiting, or something that I am thinking about, and post it immediately,” says Pasquarelli. “I love it.”

SHoP's growth since its founding in 1994 has been well-documented in design media, beginning with construction services and lately into a sustainable, integrated building technologies company called HeliOptix. Less obvious is how SHoP managed that growth and maintained an internal sense of coherence.

For Pasquarelli, the identity of the firm is largely about a culture that principals strive to create within their team—which found its earliest expression entirely by accident when the founders inadvertently punched a hole between the “H” and “P” initials of Holden (for founding principal Kimberly Holden, AIA) and Pasquarelli while discussing the name of their new firm. 

“We knew immediately that the ‘o’ would represent all of the people who would work with us in the future,” says Pasquarelli. To that end, while SHoP has grown to be 150 people between design and construction, their brand identity keeps its internal identity and outward appearance tied together.

Please click on the link to read the entire article Brand Architecture by Catherine Gavin. Architect Magazine, February 2014. Text reprinted with approval from Architect Magazine. 

Contributed By

Catherine Gavin, Architect Magazine