Designers know that creating the perfect logo can be a time consuming process. But even when you know what’s involved, for most it’s hard to comprehend how some logos can be priced in the millions. How can a logo cost this much?
To discover the answer, on this weeks episode Ian interviews Philip VanDusen who’s worked with a host of the Fortune 100 companies, with logos in excess of $250,000. We learn what’s involved with projects of this scale, how to accurately price a logo project, user research, testing and more.
Philip VanDusen, is a creative entrepreneur and owner of Verhaal Brand Design, a branding agency based in New Jersey, USA. In his career Philip has lead creative teams, serving as VP of Design for PepsiCo and Old Navy and Executive Creative Director at the iconic branding firm Landor Associates.
Ian Paget: I went through one of your interviews and I understand you was involved in a project for a logo design that cost $250,000. I think you’re one of the first guests that I’ve spoken to that’s been involved in projects of that scale. It’s an enormous amount of money.
Philip VanDusen: It is.
Ian Paget: How do agencies approach pricing a job like that, and what are they doing to calculate such a substantial figure?
Ian Paget: I went through one of your interviews and I understand you was involved in a project for a logo design that cost $250,000. I think you’re one of the first guests that I’ve spoken to that’s been involved in projects of that scale. It’s an enormous amount of money.
Philip VanDusen: It is.
Ian Paget: How do agencies approach pricing a job like that, and what are they doing to calculate such a substantial figure?
Philip VanDusen: Sure. When you’re working with generally a company that is going to need an identity of that kind of a scale, they’re usually an international company, big companies like British Petroleum, or Exxon, or FedEx, or someone like that. When you look at pricing of brand identity or logo design, what you have to look at is what the impact of that logo design is going to have on the business, and also the scale of the business. So if you have a mom and pop donut shop and you’re designing a logo for them, they may only have annual revenue of $500,000 or something like that.
And so, what they can afford to spend on an identity is directly proportional to what the revenue of their business is. The impact of that brand identity or a really great brand identity on their business is going to have, therefore, a proportionately scaled financial impact on their business. So you need to kind of align the pricing to the impact of the business. When you’re working with, let’s just use BP or FedEx as an example, you’re working with a company like that, number one, the geographic span and where that identity is rolled out to is so massive. Everything from trucks, to packaging, to online, to broadcast, to animation, are so vast and there’s so much to take into consideration, and so much test that that takes an incredible amount of time and an incredible amount of thought.
The other aspect of working on a brand identity project for a company of that scale is that you’re not just working with one decision maker. You are generally working with a range of C-suite people and their departments, marketing departments, brands department, strategy departments, legal departments. And when you go through a brand identity project with a company of that scale, you usually have to pass it through multiple, multiple levels of approval and get multiple levels of input that will affect the design. And so, that takes a tremendous amount of time and travel and presentation, development and stuff like that.
The other thing that goes into an identity of that scale is that you also usually do user research, or consumer research. So, a company of that scale, if they design a new logo, they may very well do user research or consumer research, feedback focus groups, both quantitative and qualitative, across the globe. I mean, you may do six or eight of them domestically in the United States. You may do some in Asia and in Europe and all over the world because you have to take into consideration how different cultures around the world are going to react to that identity in one way or another. And you want to make sure that you’re not making some cultural mistake that could really adversely affect how that identity is perceived or accepted by that particular culture. So there are so many different pieces to it.
Then the other part of it is the usual stuff like brand guidelines. So when you have a brand guidelines for British Petroleum or FedEx, that brand guidelines document is going to be a hundred, 200 pages long with dozens and dozens of examples of usage and incredibly detailed guidelines in terms of how that is produced. And then, finally, just circling back, the impact of that brand identity and the cost of rolling it out and the consumer perception of the brand is so dramatic and can have such a dramatic financial impact on the company that your pricing is going to reflect that.
Ian Paget: That was an incredible answer, Phillip. Very detailed. And theres a lot that we need to dissect.
I think with a mom and pop shop, or small business, they’re easy to identify how many people are involved and what what might be needed. But when it comes to these huge companies, it sounds like there’s a lot of work involved just to work out a cost. It sounds like with big companies, it would need properly scoping out before you can do anything. So with those huge projects, would you carry out some kind of scoping exercise for a logo project? I would have thought that would take several days just to work out all of the information you need.
Philip VanDusen: It could conceivably take weeks to put together a project proposal of that scope. And the reason is, is because you are there are so many stakeholders involved in it, both on your side as the agency, because you may have senior management, you may have strategy, you may have consumer insight people. You will have design. You will have production. You may have photography. All of those different departments and functionalities have to be scoped, so how long is it going to take, how many hours is going to take all of those people, how much do each of those people make?
You put these spreadsheets together with all sorts of macros that do the math for you, and you essentially scope out the amount of time that it’s going to take to do the project. You have to layer in all sorts of travel, travel for research groups, travel for meetings, all of the people who are going to be going on those trips, how long they’re going to be there, etc. And so, mapping that all out on a project of the scale of something for FedEx or BP is massive. Meaning you might have to travel all over the world. You might have to do focus groups all over the world. You might have to go present the identity to international stakeholders.
And so, scoping that, getting that all down on paper and doing the math is an incredible undertaking. And do you charge for that? If you’ve won the job or you know you’re pretty close to winning the job, or maybe you’re up against one other big global agency or a couple, you generally do that for free because the upside… and then you bake in the cost of the time you’ve taken to do the proposal into the cost of the job. And that’s how you kind of do it.
There are companies more and more, when you have shootouts with agencies that are not at that scale, but more and more agents are starting to charge for proposals because it’s so much time and energy does go into doing proposals. If you respond to a lot of RFPs, it can get very costly if you’re not winning the work on the tail end. So it used to be that no one charged for proposals, but now a lot of people either aren’t even participating in RFPs or they charge a small amount to develop the proposal.
Ian Paget: Okay. With the pricing, I guess, there’s two sides that you would assess with a project of this scale. So there would be the cost to you, so working out the actual items you mentioned, so the staff travel, all the bits and pieces involved to make the project happen. You also mentioned about… I can’t remember exactly how you worded it, but it’s centered around risk, and how much risk is it to that company that they’re getting this logo redesigned. How would you arrive at a figure for something like risk, to understand how much it’s actually worth to them?
Philip VanDusen: Sure. There’s a lot of different things that you take into consideration. One is the annual revenue of the company. The other is what their annual marketing spend is. The other is what you… Whenever you have a brand redesign for a company, or even a new advertising campaign, you generally see a bump in revenue. It may be very short. It may be very severe. It might be more minimal. But when you do a brand redesign of a large company or any kind of company, it attracts a certain amount of attention. And it generally results in a bump in sales or a bump in brand awareness.
And so, if you take a company with BP annual revenues of who knows what, what, $150 billion, I don’t know what they make a year. But you take a portion of that and you say… Let’s say BP makes $10 billion a year and they see a 1% bump in sales, I’m not a math guy. What does that work out to be? I don’t know, $1 million. And you say, “Okay, so just the bump in revenue that they’re going to see is four times what we’re going to charge them for their identity.”
Or you could say, “How much does BP spend on advertising a year?” And you could say, “We take a small portion of what their annual advertising spend is, and you say it makes sense in terms of let’s take 25% of that and say that’s what they’re going to spend on a major brand redesign.” Companies, larger companies also, don’t do this every day, right? They only do it once every five or 10 years or something like that, something major. And so, they’re going to know they’re going to have to invest in it.
Ian Paget: Do you ever ask them, with these bigger projects anyway, what budget they’re aiming for? Does that ever come up? Because it sounds like you could potentially reach a figure that’s so enormous that they might just think, “We just wanted to spend a fraction of that.”
Philip VanDusen: Yeah. Well, big companies, really big companies, they have people who work internally in marketing departments and CMOs and stuff like that, who have been around in the industry, so they know what the stuff costs. So there’s never usually sticker shock when it comes to larger companies. Now, small to mid-size companies, companies that have, granted, also… I had the majority of my career on big agency and big corporate side. And now I have my own agency and work with small to medium size businesses and entrepreneurs. So I’m not kind of working in that world anymore.
But one of the things that whenever you’re pricing an identity job for smaller companies, you want to give them a ballpark, at least price kind of scope very early on, if not in the initial conversation, so you don’t get way down the road and then give them a proposal and have them say, “Oh my gosh, I had no idea it was going to be this much.” You never want to be in that situation because that is really throwing money away on your part if you’re spending a lot of time and energy communicating and developing proposals for a client that is unqualified to pay your fees.
You generally don’t have those conversations with really big companies because they already know. But small to medium-sized companies a lot of times don’t have the internal marketing capability or don’t have the experience in branding to understand how much this stuff costs. And again, depending on the size of the company, if it’s a $5 million a year company, the impact on their business is going to be one thing. But if it’s $100 million a year company, it’s going to be something else. And so, I’ve worked with $100 million a year companies who have marketing people internally and who very much know what to expect, and I’ve worked with some who have very little knowledge or experience and you have to educate them to what goes into this and how these things are priced.
Ian Paget: I think it will be worth also talking through pricing that might be a little bit more relatable to the audience, which is a mixed bag of people. So it could be anyone just generally interested in logo design. It could be people like myself, who work with startups or small businesses. And you do get more experienced people that have the similar level to you that could be listening as well. But I’d love to go through how you would go about pricing for the everyday client, the small businesses, the startups and stuff like that. Because I’ve got no idea how you work out things like marketing spend, and revenue, and stuff like that. So it’d be great to have a conversation around that.
Philip VanDusen: Yeah, I mean, I ask them. In my first exploratory conversation, and when I’m doing a discovery call, there’s kind of two levels of discovery call. One is when you have your first conversation with them and you just are finding out, what is their business? How big are they, how many locations do they have, how many employees, what are they looking to do, what are the results they’re looking to get? And in those conversations, if you’re going to be doing a branding or marketing job for them, asking what the annual revenue of the company is it’s not a secret.
I actually was reading a comment on YouTube recently, someone said that they had asked a client what their annual revenue is and the client got very defensive and said that, “I never discuss the particulars or my business with anybody, blah, blah, blah.” If you get a client like that, just turn around and walk away because in any kind of client relationship, your client has to trust you and have a great deal of transparency with you in terms of the workings in their business, because what you’re doing is being done in order to impact that aspect of their business.
So you have to understand it, number one, so you can scope the job appropriately. But you also want to understand it because you want to know, when it comes down to it, whether your work has impacted their business positively or not. And unless you have some sort of a baseline to judge that by, then you’re kind of sunk, right? So in the very first call, I’ll say, “What’s the annual revenue of your business? Are you a seasonal business? Do you have spikes in business throughout the year? How many employees do you have? How many locations do you have? Who are your competitors? How big are your competitors? How much do they make a year? Are international? Are they local? What does that look like?”
They will sometimes have a good idea of who their competition is and how much the revenue of their competition is. And getting a kind of an overview and a scope of that will help you a lot in scoping how much the job should cost. And, again, like I said, depending on the scale of the business, like you can be working with a mom and pop donut shop and they could have one solo owner who is going to be your point of contact and the sole decision maker in the project. That makes it a very simple kind of engagement in relationship. You only have to make one person happy, right?
But then you could have a mom and pop shop where there’s a dad owner and there’s five kids who all work for it, and they’re all going to be in on it, and they all have different opinions. And then he always likes to pass it by his brother-in-law who’s a lawyer. And if you’re going to have conversations and kind of dig down in that, that’s another part of the conversation you have. You say, “What’s the kind of decision making chain on this project going to be? Am I working just with you? Are there other stakeholders involved in this project that we’ll be presenting this to? Are there different levels of approval that we’re going to be going through?” Those are also questions that you want to ask because they will affect dramatically sometimes whether you can make this project profitable for yourself or not.
Ian Paget: Now, I know you’ve spoken about annual revenue and we’ve pulled together all this information from your client. I guess the next thing is what do with that? So when you know the annual revenue, how do you work out a price for the project based on that information?
Philip VanDusen: I can’t say that there’s an absolute mathematical formula to it, but generally most companies will spend anywhere from five to 10 to 15% of their annual revenue on marketing. So if they are doing a brand identity project that’s going to impact the financial performance of their company, you could say, “Okay, you take 15% of their annual revenue, maybe 25% of that number, they should pay for brand at any project, or even maybe 50%.” And so, if you put it into terms like that and give them an idea of those basic kind of principles of marketing and branding and what those things cost with working with agencies, and you give them that kind of context, it makes it a lot easier for them to understand and also to be palatable to them some, because you also have to bake into that, that there are client perceptions around the value of design.
I’ve worked with clients who have $10 million companies who have extremely good design aesthetics, and the design aesthetic of their company or their store is very high and they have a great taste level. And they understand the value of design and its impact on their business. There are other people who may have a similar size company who think that all they need to do is go to Fiverr and pay a high school kid $100 to do a logo and they’ll just slap it on a bunch of stuff and they’ll be good.
There’s a certain amount of education as a designer that you can do with clients, and then there’s a certain amount that you can’t. And that’s also in the first couple of discovery calls, something that you have to have your radar and your antenna and your spidey sense up about because if you come across a client who obviously doesn’t understand the value of marketing and design and the impact on a business, there’s only so much education that you can do.
There’s some people who you just can’t educate out of a value perception around what design is worth. And there are other people that you can, you can bring them up to speed on it and give them baseline understanding of what this sort of stuff costs and how it can possibly impact their business. And there are other people that right out of the gate get it.
Ian Paget: Yeah, for sure. It doesn’t take long to spot that someone doesn’t value good design.
Just before I move on to a different topic, since we’re talking about working out prices based on percentages of annual revenue on marketing, and other factors, so it’s clear for listeners… when you do charge more money, do you do more work?
Philip VanDusen: Oh yeah. I mean, you don’t charge money just to charge money. I mean, you charge money because the project is going to be more complex and it’s going to take more work and more time. Complexity and the number of stakeholders and approvals and maybe even the applications of where the logo’s going to show up, how it’s got to be designed, what kind of legal review it’s going to go through, all sorts of things like that take time, not just on the client side but on your side. And any kind of time that you put into a project, you have to charge for. So understanding the complexity of the project from all of the people on your side who are going to have their hands in it and designing it, maybe doing production artwork, maybe developing guidelines, maybe doing animations, whatever that is, all of that affects the cost of it.
Ian Paget: Yeah, absolutely. The next thing I wanted to move on to, and you brushed into it briefly, was the user consumer research aspect of a project. This is an area that I’ve never really been sure how to go about doing. When you create a logo, you ideally want to target a specific audience. And for the scale of projects that I’ve currently worked on, I’ve made personal judgements that I feel would attract that audience. But I’m certain there’s a better way to do this, and that you’d ideally research the target audience in some way. But how do you go about doing that?
Philip VanDusen: I go about every brand identity project in a similar way. I do strategic design. If you are doing a logo work or brand identity work, there are basically two ways of going about it. One, you’re designing something that looks good, that you try to get your client to like, and it really comes down to aesthetics, and it’s a beauty pageant. The beauty pageant is whether you like it and think it’s good aesthetically and the client likes it and thinks it’s good. That is the simplest logo project that you can have.
But the problem with projects like that is there is no… It just comes down to personal preference, your personal preference and your client’s personal preference. And when your client is paying for it, their personal preference wins. End of story. What you think doesn’t make any difference because they’re the ones paying for it. Now, when you take a brand identity and logo design into the strategic realm, you now are starting to bring into it more irrefutable truths that affect the decisions that are made in designing the work.
Let me tell you example. So when I go about a brand identity project, there are a number of stages to it. One is the brand strategy. So that’s the positioning of the company, what the company does, who they do it for, why they’re better, why they’re different, and why they’re better and different than their competition. The other part of that is the customer. So who is the customer? What’s the customer avatar? What’s their gender? What’s their income level? What are their interests? Where do they live? What’s their aesthetic? What’s their social strata, etc. Then you layer into that who their competition is.
What does this industry look like? Is there a visual language that is used predominantly in this industry? You have to look, research, and understand that. And then, all those things will start to inform decisions that you make around colour, or decisions you make around fonts, or decision you make around iconography or imagery that you’re using on a brand identity. Just for an example, say you’re doing a brand identity for a horse farm, right? They raise horses and then they also give riding instruction.
And so, if you look into the equestrian world of that industry and other horse farms and other people who offer riding lessons, and you do a Google search and find five or six companies that are doing that sort of thing, you look at their websites, you look at their brand identities, you look at how they position themselves visually, how they position themselves verbally, who their perceived customer might be. Are they catering to high school kids? Are they catering to wealthy trophy wives of CEOs. What does that look like?
Once you start to understand the competitive landscape, and then the semiotics, so the visual symbology of that industry, you can start making informed decisions around your design. Are you going to follow the norms of the industry and just do it better? Or are you going to buck the trends of the industry and do it differently so you stand out? There’s a certain amount of balance between both those. Generally, you want to make sure that you’re not being so radically different from the industry that no one’s going to look at your work or look at the company’s website and not even understand what they do.
But you also want to be better and stand out. But in order to understand how to be better, or how to stand out, or how much to look like the category, you really have to understand what the category is, who the customer is, and how your client is going to market. How are they doing it? Who are their customers? Is this a horse farm that considers itself to be the most innovative horse farm in the world and they want to be incredibly contemporary? Is this a horse farm that is in Colorado and considers themselves to be the new cowboys of the millennium and they want to wear cowboy boots and cowboy hats and it’s all leather and ornate design and it’s very old school?
Understanding the category, the company, how they’re going to market all affects your decisions around what you’re going to do in terms of an identity. So it affects colour decisions and pattern decisions and iconography, photography style, website layout, design, all of those things. Just to circle back and tie it up in a bow, when I do a brand identity project, the client may hire me to do a little bit of brand strategy and positioning and developing a customer avatar, doing a little bit of competitive audit so I can show them who their competition is and what the competition is doing. That can be very helpful and what you’re doing is you’re building a cattle shoot. Hey, this is great. I started with a horse analogy and now moving to cattle. You’re essentially building a cattle shoot. When you have a hundred head of cattle and you want them to go into a pen opening that’s five feet wide, you create a funnel, right, and the cows move through the funnel and then all go single file, one by one, into this doorway.
Essentially, when you’re doing a brand identity project, you are building a cattle shoot by developing and codifying the strategy, the customer, the competition, the category. You are establishing parameters that you and your client are going to use to make decisions around everything that you do for the project. And the better you are personally at understanding those things so you can develop the best logo that’s going to work the best for them, that’s great. If they’re not paying you to do all that upfront work, you have to do a little bit of it yourself so you can communicate the strategic underpinnings of your work. Hopefully you can convince the client to pay you to do those things, and then you are then educating them deeply on all of these things.
And so, when it comes time to make decisions around the brand identity, it’s not just a beauty contest. It’s not just my opinion against yours. There are realities and parameters around the decisions you’re making, around this identity, that mean something. The category realities mean something. The customer ring means something. The positioning this company is going to market with mean something. All of those contribute to the aesthetics of what you’re designing.
And so, the best way I have found to sell in great work is to build a really strong cattle shoot. And that way I can be comfortable that the work I’m developing is the strongest for the client. But then also the client can understand that the identity that we’re developing is going to be the strongest thing for them. And their opinion about it or how much they like it matters less because if you can prove to them what you’re showing to them is going to work for their business, then they will listen to you more, and their personal aesthetic opinion carries a lot less weight. That’s the difference between design and strategic design, in a nutshell.
Ian Paget: Just to expand on what you said, I know through the research, you can identify specifically who that target audience is. How do you go about making sure that what you’ve created does attract the audience? You did mention testing earlier. I assume that’s the approach that you would take. And if that is the case, would you mind explaining how you would actually go about carrying that out to make sure that what you’ve designed is the most appropriate for that specific audience?
Philip VanDusen: Sure. I mean, you can do customer research on a large level, and that can be quite costly if you get into focus groups, so qualitative research, or if you do a quantitative research online where people are making choices around identities. You can do very, very customer research light, and sometimes your clients will do that for themselves. They’re like, “Oh, I ran my logo by my daughter and my uncle, and my uncle has been in the horse farm business for blah, blah, blah and he thinks X.” To a certain extent, your clients are always going to do that.
But by your doing it and saying, “Okay…” You ask the client, you say, “Can you give me the names of three or four of your current clients or your current customers?” And they may be able to do that and give you a couple phone numbers or email addresses. You could just email them and say, “Hey, we’re working on an identity for this customer. Which one’s resonating with you?” You can, basically, when it comes down to it, ask real people what their feedback is on the work and whether they think that it makes sense for the company.
You can do that through, other people, other designers that you know, who may understand that category or may have an opinion that you respect, or you can kind of go bigger with it, right, where you are doing some Facebook ads targeted for specific people, driving them to a website where you’re showcasing a range of designs and they get to vote, and you’re doing quantitative research on which are the winners of the work that you’re doing. So it can down to just finding a few customers and asking them their opinions, or it can be something that’s more robust where you’re doing quantitative and qualitative maybe on a larger scale.
Ian Paget: It’s the first time I’ve heard anyone mention about doing Facebook ads for this type of thing and doing it in that way. The only other person so far on the podcast I’ve spoken to on this topic was Marty Neumeier, and he mentioned a similar process where you show a few different options. And what he did and what he ran through was questions related to the brand. And rather than asking, “Which one do you like?” it was very much focused on, “Which one of these do you feel is the most premium?” They’re very specific questions that would allow you to identify which one would be the most suitable.
And it sounds like very much the same thing that you would do, but yeah, the added Facebook thing, I’ve never heard anyone do that. Would you mind explaining a little bit more about that? Obviously, you do some kind of ad. What’s on the ad? Is it just an image of that logo? How do you advertise that to the audience so that they do click on that ad and give feedback?
Philip VanDusen: When I’ve done it for clients, they generally have a Facebook presence and have a number of followers. So you can target those followers directly and ask them to go to a specific website where they will vote on something. Facebook advertising has incredible targeting mechanisms. If you wanted to find people who frequent premium horse farms and take riding lessons, you can do that on Facebook and serve up ads to them that say, “Are you interested in giving some feedback on some design work for this premium horse farm? You go click on this website.” And sometimes you can reward them with a digital Starbucks gift card for a couple bucks. It doesn’t cost you very much, and can figure out exactly how many responses that you think you need in order to make it kind of a viable response set to make the decision.
Then you drive them to a website, and then they have to make some choices, and then you quantify what those choices are. There’s a way to do it. Lots of times people will just do it for free, but there’s ways that you can compensate them in small ways that will get you a much larger response set. There’s another way of going about it too that I would just want to mention, and I’ve seen people do this on LinkedIn or on other Facebook groups where a designer who’s having a hard time making a decision around a particular piece that they’re working on, they’ll just post it in one of their design groups, or they might go on LinkedIn and post it on a forum group that is in that industry.
So they might go on LinkedIn and find a horse farm group, or people in the horse industry, and they go into that forum or apply to be a follower of that forum. And they’ll pop in there and they’ll say, “Hey, I’m working on brand identity for a premium horse farm. These are the four pieces I’m working on. What do you think? And you can get consumer feedback for free in a lot of different ways. Some people will just post it to a bunch of designers in a design group but be very specific and strategic around how they’re describing the project. They might say, “I’m designing a brand identity for a premium horse farm that offers riding lessons, and they’re located in Colorado and they have a revenue of $10 million a year and they have 700…” whatever that is.
And you give a very strategic brief to what the project is that you’re working on. So the other designers who are looking at it understand the strategic underpinnings of the work. You’re not just going, “Here’s five logos that I designed. Which one you like better, right? Because a lot of times designers understand brand strategy, positioning, semiotics, that go into a particular industry, and they will make a more informed choice that’s not purely just a beauty contest or an aesthetic preference, right? They will take into consideration, oh, this is for a premium company. Oh, this is for a Western-style company. And they will give you feedback that’s aligned to that strategic brief.
Ian Paget: I’m just going back to that page you mentioned. So when you do that Facebook ad and you send to that page, what type of thing are you asking? Do you ask, “Which one do you prefer?” or is there more complexity to that? Do you just show you the logos? Do you share it mocked up on something? Sorry for so many questions. I’ve never seen anything like it, so I’m just curious how it’s done, because it sounds like a really useful and practical way that anyone can do to work out the most appropriate final solution for a project.
Philip VanDusen: Yeah. I mean, you can do it however you want. I mean, I’ve seen it where it’s just a lineup of logos. Sometimes it’s a lineup of logos with different colourways. Sometimes colour is a real indicator or can push people in one way or another, because it’s such a powerful thing. I’ve seen people do it with logos and then logos may be mocked up on one or two things, so people get an idea of what it looks like in situ. Then just a number of check boxes. Usually there’s some sort of descriptor or framing of what the identity is for so people can understand what it’s for. Even a layman customer needs to have a little bit of context.
All that said, when I have done this, personally, I have a partner who does user research and consumer research. Quantitative and qualitative research is a science, like a real science. And how you ask questions can be very, very directive in how someone answers that question. So there are people out there, experts who know how to design studies or know how to design forms and surveys. So they are as a blank slate as possible and they’re not accidentally leading people to answer it in a particular way.
I’ve done surveys on my own, and then I’ve done surveys with experts. And the people who do it for a living always kind of blow me away in how… Ian, it’s just like when you work with a strategic designer or someone from Fiverr. It’s like you can tell the difference between someone who really knows their shit and someone who doesn’t, right? When it comes to user research, you can do it down and dirty and quick and mean or you can do it right. And a lot of times it comes down to budget.
Ian Paget: Yeah. I obviously need to find someone that knows all about that and I can get them on the podcast and really quiz them because I know… And it’s one of the reasons why I was digging into a little bit more because you wouldn’t want to just ask the question like, “Which one do you prefer?” I’ve never seen one, so I’m picturing something in my head. But if I was designing the logo or branding for a product, I would actually mock up the packaging and maybe ask questions around, which one of these two feels the most premium, or related questions to that brand so that people give you very direct feedback that’s in response to a question rather than telling you which one they prefer. Because I think those two questions would give incredibly different answers.
Philip VanDusen: Yes. That is very true. And I can totally hook you up with some people to interview for your podcast.
Ian Paget: Yeah, it’d be really good. I think that would be really interesting. And I know the audience would find it really valuable as well.
Philip VanDusen: It’s completely fascinating. I’ve worked with a lot of consumer research people in my career, some in the consumer packaged goods industry and doing live focus groups with people. Consumer and user research, it’s absolutely fascinating how people make decisions. And the more you realise how they make decisions and what affects those decisions, you kind of look at design and branding in a very different way. One of the things I just want to mention is that… And to other people who are doing logo work out there, when you’re talking to a client, the one thing that will influence a client more than anything else is the response from a customer.
I’ll give you an example. I was doing a project for a company that… It was for kitty litter, right? It was redesign of a major international kitty litter brand. We were presenting some creative. And so, what we did was we went into a series of pet stores, and just with our iPhones, we did in-aisle interviews with people who were buying cat litter. And we showed them the cat litter designs mocked up on packages and we said, “We’re designing premium cat litter for this brand,” which they were familiar with. “What do you think? What are your takeaways from these different packages?”
And they gave us five or 10 sentences, and we showed those videos of I think four or five customers in aisle, their responses to the designs that we are presenting. It was amazing. When we got to that end of that 45-minute presentation with the client, the only thing the client could talk about where those videos of the people in aisle. And so, whenever you can use customer feedback to support your point, that will be stronger than any personal preference or a kind of steering of the client that you can do.
Ian Paget: I’ve only ever experienced it once, but I had a project that was targeted at students. It was interesting because with my client, we both kind of narrowed it down to two. It was tricky because they both would work quite well, but we wasn’t quite sure. So I suggested that they speak to some of their students that they would typically target. And it was really fascinating because we had a preference that we thought that they would probably go with. And they actually went with the other one. It was so clear which one was most effective based on their target audience that it actually provided a lot more confidence that what I did was right and the client was even more excited about it than what it was previously. It just gave it so much weight. So I can imagine those interviews you mentioned, sharing that would probably give so much weight and so much credibility beyond anything you could probably imagine.
Philip VanDusen: Yeah. And when you do you, if you’re ever fortunate to do focus groups with real people and in a room with one-way glass and all of that, and you’re showing them design work and getting their feedback on it, as a designer, it’s absolutely fascinating because things always come up, perceptions of the work always come up or comments about it come up that you never would have expected. And there’s only so much that you can do as a designer in making the right decisions, but always receiving feedback from the customer can be really valuable.
I would say it can be really valuable by you’re listening to it and responding to it, or it could also be valuable in your reacting against it, meaning they can tell you what you don’t want to do too. Steve Jobs was very famous in saying that the iPhone wasn’t designed in a focus group. A lot of larger companies don’t feel comfortable making any decisions unless they’ve had it approved by focus groups. But there are companies that are extremely innovative and category busting that will never do a focus group because customers will only respond to what they know or what they’ve seen.
Focus groups are notoriously bad for getting feedback on anything that is innovative because customers have no frame of reference for it. For instance, are you familiar with the laundry and cleaning supply brand called Method?
Ian Paget: I haven’t heard of it.
Philip VanDusen: In the United States anyway, the laundry aisle was pretty much dominated by Tide and Gain and other major laundry detergents. And so, the aisle was basically owned by the colour orange and the colour blue and the colour green. And so, Method came, these big opaque-coloured jugs with plastic lids, right, the whole aisle. And Method came in, San Francisco company came in, and they created these clear jugs that were full of coloured liquid and there were all sorts of different interesting shapes with pumps and something you never see. And they kind of sequestered down to like a low-level shelf off in the corner and they got like eight facings, right?
But overnight, this company just totally blew up because their design was massively category busting. They didn’t follow any of the conventions of packaging or colour or a form or structure in the category whatsoever. Their stuff had a super high level. It was like the iPhone of laundry detergent. Because they were so disruptive, you couldn’t help but notice them in the aisle. And the people of higher design aesthetics were like, “Wow, what is this? This looks so great. It’s beautiful. It’s going to look great on my shelf.” And then they took it home and it was great detergent.
And so the company just blew up. I mean it just got huge and very, very successful. But my point being, they couldn’t have designed method laundry detergent in a focus group because people did not understand that that was even possible to do, and they had no frame of reference of that existing, because it had never existed before. And so, that’s something you want to keep in mind too. When you’re designing something that is going to be so different, or so unique, or so out of category, you can’t really rely on customer research to give you any kind of answers.
Ian Paget: Yeah, yeah. That actually makes me think of this old Victorian drawing of the future. And obviously now we have cars and we have planes and stuff like that. But back then, that’s so different to anything that previously existed that they couldn’t imagine it. Can’t remember the exact picture, but if I find it, I’ll stick it in the show notes for this episode. But, basically, it still includes horses and cats and stuff like that, but they are like faster horses and faster cats. People couldn’t imagine what would be possible today. So, yeah, it’s exactly the same type of thing.
We’ve already done an hour, Phillip, so I’m going to ask you one last question to wrap up the interview. And it’s a little bit of a fun one. If you could travel back in time to any point in your career and give yourself a single piece of advice, when would you go back to and what advice would you give yourself?
Philip VanDusen: That is a really good question. One of the most difficult points in my career, one of the most difficult junctures in my career, was when… I was trained as a fine artist. I actually have my masters degree in painting, and started off as a fine art teacher. And over time found that to be a very, very difficult kind of a profession to make a living in. This was at the dawn of the computer age, which dates me. But I kind of was up against it and was not making the money I needed, and was having trouble finding work that wasn’t seasonal, essentially, as a teacher.
The computer becoming a thing and becoming a real viable tool in terms of creating artwork. And so, I made the leap from doing fine art, and painting, and selling things in galleries and doing commissions, and started doing computer artwork. It was against everything that I believed. I hated commercial art. I hated design. I hated computers. I hated everything about it. I had essentially built a cattle shoot. I built walls on either side of myself, telling myself all of the things that I didn’t want to do, all of the things that I didn’t think were right.
What I had done was I essentially walled myself off from an incredible amount of opportunity and things that I could try. I went through kind of a period of depression and got some help with it, and was able to see or was helped to see that I had created all these limiting beliefs. And so, when I finally decided to put down my paints and kind of roll up my canvases and rent a Macintosh and start doing some computer work, learning Illustrator and learning Photoshop, until I was able to make that choice and make that shift, I was in a lot of pain.
When I finally did make it, it opened up my entire career and it took me into the world of apparel design, took me into the world of packaging design, strategic design. My entire career started at that point. And so, if I was to tell myself one thing, it would be, “It’s okay. It’s okay to follow your curiosity, and it’s okay to shift your direction,” because when you tell yourself over a long period of time when you’re coming up that you are one particular thing or you believe one particular thing, there may come a point in your life where that belief doesn’t serve you anymore, that that belief is holding you back, that belief is keeping you from growing, or progressing, or making more money, or moving on. And that self-perception can be really paralysing. So what I would tell myself is it’s okay to change. It’s okay to shift. It’s okay to take a different direction. Follow your curiosity and see where it leads you.
Ian Paget: That’s amazing advice, Phil. I know we could keep going and going because I have so many questions I could ask you, but I think we have saved that for a future episode. For anyone that isn’t aware of you, they have to go and check out your YouTube channel because you’re sharing so much on there. You have a podcast as well, am I right?
Philip VanDusen: I do. It’s called the Brand Design Masters podcast. And it comes out seasonally and I only have one season out, eight episodes, but we are continually adding more.
Ian Paget: Fantastic. I need to check that out myself because I always learn so much from you every time I speak to you. And for any listeners that aren’t already familiar with you, they definitely need to check that as well. Well, Phillip, it was amazing to speak with you and thank you so much for coming on. It’s been one of my favourite episodes in a while.
Philip VanDusen: Thanks, Ian. Thanks for having me. I really appreciate it.
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