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Min Lew by FOLCH

"Doing good is good business."

“If we want design to be viewed as a business tool, we should start presenting projects through the lens of a business objective.” When Min Lew started out she believed she was in the business of ideas. Today, as Partner, Creative Director and Managing Director of Base New York, Min believes she is in a creative people’s business. Empathy, understanding, critical thinking and vision will be the key skills of the future. 

Interview by Rafa Martínez. Artwork by Sebastian Curi.

Base Design is an international network of studios led by creatives in New York, Brussels, Melbourne and Geneva. Min spans the spectrum between design, brand strategy, and management. Born in Frankfurt, raised in Seoul, Min worked with B.I.G. at Ogilvy & Mather, Pentagram, and Simon & Schuster prior to joining Base. Next to passionately building brands and building Base, she served as a board member of the AIGA/NY and teaches at the School of Visual Arts. Min also serves on the steering committee of NYC x DESIGN.

Even the new normality becomes normal
Rafa Martínez

Is the “new normality” just bullshit?

Min Lew

Nothing is permanent. Even the notion of the norm. It changes and shifts constantly. But then, from time to time, an event happens – seemingly out of nowhere – and shocks the incremental evolution of our society. It provokes us to react with a sense of urgency to drastically adapt to the changes the event brought upon us. The new normality is not necessarily bullshit. It’s real. However, even the new normality eventually becomes part of the normal again until the new-new-normality. It’s all normal.

Rafa Martínez

Sometimes, from the outside, social movements (such as #metoo, #BlackLivesMatter etc) could be perceived as insincere, a marketing strategy used by brands. What are your thoughts on this?

Min Lew

Absolutely! Consumers are savvy and intelligent. They can smell cheap corporate pandering and indeed expect better. But not facing timely social issues in fear of appearing opportunistic is not the answer either. Brands need to face the moment in a sincere way and seek answers to some questions like: Where does our brand stand on these issues? What is the brand’s unique point of view? How are we performing as a company relative to these issues, both internally and externally? What are we and what can we do about it? What are meaningful actions that are “on brand”?

Doing good is good business
Rafa Martínez

We try to help brands become more relevant in order to sell their products and services more effectively. How can a design studio create a balance between doing business and having a commitment (environment, diversity, etc)?

Min Lew

The good news is that it’s not one at the expense of the other! Doing good is good business, as they say. In today’s world, corporate social commitment is increasingly expected by not only the young and the “woke,” but by most consumers.  And branding studios are well situated to help brands integrate social consciousness into the foundations of the brand with thoughtful strategy and brand personality development.

Everyone is doing branding
Rafa Martínez

What does it mean to think outside of the box? Are designers able to think outside of the box? More than other disciplines?

Min Lew

Is thinking outside the box a thing? I often find that digging deep into the subject matter or the question itself yields better success. If one is too conscious about the box then the focus is not in the right place. The deeper you dig and pay full attention to what is inside of the box, you forget about the box and become free of the box. When you’re free, you might have a fair chance of finding magic.

Rafa Martínez

How has the discipline changed over the last decade? How have the marketing and advertising industries changed over the last few decades and are they still as relevant and effective as they were?

Min Lew

With the seismic evolution and convergence in the media and technology landscapes, our discipline has been drastically impacted. It seems every company in adjacent sectors now does branding. Advertising and digital agencies do branding. Interior designers and architects do branding. PR agencies do branding. This is because branding is more relevant than ever. In increasingly crowded marketplaces, companies need to demonstrate who they are and what they stand for in order to stand out. Done effectively, that is advertising and marketing enough.

A tool for transformation
Rafa Martínez

What is the role of narrative?

Min Lew

Brands are part of our complex, evolving culture. The role a brand can play depends on one thing: influence. That influence is hard-earned and fought for. That’s why we challenge leaders to crystallise the story they tell the world about who they are, what they do, and why that matters for people. We ask them: who belongs in that story? What helps them find real meaning in it? What makes the story’s experience unforgettable? When you ask these questions, you find your brand’s life force. A realness that earns influence today and relevance that evolves as new waves of people make it their own.

Rafa Martínez

Sometimes companies still think of design as ‘makeup’. But for us, design and creativity means business as well. What message can we use to create a clearer vision and better understanding of design and creativity as a tool for transformation, innovation and business?

Min Lew

It starts with how we present what we do to the world. We often find design companies describing a project by who they worked with, what they created, the sector they have worked in, or what the creative idea behind it was. If we want design to be viewed as a business tool, we should shift the conversation and start presenting the projects through the lens of a business objective.

Can you put a price on design?
Rafa Martínez

Marketing agencies talk about numbers and business, but design studios don’t communicate the value of their work in this way, we focus on the creative side. What would be a better way to get people to understand the value of our work?

Min Lew

It’s true. It is quite difficult to discuss the ROI of design because the value that design creates is often hard to quantify and takes time. Having said that, in my experience, there are multitudes of benefits created through a design/branding process.

Momentum begins: Leaders can imagine or reimagine their brand’s place in culture. They’ll spark that transformation when they define their unique identity, vision, and voice – their story.

Teams believe: A newly codified identity can catalyze a new sense of pride and belonging amongst the internal teams.

Perception Shifts: Communicating with a clear, unique identity and message can really change how the world sees a brand – especially those audiences that really matter.

Rafa Martínez

Is the size of a company a key factor for its survival in the current situation?

Min Lew

For us, size is a conscious decision and a representation of our priorities as a company. We choose to stay a certain size (10 to 30)  in each of our offices because it allows us to curate a wide range of projects from all sectors and of all sizes. It is a size that gives us the flexibility to take on interesting or fun projects, but also the ability to compile a bigger team with wide ranging skill sets to handle complex projects. Additionally, it allows us to focus on quality, creativity, and bespoke answers rather than relying on templatizing answers or efficient processes.

Rafa Martínez

How do you put a price on your work? Do clients understand it? How do you justify it and prove that it’s necessary?

Min Lew

Pricing is about integrity and trust. We try to present pricing logic that is easy, clear, and sensible. Our pricing is based on day rates, which are derived from our annual studio budget. We estimate which and how many team members, and for how much time each will work on various phases of a given project. We then price each phase of a project individually. If necessary, we can justify the costs by exposing the details of the project timeline, but clients typically only care about the bottom line and are less worried about how we get there.

No asshole policy
Rafa Martínez

Having worked with many different clients over the years, we have realised that corporations and companies have to disrupt in order to survive and adapt to the present challenge. We call this Business Disobedience, a concept that connects creativity and business. What’s your approach?

Min Lew

We want all of our clients, over time, to have a cultural impact and be relevant for people that matter to the brands.

Rafa Martínez

Do we need brokers for design? How do you get clients to come to you?

Min Lew

Most of our clients come to us in two ways: they either know our reputation and previous work, or they have worked with us in the past at other companies. From the clients’ perspective, it boils down to a strong desire to impact the growth of their business through creative, thoughtful ideas – and we nurture this by building authentic relationships with the folks we work with.

Rafa Martínez

Do you have any specific terms and conditions or ‘rules’ for your clients? What type of clients do you have? And what type of ‘prescribers’ or people that would recommend your services?

Min Lew

First, we have a no-asshole policy – Life is too short. Then, we ask ourselves four questions. If the potential client checks three boxes out of four, we will pursue the opportunity: Are we working with the decision-maker? Do we share similar values? Is the project going to add value to our portfolio? Will the project be profitable?

A living, breathing thing
Rafa Martínez

What does a brand need to succeed nowadays? And how can a brand stay relevant to its audience? Prescribers? Clients?

Min Lew

To stay relevant, we need to think of a brand as a living, breathing thing we have to continuously care for. All too often, executives consider a brand as static. “We’ve rebranded and now we’re good for three years!” The most successful brands we see today are those that have developed passionate, emotionally engaged communities, and to stay relevant to these core audiences, the brand must continuously evolve in how it speaks and acts.

May the best idea win
Rafa Martínez

What helps Base as a brand stay relevant after more than 15 years in the field of creativity?

Min Lew

Base’s approach and beliefs are firm and strong, but how we carry them is out defined by its context. We are allergic to formulas and conformity and we are not particularly precious about ideas. The best idea should win, and there is no one-size-fits-all best idea.

Rafa Martínez

Are clients usually looking for just design? Or are they looking for communication and business, in a more open and understanding way?

Min Lew

Usually, our clients come to us looking for a comprehensive branding exercise that comprises brand strategy, brand identity, activations such as digital experiences, and other ways of engaging with consumers.

Rafa Martínez

How do you keep Base aligned as a brand with four different studios in four different cities?

Min Lew

What aligns us are our values, way of thinking, and creative approach. While each studio is autonomous, we intentionally share a lot as well. For example, we have a unified global design manifesto; we dedicate various global task forces to working on diverse aspects of Base; we have common programming and cultural behaviours like Friday lunches (each week a team member cooks for the entire studio) and Monday challenges (each Monday morning each studio starts off the week in a similar way); various directors or partners in different offices meet on a regular basis, and so on.

Can you teach creativity?
Rafa Martínez

Can a good art director, designer or creative be taught or is this something that comes from deep inside? Is it part of who you are?

 

Min Lew

All of the above. One can definitely be born with raw talent. But I don’t think one can get far on nature’s gifts alone. Passion, curiosity, and dedication are absolutely needed. I like Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours rule.

Rafa Martínez

Should education, beyond providing the right skills, also teach students to think critically? What will the most important skill be in the near future?

Min Lew

Empathy. Understanding. Critical Thinking. Vision.

Rafa Martínez

Base is well known, not only in terms of design but also in terms of ways of thinking? To what extent is this a key strategic factor for design and business? 

Min Lew

100% essential.

Business of talent
Rafa Martínez

Tell me about an occasion where you failed. Why would you consider that a failure?

Min Lew

When I started out I believed I was in the business of ideas. I now say I am in a creative people’s business. It took me a long time to realise and stop thinking of the team members as resources – the focus was always on the final result. There was little room for joy. So I decided to change. Today, I see the team as individuals that I like to work with. I naturally trust that the work will be good because ultimately, great ideas come from greatly talented people. 

  • Informative (6)
  • Fascinating (1)
  • Clever (1)
  • Inspiring (12)
  • Brilliant (2)
  • Visionary (14)
  • Innovative (1)
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Brand Narratives

Brand narrative is the central axis of a meaningful brand strategy. Traditional advertising stopped working (more than) a decade ago, and developing content around a brand is not a matter of saying something but saying something worth-saying. Increasingly unrelated to the products or service to promote, brand narratives are stories that instead of telling about a brand are meant to make visible its values, its imaginary, and idea of business. Advertising and basic branded content are over. In today’s industry, a compelling brand narrative, involving and embracing the viewer, makes for a consistent, clear, and attractive strategy that creates consistency across a brand transmedia communication.

Case studies for brand narratives from Folch: MarsetEldorado

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Business Design

According to Alen Fajic's book "The Ultimate Business Design" Business design is a relatively new discipline that lives in the intersection between business and design. Business design is an activity that uses design methodologies, design mindset, and business tools to solve business challenges. It was developed to complement the growing relevance of design methodologies in the business world.
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Corporate Responsibility

Corporate Responsibility or CSR is a self-regulatory mechanism whereby a business engages in actions that appear to go further than the interests of the firm and law, and strives for social or environmental good. Subsequently, it is also called corporate conscience, corporate citizenship or responsible business. Source: McWilliams and Siegel

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Creativity

As Robert E. Franken points out in his book Human Motivation, creativity is the tendency to recognize ideas, alternatives or possibilities useful in problem-solving, communication and entertaining ourselves and others. There’s a tight relation between creativity and design thinking as they both help to foster students’ abilities for creative problem solving.
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Design Thinking

Design thinking is a formal method for practical, creative resolution of problems and creation of solutions, with the intent of an improved future result. In this regard it is a form of solution-based, or solution-focused thinking – starting with a goal (a better future situation) instead of solving a specific problem. By considering both present and future conditions and parameters of the problem, alternative solutions may be explored simultaneously.

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Disruption

The dictionary defines disruption as “a change to the traditional way an industry operates, especially in a new and effective way”. In other words, this term refers to the act of forcing one’s way into a niche, bludgeoning the existing competition with a new method of delivering a service and generally injecting greater efficiency into something people have done or used since time immemorial. (Source: The Financial Times)
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Liquid Branding

A brand is a media platform conveying a set of values, an aesthetic, stories, philosophy, visuals, and ideas involving products or a service. Identity has gone beyond the traditional graphic, visual system and its now more fragmented than ever: each brand needs to be present in a multiplicity of channels, devices, and applications, both online and offline. The great thinker Bauman started using the term liquid modernity to better describe the condition of constant mobility and change he sees in relationships, identities, and global economics within contemporary society. As a result, brands also need a flexible, resilient, transmedia approach that can naturally adapt to changing factors, allowing them to reinvent themselves and attract attention through creative thinking.

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New Normal