“Narrative and design always go hand-in-hand and should be in perfect harmony. Whatever we do, we do without losing sight of the strategic aims and business objectives of those who hire us or decide to work with us.”
Rafa Martínez and Albert Folch, Luxembourg 2019
Mike Koedinger, Founder and Chairman of Luxembourg’s leading independent media company, Maison Moderne, Founder of Lemonland Media Lab and Co-Founder and Vice-President of Design Friends invited Rafa and Albert to give a talk as part of Design Friends 2019. Design Friends is a Luxembourg-based cultural organisation with the aim of promoting designers and design worldwide.
The event took place at Luxembourg’s prestigious Museum of Contemporary Art or MUDAM museum. So far Design Friends have produced over fifty design talks, and for each one of them, they published a printed monographic catalogue with a selection of works. For Folch’s monographic catalogue, which was handed out during the talk, Rafa and Albert participated in an in depth interview about Folch, its values and their ambitions for the future. You can read the interview below.
Interview by Design Friends, Luxembourg
Coordination by Mike Koedinger
Interview by Afsaneh A. Rafii
You call yourself a narrative business design studio. Can you talk about what that means?
These are three concepts that we think define our activity as a studio. Effective communication involves the coordination of a series of elements capable of generating empathy, emotion, interest, desire, and curiosity. In order to reach this point, it is important to understand the complexity of the challenge, to form a synthesis of narrative and design, and to incorporate economic resources. Taking design in a broader sense (business design, design thinking, graphic design, content design) as the baseline, we strategically rethink the series of elements and tools that communication involves, creating something effective, meaningful and disruptive, so that audiences, prescribers and clients sit up and listen. Often the base, narrative or content is just as important as the shape, design and environment and vice versa. Therefore, narrative and design always go hand-in-hand and should be in perfect harmony. The key is to be clear about the communication goals and the way we will execute them, as well as the economic viability of any activity, from the beginning. So, whatever we do, we do without losing sight of the strategic aims and business objectives of those who hire us or decide to work with us.
Can you talk a little bit more about the importance of the strategic narrative aspect? Is it important for you to be able to pull elements out of the history of a brand, for example? I suppose sometimes history could get in the way of strategic goals going forward.
After having made decisions in design for others, we realised that the content was often as same important than design itself, or even more in some occasions. That is why we decided to make decisions according to both content (story) and shape (design), and strike a balance between speech depth and design. In that point it all became more strategic. Unlike branded content –which sometimes means doing anything in order to generate reputation, linking content to the brand and that’s all–, strategic brand narrative lets us create a story in the medium and long run, where each element help to set a brand, product or service in a certain area of positioning and perception.
Have you ever had to sort of create a narrative from scratch? Create elements that you wanted the public to focus on, not relying on brand history or legacy?
In some cases, we worked with long established traditional brands that needed support in generating a narrative that worked according to their essence and core values. In others, we developed a new one from the beginning. This means, first defining the positioning and strategy, then generating a story, content, and a design according to that positioning and strategy.
What would you say are the essential elements in creating a successful strategy for a brand?
An intelligent interlocutor, able to see beyond marketing and the commercial network, a budget according to their vision and expectiations, and enough time to accomplish and develop it conveniently. In fact, there is no single strategy or magic formula. In communication we should not look only for efficiency, but effectiveness, and this sometimes means doing things in a different way, surprising and relevant, so that communication can keep generating attention and interest over and over again. We know a bunch of big companies that even though efficient in their processes, they eventually failed as they were not able to be nimble, to reinvent themselves and to remain relevant.
You also coined “liquid branding”, underlining that “Identity has gone beyond the traditional graphic, visual system and is now more fragmented than ever. The liquid branding concept is the freedom for a brand’s visual identity to be flexible. Today, every brand needs to be present in a multiplicity of channels, devices, and applications, both online and offline. Brands need to be resilient, to follow a transmedia approach that can naturally adapt to changing factors, allowing them to reinvent themselves and attract attention through creative thinking.” It’s a very cerebral, almost intellectual approach to design and branding. It almost feels like you have to create a real-life persona around a brand nowadays.
Brands should understand that nowadays they have become media. It is no longer just about reaching clients, they have to think in terms of specific audiences, editorial positioning, environments, treatment of content, etc. Thinking that branding deals exclusively with forming a single graphic identity, and then taking that identity and adapting it to different media, is obsolete. The best branding is good content: content which strategically generates certain perceptions and builds the cognitive universe of the brand that one desires, without the need for concrete formats. For us, it is not an intellectual approach but a strategic one. When you realise that your brand is a media platform, it automatically changes the way that your communication is defined.
It’s interesting because you really detail each one of your projects on your website, you take the reader on a journey through your thought-process and the design process, but it also requires a lot of work. Why did you opt for such a detailed approach?
For a long time, we did interesting things and only communicated the final result. We realised that people were asking about what we had shared and ignored other aspects of our work, such as the more important and more strategic aspects. We decided to start taking a risk, explaining the process and other details that could help people better understand the development, our personality and our world. This has brought us several opportunities and has been inspiring for some people. It’s something we feel proud of. It is a good way to generate a clearer idea and it’s useful in terms of coining new concepts. Social media is useful at the periphery of communication, but a certain degree of discursive depth is required for a website.
In the work you did for Fundación Arquia, you chose a very specific narrative path. In design, there is always an element of storytelling, but you took that to another level in this particular project. Can you talk to us about that? What were the challenges and what were the goals that you set for yourself from the onset? Did the Fundación give you any specific direction or did they really give you carte blanche?
We like to have some freedom of thought and action. We prefer creating a new framework for each project. Little by little brands identify us not only as an interesting partner that can generate a story or a design for them, but also as a studio that can build them a new framework and communicative positioning, one that is influential, useful and relevant. We are amazed by the number of companies working in communication that, when it comes to the crunch, are not able to provide this.
In the SwitchMed campaign, where you presented several eco-friendly and sustainable businesses from North Africa and the Middle East, it was important for you to apply a journalistic approach. I am interested to know what that really means to you. Especially in the context of trying to create brand awareness or sympathy for a brand. In journalism (however much that may not be true in today’s landscape) there is this notion that it needs to be objective, factual and almost unemotional. But what you are doing here is creating a relationship between the consumer (or viewer) and a brand. And that relationship’s foundation is the emotion that was provoked in the consumer/viewer.
The first time they got in touch with us they were very worried, saying that the institution’s information and communication were boring – but we thought it was quite the opposite. It was simply a matter of steering away from the institution, and instead giving life to the results as the cornerstone of all communication. Institutions often focus too much on communicating their mission, core values, goals, etc, and they forget their audience and what that audience is interested in. The struggle to generate the right perception. We try not to ignore that. With SwitchMed we tried to give something that was very corporate a bit of brand journalism.
At some point you took up the challenge of quantifying how much design adds value to a business. It was also an essential selling point for you as a studio, I suppose, because beyond the visual story you can give to a brand, you can say to them, look employing us will add this much value to your brand. Especially when traditionalist businesses (though I cannot imagine they make up much of your clientele) need to overcome their reticence in investing in design. How did you go about doing that and were you surprised by the results you found?
We always try to improve the economic results and business of our clients. We believe it is important to make it clear that marketing is often centred around sales in the short term. Focusing on commercialization and sales can have a negative effect on the perception of the brand and its products and services. Business strategy goes beyond that. It looks at the medium and long term, the brand’s values, as well as the value of its products and services. In short, we are talking about business in capital letters and not of profits, sales or KPIs… all of these create short term financial “success”, but do not affect the medium and long term progress of a business. Omitting or forgetting the wider picture or the business dimension is the reason why big brands and businesses have succumbed and disappeared.
In your year-long speculative design course at ELISAVA school, you asked students to design for imaginary countries. You asked them to imagine new realities and prepare for alternative worlds. This, especially in the context of a post-truth world. It’s quite an interesting concept. Of course, sometimes it seems it is easier to find solutions and concepts when you have the luxury to start with a clean slate, rather than to try and mend existing models. What insights did you gain from this experience as a studio, and did it somehow shape the way you try and tackle problems and challenges within the current model?
Setting out these scenarios and working with the students allows us to find out how they think, not just how they carry out a project. They first conceptualise and outline a scenario and afterwards they decide how to tackle it shape-wise. For us it is very rewarding to see how they respond to these situations, they enrich our own thinking, it is a win-win. When they finish the Master, they are ready to get into the dynamics of our type of work; in many cases they start an internship and later on we hire them. Our education system is failing, not only in terms of teaching models (which are in many cases old-fashioned) but also in the categorization of knowledge. To provide a useful solution to any communication challenge you need to understand the complexity of the different environments (design, content, strategy, production). Our goal is linking these dots between the different disciplines to create a more in-depth understanding. In many cases, the way students and clients formulate questions is geared to a classic model, one that does not really take into account real-life scenarios. For us, the key is to educate in a more contemporary way, but also to rethink the way we formulate questions. Pure design thinking.
You have worked on such a large range of projects and a broad spectrum in terms of types of clients. What kinds of projects are the most exciting to you and why? Which do you find more challenging and why?
You can always learn something, even from failed projects. This is key. A successful or interesting project does not depend on the brand, the budget or the freedom as much as the ability to link you to the next project or the upcoming challenge.
With everything that you have going on, are you still as passionate about designing editorial projects, magazines as you were when you were first building the story of your studio?
Documentary is the new magazine. An Instagram account could be a magazine. Most of our work is editorial. We do not have the feeling that we are not working on editorial projects anymore. The format has simply changed.
I have to say that in the context of our collective realisation of a climate breakdown, a project like Eldorado makes me slightly melancholic. But I also find it extremely relevant. It’s a project that allows people not only to connect to the beauties of a place but to its history and its meaning to different people. Maybe that’s what it takes to give people more of a desire to preserve their planet.
Eldorado connects us to the essential. Eldorado speaks to us and about us like no other project. We felt the need to connect our job to nature, something that had not been done before, all our messages and imagery were excessively urban. But creative thinking does not emerge from the pavement but from nature. Eldorado has recently taken the leap into a new era: the documentary. You cannot preserve or defend what you do not love or know. We think that to portray certain stories and landscapes in an interesting and beautiful way will help raise awareness and could potentially help solving various environmental challenges. Over the last few months this idea has been developed and soon we will jump from this project to being able to produce a series of documentaries via Eldorado within this framework. We’ll see what happens…
Growth seems to be a constant for you as a studio, you are always evolving. What are some of your goals going forward?
Evolving means always being relevant in both shape and base. Being useful and loyal to ourselves and our roots. Growing across different territories, environments, businesses and projects, building meaning and logic from these projects to allow us to keep growing and doing what we love with a certain freedom of spirit.