Why empathy is essential to good design

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The website and branding work Serious Studio did for the actress Solenn Heussaff were recently launched on her Instagram page, warmly received by her 3.3 million strong following. Photo courtesy of SERIOUS STUDIO

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Can good branding change a city? In four short years, Serious Studio has established a kind of omnipresence. From real estate (Ayala Land Inc.) to books (“Push: Muses, Mischief & How to Make Manila” by the photographer BJ Pascual), ice cream (Manila Creamery) to sex toys (Ilya), the design firm’s work has popped up in unexpected ways, across different industries, across different products, for companies big and startup, from Manila to New York.

Just recently, their branding for Yes Please, a new bar in Bonifacio Global City, has made the establishment a kind of social media sensation, its neon lights and painted walls suddenly fixtures on our Instagram feeds. At the other end of the spectrum, the website and branding work they did for the actress Solenn Heussaff were recently launched on her Instagram page, warmly received by her 3.3 million strong following.

How did four young graphic designers establish what has now become one of the country’s top design firms straight out of college? CNN Philippines Life talked to Deane Miguel-Cruz, one of the founders of Serious Studio — along with Lester Cruz (her husband), Tintin Lontoc, and Kookie Santos — to talk about design, purpose, and why “Instagrammable” doesn’t always mean well-designed.

Below are edited excerpts from the email interview.

Your work for the bar Yes Please is all over Instagram. Obviously, social media is one of the best ways establishments like Yes Please get the word out these days. Was this a consideration going into this project? I can imagine that “Instagram-friendly” is something clients ask for now — and it can get repetitive. When people say that, there’s already a certain look they have in mind. How do you work with a brief like that, play around, but still color within the lines?

When we ideated on Yes Please, the main direction was to create a space that makes you say “YES.” We wanted it to be a place to call home after a long day. What we kept saying was, Yes Please is not a speakeasy, but it's a place where you can literally speak easily, because the music's finally at the right volume, and you can just be — no frills, no uncomfy shoes, no buzzwords, no bull.

Yes Please-02.jpg Serious Studio's branding for Yes Please, a new bar in Bonifacio Global City, has made the establishment a kind of social media sensation, its neon lights and painted walls suddenly fixtures on Instagram feeds. Photo courtesy of SERIOUS STUDIO

Yes, we are aware that social media can be a powerful tool, but beyond Instagram, what we really consider is whether we are creating amazing experiences for our audience. The rationale behind what makes people click and share is so simple yet overlooked: People simply take photos of things that captivate them. If you embrace this line of thought, you won’t have to try too hard to create Manila’s next best wall. We learned as a team that it’s way easier to enjoy, be yourself, and come up with something relatable that makes people happy.

To be honest, when we were discussing with Erwan [Heussaff, one of the owners of Yes Please], we really wanted a bar that people like us would go to, the not-so party people who are just looking for a place to chill. That's what Erwan said, that he wanted a different kind of bar in the Palace compound. Each part of the Palace has something to offer, and Yes Please contributes to the different dimensions of the Palace. Surely something a bit more rough around the edges, a bit less polished, but that's precisely part of its charm.

What considerations did you have going into the Yes Please branding project? What considerations do you have when branding restaurants and bars?

With restaurant projects, you really get to explore the relationship of the product with the space. So we consider the fundamentals, and definitely the business aspects first: What food do they offer? What are they trying to achieve? Was it fueled by passion?

For example, at its most basic, Yes Please wanted to serve affordable cocktails for the working crowd in BGC. So we asked — how big is the space? How much story can we tell? How much of it can we tell in the space? What surfaces do we get to play with? It's kind of interdisciplinary that way, we learn to look at things with an interior design mindset, with an architectural mindset. We explore different tools to tell a story.

“The rationale behind what makes people click and share is so simple yet overlooked: People simply take photos of things that captivate them. If you embrace this line of thought, you won’t have to try too hard to create Manila’s next best wall.”

Precisely because the bar's name is "Yes Please," we didn't want it to follow the guidelines. Like when you look at the logo, other designers will definitely have something to nitpick. But we think that stays true to the message: sometimes the things you say yes to are not always the best decisions; the way to have a great night is to loosen up a little. If you follow the guidelines, you're just like any bar in Manila.

Serious Studio also recently did the branding for Solenn Heussaff. How did that come about? How does branding an establishment like Yes Please differ from branding a person and public persona like Solenn Heussaff?

The main difference between Yes Please and Solenn is you literally had to build Yes Please [from the] ground up. Brick and mortar. Concrete, pillars, foundations. It didn't exist before. Solenn is already an amazing character, a personality, an established celebrity, so our project with her is about making sure that the stories she wants to tell about herself are told, and told consistently.

The way we approach these different projects though, is not much different. We study what the brand is working with, what it wants to say about itself, and it's digging through the stories and finding the best way to angle it in a way that people understand what they're trying to say. Even if Solenn is a person, like traditional brands, she also has an audience. She also has a market to talk to. That’s where we come in, to make sure she is able to reach them.

375 Fries-01.jpg 375° is a french fry shop in New York, whose branding and strategy was designed by Serious Studio. Photo courtesy of SERIOUS STUDIO

Today, almost anyone can be a celebrity. With all the influencers out there, it’s important for very “traditional showbiz” people like Solenn to take part in that. This brand and website [are ways] for her to rise above all the noise, and to show what makes her different.

The work you do has to do with design, of course. But more than that, it’s also about working with people, trying to distill their identities into logos or color palettes. What is the most important thing you’ve learned about branding?

First, branding is more than just the logo. A lot of people think that design is about making things simply pretty with some obscure typeface no one really cares about — form over function. Don't get me wrong, typefaces are cool when you know how to use them. [But if you’re] just bragging about making it all from scratch just for the sake of it, with no rationale, it's like bragging about a rock you've polished for 10 years. At the end of the day, it's just a rock.

We think that’s what differentiates our branding approach: “Make Sense and Look Good” is our mantra, because we think that design and strategy go hand in hand. Each aspect of branding (how it speaks, how it acts, how it looks) has to have a rationale, it needs to be there for a reason. A lot of clients tell us that our work has soul, and we’d like to think it’s because of our approach to branding.

Second, empathy is so important to branding. It's understanding who you're talking to. It is for them after all. So how do you make it relatable for them? But it's also about going beyond that, like introducing things that they don't know that they needed, or would like. Like the iPod. It was made even before we knew that we wanted it.

Manila Creamery-01.jpg "With restaurant projects, you really get to explore the relationship of the product with the space," says Deane Miguel-Cruz, one of the founders of Serious Studio. "What food do they offer? What are they trying to achieve? Was it fueled by passion?" For the gelato shop Manila Creamery (pictured), Serious Studio focused on the brand's Manila-made aspect. Photo courtesy of SERIOUS STUDIO

And lastly, branding can only go so far. We can do our job, but the product has to be good, the service has to be good. Everything we promise in branding needs to translate to the actual thing. For example, if you promise comfort, does it cut across everything? Do the servers make you feel comfort? Are the chairs comfortable? Is the food comfort food? It has to be consistent to everything. Branding won’t save you if your product or service is highly inadequate.

You founded Serious Studio pretty much out of college and the people you work with are generally young — for a lot of you, Serious Studio is your first job. There is, of course, a widely-held notion that millennials don’t have work ethic and have trouble committing to jobs. What is the secret to running an office full of creative millennials? How did you grow your company into what it is now?

Being millennials, we understand how people in our age group think, and we have a grasp of what matters to them, because those things are important to us, too. For example, a life outside of our jobs, we want that for all of us. So recently we’ve been experimenting [with] work hours because people come from different places in Manila. In a way, we design our work experiences as well.

I think that’s the beauty of working in a “millennial company,” we don’t have red tape. We get the chance to iterate, prototype. We get to say, “Let’s try this, let’s see what works.” It’s fluid. That’s not something you can easily do in a corporate setting. We work in a creative industry, so we understand fatigue. We understand that not everything can be quantified by work hours, numbers, or statistics, time in/time out.

"Empathy is so important to branding. It's understanding who you're talking to. It is for them after all. So how do you make it relatable for them?"

Based on experience, people leave jobs because of a lack of purpose. I think a lot of the flak that millennials get is because of misunderstanding between generations. We’re a generation that knows what we want, or a generation that values the process of figuring that out. But we also know enough that we don’t want to do certain things. We resist a lot of established systems and institutions, and we definitely have the options to say no [to] being boxed in.

The name Serious Studio came about because no one took us seriously, because we were young when we started. But maybe it’s that energy, that passion, that openness, that really sustains us. There’s always a story to tell. And we try to find people who feel that same passion, but also have their own way of telling stories, not just with people joining the House of Serious, but with our clients as well.

Right now, 90 percent of our clients approach us because they hear a good story about us. Our clients don’t hesitate to spread the good word because of our work ethic, because of our dynamic with them. They’re happy, we’re happy. We’d say it grew organically. We focused on doing good work, and making sure the client understands that the decisions that we make are because we are super passionate about what we do.