Good vibrations

Design consultancy, research bureau, trend-watching agency – ReVerb defies definition, but this US group is doing something right.

Housed in a classic Deco monolith, ReVerb’s office stacks a deconstructed design studio (exposed ducts, rough-hewn concrete and naked wood) beneath an eerie first-floor space, complete with open hearth (for comfy fireside chats) and a panoramic view of Los Angeles (not so comfy).

Known for its edgy, experimental, hyper-creative graphics that were well documented by the design media back in the early 1990s, corporate America this isn’t. Ironically, though, now we’ve hit the 21st century (aka “the future”), certain corporate bods have woken up to ReVerb’s strengths, and can’t get enough of them.

“Them” are three of the five founding principals, Somi Kim, Lisa Nugent and Susan Parr. Add two senior and three junior designers, plus a bunch of interns, and you have ReVerb, (from the Latin res and verba, meaning “things” and “words” respectively).

ReVerb’s client list is equally distributed between the spheres of technology, media, manufacturing and culture, and includes Xerox, IBM, Nike, MTV and Netscape. ReVerb is in the enviable position of resisting all pigeon-holes, while enjoying a varied and interesting stream of projects. Safe to say, it must be doing something right.

Being more than a design consultancy, a research bureau or a trend-watching agency, ReVerb finds definitions too prescriptive. Clients like some clues though, but Nugent admits, “We haven’t found the terminology to encapsulate what we do and it takes a little time to describe it.” Chatting with Kim and Nugent at the end of a busy week, while Parr worked with the team to meet a deadline, what becomes clear is that ReVerb has developed some useful means for turning a graphic design group into a much more diverse animal. It’s probably more accurate to call it a multidisciplined, collaborative and creative communications agency, but that’s a bit of a mouthful.

ReVerb sprang from esoteric roots. “We set up as a workshop-collective, experimenting with new ways of telling visual stories,” recalls Kim. Being the first generation of graduate students (from the California Institute of the Arts) to use the Apple Macintosh, the founders enjoyed that initial, heady phase of creativity made possible by the advent of easy-to-use software.

Free to design fonts, layouts, animation or interiors, ReVerb began thinking outside the box. “We became interested in cross-pollinating with other media,” explains Kim. “Then we realised, thanks to teaching, that it’s easy to hit ‘print’ and produce something with a deceptive level of finish that doesn’t have any strength of ideas or formal exploration. So we decided to retain the ability to create outside the computer and to produce ideas in different media.”

Through striving to develop personal, formal languages it dawned on ReVerb that having one signature style was “… kind of limiting”. Nugent continues: “If you step back and say, there are so many stories in the world and so many historic inter-relationships that if there’s a way to pool them and juxtapose them you may find new ways to make sense out of it all.

“If we have the right skills we can do it. But there may be someone else who can do a better job. Over the past five years specialisation has re-emerged in design, as the once simple software has become more complex.” Consequently, ReVerb doesn’t try to do all or be all and instead tailors teams of collaborators and freelances (photographers, software engineers, anthropologists, among others) to each project.

Combining multiple visual languages, stories and media via collaboration and non-egocentric creativity has, over nearly a decade, solidified into ReVerb’s very particular approach, a methodology the ReVerb team has dubbed “reality-based-myth-making”.

Pinpointing the impetus for the group’s evolution into the corporate world, Kim explains: “The connection came because of the inventiveness of our visual form-making and because we were able to communicate different stories visually. That extended beyond imagery into thinking about how we experience things and events – technology, society, politics. We began to tune those experiences and evolved into areas of strategic thinking.”

To aid the explanation process, ReVerb offers up a Venn Diagram key with overlapping “marketing” and “design” balloons producing a fertile mid-ground otherwise known as “strategic image development”.

Back in the early 1990s, ReVerb designed an identity for a one-man consultancy, which was subsequently seen by the consultancy’s clients at Xerox. At the time, Xerox was looking for a fresh approach to one of its new brands. The technology giant cold-called ReVerb and while it culturally acclimatised to this strange other world, another element of its methodology-puzzle fell into place. “We were asking a lot of questions,” recalls Nugent, “because marketing people would come to us with requests for things that we didn’t understand. We acted like someone outside the corporation, more akin to the consumer,” she says.

Offering a range of services, including ethnographic research, branding strategies, multi-group facilitation, flexible design frameworks for internal and external communications and finished artwork in print, moving and digital media, including the now ubiquitous website, ReVerb is a one-stop shop. It is not always asked to exercise every facet of its expertise, but that it can deal with, because what excites the team most these days is providing content, and that request can come at any stage of the game.

Back in the days of the Apple Mac revolution, typographers experimented with accentuating meaning in text by way of radical formalism. Work by the likes of Jeffrey Keedy, Jonathan Barnbrook and ReVerb, among others, sparked the idea of the “designer as author”. Taking the spirit of that experimentation to the nth-degree and delivering it to the corporate world, ReVerb has refined a method for pinpointing and exploiting what Kim describes as “windows of opportunity to communicate”.

Often asked by multinationals about how they can communicate both globally and locally, ReVerb’s answer is to consider the cultural context. ReVerb looked beyond marketing jargon and observed that focus groups were often swayed by one dominant personality. It now bases its research on one-on-one interviews with a carefully selected range of individuals. By doing this, it aims to distinguish the person from the group, rather than extrapolate that person out into a stereotype. Kim elaborates: “We provide a ‘reality check’ for these corporations. We’re really interested in how trends and new technology take hold in the real world and how people live and interact with things. For us, research comes out of our personal interests, but this research is also something that any company which is trying to understand what motivates its consumers, and how it can give them what they want, is curious about.”

In reply to the question, are you educating your clients, Nugent explains; “The clients we work with are pretty smart. We don’t have to educate them. Instead, we’re often called in to help visualise or define a strategy, or to understand the ‘temperature’ of today and attach a look and feel to that.” For shorthand the team calls that process, “the vibe”. In some cases, it’ll produce an Idea Book which is described as “a catalyst for change” and which comprehensively outlines the reasoning.

One such Idea Book for Nike, for instance, dealt with the inability of the Swoosh to represent Nike’s newly expanded range, along with the associated problem of over-exposure.

How ReVerb generates and combines all this visual inspiration and data is itself a lesson in lateral thinking. Brainstorming sessions are followed by “pin-ups” of ideas and images, with juxtapositions often sparking further ideas. The process allows everyone from interns to principles to clients, to speak and be heard.

Currently considering how to expand without increasing numbers too drastically, ReVerb’s solution is to build on this democratic bedrock by transforming its senior designers into “team-leaders” who, after an initial, inclusive brainstorming session, could become responsible for a project and run with it.

There’s so much work coming into the studio these days that there’s barely time to think. But that is what Kim, Nugent and Parr enjoy doing most, so they’ve realised that spreading the load of responsibility is the only way to go. However, if you’ve built a company from scratch that prospect can be daunting. The trio is clear on what they want, and superstar egos need not apply. When looking for new team members, Kim stresses that personality and the ability to work in a group are most important.

ReVerb constitutes thinking designers, happy to redefine their profession and not afraid to try something new, who demonstrate rare qualities – the ability to look, listen and learn – while collaborating with the corporate world’s most high-profile and dynamic organisations. Fancy a change? Who could resist such a challenge?

Summer Jam 99 for IBM

Somi Kim and Lisa Nugent recount a typically untypical ReVerb project.

SK: ‘In collaboration with IBM’s Research Communications Division we created the form and content of its second annual Summer Jam, which is a recruitment drive in the form of a day’s brainstorming session, staged in 19 sites worldwide.

At each venue eight to 12 people, including undergraduate and doctorate students from a range of subjects (engineering, marketing and so on), along with IBM researchers and executives, were asked to consider the question, “What will the world be like in 2025?” We helped design the content of the day, including exercises and questions, and provided photographers and product designers on-site to capture the proceedings and visualise some of the ideas. The aim was to give these students a taste of the “best possible” day they could enjoy as an IBM employee, to demonstrate that IBM is looking to the future and that it’s a company where questions lead to ideas.

The project began in April 1999, and there was a lot of backwards and forwarding between ourselves and the Research Communications Division. We had meetings with research scientists in order to craft the questions and exercises for the event, which happened in early July. Afterwards we compiled all the output from the 19 events. There were collages, giant “post-it” pages covered in diagrams and squiggles, photographs and drawings. We rented a gallery space and laid out all the artefacts, and together with our IBM collaborators sifted through the work to find representative ideas and trends. The photograph on the front cover of the final report is of the gallery. Then we designed packets of information for the participants, including a CD with an audio documentary along with a screensaver about “jamming” ideas, and the final print report, which was distributed to prospective interns. The report is intended to tell IBM’s story in an intellectual and interesting way so as to help new recruits make an informed decision about their future.’

LN: ‘The Corporate Communications department at IBM are an interesting lot. They know their history and are really open to ideas and finding new forms of expression. The corporate heritage of using design (Paul Rand’s identity, Ray and Charles Eames’ exhibition spaces) makes it a very interesting client! The only design guidelines it imposed were the corporate font (IBM Helvetica) and the logo.’

SK: ‘Clients come to us because they are looking for new ways to communicate and express themselves. It’s interesting right now because companies are having to make a shift because of e-commerce and the fact that, internally and externally, the Internet is changing the way people communicate. Plus, because companies are growing and becoming more global, they need new ways to build consensus between their employees. One of the pieces we developed for Summer Jam now has another life as an internal communications tool. The CD screensaver and audio programme talks about the value of “jamming”, or, collective brainstorming and innovative thinking. That has been sent to IBM managers to share with their staff.’

ReVerb time-line

1993 – ReVerb starts work, mainly for cultural clients, including CalArts, Dia Center for the Arts and MOCA

1994 – It establishes a reputation for pushing design’s boundaries; new clients include Nike and Xerox

1995 – Receives the Chrysler Award for Innovation in Design

1996 – The team expands and tackles projects in various media. Key clients include A&M Records, Yamagata and the Whitney Museum

1997 – It develops two tracks, strategic consultation and traditional design, working for clients including Netscape, MTV, BBDO and Propaganda Films. By the end of the year it decides to focus on branding and strategic image development

1998 – Partnerships are formed with complementary agencies to provide larger clients with full-service and cross-platform solutions

1999 – The reality-based-myth-making approach is in place. Current clients include IBM, DEN (Digital Entertainment Network), Hewlett-Packard, KPMG, Day Corporation and Avalon Hotel, Beverly Hills

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