Jennifer Kinon On Taking Chances
Jennifer Kinon loves to build big identity systems. “The bigger, the better,” says Kinon, who with partner Bobby Martin co-founded New York-based Original Champions of Design as a firm that specializes in creating cohesive visual identities for brands.
Recently, Kinon embarked on the biggest and most high-profile identity campaign of her career when she took a 16-month hiatus to serve as design director of Hillary for America. Despite the outcome of last year’s presidential election, Kinon and her team of 16 designers were widely lauded for applying a rigorous brand strategy that produced a memorable and unified branding and social media campaign.
Faced with a campaign and a candidate like no other in history, Kinon approached the job as a single design project—unusual for national campaigns, which tend to be visually reactive, fragmented by constituency, and inconsistent over time. She worked at scale from headquarters, serving even state field offices with her team to ensure cohesive messaging (a first in presidential campaigns). She set up collaborative lines of communication with her client campaign operatives. And she split her designers into tiger teams—social, web/digital design, email/merchandising, digital ads/video, and state branding—so they could keep pace with an ever-changing campaign landscape and quickly produce a mind-numbing quantity of deliverables.
“We’re still trying to inventory all the work that was completed,” says Kinon. “We did email design, social media design, event design, merchandise design. We redesigned the Hillary Clinton website. We published a 280-page book. We produced the Democratic National Convention signage. We designed the campaign bus, we wrapped the campaign airplane. The volume of work is really shocking to look back on.”
Now back at her desk at OCD (yes, the acronym is intentional), Kinon is readjusting to the comparatively sane pace of a high-powered New York design agency. She’s had time to reflect on lessons learned from the presidential campaign, and she is eagerly (and obsessively) diving back into what she loves: creating effective identity systems that can be applied to all elements of a business.
“The reason we are obsessive about what we do is that we are consultants,” she explains. “We need to put together a system and walk away, and the system has to be perfect. The files have to be saved right, the strategy has to be pitch-perfect, the guidelines have to be meticulous, and our research has to be rigorous. All of that rigor is how we can leave our clients with confidence and how we hope to earn the trust of our collaborators. So the name is deliberate, and it’s a flag that we fly knowingly.”
OCD is remarkable for the breadth of its client list, which includes huge organizations such as the WNBA and Girl Scouts of America, prestigious outfits such as the New York Times and MoMA, plus a host of retailers, businesses, nonprofits, civic groups, government agencies, museums and art organizations, and even a park in Brooklyn.
“‘Say no to nothing’ is the rule we live by,” says Kinon. “The fun part is we are so focused on identities that we don’t specialize in an industry. The learning that we gain in one industry, we can then take to another. And this cross-pollination really gives us a broad view of what branding is. We’re able to cheat from industry to industry, and bring new ideas from, say, politics into education, or ideas from entertainment into publishing.”
For example, Kinon recently took a digital strategy she’d honed in the presidential campaign and adapted it for a small education nonprofit. Similarly, she applied insights from the rebranding of a content-driven publishing site to a completely unrelated civic organization that was trying to organize a body of content into a persuasive argument. “Being able to cross disciplines like that has given us a great advantage in what we’re able to offer our clients,” she says.
Kinon deliberately tries to win jobs in new fields to broaden her reach. “If a new industry comes to us,” she say, “we’ll do everything we can to get the job. We love the learning process, and it always teaches us something that we’ll use again later.”
Kinon traces her passion for identity systems to her roots as a student of Steve Heller at the School of Visual Arts, in a graduate program now called “Designer as Entrepreneur.” “Steve instilled in us a belief that the designer does not have to wait for a client to bring content, but the designer has the ability to create their own content and create their own product,” Kinon explains.
Seated on her first day in class next to Bobby Martin, the two fell into the habit of working together and challenging each other. “We both really drank the Kool Aid of the SVA program,” she says. After graduation, they began freelancing together, but they also deliberately went different ways with their careers to learn from the people they admired.
For Kinon, that meant a stint at Graphis Magazine, where she learned how to build a grid system, and a gig as design director of the massive campaign for New York City’s Olympic bid. The experience of working in-house was invaluable.
“I learned what it was like to work with someone else’s identity system, and to understand the politics of being a design department inside a larger organization that didn’t care all that much about design,” she says. “It’s a lesson I’ve taken with me through my career as a consultant. Whenever designers ask Bobby or me for career advice, we say, ‘Get experience in-house, not just as a consultant.’ You learn a lot once you understand what it’s like to be a designer in a business where design is not the product being sold.”
From there, Kinon went to Pentagram, one of the world’s largest independent design firms, where she was lucky enough to team up with Michael Bierut. “For four years I was able to just follow Michael around and watch how he worked with clients, work with him on identity systems, and learn from the best of the best,” she says.
In 2010, Kinon and Martin decided to strike out on their own. “We saw a great opportunity in the design field to build a firm that focused almost exclusively on systems building. We both loved creating big identity systems, and that’s what we’ve done ever since.”
The OCD PROCESS
When describing her process, Kinon comes across as a realist and a pragmatist, less interested in design trends and more interested in precision, rigor, doing your homework, empathizing, collaborating, listening—all the hard work that goes into making good design decisions.
“Every project we take on starts with research,” says Kinon, because the first step is to get a deep understanding of the brand. OCD typically does competitive, comparative, and audience research to understand the world the system will live in, as well as forecasting to predict how it will evolve in the next five to ten years. “We don’t want to give our clients a solution that only works now; we want it to work for the next several decades,” says Kinon.
OCD’s methodology ranges from customer interviews and user experience tests to partnering with more data-driven research companies. “It’s custom to each project,” says Kinon.
“We also do a lot of research on the client organization itself, and how design functions within that organization,” says Kinon. “It’s important to understand how big the design team is, what their backgrounds are, how they’re included in decision-making processes, what their budget is, and what the timelines are like for design, so that whatever we propose is realistic for that group, and we’re not coming back with overly complicated solutions that wouldn’t survive in that particular ecosystem.”
The aim, Kinon says, is always the same: Make sure you’re educated before you start giving recommendations. “Especially for clients who have been around a long time and have a lot of visual equity—like the Girl Scouts—we really want to make sure that the value of the mark increases through the work that we do, and we’re not just changing it for the sake of changing it, or decreasing the value by making unnecessary changes to it. It’s really about making efficient and meaningful change,” she says.
Once they understand the brand, OCD moves on to strategy, mapping out the client’s brand values, behavior, and purpose, and helping the client articulate how the brand should make people feel. “We are a strategy-based agency, and all of our designers are also strategists,” Kinon says. “This is not a place where you do strategy on one side of the wall, throw it over to the other side, and then the designers start scrapping over it. It’s really important from beginning to end that the heart and soul of the strategy, the outcome, is brought through all of the design.”
Recently OCD hired its first full-time strategist, which lets them take on more projects where the strategy itself is the whole deliverable, such as naming or brand audit projects. “That’s something we’re doing more and more of,” says Kinon.
The third phase, design, is an iterative, collaborative process of exploring a range of graphic opportunities to develop and test the new identity system. “That part is all about creating collaborative processes where, especially when we’re working with large organizations, everyone’s voice is heard,” says Kinon.
The last phase is implementation. “Sometimes implementation is writing the guidelines for the brand identity and making sure the client can bring it to life,” says Kinon. “Sometimes it’s actually making the website and the collateral and the merchandise program and the social kit. Every organization has all sorts of deliverables where their branding will be expressed, and when we’re lucky enough to make those in our shop for our clients, we really love that.”
Like any good designer, Kinon is willing to turn her process upside down and work backward when the need arises. For example, a specific deliverable can drive identity work. “We did a fun project like that for Prospect Park Alliance in Brooklyn,” she recounts. “The job was really to redesign their website. But the marketing director said, ‘And maybe take a look at how our brand system is coming together,’ so that opened up the larger system to us.”
OCD designed a mobile-first website based on an interactive map of the park, with a cohesive system of icons for various park facilities. Using that as a starting point, they refined the mark a little, added a typographic system, and then applied the grid system from the web experience to signage and collateral throughout the park. They even created a secondary children’s brand.
“It’s fun when those deliverable-driven projects come to life,” says Kinon. “If you go to the park now, the little icons that we drew for dogs or barbecues are on the signs for the dog areas and barbecues, and the interactive website map on your phone is the same map you see when you walk into the park. It’s great to see all the stuff that we developed specifically for the website but through the research were able to optimize for everything else.”
A BUZZWORD-FREE ZONE
One of the most refreshing things about Kinon is her disdain for buzzwords. Asked about design-led businesses, she responds, “Precision in language is very important. Somehow ‘design thinking’ has become this magical bucket of nonsense, where everybody uses the term, and not everyone has the same definition.”
TAKEAWAYS FROM THE CAMPAIGN
When Kinon joined the Hillary for America campaign in July 2015, she didn’t start from scratch. She was given the iconic ‘H’ with arrow mark, a typeface, and a color palette, all of which had been designed by Michael Bierut of Pentagram.
“It was like being a baker and being given the best organic ingredients,” says Kinon. “Pentagram gave us our salt, our flour, and our sugar, and then it was up to us to combine and recombine those elements to create an identity system that addressed the flexing needs of this massive organization. We spent a lot of time getting the typographic language established and figuring out how to use the arrows and the H’s to give meaning to her different constituents.”
Kinon believes this attention to detail was essential to communicating Hillary’s brand. “Who our candidate was, and what she believed in, was a huge part of our ethos as a design team. During her Democratic National Convention speech, she talked about how important every word in a bill is, because one word could affect hundreds of lives. Her precision with language and policy was what we felt a great responsibility to reflect in the brand. It’s why every apostrophe had to be a real apostrophe and not a tic mark, why every color needed to be on brand and every typeface needed to be correct. Because we wanted to reflect the attention to detail that she was offering the country.”
So the team’s care was not aesthetic or craft-driven as much as it was brand-driven by the candidate they were representing. “We needed to be precise and careful in the same way that she was precise and careful with the country’s needs in mind,” says Kinon.
It was almost a total rebrand. “The 2008 campaign was an entirely different identity. So we had to introduce Michael’s new identity, give that meaning, and get it out across the country in a very short amount of time. It was an incredible learning experience, and I was so proud of my team for finding messaging and iconography that connected with the greater number of voters,” she says.
“I’m with Her,” “Love Trumps Hate,” “Deal me in”—the phrases that American voters saw explode on social media and rapidly make their way across websites, hats, shirts, buttons, placards, billboards, TV ads, bus wraps, media reports, late-night comedy, handmade signs, and into the common vernacular—were just a few typographic expressions of the coherent visual language that Kinon and her team created and maintained.
Kinon has been back at OCD for almost a year now and has mostly readjusted from the nonstop frenetic pace and addictive energy of a national presidential campaign. But she is still sorting through the lessons learned, still processing the experience and its bitter culmination. In retrospect, she says, a few takeaways float to the top.
“What was most important to me was my team. Working with them made me a better person and a better designer. Nothing good or effective would have been made without them.”
A second lesson, she says, is don't be afraid of taking a chance. “We lost. I am heartbroken and I feel great responsibility, but I do not regret saying 'Yes' to this job.”