The art of branding with Jon Plumb

The art of branding with Jon Plumb.

Jon Plumb is our Director of Branding at Ascendum. During the last two years, he helped launch Curio, our in-house design studio. With an extensive background in branding, Jon helps bring stories to life for both our clients and products.

Once it becomes clear that we are heading in the right direction, we live and breathe the brand, ensuring everything is considered and consistent across the board. After projects, we will be involved with guardianship, where we keep a close eye to ensure everything stays on brand.

Jon Plumb
Brand Director, Ascendum & Curio
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He talked with us about the path to Curio, his process, and what he’s learned during his career.

How did Curio get started and what does branding have to do with it?

We have been lucky to have some world class design and coding talent that can be called upon to make visions a reality. A unique creative passion of ours has been brand creation combined with ideation for future technologies. The two go hand in hand to ensure that from the start we have a strong product.

Many of the Curio team and myself have large agency backgrounds, with some even having formed their own agencies previously. It seemed a natural progression for us to come together to create a design studio. We are using our collective agency and blue-chip client knowledge to cultivate an exciting offering for both clients and designers. We have top talent within Curio, real specialists in their fields, with big experience who enjoy working together.

We respect each other’s fields and set out to achieve next level output by learning and listening. This goes with our brand ethos of: One team, specialized designers, meaningful results. It is important that we continually attract outstanding talent and adapt to new approaches and thinking.

Typically, top design talent has only been drawn to agencies in big worldwide cities, and I feel this mindset is shifting to suit a more enjoyable lifestyle. By having both a physical studio and a remote offering, it allows us to attract fresh talent from wherever they are in the world.

Can you describe your branding process? How do you go from a request to a fully realized branding concept?

Historically, brand design was the last 10% of the process, if considered at all within the scope of a project. It is important now to consider the brand from inception – this means our process is more involved than ever before. We often sit in on early calls to grab insight and await the brief to start our process.

We usually start our ideation stage with multiple directions and present these back at stage-one presentation. This is never fully formed with all requirements, but it helps to gauge where we need to go.

Hopefully at this stage the client absolutely loves a direction and we begin the process of crafting and looking at how the brand can extend throughout areas such as tone of voice, brand world, and where applicable, UI design. This is intentionally taken in baby steps to avoid wasting time or exploring things that are not needed.

Once it becomes clear that we are heading in the right direction, we live and breathe the brand, ensuring everything is considered and consistent across the board. After projects, we will be involved with guardianship, where we keep a close eye to ensure everything stays on brand.

What are the most difficult challenges along the way?

The expected answer here would be to say that nothing is difficult and that we are perfect, or do not face any challenges due to our excellence. However, this would not be truthful as we are only human.

Branding now is a lot more reactive / fluid to the moment during an age of social media and instant responses. It is important to stay current, which means changing or adapting to different criteria, trends, or conversations. This is more a design challenge than a difficulty. If your brand is setup well, then this should be easy.

There are always bumps in the road of varying degrees along this process. It could be a change of direction or messaging that you have spent weeks building things around, or an 11th hour name change which means back to the drawing board – by tomorrow. You all work as a team to overcome these obstacles.

From my perspective, the biggest challenge would be facing a project without a strong team. You cannot do it without communication and learning from each other. It would be a very one dimensional and self-indulgent process without taking on constructive criticism or indulging in what could be a better way to do things.  

The Curio design team is really excellent at working tirelessly together to achieve excellent output. Personally, I feel privileged to be a part of a progressive team who are eager to achieve.

What parts of the process are the most satisfying?

I love the initial ideation stage of projects and bouncing ideas off others.The internal conversations I have with myself 24/7 normally consist of multiple no’s and one yes when thinking of a solution. That yes will then need crafting to ensure it communicates itself properly and works as part of a brand system.

Back when I started, this used to be scribbles on a page, but over time, you learn to do that in your head and decide what works before you even spend time trying it. Personally, I am not satisfied until the solution has got to the point where you can review it the next morning or a week later and it is still brilliant.

The thought process for anything is very immersive and I find some weird comfort in that, you go off to a different zone. I also get satisfaction from others seeing final solutions and having that ‘click’ moment where they just totally get it. It makes the whole process worthwhile, even if the output seems so simple – a lot of work goes into that.

One of the exciting options that has been opened with Curio is the chance to pitch ideas for new digital products. It has given us the opportunity to potentially change consumer perceptions or even lives in some cases.

Having this as a ‘side hustle’ for the company means that it can be seen through from inception to launch. There are many highly-skilled people involved in that process along the way, but for me, there is a sense of satisfaction in watching your idea become a reality – and then to hopefully see it become a global success.

Can you describe the way you learn from the brands you’re creating a voice for?

How do you think they learn from you?

There should be a natural curiosity there for any designer to wants to know more about what they are designing for. Unless you research properly and get insights, you cannot produce a solution which matches the needs of the client.

Almost by default you end up learning things about companies, innovations, or interesting people that you would have never paid attention to otherwise.

Over my time, I have been involved with everything from huge corporate entities and consumer brands, to small start-up companies. It does not matter how big you are, the insights I have soaked up from all carry through to my future thinking.

In terms of learning from us, hopefully they will embrace our passion for progression and pushing ideas that are not tried or tested yet. Once we are on that level together then often it will lead to amazing things and they will wonder why they did not do it earlier.

Throughout your career, has your process changed?

The way I approach the ‘process’ is exactly the same way I was taught almost 20 years ago – the thought process of how to form a great idea. For me, the other processes I knew then have been completely changed by digital environments.

Like most from that period, and some others at Curio, I came from a print and packaging background, which can get very complex and time consuming. It was also very disposable (literally) so all your hard work would tend to go un-noticed by the end customer.

It was only by natural curiosity for my geek / tech side that I became interested in websites and html when I was about 15 in the late 90’s. Then eventually around the time the first iPhone came out, onto mobile design in my evenings away from my day job.

I was passionate about bringing brand expertise to the digital environment, but at my first attempt, the focus was more on polish and finish rather than branding. This has completely reversed now.

Switching 100% from print to digital is not something you can do overnight, you have to be willing to take the plunge and learn the ropes. However, with digital excelling at such a fast rate, I just cannot see any bright future for print mediums, particularly with ongoing environmental concerns. Personally, I am excited to now be fully immersed in this environment.

Is there a skill you’ve learned during a specific branding ask that sticks out to you even now? 

Apart from getting in the creative zone mentally, which is a skill you hone (and is always progressing), I remember the first time I was presented with a brand strategy from a well-known soft drink company. This is not something you are taught, it is something you learn being part of a studio.

Strategic branding was an eye-opener for designers. As a young designer fresh out of college, I found it restrictive and largely avoided it as much as possible, as I just wanted to focus on ideas. I guess I just got lucky in the early days that the designs produced could be rationalized backward to the upfront documents.

Now I am a huge champion of planning properly, probably to the point of being obsessive about it. Strategy ensures that by the time you start the project, you are well prepared. You know the work you are producing is exactly what is required based on research and data, opposed to just scatter gunning to see which ideas stick.

The way you think about the design solution changes, as it has to be credible and flexible for certain parameters - maybe 2-3 years away as well as the now.

Following a strategic process saves designers so much time, it means you spend more time focusing on the right rather than the wrong; and the end result is that the client is 100% happy. You just need to learn to be creative within the strategy, which is a skill in itself, you have to keep cross-checking to ensure you are on the right path.

Are there any books or resources that have helped you to hone your skill? 

Whilst studying, I was obsessed with A Smile in the Mind. It is a bible of witty ideas in graphic design. I must have read that thousands of times and it is full of lightbulb moments. At the back of the book, there are interviews with industry legends from around the world I was lucky enough to have one of them as my tutor in Art School (Ray Gregory) and we remained good friends after. I also got to meet the great Bob Gill, one of the founders of what is now Pentagram who was also featured in the book.

I also recommend The Art of Looking Sideways by Alan Fletcher – another master of the art. There are many design and branding books out there, but none teach you the way of thinking like these guys do.

Any advice for those looking to get into branding?

I guess make sure you understand what branding is before you get into it, otherwise it can become cumbersome quite quickly. Branding is not just creating a logo and then applying it to multiple things.

The brand is what your customers buy into. Imagine it as a person. It is the way you walk and talk, how you dress, and it gives meaning to your company. It is about presenting your ethos and vision clearly, consistently and ensuring everyone sings from the same sheet in that regard with brand guardianship. If this is something that feels at home to you, then get in touch.

To learn more about Ascendum's in-house design studio Curio, visit their website at