The design team and I packed up on a Wednesday to head down to the Angelika Theatre at Mocking Bird Station, where the DSVC monthly meeting was being held. We were excited to see Sarah Forss, who came all the way from St. Paul, Minnesota to share about her incredible design experience.
When we were looking into the event, I immediately recognized Sarah Forss’ work. She, along with Sharon Werner of Werner Design Werks, have created iconic brands and packaging design, such as Mrs. Mayers, Cabot Cheese, Ginbao, and even did some work for Target and AIGA.
Werner Design Werks is an agency that has been around since the 90’s. With 2-3 employees total, they do not have the need for project managers, account managers, business development, or sales people. They really get to know their client’s specific wants and needs.
By doing the work themselves, all communication from designer to client is direct and succinct. They’ve also partnered with other local businesses to get prints, labels, and even trade show environments made. That said, I’ll be the first one to admit that I’m not always in the mood to deal with printers, other businesses, or our beautiful, wonderful, patient clients. So, for some, this system might not be possible.
Like all veteran designers, Forss liked to share with us her best—and worst—client stories. The collective groans of agreement coming from the crowd created a comedic comradery that all of us in the creative field can share. A brand or illustration being ruined once handed over to the client’s big wig or marketing team is something just about everyone was all too familiar with.
Forss also shared what she felt was one of the most desirable traits of a client: go with the flow.
Mr. Mak from Ginbao was her quintessential example of an easy-going client. Mr. Mak was an older Chinese gentleman that looked forward into the future and was always up for anything.
His personality shined so bright that Mr. Mak himself became part of the brand and the persona of the product. From cute quips like “Mr. Mak says carry less baggage” printed on a tote, to his 6 pillars of good health: Food Choice, Belief, Optimism, Sleep, Exercise, and of course, Ginbao.
Mr. Mak trusted Forss and her team to find the right solution for Ginbao. The completion of the bottles led to an awesome website, which lead to an awesome trade show booth, because they listened to their client and because Mr. Mak was happy to follow their instincts.
Possibly the most important lesson we took away from Sarah Forss was the unique power of storytelling. Story telling is how you get to something original instead of something competitive.
“Werner Design Werks builds brand and tells stories,” said Forss.
An example of this would be the Rockfilter Distillery. While other whisky brands were all about Cowboys, Bad Boys, and Good Ol’ Boys, they wanted their bottles to stand out from the crowd. Ultimately, they decided to focus on the organic, homemade, and local Norwegian farmer traits to fit their brand’s character.
She and her team headed out to Spring Grove, Minnesota to meet the town, the culture, the idiots, and the legends (her words, not ours!). This resulted in a unique bottle and brand that stands out on the shelves and speaks directly to the character of the distillery, its founders, and its roots.
It was extremely interesting to see how Werner Design Werks bill for projects. While hourly work leads to fair pay and strict guidelines, they choose to do all their work by contract.
Forss admitted that with this system, she probably isn’t charging enough. As projects get a little out of hand, meaning she spends too much time on it, they are realistically getting paid cents on the dollar.
However, due to their devotion to the project, focus on deadlines, and willingness to put themselves in the client’s or consumer’s shoes, their final work is always exceptional.
Forss was also sure to note that they didn’t make anything they aren’t proud of, because they allow the time needed for each project to be fully fledged. They share everything, making Werner Design Werks’ portfolio is pretty extensive.
“We just do work,” she said. “No middle man. Brands are built by trusting your gut, listening to the client, and doing the research.”
Amelia, Eric, and I took away several fun and eye-opening things from Sarah Forss that night. Namely: Deadlines rule, trust your gut, only create work you are proud of, allow yourself to be picky with clients, and learn to say no if you don’t think a project will be an advantage to you or portfolio material.
We were awed by her 3-woman team and how they kept their project process so simple. They don’t fixate on the process, but instead focus on the result. It was also validating to hear that even the best design agencies sometimes lose control when big wigs get in the way. Sarah Forss’ insights into the Werner Design Werks truly illustrated to us that big risks come with big reward, and that navigating the design process with a client’s good intentions can be wholly worthwhile.
Around here, we push for uncompromised design. Square 205 was built on a core foundation of celebrating collaboration from start to finish. Due to that philosophy, we strive to work directly and efficiently with our clients to craft awesome ideas into awesome brands.
Our team is constantly finding opportunities to develop our talents and broaden our knowledge. To discover more about what we’ve learned along the way, follow our blog.