Rebuilding our identity, or why the shoemaker always has holes in his shoes
One of the great challenges a design practice can face is taking itself on as a client. Consider your most demanding, delayed and frustrating project experience and multiply it by 10 - that will get you about halfway there.
(1) We are always too busy working on projects for other people;
(2) We instinctively cringe when we have to talk about ourselves - perhaps partly due to our slightly self-effacing culture, but also a desire to just “let the work talk for itself”;
(3) A feeling that we should tend towards neutrality, so as to not impose a default ‘style’ on our work, which can vary quite dramatically from project to project; and finally
(4) Corralling a group of designers (who have come together precisely because they enjoy devil advocating the hell out of each other and are constantly refining - i.e. changing - their ideas) to agree on a direction is like herding cats.
We began by taking a closer look at ourselves through a series of visioning workshops conducted by Gareth. What was our central business? When were we producing our best work? When did relationships thrive, and when did they sour? Who was going to be in charge in 5 years’ time, and what was the vision that they might want to see?
Typified by less colour, more structure - are we getting old, as our 15 years might imply? Hardly. But we are evolving in what we do, and it makes sense to broaden the appeal of the visual language we use as we begin a new chapter in our story.
One of the more notable aspects of this new identity is the typography. It is in fact a ‘new’ face, dubbed Woodbrook Sans, in homage to its origins and our return to this beloved district in Port of Spain, Trinidad.
There aren’t many indigenous typefaces from the English-speaking Caribbean; barely any in fact. There is a kind of vernacular around handwritten signs, one of which was created by our Managing Partner Marlon Darbeau's work for Alice Yard; more recently with digitisation projects such as the Fete Signs project by the talented duo of Kriston Chen and our own Agyei Archer. Contemporary typography doesn’t so much originate here; looking for a typeface that is ‘authentically Caribbean’ really means looking elsewhere.
What we do have are legacy faces; echoes of systems and powers that have long departed, quietly reminding us of the past.
The shared history of the English-speaking Caribbean means that there are similarities in style across the region. One can in particular find a loose group of typefaces that seems to speak of empire, of order, of plain protestant authority.
These are not decorative faces - drawn by engineers or draftsmen, they are no-nonsense and functional.
What’s great about these faces is that they have involuntarily adapted to their environment, and you can see this particularly in signage. The lettering is battered by the tropical elements, rebuilt, redrawn and painted over and over again in an attempt to maintain the original. Much like a game of Chinese Whispers, with this comes a slow change in each iteration.
We’ll share the results of this separately, as we think it might be helpful for other agencies who have found themselves caught with a desire to be expert specialists, but stuck with a reliance on high-volume, low-margin work to keep cashflow going.
For the past 10 years our core proposition has been ‘Creating Magnetism’. Magnetism for our clients, our communities and the countries in which we work; magnetism between people, ideas and opportunities. The answers from our visioning remain compatible with the central idea, so we are sticking with it and the related positionings and strategy.
Anyway, we eventually got it done, as a much needed update to reflect the change in service offerings as we complete our transition from hybrid agency/consultancy to a more formal design consultancy, as well as an opportunity for us to talk about new locations, new leadership and new energy at Abovegroup.
Woodbrook Sans draws from this. As you can see, we reference this style of lettering found on mainly civic buildings in the area. We’ve digitised it, inconsistencies and weathering included, and are planning on a full typeface. It’s also been slightly adapted to make the face more legible, while retaining the authenticity of the original.