Duffy: A Brand Apart

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After receiving the rather exclusive Medal of the American Institute of Graphic Artists last year-only 112 people have been so honored since 1920, and Joe Duffy is the first from Minnesota to join these ranks-you'd think there wasn't a whole lot the founder of Minneapolis-based Duffy & Partners hadn't yet done in this business. But the fact is, his very first book is out this month, published by the One Club. Brand Apart: Insight On the Art of Creating a Distinctive Brand Voice, features the designer as journalist, doing extensive Q&A's with designers, creatives and clients, exploring some of his favorite branding projects from Duffy & Partners and others, including Mini, Harley-Davidson, Nike, Citi, BMW and Starbucks. But why did he get to his mid-50s before finally putting his name on a book? "Well, we've talked to different publishers over the years, and we thought about doing a retrospective after 20 years with Fallon-and I believe something like that will happen eventually-but it's so much work. This book was like giving birth to quintuplets. I was approached by the One Club three years ago, but I had to find time for interviews with all these people, get rights for all the images . . . it took much longer than we anticipated. But I think it turned out great. It's about collaborative brand building, and we're showcasing not just the finished product but the concept sketches and all the things that went into developing the idea. What saved me-because I'm not a good writer-is that I asked questions that I wanted to know the answers to. It's a cross between a really cool-looking coffee table book and an educational piece. After seeing this one finished, I'd like to do another one like it."

So what's up with the strange glyphic flourishes on the back cover and the spine, which look like it might be the title in Klingon? "It's actually the exact way the letters would appear on the back side if you were to hand-stitch 'Brand Apart' onto a perforated surface, a la needlepoint-which is what we originally wanted to do. Unfortunately, the books probably would cost about $300 apiece. It illustrates the idea that we're showing the backstory on each of these projects. I guess we were a little less than obvious; maybe it will just be a mysterious inside joke."

The remarkable Fallon/Duffy Bahamas branding project, which is anything but a mysterious inside joke, featuring what is surely one of the 10 best logos of the young century, is included, too. "We actually led the pitch on this account," recalls Duffy. "Fallon ended up doing the advertising for it, but this was about branding a country, first and foremost. Once that was done we'd announce it to the world via advertising, but we went in there with a brand identity/design approach, and this is what won it for us. We continue to work for the Bahmas, and Fallon continues to do the advertising. The logo, by the way, was created by David Mashburn, who worked in our New York office at that time." Incidentally, Duffy is also a painter, whose "Friends & Family" portrait exhibition was seen in Minneapolis last year. "I paint and I'm passionate about it," he says. "That's how I started." In his portrait of David Mashburn, seen here, the designer turns out to be as colorful as his Bahamas logo.

While that New York office is no more, absorbed by Fallon, along with former Duffy offices in London and Singapore, Duffy & Partners continues to roll along, currently with a staff of 18, which is pretty much the size it's always been, Duffy says. It's more than a year since Duffy & Partners sundered its ties with Fallon Worldwide to go it alone after two decades, and Duffy says he's very happy with the way things have turned out. "It's fun to come to work again. And it's exciting-the kind of excitement that goes with any new venture or reinvention. But it's been more successful than I imagined." Has it changed the kind of work he's doing? "Not all that much. The most significant change is we're always working directly with the clients, as opposed to having the agency, at times, as our client-and it's really good this way."

A redesigned Duffy & Partners website debuts this month, and a major Fresca rebranding effort for Coke will be unveiled in September, featuring a new logo and packaging as well as two new Fresca flavors. "The brand has been sitting sort of dormant for some time," muses Duffy. "The funny thing is, it's one of my favorite soft drinks." Better yet, "when you can do something you're really proud of for a large company, it's very gratifying."

Equally gratifying, no doubt, is Duffy's China connection. Last year Duffy & Partners designed a very ambitious Sony Gallery, an "experiential space showcasing Sony products past, present and future, in Shanghai's hottest shopping district," as the AIGA described it in its Duffy kudos. Moreover, Duffy has been running design workshops in China for the past four years. "What's most amazing is these kids' thirst for knowledge and their work ethic. Most of them work around the clock while the workshop is in session. And it's been interesting to see their design styles progress over those four years. The end results in the first couple of years were very much derivative of Western design. But slowly but surely, a combination of what they admire from the West and what they've experienced in China has emerged among the best students. They're throwing lots of interesting things into the blender and they're beginning to develop their own very distinctive take on design. They're definitely going to be a force."

Other current Duffy projects include a new identity and redesigned and rebranded product lines for Thymes bath and beauty products, as well as the Good Day Cafe restaurant gig, the fourth such project Duffy has done with local restaurateur Rick Webb. "We get paid in food," Duffy jokes. "We do the interiors, the signage, the matchbooks, the naming, the whole deal. It's total-experience design, and this is what we love to do."

Speaking of which, the biggest change Duffy sees in the overall U.S. design picture is how it's become a total experience. "What's changed the business most of late is what we call the democratization of design. Target is a really good example of this-they're really smart and I admire them. There's a much greater appreciation of design among the masses, as opposed to design being only for big spenders. In general, people today care much more about what things look like and how they function. Product design is booming-the business magazines are always doing stories on the 'power of design.' That kind of appreciation for design in this country has tremendously increased the amount of attention companies devote to it."

Nevertheless, does he believe, as so many people do vis-a-vis advertising, that there was a golden age of design that's forever gone? "There have been peaks and valleys over the years, but I don't really believe there's been a headier time for design than right now," he insists. "It's that democratization factor coupled with the fact that, indeed, advertising as we've known it is in an incredible decline, and people's ability to filter advertising out of their lives is only going to increase. Right now, everybody from P&G on down is saying, 'Design, design, design.' It's more personal on every level; everybody gives a shit about design all of a sudden. People are saying, 'Hey, why should we spend all these millions on advertising? Let's put some money into something people really want, as opposed to trying to shove it down their throats.' "

Sounds like it could make a good book.

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