Curiosity, Creativity, and Blue Apples

This post is the first in a series of interviews with changemakers in Junxion’s community—our clients, our alumni, our partners, and our team. Today, we meet Junxion Design Director, Sherry Pomerleau.

 

So how did you find your way to Junxion and social purpose focused work?

Five years before I joined Junxion, when I was with my own company, we were trying hard to “do sustainability…. How can we do more? How can we encourage people?” I remember doing research on Junxion when we were working on our own positioning and thinking about how we would change our approach.

The connection came about pretty naturally. I had already worked with a brand strategist that Mike brought on, so there was a relationship there when they needed a creative director, and it came when I was working more independently in 2010/2011.

What is special about the role of the creative director in an agency that focuses on sustainability and social purpose?

As a creative director, it can be easy to think there’s only so much you can do—from a responsibility angle, such as the type of materials and formats you can recommend. That’s where I was at the start, when I first wanted to be involved in this work.

But the biggest change can happen when you’re more involved with the strategy behind what your clients are doing—the bigger picture of impact the company is aiming to do. A design perspective at that stage can be really valuable—and influential.

When you help to move ideas from an abstract strategy, an idea, to a completed design, what do you think is the difference that good design makes?

I think the world of difference is authenticity. Good designers really try to reflect an authentic and compelling vision for what the client is trying to represent and achieve. This makes me think of the late 90s green-washing approach in a lot of materials. A key responsibility for a designer is to make sure executions are honest and represent what a company is actually doing.

If you’re responsible for sourcing imagery, that becomes part of the authentic representation and is now, more than ever an area we can help change. We need to be representative of a diverse range of people; if somebody’s not sensitive to that they could be repeating the typical “happy shiny white people in stock photos”—which certainly isn’t inclusive or appealing.

 How do you keep up with changing expectations around how to represent diversity, social equity, sustainability—and not fall into a patterns or stereotypes?

I approach every client with a fresh attitude and curiosity.

… or a “solution.” There seem to be a lot of designers who come at projects with a common style or solution, but I always approach every client with a fresh attitude and curiosity. That said, there is a certain amount of intuition that happens when you’ve been in the industry for a while. I might assume things about the type of company I’m meeting, and who they are, and there is a balance of using intuition and experience, but then still being really curious. I think it’s in our nature as designers—at least, it’s in my nature—to never repeat a solution. I’m always forcing myself to look at things from a different angle.

My heart goes into every project, you know, I really get excited. I really try to understand their needs and bring a new perspective. But not everybody does that—some people just say, “this is what you should be doing because it worked for so-and-so”  The real estate marketing world is a great example of this. Approaches can be a bit ‘cookie-cutter,’ unless a developer is interested in doing things different from the ground up, looking at the whole strategy of the development in context of the community—not just the materials created to market the project.

Do you have practices or routines that help you to cultivate this kind of creativity and curiosity?

When I think about the way I approach creative projects—the way my mind works—I think just naturally (perhaps because I’m left-handed?) I’m inclined towards lateral thinking. I start with one element, veer off to another element, then try a different angle.… It’s not a linear exploration, even though it can be a fairly linear process to get to a solution.

I would say that I have a consistent process that I go through to find creative solutions, but it’s always a slightly different journey depending on the project needs or the client we are serving.

So, I’ve been witness to the way that you break clients out of their expectations. You seem to do an end run around their assumptions, and beautifully disarm them, and take them with you into the excitement and curiosity of your creative process. Is that something you’ve practiced or does that just happen?

I love the way you said that! I did hire a business / personal coach earlier in my career which really helped. A part of the focus was on how to develop a proposal to win clients, and it’s mostly communicating with them, listening, and repeating back what you hear so you have a very clear starting point about what they are trying to achieve. Naturally this builds trust, so then it’s easier to say “hey, I thought about this another way… here is a variation we can try—a different way to look at it.”

How different do you want to appear from your competition?

It’s funny because one of the questions I have always asked clients is, “how different do you want to appear from your competition?” I want to know if they want to stand out or to play it safe? Almost all people choose standing out. But when it comes to choosing solutions, they often choose the safer route.

It’s important to help clients to open their minds, but it can still be a challenge sometimes. Over the years, I’ve got better at communicating, understanding, finding ways to open their eyes to different solutions, maybe bigger possibilities.

Sometimes it can help to call attention to their assumptions, and connotative versus denotative meaning. You can show somebody a red apple, and right away they can share expected words of what ‘apple’ means. There are visual assumptions—culture by culture—and it’s often safe to assume certain things. People get used to things, and it feels comfortable because they’ve seen it. So it’s uncomfortable when you show them something that’s contrary to what something ‘means.’ My brain does this automatically—I look at something and I don’t necessarily assume that first meaning, that safe meaning. Gheesh, I hope you’re following me because my brain is totally showing how it works right now!

No—I mean yes—this makes sense to me. I know from working together that our brains work differently, but I do get the idea of seeing something, and right away playing with the meaning: what if it didn’t mean the obvious thing? What else could it mean? What if you turned it upside down, or inside out, or said it backwards?”

And how do we form meaning? We form meaning from experience and we’ve got people saying “Oh, blah blah, blue is the trusted colour for banking” and so we’ve got all these people doing the same thing because one person decided that that’s what blue means, or perhaps there was some truth in choosing blue, but now the visual environment is flooded with that solution, so by nature you want to say “okay, yes, that makes senses, it’s comfortable, it feels good,” but if you really wanted to carve yourself out a different market or gain some awareness in a different way, you’d need to think about the solution in a slightly different way. Often, I’ll pose what’s not normally understood as a ‘comfortable’ solution, perhaps opening the possibility for a client to create their own meaning.

As long as I can back it up and there’s a story behind it, people can eventually see that perspective. It may be uncomfortable at first, but that’s the very part that might get a client noticed. We do this work so our clients can communicate their messages and attract audience members or supporters. We have to get their attention first, and then once we’ve got their attention, our clients have to back up their marketing claims with an authentic story and good experience.

We talked about understanding the objectives of the client. What questions do you think are most important for clients to ask the designers?

I think sometimes clients choose designers based on the projects that they’ve done, and I think that’s a mistake. They see the solution they envision in that designer’s work, or they see a designer that has done work with companies they admire, but the most important thing is to make sure you can actually communicate with the designer. Make sure that you feel that you can be heard—and understood. A designer’s work is a common gateway into the relationship and is of course very important, but make sure you’re asking enough questions to get clear on the process and how you’ll be able to relate to each other.

So clients should want to know that the designer has a process, and understand how they can help ensure the process works.

Yes, but some clients just want someone to execute their vision. It’s about being clear on why they are looking for a designer.

There are important questions to ask. What is your process to work through a project? How are you going to ensure that the final designs will meet my objective? That’s where the strategic part of the exercise is key: find the deeper requirements, so the result actually works for them.

From that perspective, what are some of the projects that you have worked on in the past, or that you’re working on now that you like the most?

I honestly feel privileged to work with all of Junxion’s clients. After almost a decade, I’m still learning about companies that have been focused on sustainability or social responsibility and those that are helping others to do better. I am always amazed by the type of work that’s happening out there and by the super smart people doing it. It’s hard for my creative mind to keep up! So I’m humbled to be a part of it, helping anyway I can.

One recent project that comes to mind is the rebrand for The Delphi Group and GLOBE Series. Big companies need to make big changes and these groups are helping to make that kind of impact. This was a complete identity overhaul that collected separate groups in a ‘constellation’ of brands. The process was complex—and really collaborative! I love how the client carried through the implementation.

Another client that stands out to me is Resolve. What a great group of people. (That’s definitely a side benefit of working with these types of companies: Good people doing good things are nice to work with!) The work we did for the Resolve website included more detailed design execution, working from their existing logo.

I’m in love with the design results for both of these clients. They were both brand refreshes, but the process and delivery was very different. Brand identity projects can be very challenging, especially when there are multiple stakeholders. This is why the strategic work beforehand is really important—getting everyone in sync about the goals for branding or design work.

At the end of the day, what we do sets the initial direction and tone for their brands, but they’re the ones who bring them to life, communicating every day, so our work has to be a platform that they can build upon.

 

Junxion’s Toronto-based MD Garth Yule sat down with our Vancouver-based Design Director Sherry Pomerleau in July. They share a passion for communications that make a real difference. Reach them via [email protected] or [email protected]

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