Environment does not play the lead: #4 of 4 in the VIBE series

This graphic a map of the Fairmount neighborhood in Philadelphia, where I grew up. This environment had profound influence on me in a variety of ways: 

I saw the built environment as a cultural vehicle. And a machine. And a tool. And Fabulous.

I learned an environment is a very complex construct.

I was thrilled by the prospect of shaping and influencing the human experience.

Fabulous- Walking through the studios of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art, into Foodstuffs Grocery just down the street, or strolling through the iconic John Wanamaker department store. These are just a few of the thousands of environments that shaped my world view. Each distinct, each designed with purpose. 

Complex- I stand in the reading Terminal Market. What is happening. Everything, all at once. The amount of energy is phenomenal, and contagious. I used to stand still there and try and observe everything- the sounds, smells and sights- and the character of each. Sensory overload in the best way

Thrill- To dance in that place where your role is integral to that complex, fabulous experience is a unique combination of opportunity, responsibility, authenticity and innovation. A lot all at once. 


Your environment can have positive, neutral or negative effect on your brand. When designing, consider this at every point. Different points will have varying degrees of impact- but everything has some impact. Avoid anything in the negative category.

The connection between your environment and brand is direct- both internally and externally. The stronger the tie, the better. 

People are visual, and while we filter a good amount of 'noise' it still gets registered at some level. Appearance matters. 

Genuine trumps facade. You environment should speak to your core values, when it works, it reinforces the other key aspects of your organization. The Wizard of Oz approach is tantamount to lying, and people will see through it. It's especially toxic to your internal culture.

Ultimately your environment is just a part of the entire equation- and it does not play the lead. Architects and Interior Designers pretend the building or space define the tenor of the experience. No. Culture, engagement, service, and product win every time. The environment is merely a vessel in service to this larger objective.


If you are launching an idea, its a great time to lay the perfect canvas from which to grow. Determine the basics, get them right and fill it out over time.

If you have an existing organization, assess your current environment and honestly review it relative to your brand. You might also ask a friend or peers to do the same, they will see it with fresh eyes. If your place needs work, make a list of these things in hierarchy. Many substantive improvements need not be very disruptive or expensive. If it is a total mess, make a plan to move on. 

Hire a design professional. We do a fantastic job with this kind of work, but so do many others. A great designer will read you well, and design a place that is an honest extension of you, your brand and your aspirations.   


BRANDING IS DEAD- #3 in the VIBE series

Branding is dead- maybe not dead, but really ill. Brand, Branded, Branding, Branded Environments, Brand Equity....Brand has become a a hollow word. So many people hanging their services on this simple word, but its not truly part of their practice. Brandwashing. Of course, there are agencies and firms that do excellent brand work- do your homework if your looking for services in this arena. 

Here is our perspective- 

Why do we include it in our four pillars of design strategy? 
Because true brand development is really important. 

Curating your Brand is not only important, it's an imperative. But your brand is not simply something you hire a designer to make, it is not a design exercise like your identity. Your brand is a living, evolving organism, and it has two distinct hemispheres. 

We believe the brand is the single most important component of a successful organization.

First-the two hemispheres:

Internal- The culture, gestalt, the day to day experience you, your peers and the people who work for you and the people you work for create. This is your internal brand, and it is the key to creating engaged members, retention, inspiring innovative and creativity, and doing powerful work. This 'brand' starts with the leadership and when done well, becomes the domain of every member of the organization.

External- This is viral, organic kind of brand. It's an opportunity to extend the reach of your vision well beyond your circle of influence.  Its directly linked to every single touchpoint in your client and personal interactions. It lives in the court of public opinion and can be very powerful.

Second- how to curate your brand.

There are pages and pages of writing on this subject, some of it very smart. Here is the way we look at it, in simple terms:

Get your language right. Everyone will tell their own version of the story of you- give them as many of the key words so the core message is consistent and tight.

Live your brand, and make it genuine. Your authentic self is truly an awesome thing if you let it be. If you talk the talk, walk the walk.

Don't be afraid. Your brand should be something you are a maven about. Not as a sales tool, but just because. Sales, revenue, that will follow. you just need bring all the energy you can muster to the dance.

Align the two hemispheres. If your internal and external brand attributes do not align, its trouble. Confusing your audience is just a bad idea. Make a promise to your clients that is consistent with the promise you make to your associates.  

Third-  How do I deal with my brand?

Take a minute and consider why you do what you do. Is it so your family can have security and a good living? Are you curious and like to solve problems? Are you a systematic maven and want to build the perfect machine or are you a romantic creative and want to embrace all that is beautiful in life?

What sort of organizational environment is perfect for you? A benevolent dictatorship or an entrepreneurial think tank. Open, closed? Song or dance? Chaos or Order?

If you've spent time developing your Identity, think about it. Outside of identifying you or your organization, it speaks volumes about the brand expectations.

Action- What should you do?

Live your personal brand to the fullest and be a champion of the brands you represent- your voice is powerful. If you can't be a brand ambassador of your organization, you're in the wrong place

Find three to five key qualities you espouse, your brand pillars. If you honestly consider the why of what you do, these will become apparent. Lead with them inwardly and outwardly.

Honestly, branding is easy- just look yourself in the mirror- its all there.

Giving it a voice in an understandable, distinct way requires some thought.
If you need help building your brand, don't be seduced by snappy identity work. Find a consultant that asks good questions, listens and connects your Vision, Identity, Brand and Environment.


Who are you? IDENTITY The second in the VIBE series


As a father of three teenagers, I see my children's identity develop over the course of years. But really, their identity was authored long ago, in their early years. It's in their teen years that it begins to be articulated and expressed outwardly. 

Companies and organizations are remarkably similar. New organizations establish their identity almost immediately, and mature ones merely need to look deeply to see their true core that has been lost in the layers of time. 

Here's the hard part- like the awkward teenage years can be. The outward expression and articulation that is authentic and individual. Connecting the dots of your new Vision or restoring life to the core tenets that started it all. This is a wonderful creative opportunity, and we enjoy walking our clients through the process.  There are dozens of ways to get to a Identity design, here are some things we do in the process:

We ask character questions- like are you song, or dance? or both?? Order or chaos? Tucked or untucked?  These seek to get to the familiar character- what would your organization be like among friends.

We ask benchmarking questions- like what kind of watch are you (Timex or Rolex, or maybe Swatch?) How about a car, or a chair? These are things that have broad, common outward definition in the marketplace. They are not prescriptive, but certainly descriptive.

Last (sort of) we ask energy questions- balanced or dynamic? Walking, running or sprinting? A ball of energy or a measured dose? These start to give clues to the internal culture and how that might lend to the design.

Last, (really) we get subjective. Cruise the interwebs, places like Pinterest. Find stuff you love, for whatever reason. There is a lot out there- some of it is really good, most is marginal. But its worth spending time there.

With all that in our hands, we go to work. The process is chaotic by design, with an overlay of system. Studies range in media, color, character and form. Trying to describe how we get across the chasm to a solution would be impractical, it just happens. Maybe it's magic.

Final notes: be adventurous, rigorous and engaged in the design process. You'll wear your identity everyday, it's got to be right.

Here is some process work we have in the studio right now. 


Thoughts on VISION. The first in the VIBE series


Vision, in pure literal terms, is the ability to see. In the creative world, we think of the word VISION as having the ability to see beyond the apparent. To see possibilities, or even impossibilities. This is an asset of real value to companies, organizations and individuals as they seek to grow an idea. The visionaries of the world are revered for their bravery and innovation- Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, Richard Branson, Tony Hsieh, etc. 

We think having vision is paramount. Here's why we think so, and some ideas to spark visionary thought-

Vision draws from your personal construct. You are your own best point of competitive distinction. By that I mean, your authentic self brings a unique component to the game, and its something that cannot be replicated. Step one, make your vision personal.

A strong Vision is a little bit frightening. But easy is already done. Easy has been tested and is a proven down-the-middle strategy. Problem is, its crowded there, and is a commodity, price driven marketplace. Pushing into a quality driven position requires a little (or a lot of) risk. Step two, unnerve yourself a bit with your audacity.

Vision is foundational, strategy and tactics are dynamic. Your vision needs to be rock solid, and non-negotiable. How you achieve the vision is an ever changing conversation as the marketplace shifts, your brand matures and the vehicles of commerce evolve. Step three- do yourself a favor and spend the time needed to get it tight and right.

What you do may not be visionary, why you do it sure ought to be. What your core business offers may be a commodity (think Zappos) but why is the key. Look up Simon Sinek- he'll explain it better than I ever could.

Here are a few things we do with our clients to get them to give voice their vision:

Ask 'who cares' and 'why does this matter'. You should be a maven for your vision, and passionate about its importance. You must believe your vision will change the world, even in s small way. If not, its commodity, not visionary.

The 5 why's. Make a vision statement.  Write down why it is important. Then write down why that answer is important. Lather, rinse repeat- 5 times to each subsequent answer. I guarantee you will get to a very personal definition of why your vision matters. 

Test it. Start with friends and see how it sounds. Friends are safe, they are generally easy on you. Then try it on some peers- people you know but are not close with. Last, if you are feeling bold, try a perfect stranger. I dare you. It wont hurt, and I bet you'll have to work hard. Good.

Don't get stuck. Move forward all the time. Its ok to try and fail and use these experiences as a way to define the vision. The thought that you can't get to work until you solidly land the vision is noble, but might put you into analysis paralysis. 

Walking the walk- absolutely. Here is the 37 vision.

We are designers. We love design, we are relentlessly creative, we believe it matters. Our work continually seeks to secure the prosperity of the next generation and leave this earth better than we found it. Design can save the world, give me five minutes, and I'll tell you why.


Without ice cream...

(Almost) everybody loves ice cream. We do, and have fun helping our clients Gelati Celesti deliver the best ice cream we have even had. The next chapter in the legacy is this upcoming location. They're building fast. you'll hear about it's opening pretty soon. You can keep tabs on them at www.gelatiicecream.com
A little taste of what is coming. this is their Bon Air location

Ok. it's not much to look at right now, but you just wait...


Full Circle

We are watching a house we designed come out of the ground. It is a rewarding and exciting experience. Each visit reveals something new and unexpected.  As part of the project, we selected a handful trees to mill into lumber, and have just begun that work too. We'll use this material in the house for some doors and furnishings. Count this as a triple win- the owners get some beautiful material that is connecte to their land, we learn many new things about wood and woodworking, and some material get repurposed rather than shipped off somewhere.

Stay tuned as the project unfolds!



The opportunity to help build a personal vision is a design honor. We saturate ourselves in the minutiae of details and materials, all in an pursuit to make a place of memories, meaning and legacy. We love every design project, but reserve a special place in our hearts for the places we call home.


Have Fun!

Design is fun. Really. We forget that simple notion sometimes. The joy on a clients face, people smiling as they experience your work, and making good things. So fun. And while we are pretty serious at times, and invest ourselves to an absurd degree in our work- we dance, sing and smile too.


Career Days

I had the opportunity to present to two career day events recently. ASID career day for Interior Design Junior and Senior college students, and Washington Henry Elementary School Career Day. Both were extremely enlightening and the student engagement was fantastic. 

What did I learn? 

The Generation Effect- the many discussions I hear about millenials and their focus are spot on. There were typical questions about resume and portfolio perfection, but many more about vision and alignment. Most were focused on character and culture as primary interest for a job. One person of over one hundred asked about money.

The amazing power of youth- kids are electric, enthusiastic, and given a small moment to create, just do not want to stop. As I turned on the faucet of interactivity, I could not turn it off. Relentless new ideas could have kept me there for a full day.


I realize our clients that our mid to large businesses struggle to effectively communicate to the emerging class of creative professionals.

I realize elementary school is a great place to start preserving creativity, but wish the middle and high schools would engage similarly.

College Design Students

Results of one of five sessions with elementary school kids
I realize this sort of activity gives me crazy energy and profound reward. I should do this more often.


What do you see?

My daughter is working with Agriberry CSA this summer. It gives me a chance to see- really see the agricultural community that is imperative to our world. We easily distance ourselves from the tactile reality of goods when we consume. A few hours in the sun with the sounds, smells and touch of the earth have priceless value.


What do you see?

Taking the opportunity to snap some images on the way to a meeting at VCU, I thought about what we see. As adults we filter much of what is presented in the visual spectrum- there is just too much competing for attention. I am amazed by how perceptive my children are, picking up the most minute shapes, objects and arrays. We should all look at bit more, I think. These are some of the things I saw on the way. What do you see?


Syracuse University Department of Design

I took a quick jaunt up to New York this week to visit some friends doing remarkable work shaping a vision for design education at Syracuse University. The facilities afford the tools, environment and culture of creativity and collaboration. The faculty and leadership are relentless creatives committed to the next generation of design leaders and the students are inquisitive, engaging and do some great work.

In my one hour talk- a combination of soapbox manifesto, call to action and invitation to greatness, the 70 or so students sat wide-eyed and engaged. One question to the group- do you consider yourselves leaders- yielded a nearly unanimous hands-up yes! I was beaming- my experience is that design students consider themselves followers rather than the emerging cultural leadership in the world. These guys are already there.

Keep your eyes on this school- with Lucinda, Jen, Ruth and Zeke building a vision, remarkable work will happen.