Oh, hello Joy! How are you? How's everything going? Very well thank you. 2017 was a landmark year for us at dn&co, so 2018 has a hard act to follow. So far, it’s keeping up. We have just launched our brand work for Isokon Plus, an iconic British furniture company and we are about to launch the repositioning and rebrand of one of London’s most interesting neighbourhoods. Not bad for the first three months.
dn&co refreshed brand for Isokon Plus, the iconic British Furniture Makers
Wow, not a bad start at all! So, for those Gluggers who’ve never heard of you: who are you, where are you from, and what do you do? I’m the co-founder of dn&co, a brand and design studio inspired by culture and place. I was born in Brazil to Argentinian parents and European grandparents, emigrated to the US in the 80s where I was educated, and lived briefly in Italy. I’ve now been in the UK for nearly 20 years, so it’s impossible to say where I’m actually from. One thing is clear though, each of those places is a part of who I am, and perhaps is why I am so interested in place branding. Brazilian and Californian modernism were major aesthetic influences!
I’m one of 22 of us in the dn&co studio, a diverse bunch of writers, strategists and graphic and digital designers. Our work centres on places — places to live, to work, museums, restaurants and neighbourhoods and towns — capturing their unique sense of purpose. My role is to drive ambition, ours and the client’s!
Amazing, what a journey! How did you end up doing what you’re doing now, then? What’s the back story? I started working during the dotcom boom, and my jump from equities finance to dotcom to design in the early years has fundamentally shaped my career – it gave me an insight into many different sectors and taught me that in life as at work, change is the only constant.
In 2006 I set up dn&co with Ben Dale — we used to run a sister design agency to Hayes Davidson, the architectural visualisation business. Looking back I am amazed Ben made the jump with me, he had a family and took a big risk, for which I will forever be grateful. He was the calm and the experience, and I was all shots from the hip.
What I’m most proud of though is that the story of dn&co is not about me or Ben, it’s about the ‘&co’ — the studio is a collaborative and friendly place where teamwork is fostered, nurtured and expected.
That's a wonderful sentiment, love the '&co' ethos. So, as a kid, did you always dream of working in the creative industry? Not exactly — but, I had hours of boredom and a butcher’s roll of paper, which were great tools for creativity. I also enjoyed spotting an opportunity and was always ready to work, never seeing it as a chore. At age 11 I knocked on my new next-door neighbours’ door, their moving van still in the driveway — I noticed they had 3 children and would need a babysitter. Around the same time, my mother was working closely with Walter Landor, the founder of Landor Associates, and later at Addison. I grew up surrounded by branding stories, but it wasn’t until much later that I would actually make it my career.
At 18 I wanted to give myself the best preparation for running a business, any business, so at university I studied business economics. I didn’t expect to work in the creative world, but in fact my degree has served me well in it — I can use creativity to solve real business problems and speak directly into the client’s business language. I also nurture a creative culture at dn&co while keeping an eye on the financial health of our business.
Sounds like the perfect mix for you then, that's great! Who would you say have had a significant influence on yourself and your work? I have been lucky with influencers.
At home, one grandmother had a PHD from Yale and the other a master’s art degree from Berkeley — one questioned everything (rather like clients) and the other taught me how to look at art. My mother was of the “superwoman working mother” tribe and taught me that nothing is impossible, and to have no fear.
At work, my first boss went on to run the Stanford endowment fund and grew it to some $25bn — from him I learned that to be successful you don’t need to be the biggest jerk in the room. He is still a friend today even though I was at the very bottom of the totem pole when we were colleagues — an incredible early influence on how to work with others. I also worked for a few Silicon Valley heroes and from them I learned that innovation often looks weird and scary, and that you must not be driven to the middle of the road by people who are afraid. Most of what I learned about running a design business came from observing Alan Davidson, my last actual boss and the brilliant founder of Hayes Davidson.
Most of my design opinions come from having sat next to Ben Dale for 14 years. He jokingly says that I have impeccable taste, but really it’s his incredible taste that I have assimilated. And if he’s reading this, he’ll be choking on his cafe piccolo.
I’m lucky too to have an ex-management consultant as a husband. Accurate to the point of being painful, he has a knack for providing the right insight at the right moment and anyone who has worked with me will have often heard me quoting him.
And last but not least, I am surrounded by a group of people at dn&co who are simply brilliant, for whom I have immense respect, and they influence me every day.
I think it’s important to cultivate mentor-friends to influence, nudge and challenge you ongoing. I have a few in my life I can rely on — working life would be very lonely without them.
I totally agree with this, certainly think it's super healthy to have mentor-friends who aren't afraid to tell you how it is, but then also help with support when needed. And, with your hand on your heart… Would you say you love what you do? What is the best part? Sometimes I tell friends to tell their kids not to work in the service industry! But in fact, I can’t think of a better job than the one I have. I like to solve problems with clients and then see those solutions live in the real world. I am competitive, so I enjoy the thrill of pitch wins. And I really enjoy the group of people I work with — if that changed then I might not love it any more.
Reveal campaign by dn&co for the V&A Museum in London
Awesome. So, in 10 years time, do you see yourself doing the same thing as you are today, or are you hoping to evolve into another practice or try another area of the creative industry? On a personal level, I can’t think of anything I would rather be doing in 10 years. There is still so much to do, and I am keeping myself inspired and motivated by experimenting with new business streams and helping bring passion projects into the studio. My role is over time gently shifting, with so many incredible people working at dn&co growing and leading projects, I can focus on ‘paying it forward’ and helping grow and evolve individual careers in the way many did for me along the way. In the more distant future, I would love to help agency founders solve problems and challenge them to go for more, perhaps as a non-exec on a few boards.
As a business, we have evolved so much over the last 10 years, I get lightheaded with daydreaming what we will be like in 10 more. Just in the last couple of years we have started to break into the culture sector, have become big on producing editorial, have created interesting apps, and have steadily built an expertise in signage and wayfinding — all which we will continue to solidify in addition to our core brand and design work.
If I had to predict change, I would say we will start to venture out of London more and more. London is the most amazing canvass for our work and we enjoy helping shape little pockets of it, but we have an adventurous team and I would see us looking to take what we’ve done here and apply it to other geographies.
There are some things we will never change though: we love intelligent strategy, and we love beautiful, rigorous design, no matter what or where a project is.
Identity for independent publishers Place Press by dn&co
Otl Aicher’s Isny book designed by dn&co for Place Press
If you were to give ‘your younger self’ some advice relating to the first couple of years in the industry, what would that be? Passion has an ugly alter ego, and I have over the years found it hard when clients take the easy street or aren’t ambitious. It’s taken me time to learn for myself what my mother has told me for decades: you get more bees with honey. I would tell my younger self that being feisty doesn’t get you anywhere good, and that listening and collaboration win the day.
Collaboration over competition is one of our mantras here at Glug, so we totally back you up on that one! If you’re having a bad day, or running low on inspiration, what would be your number 1 tip to back into the swing of things again? I wear a necklace that my friends had engraved with “keep your pecker up” – a gift because I say it so often. I owe that expression to my great grandfather. If I’m having a bad day, I remind myself that the tone of the studio is set from the top, that there are too many good things to achieve and to snap out of it. It is perhaps the most unkind and exhausting thing I do to myself, but also the fastest way to move forward. Exercise is a guaranteed chemical boost but requires at least a bit of organisation, so if I’m in the studio, clearing my desk is a good way to feel short term achievement and provides a clean slate for a new state of mind. Also, a good 20-minute TED talk is a sure way to jolt you out of a funk.
That's wonderful! Ok, so let’s go a bit dreamy, shall we? If you could swap job with –anyone- in the industry, who would this be and why? A junior designer. All the fun of the creative, light on responsibility, and the whole journey of a creative career ahead. Often creatives don’t appreciate that promotions up the ranks can mean getting further away from the ‘making’ side of the business.
Ah, love it! So, last but not least.... A few quickies:
Best book on creativity: The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand because Howard Roark is an individualistic modernist architect who refuses to conform to the establishment norms.
Best book on careers or business: Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don’t because “the true price of leadership is the willingness to place the needs of others above your own”.
Best website for inspiration: I find inspiration from a project’s strategic potential, so I prefer to read research on how the world is changing from the likes of https://www.thefuturelaboratory.com and https://www.pwc.co.uk. The design has to come from the strategy, not from what’s on blogs or pinterest.
Best portfolio you've seen lately: I think these folks are incredibly talented and their work regularly moves me https://www.studioswine.com
Best campaign I’ve seen lately: Nike’s Nothing Beats a Londoner. It’s brave and real and it’s a great example of understanding a place and its people.
A dream client: Sadiq Khan, Mayor of London. He has so much to do.
A dream employer: I don’t think about working anywhere else, but if I’m really dreaming, perhaps Barack Obama.
Best podcast I’ve listened to recently: A bit biased here, but, I’m loving Thought Starters, produced by my colleagues and recently featured in the Guardian as one to listen to.
Best piece of advice I’ve ever been given: If you’re not sure, sleep on it. Your brain solves a lot of problems overnight.
I’d like to see a profile on: Some new female design leaders that I haven’t heard of. There must be some great hidden ones out there.
This articles is part of our Glug Profiles series – a series of interviews aiming to highlight journeys and insights from creatives, makers, doers and cool cats from all walks of life in the creative industry, and the world. Get in touch with Malin if you'd like to take part: firstname.lastname@example.org