Graphic Designer Charles Draper on how brands are like JPEG files, and how to avoid falling into the trap of creating ‘design for the sake of design’
This year’s PSFK series highlighting alumni of the School of Visual Arts (SVA) Masters in Branding Program continues with Charles “CJ” Draper, a graphic designer specializing in the arenas of identity and brand strategy, and who is currently working alongside the talented folks at jones knowles ritchie (JKR). In his interview with PSFK, Draper equates the process of branding to JPEG degradation. Though a brand’s message can blur and pixelate with time, an exceptional designer can work against it by understanding how businesses operate in order to form a cohesive and longstanding brand.
SVA’s Masters in Branding program allows students to create frameworks to guide brand, design and business development, critically evaluate brand, business, marketing and design strategies and master the intellectual link between leadership and creativity.
What made you decide to enroll in the Master’s in Branding program?
I grew up near Chicago, and when I moved to New York on I was jobless with $200 and two Visa Gift Cards to my name. I took an unpaid internship at a small agency, and to say that I stretched those gift cards would be an egregious understatement. Within two years, I had worked my way up to senior designer at the same agency.
But I found myself at a crossroads, both professionally and emotionally. Professionally, I had stopped feeling excited to go to work each day. I was doing mostly visual identities for restaurants and food and beverage startups, and I’d begun to feel like I was creating someone else’s ideas rather than pushing my own. Emotionally, I was missing my friends and family in Chicago.
I started to apply to all kinds of different agency jobs, looking for any kind of sign that I should stay in New York. I didn’t hear back from a single one. During my search, I came across an ad for the program on The Dieline and I decided that if I applied and didn’t get accepted, it was the universe’s way of telling me to go back to Chicago. I was placed on the waitlist (nice job, universe), but was eventually accepted. Now, it feels like I was destined to stay in New York, where I would gain new friends, a professional network, and the education I was searching for at SVA.
How did your past design skills and thinking benefit from a brand strategy education? Any recent example where the skills you obtained proved to have a direct and positive impact on a client project?
I received my undergraduate degree in Arts Technology and Graphic Design from Illinois State University. I learned the fundamental skills needed quickly but I also thoroughly enjoyed the process of working and creating digital art. Before the program, I was at a point in my career where I had the technical skill to create meaningful work as well as the ability to develop an aesthetic taste, but doing just design felt shallow.
Some of my favorite courses at ISU were my art history courses. I loved the idea of discovering the meaning and the thoughtfulness that went into each piece of art. Adding brand strategy to my toolkit has allowed me to contribute meaning and thoughtfulness to my work in a way I couldn’t have before; I’m equipped to make a brand not only look good, but also function and endure in the real world.
I’m currently working at jones knowles ritchie here in New York and I’ve been assigned to a very large corporate project with several layers of complexity. Briefs include a corporation’s brand guidelines, but the complexity exists in the hierarchies: sub brands in various zones, distinct countries within the zones, departments within the countries. I’ve found that I’m much better equipped to understand business structure than I was before the branding program. I could always design whatever I was told to, but now I can better understand how a company works, how to efficiently display information, offer suggestions to make it better, and create a system that hundreds of people can use without breaking, creating a sort of brand solidarity.
How do you identify the places where a brand needs identity and branding work? Are they always instantly apparent? Does it always need to be a complete design overhaul?
I’ve found that brands are sort of like JPEG image files.
Every time you save a JPEG, the quality degrades just a bit. Your message is there, but everything begins to get a little more pixelated and blurry. Every so often, you have to go in and freshen it up a tad.
That being said, I think a complete design overhaul is pretty rare, especially with larger or older brands. Unless I’m working with a young brand that is adventurous, I think finding some sort of equity to carry through the brand is important. Without that equity, it’s just design for the sake of design.
What is your process like when determining those places that need work?
First and foremost, I dig into the brand’s history. Some questions I might ask: What has the brand been doing in the past year versus 30 years ago or versus 100 years ago? Has anything remained consistent? Has anything radically changed? Was there a reason for that change?
I think there’s merit in this type of due diligence to determine which brand equities to amplify in simple iconic ways. That’s what attracted me to JKR the most. Their recent work for Budweiser is a phenomenal example because JKR has taken years of history and pieced together equities that haven’t changed along with some things that have been added on along the way, and cleanly applied them to every touch point to create a cohesive brand.
If you had to offer one key piece of advice to interested applicants, what would it be?
How about three pieces of advice?
First: Be ready to work. A lot. I would be lying if I said it were easy, but if I survived while working full-time, you can too.
Second: Be tenacious. Ask questions. Be bold. There are tons of opportunities to seize, I suggest you take them.
Third: Be yourself, and don’t stress about the talent of your peers. Other people will be amazingly talented at something that you wish you were better at. Try and absorb as much as you can from them, but remember that you have a talent that someone else wants too. Take it as an opportunity to figure out your own equities, the things that make you valuable.