BrandExtract, LLC is an integrated branding and communications firm that guides growing companies by providing strategic branding solutions, marketing communications, advertising, print and interactive services.
AIGA Houston’s John Luu was able to stop by BrandExtract’s studio to speak with partners Jonathan Fisher, Guy Parker and Malcolm Wolter and senior designer Will Cunningham about their studio and the creative process at BrandExtract.
John Luu / How did you first get into design?
Jonathan Fisher / I grew up pursuing creative endeavors. I think I originally wanted to be a cartoonist but I did my first ” graphic design” project when I was eight, for a neighbor.
Guy Parker / What was the project?
JF / He was a dentist, I did a logo for his dental company, it was ridiculous at the time but you know, I got into it in high school, interned at agencies in high school, then went off to college. In college I figured out I wasn’t good enough to be a cartoonist so I chose to be a designer (laughs).
GP / I started oil and water color painting when I was eight years old. I always thought I was going to be an artist and then I realized that as an artist, the phrase “Starving Artist” is true. I heard that “there’s this thing called graphic design, where you actually get paid to do art”, so I went to college for that. I got a lot of grief from fellow artists and colleagues because the term they used for that was “prostituting my talent”. “You could have been a fine artist and a painter but no, you’re going to go to the dark side and prostitute your talent and get paid for it versus following the muse and the truth.” So thirty years later here we are.
Will Cunningham / Well I’ve always done creative stuff, always doing art growing up. I originally went to college (Texas Tech) to become an architect and about halfway through my first year I made friends with several people who were in the design program. Kind of realized that while architecture was really cool and that I loved the problem solving aspect of it, I was spending a lot more time on my lettering skills than I was on my drafting skills and I realized that there was something in the design part of it that appealed to me a lot more.
Malcolm Wolter / My story is all of the above. I wanted to be an illustrator when I was a kid. I used to draw pictures and sell photocopies of them in junior high for a quarter. So that’s how I started.
JF / Serial Entrepreneur here.
GP / Hey that’s like a pimp.
MW / No entrepreneur. I prefer the term “entrepreneur” and I am still one some 30 years later. So I did that, I really wanted to be an illustrator but discovered in college that I didn’t have the discipline to really be an illustrator. The kind of illustration I did was very complex and a lot of technique to it and a lot of practice so anyway I discovered that couldn’t do illustration probably to the level that I would like to be and actually I was in a life drawing class in college and one of my professors said “You know” because they were making us draw all of this abstract expressionistic stuff and we’d have a life drawing class but she wanted everything to be expressionistic with colors and you know. And I just wanted to learn how the draw the human form “correctly” and she wasn’t too interested in that so one time I was complaining about that to her and she told me “Well you know, maybe you should have went to a technical school instead of a liberal arts institution” and boy that really really burned me up. Any way I ended up in the graphic communications at Southwest Texas State, at the time, for the same reasons because I figured out I probably wouldn’t be able to make it.
MW / So I got my degree in Graphic Communications from Southwest Texas and that’s how I got started.
JF / So you have two Texas State guys and two Texas Tech guys in the room.
How did BrandExtract come to be?
JF / BrandExtract is a merger of two companies; Fischer Creative which I started in 1994, and in 2003, Bo, who is not here today, was a partner at Savage and had left Savage, Bo and I knew each other because we were both Tech Alumni and I had hired Bo early in his career to do project work for me and I always admired the work that Bo was doing when we were competing with Savage as a firm. After Bo left Savage in 2001 I approached him because I realized I didn’t want another competitor down the street and I didn’t want to compete with Bo. In 2003, He was going back to school to get his MBA at the time from Rice and was starting his business which was Kern Design at the time. Over the course of him getting his MBA during those two years he and I kept talking about what we wanted to do and how we wanted to do it and came to the conclusion that we were better off together than we were apart and so he moved in March of 2005, he graduated that May and in July we changed the name of Fischer Creative and Kern and formed this new venture, if you will, BrandExtract, because we didn’t want the legacy relationships or complications that come from having your name on the door. If it was my name on the door does it become Fisher & Bothe Creative then you add another partner and then you keep changing the name.
GP / Like a law firm…
JF / Yeah so we created the name BrandExtract in 05 and technically closed both of our old companies down to start this new company. So that is how BrandExtract came to be, BrandExtract was really a vision of what all of our former companies hadn’t, we thought, quite achieved. We all worked for other organizations, we all run our own businesses and we didn’t like necessarily what we had and thought we could do better and so BrandExtract is a result of us trying to do better.
WC / And you didn’t call it Fisher Bothe because it would have sounded like we made fish sticks.
JF / Yeah we ruled out over 500 names. Half were taken. The other half were crap so that left us with six. And in 06 about a year later we wanted to continue the growth process of adding core competencies and skill sets we didn’t have so that’s when we approached Malcolm and his partners at Bravo Zulu and we had worked with Bravo Zulu for about a decade and they were a webshop primarily, interactive was the bulk of their work and said, “Hey we’re doing this, we know you, you know us. We’re going to build this interactive piece to what we have and you can be a part of it.” They said yes and came aboard in 06 and the plan has been to continue to add those personalities and skill sets that we don’t have, and we did work on another acquisition but that didn’t happen in 07; two partners they couldn’t agree on what they wanted the name so we continued to look for talented agencies and people who can add something that we don’t have in the mix and that’s when we got to talking to Guy, Bo and I were teaching graduate classes at Texas State in 08-09 and Guy was in the class and he was in my class first and Bo’s class second and we were sharing a lot of what we do in that class and we’d go out after class and hang out with the professionals that were in this class because it was both students that had not worked yet, coming straight out of school and getting their Masters and professionals who were going back to school to get their masters it was a pretty diverse group of people so we would hang out with them and got to talking with Guy about things we were doing and where we were going and that conversation led to conversations about merging ParkerHayden into BrandExtract.
BrandExtract has a history of strategic partnerships and mergers, how do you manage to integrate and blend all of these creative cultures and work processes?
GP / Well part of the fact that a merger even takes place, is the result of those kind of things already being vetted out. People are already in the mindset of that open acceptance of new concepts. When the common theme is to grow your profession and to get better at what you are doing by bringing in other ideas, it already takes care of itself. The reason you may end up not merging with someone is that you can’t ever come to any kind of agreements and the parties at play are not open minded and in this case we’re all pretty passionate about what we do and we’re very talented but we’re also very open minded and have already gotten past the point of having egos involved and we’ve set that aside to learn from everybody. That’s what makes it work. Anybody want to add to that?
JF / It doesn’t hurt that this is our third merger now, we’re getting good at knowing what the traps are and where the opportunities are.
GP / We’re not newbies. I mean we’ve had partners before, we’ve had companies before, this is my seventh business venture. Whether I’ve started companies, lost companies, sold companies or merged them, you learn from all of those experiences. Hopefully by my age you start to learn how to do it right.
JF / Malcolm’s done the same thing. He’s had four companies, multiple partners, so you get good at knowing what works and what doesn’t work.
BrandExtract focuses exclusively on Brand Strategy can you give a little insight on your process?
MW / We have a diagram…
JF / We focus on building brands and helping companies grow. I would sum it up that way. The process is, at its core, to assess, manage and track, everything we do. We start from an operationally based brand assessment of any client that we’re working with. By that I mean we go in and do quantitative and qualitative survey work, as well as competitor analysis work, SWOTs, both on the marketplace and with direct and indirect competitors and we identify all of the touch points, we believe, are impacting that brand’s growth, many of which would have nothing to do with what a traditional creative agency would deliver, because we’re focusing on helping a company grow, not selling them advertising, or a nice brochure or a website. We go in with, what we believe, is a very neutral position in deciding what is the right communication channel or vehicle or the materials that they really need.
GP / We will even delve into the operational side of a company and it doesn’t have to be relegated to only the visual side of communication.
JF / It’s kind of a hybrid. We’re a hybrid between a management consulting firm and a marketing and advertising firm.
GP / At the end of that chain the goal is still the success of the client. We just don’t stop, like I said, with the visual communication. It’s how they answer the phones, it’s the people that they’re hiring in sales…
JF / …it could be their management structure, it could be their operational procedure, it could be their financing issues…
GP / …it could be their dress code, their ordering procedures, their inventory procedure,
JF / So we’ll work with them on a broad range of issues as well as their communications and marketing and showing them how all of these things are intimately connected.
How long have you been members of AIGA?
JF / BrandExtract has been members since it was formed, but the membership relationship goes back really far, I mean Bo’s been a member and past president.
WC / I’ve been a member for six years.
GP / I’ve been a member since 2000. That’s what my card says.
JF / Bo’s been a member since the late 90’s. I’d have to go back and look. I can’t tell you when I joined, I got out of school in the late 80’s so God know’s when I joined or whether my membership is current or not.
What do you get most out of AIGA?
GP / Peer interaction. Problem sharing. Years ago when I joined AIGA I realized, “Oh my God, I’m not the only person that has this problem in my business”. Especially when you started traveling and going to some of the national conventions, meeting people from all over the country you realize “Wow, holy shit, you have the same problems we do!” (laughter) and it was really an eye opening experience to find that.
WC / I was going to say the same thing; perspective. It’s great to be able to go to the leadership conference and be able to meet someone from Hawaii, they’re facing the same kinds of issues running a design based business. It’s nice to know you’re not alone out there and hearing how other people overcome those kinds of challenges.
JF / Also you get key inspiration from some of the presenters they bring in. I always walk away from those events feeling “I need to step up my game” (laughs)
What do you look for when looking at design portfolios?
GP / A lot of years ago dealing with a company like Aquent, I remember them sending me design portfolios, people coming in and finally I said to the lady “Look, you need to send me people with two portfolios” She said “What do you mean?” and I said “I want a designer with a design portfolio and a fine arts portfolio.” She goes “What do you mean?” I said ”I want someone that has, whether they are a painter or an illustrator or a sculptor or a photographer, I want a fine art portfolio with your design candidates” and she goes “Well no one has ever asked for that before.” I said “Fine. Don’t send me anybody then. If you want to work with me send me people with a fine arts portfolio and their design portfolio”.
She said “Oh no problem”. So a couple of weeks later they started sending designers in with two books. That’s just a little idiosyncrasy of mine, I want people that understand design problems and can solve those challenges, but also have a truly innate artistic background so there’s more depth to the solutions that they bring to these design problems.
JF / Will vets most of the books that come in though here.
WC / I would say it is kind of a dual thing. Talent is important, good work is important, having some understanding of technical skills and seeing that reflected in the work is important. I think what Bo always said is that “We don’t hire portfolios, we hire people” You can be the most talented designer in the world but if you’re a total asshole you won’t work out here simply because you have to be in front of clients, you have to know how to deal with people. All of that is just as critical as having a great book. If I sit down with someone that has a great book but they can also sit there and really talk effectively, why they did something a certain way and what the thought process was behind it, really engage me about it and be warm and approachable. That’s great.
JF / One thing he touched upon, when I’m looking at a book, I’m looking for strong concept first. You can teach creative but you usually can’t teach concept as easily as the technical, the creative, the general principles of design. You’re interviewing the person. Portfolio gets you in the door, it doesn’t get you hired. You have to have the soft skills to go with the book. You’re looking for a balance of the person you think can fit into the culture. And often I’m looking for somebody that brings something we don’t have or have not seen. Maybe it’s a certain style or a certain set of experiences or background, maybe they’re coming from a different part of the country…
GP / I mean there’s no reason for us to clone what we already have.
JF / We don’t want to hire designers that do exactly the same thing, we want to add to the stable of talent at the studio so you’re looking for somebody that comes with a very particular perspective to the way they solve problems creatively. I was just at the Art Institute two weeks ago looking at the student books over there and out of the twenty or more books that were there were only two in the room that really stood out. It wasn’t that the others were not talented designers it was just that the two really stood out because they had fresh perspectives on how they were solving problems and how and approach it creatively.
GP / I’m always looking for someone who is better than me. That’s the only way we get better, that’s the only way our firm gets better. Bringing in talent that is more talented than what we already have, that’s how we all get better.
Any additional advice for designers still in school?
GP / Change careers. I’m teasing. They have to be, we all end up talking to an awful lot of students. One of the things I tell students is that they need to develop that thick skin now while they are in school. I hear from some students that they do go through those harsh critique classes and presentations in school, which I think is much more common than it used to be. When you get out here, it’s not harsh, it’s brutal. Develop that thick skin while you’re still in school and in a safe haven. That’s safety. The only thing you risk in school is you might get a “C” or a “C+” but when you’re out in the real world, you might not have money to buy food that month or might not be able to put gas in your car. The consequences get dramatically different. I also want to make sure those students are very passionate, they’re just not in there because “I couldn’t decide between interior design or graphic design and my friends said I doodle really cool in my notebook so I went into graphic design“.
JF / It’s not good to come show your book and be ambivalent about what you want to do in your future. We’re not going to hire you, no matter how good you are, because we’re looking for somebody that wants the job. We’re looking for drive. Is this someone that’s going to bust their tail for me and help us get better or is this someone that’s going to sit and expect to be fed. So you looking for someone that’s looking to learn, looking to grow that looks at this as a profession and more than just a job and a paycheck. You get a lot of students that don’t know what they want, somehow they got through the program creatively.
MW / They have a sense of entitlement.
GP / That’s a whole other story there. We’ve literally had students sit on the other side of the table and say “Well I’m doing this untill my boyfriend gets out of medical school and well, I don’t know what I am going to do then.” I’m not going to hire you.
WC / Ever since I came here to work with Jon and Bo, they need to think about design as being bigger than just an aesthetic application. A lot of students are so focused on making things beautiful that they don’t really think what the purpose of the assignment was in the first place, what the problem they were trying to solve. I think that’s something they’ve always stressed, but it’s not, don’t get hung up on the color or the particular font you want to use or something like that. You have to be willing to take a step back and take a look at it in context of how this is going to fit in the world. Sometimes that means approaching it from a different perspective or a non-traditional manner, maybe it’s not supposed to be pretty.
GP / I usually go for the ugly concepts.
WC / Yeah we do.
GP / Another saying we have here is “Don’t fall in love with your ideas” Give it up. Unfortunately a lot of students do come out of school and they’re in love with their ideas. But even old guys like us fall into that trap. They’re just unwilling to give it up.
JF / I tell students to never apologize for their work. Students constantly walk in and say “Well you know my teacher made me do this” or it was a class project and they didn’t like what they did. If you don’t like it, change it. It’s not like you can’t go home on Saturday and redesign it and come back on Monday and show it to me. I tell them just because it’s in your portfolio, it’s your work. The school doesn’t own it anymore. Fix it. Don’t sit here and make excuses for your work. Take an extra weekend, take your three worst pieces out of your book and fix the three that are soft and then go job hunting.
It’s surprising to me just how many people will come in and make excuses for work that in their mind is not good enough. I don’t go to a client and show them work and sit across the table from them and apologize to them, that my work isn’t any good because I did not fix it and expect them to buy it. I don’t care that your teacher said to make it blue and you didn’t want to make it blue. You got the files. Go change it, make it red now.
GP / One of the things I tell students that are still in school. I usually end up meeting with student groups in January and they’re going to graduate in May. I tell them “You have 5 months until you graduate. Every weekend go home and pull out your portfolio. Take your top ten pieces and look at those ten pieces, are they all great? Can you make one of them better? Did you just do one this week that’s better than one of those ten? Flop it out and put in the new one. The following week do the same thing again. Pull your portfolio out every week. Can you make it better, because you are in a countdown until May when you graduate. Every week you have, every month you have, is a chance to make your book better.
JF / Every year when we’re judging books, one of the things I look for is range. In other words, do you just have logos and ads? Or do you have logos, ads, brochures, websites, billboards, email templates, whatever, I’m looking for a range of work because if they come here they’re gonna do everything. So if someone comes in here and all they’ve ever designed was three things in school you’re wondering whether or not they can wrap their heads around how to take this idea and extend it onto other vehicles. What I tell them is “This is a great ad. My advice to you is; you’ve already done the concept and the design, what I would do is take this ad campaign and figure out how to turn it into a billboard, figure out how to turn it into a few other pieces and to extend them out into full programs. That’s a great way to take a book that’s kind of weak and doesn’t have the range in it that it needs or doesn’t have the number of strong pieces in it that it needs. You take the pieces that are strong and extend them out. Because It’s easy to do one ad that’s good, it’s harder to do a series of ads that’s good. It’s more work, and it’s even harder to do a series of ads that work in multiple channels, doing electronic banners, doing an outdoor board of it. Do signage off of it or whatever it is so long as you take your idea and extend it out. A lot of schools, unfortunately do not do that with their students. They will have one program in their book if they are lucky and usually it’s in their senior year. They’ve spent the previous 3-4 years building up individual good ideas but in the real world we don’t create one ad for a client. It’s campaigns, it’s programs.
GP / And how does that extend to outdoors? How does that extend to a tv spot? A microsite or an email campaign? One of the biggest weaknesses I see with designers that come out of school is their web design.
JF / Yeah there’s not nearly enough interactive.
GP / They still live in that 2 dimensional print world.
JF / A lot of the professors, a lot of the schools, and I vehemently argue with a lot of the schools on this one subject, they spend way too much time trying to teach these kids how to build sites, so they spend the entire semester building this crappy little flash site because they want them to learn flash. I’m not hiring you to do Flash. I have developers that do this. I’m hiring you to be a designer. The schools argue that they are trying to expose the students to everything so that they can pick the path that they want and I get that, expose them to coding, but don’t kill an entire semester building a poorly designed five page Flash site. I’d rather see 3 homepage designs that are static than one poorly constructed flash site in your book. Because I’m not hiring you to build flash sites.
MW / I’ve found looking at interactive work, the thing I felt was most lacking was design principles and even things like typography was really really lacking in particular. Somebody can build a website but they weren’t doing anything interesting with it as far as type goes and in some cases just flat out design. Usability is a concern as well but that’s a whole other discipline.
WC / Something I wish they had focused on; I don’t think real web usability or information architecture was even really taught or practiced as a profession as I was graduating but I wished it had been because it’s one of those things where you learn about it and Malcolm’s been definitely the guy carrying the flag, running down the battlefield making sure we’re all always kind of thinking about things from that angle. My website skills would have been lightyears ahead if they had been teaching that at school. Nobody was concerned about usability it was “Go make this ball run across the screen”
MW / What I haven’t seen a lot of when I looked at student work was any sort of historical context to the work. I’d like to see a history of graphic design course so people can trends going back to when the printing press was invented all the way to today.
JF / UH teaches history, they have whole semesters dedicated to exploring various historical styles, Art Institute does the same thing. Every student has one or two pieces in their book about, like, Bauhaus style.
GP / Actually you’re right because at Texas State they had Art History but that was more Fine Art History. They didn’t have a class that was graphic design history.
MW / If anyone at Texas State reads this article I would love to teach a course in the History of Graphic Design. But usually when I look at books I looked at stuff that was real grungy and there wasn’t much of a range or any sense of historical awareness of styles or trends from the past that can be used for certain problem solving. Because if you had that kind of vocabulary that would be very useful and interesting. But I never see it, I always see just grungy design or real clean sophisticated type stuff.
GP / Grunge would be postmodernism.
JF / Most students do leave some kind of leave behind which is good because you get about a resume a day. That’s what comes through the studio. I think it helps to have something that distinguishes you after you’ve interviewed that you can remember their work by. That piece needs to be well designed too. Often they just clip their work together and they’ve missed an opportunity to showcase their creativity with that piece.
GP / They have to have a digital version of their portfolio. Even if it’s just a PDF, and they should have a website.
JF / The other big thing is that students often want to meet with you. I always tell students not to be discouraged if they can’t meet with you. It’s more important that they get their book in the studio and leave it there for a period of time because in a studio like ours you might have eight or nine people with the potential to review that book. If they push to meet with just one person, they’re giving up a lot of opportunity to have conversations and to learn. If you see a book that is sent to you and you like it, you will go out of your way to make sure when they pick that book up that you actually meet with that person. Most studios will give you some time 10-15 minutes at a minimum when you pick your book up. They’re not going to give you the full hour if they’re busy or if they’re not hiring at the moment so they’re not going to spend a lot of time because literally we could spend every day doing interviews if we wanted to because there are enough students out there calling you that you could do that so they need to be conscious of the studio’s perspective of the problem. Don’t be discouraged or take it as disrespect when the studio doesn’t give them the time of day or respond to their inquiries. People send me emails all of the time “I’m looking for a job” or “Looking for a job” and I don’t have time to send everyone a note back and personally seeing every book that comes in. So we divide that task up so in the studio Guy gets them, Will gets them, I will occasionally look at them. Because no one person can literally handle the amount of pressure that the studio typically gets. That’s something they should be conscious of.