• Transform magazine
  • April 14, 2021

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Postcard from San Francisco

Postcard from SF_March 2021

Adam Weiss, founder and creative Director of San Francisco-based design agency Landscape, spoke to Transform magazine about what makes the branding industry in San Francisco unique and different from other big cities in the U.S., if the East-West 'dual city approach' is here to stay, and how the agency works within the tech-ridden Silicon Valley.

How much of your work with brands is informed by the fact you’re based in San Francisco?

Tinker Hatfield (famed Nike designer) in an interview once said something along the lines of, “your perspective is a culmination of all of your experiences to date.” I was born in San Francisco, have spent nearly 30 years of my life here, and the studio has been headquartered here for nearly a decade. Thus, I have no doubt that it’s playing a role…that said, when we create brands, we’re shaping an experience to support our client’s vision. That vision is likely being manifested for a particular audience, and serving a particular set of business objectives, all the while, existing in a particular context. We’re never attempting to impose our style on a client. Additionally, our team is predominantly not from San Francisco. We have team members from Germany, Jakarta, Seattle, Atlanta, Ohio, and even one living in New Zealand at the moment! 

Probably 60% of our clients are based in SF and they do tend to share some traits. Many being organizations that are quite progressive and often need to convey new ideas to both very forward-looking clientele and satisfy a more conservative audience. At the same time, we have at least two ongoing relationships in New York, one in both Boston and North Carolina, and just last week were chatting with a prospective client in Japan. 

I think it’s more likely that our team’s cumulative experiences inform how we work and the perspectives available to us readily. To attempt to offset our own biases (conscious or unconscious), we have fairly structured research and strategy processes.

What makes the branding industry in San Francisco unique and different from other big cities in the U.S., particularly those in the East coast?

Two thoughts here. First, at any design studio — the team is the work. While just a personal observation, perhaps San Francisco attracts people that appreciate balance. People who like to get outdoors, enjoy great food, appreciate the cultural activity — things the geography of San Francisco can offer. Moreover, because historically it’s been such an expensive city, these people are putting those experiences and quality of life over material needs… If you’re working at a big tech company in SF you’re likely cashing a huge check, less so at a design studio. And while I’d like to think we compensate people competitively, I think they’re at Landscape and in San Francisco for the balance. 

Second, while the tech industry in San Francisco isn’t perfect – it does attract a broad range of entrepreneurs working on incredibly ambitious projects. It’s not an exaggeration to say that nearly every client we work with is introducing us to a service or technology or an approach that we’ve never seen before. Not only is this super inspiring, but it means our perspective on the world is broadened by this exposure. Our client meetings in a way become mini-lecture-series with some of the smartest people in the world. All that said, we have clients on the East Coast that are just as progressive. Additionally, I think clients are seeking out creative partners based on fit, not geography, a trend only accelerated during the pandemic. 

In the past years, many agencies have adopted a dual city approach, basing offices in both the East and West coast. Do you think many will drop this approach and indefinitely move to the West Coast?

I think studios will become more distributed than ever. There is a huge upside to fostering communities in multiple geographies and a similarly huge opportunity to employ a diverse team composed of contributors located from all over the world. If you can choose from a global talent pool rather than a local one – why wouldn’t you? Moreover, if you can offer your team their ideal lifestyle (including climate of choice) why not? I did not always believe this to be the case however, but with the introduction of really good cloud-based collaboration tools – a lot has changed. One note is that our team had worked together for years prior to going remote during the pandemic. Thus, we had a pre-existing rapport, trust, and respect for one another that’s undoubtedly helped us be successful in our transition to remote working. I do think that real-time collaboration, virtual or not, is still essential. Our general working hours are the same, based on PST, and everyone is expected to be available for work sessions for a good portion of the day. However, we’re accustomed to working with specialists globally and will continue to embrace that. There are of course constraints to the production of content based on geography – but I think we’re already seeing that change too.

In the past few years, San Francisco, and the wider Silicon Valley has become the world’s tech hub. How does Landscape strike a balance between embracing tech-based projects and others?

We work pretty fluidly across sectors and 99% of our work is in-bound from prospective clients who are intrigued by our work-to-date or referred to us by one of our existing clients. From science and tech, to social and environmental, to arts and cultural projects, we really enjoy the diversity, believe we’re more informed because of it, and aim to produce work that serves the needs of our clients specifically. 

We’re most interested in collaborations with clients who are serving the social good, tech-based or otherwise. That positive influence might be direct, through something like the creation of more inclusive and accessible housing, by our client The Kelsey or it might be an organization like Tom Claxton’s Claxton Projects, a renowned photography management company who is fostering the influence of fine art at scale via collaborations with incredible photographers and big brands.

Regardless of the potential dissonance created between ‘non-tech’ and ‘tech-based’ experiences, the two are connected and will continue to become more-so over time. As we as a society become better designers, more thoughtful in the application of tech (read: tools), that dissonance will fade and I’m optimistic that the outcome will be better experiences distributed more equitably. Because all these projects exist in a modern world, we embrace the potential that one may inform the other.

In an effort to further leverage our resources and skills for the greater good we tend to be engaged in at least 1-2 pro-bono projects at a given time. These efforts often break away from the more expected design-buyers in San Francisco and engage our community in really exciting and fulfilling ways. Two such examples – we’re working with artist Hunter Longe on his new book, and with Dewitt Lacy on a digital platform related to democratizing the understanding of civil rights in the US.    

How do you make your branding work relevant for the very diverse audience that makes up San Francisco’s population?

Rarely is our audience only San Francisco, however, designing for diverse audiences is a challenge we’re familiar with. There are two sides to a brand experience – what the brand offers and who values that offering. Thus, understanding how these offerings might influence the lives of the recipients is critical. We often work with our clients to understand and define personas for their communities (regardless of breadth) and taxonomies for their services. By better understanding how the two map against one another you can then begin to craft a more relevant brand narrative and then manifest that story in strategic moments during the relationship. One such example was a recent rebrand we created for Curative, a prominent COVID-19 testing and vaccine distribution company processing nearly 10% of the testing across the U.S. In this instance, we worked with their team to understand the shared psychological drivers that influenced the perceptions of COVID testing and thereby made a hugely diverse audience (the entire adult population of the United States) more manageable from a strategy and communications perspective.

Even our work locally with San Francisco Design Week is designed to engage a global audience, designers and non-designers alike. Here, the narrative is often as open-ended as the definition of ‘design’ is broad. A chance to become inspired, learn, and continue our collective journey…