Five minutes with Jan Eumann
Jan Eumann, executive creative director at Wolff Olins in New York, chats with Transform about his favourite projects, his career abroad in Europe and the Middle East, and the three models which inform his design work.
Which of your previous Wolff Olins projects fills you with most pride, and why?
We do have some pretty exciting stuff in the works right now so my answer might be a bit different in six months’ time, but in regards to older projects, there’s a few I still hold in high regards for a few different reasons.
Zocdoc for fundamentally impacting how people access the incredibly fragmented — borderline broken — health system here in the US. And how we were able to push for an identity that is centered around empathy by quite literally putting a friendly face on healthcare.
We worked with another brand in the medical space, a biotech company called Sage Therapeutics. For them we created a brand that is focused on brain health and that allows them to speak to very dark topics — postpartum depression, major depression disorder, epilepsy — in an optimistic way without the cliches that are usually deployed in the space.
And last but not least the work we did for Google Workspace, and how we’ve helped them to shift a suite of disparate services into a seamless ecosystem that is used by billions of people every day.
Your career has also taken you to Dubai and London. How did the creative scene in Europe and the Middle East compare to New York?
Framing Europe as a single place here is probably false, similar to using Dubai as a proxy for the Middle East. Coming from Germany, you can’t deny that Berlin was able to shift from a subcultural creative hub to a grown-up creative center within Europe over the past decade or so, but in a similar fashion you still have a lot of creative heft in places like London, Amsterdam or even Zurich or Copenhagen. Living abroad now for 10 years I am probably missing some other important places (don’t be mad at me) with more niche scenes, but altogether I’d say that there’s a higher design literacy – especially in middle and northern Europe – compared to what we see here in the US. Design is an integral part to government services, city planning, product, etc. over there. In contrast to that though, I did experience a significantly more risk averse industry when working in branding back in Germany, quite a while ago. This is mostly speaking for the large industrial brands that my homeland is famous for.
My experience in Dubai was a stark contrast to the above. I worked there in 2012 and back then it felt like there was nothing you could even call a creative scene. Most larger branding companies did set up shop there to cash in on the emerging markets, but what we found at Wolff Olins was that it allowed us great access to India. However, the Middle East was not necessarily aligned with our aesthetical approach to brand and — even more challenging for us — that the role of brand was not seen as an opportunity to help businesses push society into the right direction.
I believe that this must have changed by now, at least in pockets. The biggest takeaway from all the above really is that we can’t design for a global market from our ivory towers without understanding the cultural and regional complexities of the markets the brands we create need to exist in.
You have worked with a wide variety of clients at Wolff Olins from Google to Grubhub. Does your model of how you approach work change based on the project?
I would say that that is the case, yes. The biggest variance I am seeing though is that you can probably categorize our clients into three groups that all require different approaches to the design process.
First, you have the legacy organizations, often slower moving, more fragmented, not really design-driven. These organizations — in most instances — still prefer a more traditional model of working through a brand challenge, in which we are seen as an agency partner that brings a fresh perspective and clearly consults and recommends. This means that our design process is a bit more hidden behind closed doors and that the client gets to see very tangible (rather than abstract) results throughout.
The second category are the tech companies or start-ups that have been around for maybe 10 years or more. Oftentimes these businesses understand the value of brand inside-out. They have incredibly strong brand design teams, product design teams, or both, and love to be brought along, to establish ownership through collaboration and to continuously check the work against everyday application, as real-time as possible. In these collaborations we create a very open process, allow for abstract conversations, invite opinions and work in a scrappy and fast fashion. What’s exciting here is that the work is co-owned from the get-go, but it’s requiring a lot of empathy and to strike the right balance between room for input and authoritative guidance.
The last category are founder-led businesses. In these organizations you find an almost cultish belief in the leader. Rightfully so, considering that everything we are supposed to redirect is very much the founder's baby. The biggest challenges we find here is access to the founders and then to establish the right engagement model, to bring them along, educate them, but also make them ultimately fall in love with the work.
It’s not easy, but then nothing ever really is. I think most people that have done this type of work for a hot second would agree if I’d state that at least half the job is selling work in. And in order to do that you have to deeply understand who you are talking to and why the work we do is meaningful to them and their organization.
Part of your role as executive creative director involves persuading clients to approve some of your more transformational ideas. Do you feel the branding world is currently open to taking creative risks, or instead is it in a more conservative phase?
I do believe we have passed a phase in which branding was significantly more tame than it ever was. The success of a lot of tech and their focus on streamlined interactions and interfaces played a big role in that in my opinion. Plus, a lot of these organizations are very research-driven which can easily resolve in designing for the lowest common denominator.
Over the last two years or so we are seeing a big shift back to being bolder, more emotional, more boundary-pushing. And even with some of the organizations mentioned above, we find we encounter more researchers that understand the value of the results they are getting without recommending them as the single decision-making tool in the process. That is refreshing and important, because we believe that some of the best brands out there aren’t just ‘fine’ but actually trigger opinions and lead to experiences that people can eventually fall in love with.
And then once in a while you encounter leaders that are insanely ambitious and that are up for altogether challenging what brand could even be or look like.
How has your thinking – and that of the wider design community – evolved over time with regards to fostering effective digital touchpoints for brands?
I don’t want to speak for the wider design community, but at Wolff Olins we believe that a brand expression is more than just a logo. It’s about being coherent but not consistent, it’s about a spirit rather than the perfectly-sized margins. I am not saying that craft doesn’t matter, but that the feeling of a brand is meaningful, and that this feeling should come through no matter what interactions you have with a company. In today’s world no brand is purely analog, if they want it or not.
Designing modern experiences means thinking in small and large surfaces, in motion, interaction, voice, and sound. It means creating brands that have flexibility to cater to a wide range of both functional and emotional needs of their, more often than not, incredibly complex audiences.
It’s an exciting time to do what we are doing.