The White Room
The White Room is competing for work in a tough and saturated market in Toronto. What sets you apart and what keeps your clients coming back?
Yes, Toronto is crammed with graphic design firms.
With an emphasis on art direction, TWR specializes in branding fashion, arts and culture. Our clients vary, but we have developed a following among artisans who have come to us by various routes. They typically approach us for help launching their new brand or growing their young company.
We feel that working with startups to build solid brands and touch every piece of collateral implemented is truly our specialty. Working with startups is a challenge. First, they have never worked with a graphic designer before. Second, funds are limited and may come from a single source of seed investors, a situation that can make some clients a bit anxious. Third, clients don’t always understand the process and so require a lot of hand holding and a lot more consultation.
Since most brands we work on take around 8-12 months to complete, we get to know the client very well and develop a tight bond. Clients know we are with them 100% of the way, listening and making them feel part of the creative process. Once the brand is launched and turns a profit, the referrals come naturally.
What people may not know about TWR is that we have a social conscience. 100% with our fashion-based clients and our main client, the One of a Kind Show, run mindful companies supporting the local entrepreneur.
How did you get to where you are? Were there any struggles along the way? How did you find making the transition from designer to partner/owner and the different nature of work that brings?
I was born in Warsaw and during my early years lived in communist Poland. That experience definitely impacted my entrepreneurial thirst and fire. Since no one in my family was an entrepreneur, I had to learn by myself. But my father, an amazing artist, painted every night after returning home from his factory job. My mother was always the brilliant crafts woman. Having supportive artistic parents was key.
After high school, I enrolled in U of T’s double degree Art and Art History program. I left after a year to enter Sheridan’s three-year Graphic Design program, from which I graduated in 2001. I then began working for myself right after graduation. I created my personal brand while teaching myself Flash and programming my own website from scratch. One of my professors asked me to design a book she was self-publishing and I soon had a few other projects. Aside from the small jobs, I also freelanced for a corporate design firm, The Cane Group, doing corporate branding/interactive work, and briefly with Fashion Magazine doing editorial.
At 22 I landed my first junior design position at Concrete where worked for a few months before moving on to work with Oxygen Design Agency. At Oxygen I worked on branding projects, retail campaigns and art directed photo shoots. After 5 years, I felt I had outgrown my position. I had new freelance projects landing on my lap and I took it as a sign that it was time to move on. Starting The White Room at 27 was difficult and I had to learn to wear many hats, but it was the best decision I ever made.
The studios work has quite a few clients in the fashion and style fields. Any particular reason why The White Room excels at this type of work? How did you develop your client list?
We took risks. We knew that, if we wanted to work in these industries, we would need to make financial sacrifices along the way. A lot of studios would not take this route and would envision making money instantly with bigger corporate clients.
I just wanted to do what I loved and not worry about the money as long as we could pay our bills. Fashion, photography and the arts are my passion. I was still young, had no children and could take the risk. Clients have always come to us from referrals and our client list has really grown organically.
Now, eight years later, we are attracting the luxury market with some of the projects we are designing and feel that luxury branding is another area of specialty.
The amount of planning and co-ordination behind some of these projects is immense. Hiring stylists, photographers, make-up artists … the list goes on and on. How do you deal with the practical side of some of this work? How rewarding is it on the day it all comes together?
It’s a lot of work. Producing a shoot is intense and making sure it all comes together after the client invests in the best production is key. We are now producing comparatively high-end shoots for our clients and working with the best in the industry. There was a point when I was thinking of becoming a photographer, so art direction is my outlet.
I love discovering new photographers / stylists / makeup artists… Every shoot is an opportunity to create a story onscreen that always tends to have a longer life span since it is generally an extension of the brand identity. Therefore, the branding we do for our clients usually rolls out into a photo shoot. It is important for the brand identity to have a visual presence as an extension of the brand.
Do you feel that The White Room has an underlining visual style? Is it something you are aware of? And do you feel perhaps it’s this style that draws in your fashion and lifestyle clients?
We like to produce timeless work. The brands we produce for our clients should last them forever and they should look equally modern 10+ years from now. We feel our brands convey a story. We love negative space and always keep Gestalt principles in mind when designing.
You also develop quite a few websites. How do you find the challenges working with a flexible and ever-changing platform as opposed to the static nature of print? Do you prefer one or the other? What opportunities do you see on the web for graphic designers?
I will always love print first, but the web is imperative for any project. All our clients now request online stores, the creation of which is a huge project all in itself. As a designer you wear many hats and understanding the online world is another important skill. Designing for online presence as an extension of the brand is another reason why we produce so many photo shoots. All our brands end up online as business-to-consumer vehicles or otherwise as marketing tools for the client’s business.
Online offers a wonderful opportunity to bring a brand to life and tell a story that a solo logo cannot tell. It is key in connecting a brand to its consumer, especially within the congested, competitive world of the web.
The real value that design studios can bring to the table for clients is design thinking and strategy. How do you present that when, for example, a client approaches you simply looking for a website? How does The White Room add value?
Strategy is imperative for the success of any brand. Understanding the client’s vision, goals and aspirations is key. We listen and observe, and like to ask abstract questions that can give us better insight into the client’s personality, resulting in stronger brands.
All our clients come to us wanting results in sales/profit. Our job is to determine the best direction for the brand or campaign, communicate the vision through strong typography, copy and visuals. A solid design firm will always design with strategy in mind. Unlike firms that call themselves “strategists” but do not have the sensitivity to implement design beautifully. We feel the results we bring to our clients combined with solid design is the reason we have a thriving business.
You may be surprised to hear this, but no client has ever come to us asking for just a website. Often the client asks for a rebrand but it is worded as: “Can your studio design my website?” Translation: Our brand is really awful and we need help with a new brand and a new website.
We have also named and created taglines for many clients, and we benefit from working with writers to help us articulate the tone/voice and copy for the brand.
You take on interns from all over the globe, as opposed to just Canada. Is there any particular thinking behind this decision? What is your impression of design education in Canada?
We receive many resumes from various young designers applying for an internship. From the options presented to us, we find that the overseas applicants generally have stronger portfolios and longer internships. It is nice to take on an intern who will be with you for 3-4 months at a time. We have recently had interns from France, Portugal, Sweden and Indonesia.
Talent truly depends on the individual designer. Drive and passion have no borders.
For young designers getting a start in the right agency can be tough. Any advice on what they should do to give themselves the best chance at a good career path?
Students are required to work on their portfolio after graduating. It is not enough to have a few pieces in your book shot from an interesting angle. Working on real projects is very important for the student to be able to include them in their portfolios. Also, showing printed samples/mockups of their work. I am always mystified at how students just walk into the interview with an iPad. I can’t see their type skills on a tablet nor really get a feel for the piece unless I can touch it with my hands. A student should obsess over their portfolio and resume. Love what you do!
What’s in the future for The White Room?
We are excited to have hired one of our interns from Strasbourg, France, who is joining us full time in the Fall. She is completing her masters in editorial from the prestigious Lycée Le Corbusier Design School. We look forward to growing our business, but at the same time, becoming just slightly larger since we will always see ourselves as being a boutique firm