From Hong Kong to Boulder: Jen Jones, Head of Brand Design at SRG

We sit at the intersection of innovation, strategy, and advertising, so our design thinking approach is infused into everything we do.

Jen Jones
Managing Director + Partner, Brand Design Sterling-Rice Group

Tell us about your position. What is your title and what do you do?

As the head of brand design at SRG, my job is to connect insights and strategy to the design, to bring the brand to life and create an engaging, immersive experience. I am always looking at how we can infuse meaning into design and asking what the emerging themes or trends are, and how these can be reinterpreted and expressed in a distinctive way. I try to inspire my teams to be curious, to be interested and interesting, to be both strategic and creative, to collaborate and experiment, and to have fun!   

 

How did you get into brand design?

I was always interested in art as a child. I always color-coded my closet, my crayons, even my bookshelf. My favorite quote is from Picasso: “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain one once you grow up.” In college, I moved from fine art into graphic design because being a designer seemed more appealing than being a starving artist and certainly more grown up! I started my career in Hong Kong, and it was fascinating as a designer to live in such a cross-cultural environment where there were influences from so many countries. I learned about the subtleties and nuances of color, symbolism, and iconography, which led to a lifelong interest in semiotics and how to bring that to life in a creative context. I believe that good design must have reason and rationale, while inspiring emotion and evoking meaning.

After five years of working in Asia, I moved to London, which was so different culturally but equally dynamic. The UK is really on the cutting edge of design, so it was very inspiring to be at the center of such a refined and design-centric ethos. After several years in London, I moved back to the U.S. to join Landor in San Francisco, where I transitioned into a design strategy role. I was fortunate to work on major global rebranding initiatives, including FedEx and Accenture, and meet many mentors who still inspire me today.

In 2002, I moved to Boulder. After living in such exciting cities, I was initially concerned about finding an agency that was global and sophisticated and was lucky to discover SRG, which is such a unique and diverse agency. Over the past 14 years, we have built a robust design practice, which complements and elevates our innovation and advertising practices.

 

Where do you find inspiration for your work?

Travel is a huge inspiration for me. I love living in Boulder and it is such a center for food (especially in the natural and organic category), but I need to escape the bubble and explore new cities where I can get out of my comfort zone and immerse myself in different cultures. I love the experience of being in a completely foreign environment where I can see things differently and get a fresh perspective, then take that vision back and apply it to a project. I always try to visit local markets, boutiques, and restaurants—wherever there is a confluence of food, people, and art, and where I can be exposed to different ingredients, languages, textiles, packaging, and crafts. I also enjoy museums of all types. I like to see how similar themes such as love, hate, sadness, fear have been reinterpreted by various artists.

 

In your opinion, what areas of brand design are often overlooked?

Brand design is as much about strategy as it is about creativity. Sometimes in creating a brand, the consumer, the competitive landscape, or the strategy itself can be overlooked or cast aside in the interest of someone’s personal aesthetic—the designer’s or the client’s. As an artist, you can create art for yourself. Art is a personal expression of your own feelings, desires, tensions, and experiences. As a designer, the challenge is to create an expression of the brand grounded in consumer insights, guided by the brand strategy, and ultimately with the goal of connecting with the consumer to incite trial and inspire loyalty. So, we have to be creative, but we have to create with our business hats on. We cannot be precious or egotistical because it’s not just about our own opinion or aesthetic. We also cannot always just fall back on our personal style. A designer must push past the expected, and sometimes this takes experimentation or taking an approach that might be contrary to our comfort zone to break through.

I also think simplicity is not so much overlooked, but very hard to achieve. Simple, elegant brand solutions can become denigrated with the desire to embellish and overexplain. The best designs in the world are the simplest expressions of the brand, but that takes discipline and a rigorous commitment to the purity of the strategic intent.

 

How do you approach brand design at Sterling-Rice Group? In your experience, does it range greatly from company-to-company?

At SRG we always start with insights—from the consumer, category, competition, and client. And we cannot forget the fifth C—culture. We do immersions to gain an understanding about what is happening in the world, what trends and shifts are driving consumer perceptions and shaping experiences in different markets. Our design team is involved in the research, so we can be inspired from the beginning, and we might pick up on design cues that a researcher or strategist may not. When we move into the strategy phase, designers are integrally involved. We have collaborative workshops with diverse teams and clients where we not only use storytelling to articulate the strategy and archetype, but we also bring the personality to life visually. From there we have a strong, clear verbal and visual brief that we have helped to define, so the design phase is very connected to the strategy and it is not a handoff. This foundation also helps us to evaluate the design work objectively and strategically, to create design solutions that can extend beyond a logo to become a cohesive and dynamic brand and truly connect with the target audience.

I do think the approach to design differs from company to company. Some firms are more design centric. At other companies, it is an offshoot, afterthought, or even outsourced. Some firms are more integrated than others, which I believe always contributes to a better solution. At SRG design is integrated into every practice area. We sit at the intersection of innovation, strategy, and advertising, so our design thinking approach is infused into everything we do.

 

What project or finished piece of work are you most proud of? Do you have any future developments in the works?

I am proud of the work we did on Cinnabon. It is always challenging to work on a well-known and beloved brand, so we had to protect the brand’s equity while evolving it to a more updated and relevant place. It was a logo project but extended to packaging and restaurant design, so it was a very comprehensive branding program. We started by identifying the core emotional drivers, which through consumer research we identified as belonging (nostalgia and comfort) combined with release (excitement and indulgence). Once we had the strategy and personality defined, we explored various logo evolutions. We retained key elements of the old mark, such as the dark blue and the uppercase white lettering, to maintain recognition. We replaced the old ribbon with a more elegant shape and a new font that feels distinctive and can be used consistently across all touchpoints.

While in Paris I was inspired by the many beautiful French patisseries, which managed to express indulgence without looking heavy or dated. We infused the store design with this feeling of freshness, incorporating light colors, patterned tile, and touches of light wood to invoke a more premium bakery experience. We also created a cohesive look and feel system, including lifestyle imagery, new product photography, custom typography, and playful messaging to engage the consumer. The new brand has been implemented globally and has been a great example of a successful rebrand.

We currently have several very exciting developments at SRG! For example, we are currently working on rebranding several restaurants, in addition to creating a brand for a totally new restaurant concept. We also have several projects in the works in the hospitality industry, which is an exciting confluence of food and beverage, service, technology, and design—the ultimate consumer experience.

 

What is your favorite design of all time?

It’s hard to name a favorite. It’s like naming which child is your favorite! I love working on restaurant design projects, like Cinnabon, Schlotzsky’s, and Moe’s Southwest Grill, because we can create a truly immersive, dimensional, and sensorial experience with multiple brand touchpoints. One of my favorite brand designs is the identity we created for the Almond Board of California, which is a global entity, so the logo had to work just as well in Asia and Europe as in the U.S. We conducted extensive exploratory research when developing the design strategy and ultimately created a cohesive and consistent identity system that can be tailored to different markets using the colors, imagery, and messages that have the most relevance and appeal in each culture. The letters C and A are integrated into the logo and form a “golden almond,” which is a perfect example of an elegant design solution. I love when a logo has a sense of discovery and a double meaning.