Defining the Future of Place with a Rebrand

The story of a global design firm’s evolution.

Image courtesy of Sasaki.

Rebranding by committee sounds like a recipe for madness — and often can be — but for Sasaki, it was the only road we could have taken to arrive at the singular brand identity we revealed in the fall of 2016. It took 16 months from kickoff to launch because of the sheer complexity of the endeavor. For a design firm of 270 people, led by 30 principals, with offices in Boston, Mass. and Shanghai, a practice spanning the globe and eight core disciplines, over 60 years of history, it was no easy feat to collectively define ourselves and our future.

Many cooks make for a lively kitchen

While challenging, collaboratively re-defining our brand was in many ways the purest manifestation of who we are as a firm. Long before “multi-disciplinary practice” became a tired buzzword, we hung our hat on incorporating many differing voices; by now we are quite accustomed to the process of brainstorming, discussing, dissenting, building, and de-constructing together. Through this long-running experiment in multi-disciplinarity, we’ve learned that to reap the rewards of close collaboration, messiness is part of the bargain — and the magic.

Assembling the right team is crucial to the success of any rebrand. We paired a committed leadership group with a remarkable consultant team from Bruce Mau Design (BMD). Together, they took responsibility as drivers and guardians of the initiative. Involving many parties in a relatively flat organization runs the risk of landing on watered down ideas, but this steering group acted as chief editors to ensure that our brand conveys a strong point of view and retains a distinct voice.

Images courtesy of Sasaki.

Importantly, the whole firm trusted this Sasaki-BMD steering group to keep our many interests in mind. The Sasaki leaders involved were purposefully selected to represent firm diversity: landscape architects, planners, urban designers, architects, interior designers, civil engineers, graphic designers, data scientists, and operations functions were all involved. Tactically, it meant engaging many people through different avenues. We ran several half-day ideation workshops with leadership throughout the course of the project, enlisted sub-committees to review outputs, engaged individuals in writing exercises, held focus groups with clients and peers, and hosted all-firm town hall sessions in the belief that you never know where the best ideas will come from.

The idea that ultimately anchored us all was a belief in “the transformative power of place” to shape human experience — and it was derived from the collective. No matter the area of practice, this is a unifying belief and aspiration of all Sasaki designers. Born from many conversations and deep research, this idea above all others spurred an emotional connection that led many of us to immediately decide “it just feels right.” Just as we do our most powerful work when we craft a story that has emotional resonance for the people who inhabit the environments we create, the moment we landed on this resonant connection point was the moment we knew we were onto something authentic and singular.

Beyond a logo and colors

People often think choosing colors and designing the logo is the hardest part of rebranding, but with alignment on a positioning, you can orient away from superficial and subjective discussions around what “looks best”.  Alignment on the positioning held us accountable. For example, when it came to designing the logo, we chose ours because it best conveyed our story and our aspirations for the future: the colorful pieces of the new logo represent the full diversity of our firm and the custom font form conveys a forward-looking optimism that aligns with the central idea of defining the future of place.

Image courtesy of Sasaki.

In reality, the hardest part of rebranding lies in ensuring that it moves beyond just a logo change to become a unifying driver behind everything we say and do as a practice. The logo is the last stroke.

That passionate belief in our story became the inspiration to do all the hard, detailed, unglamorous, continuous work of ensuring we live up to the promises we make in our branding.

Living the brand within our walls

Sasaki’s branding effort was never about starting from scratch. It was instead an exercise in communication, to reframe and externalize what Sasaki has always been about. As designers of places, naturally one of the tangible ways we’re thinking about living the brand is in our physical environment. In my work as an architect, I am constantly thinking about the future of work and the spaces and places we will need to do new kinds of work. And in this rare instance, we have been able to think of ourselves as the client.

Image courtesy of Sasaki.

We have long embraced a complete open office plan without a single closed office at Sasaki. Everyone sits in the same type of desk, embedded with teams of professionals from every discipline and level. We’ve integrated maker culture into our office with a fabrication studio (FabLab) and even have a chicken coop and active garden for our people to get in touch with the urban agriculture practices we promote in our work with communities around the world. This has served us well as we took on the challenges clients have brought us. But the new brand sets our aspirations on new and different kinds of work we want to do that requires we re-think how we work together and the tools we need.

Image courtesy of Sasaki.

Moving forward, we’re sprinkling 3D printers throughout our office so that making can happen anytime, anywhere. Our FabLab may even expand and become more visible to the street and the rest of the office. We want to increasingly do away with designated work spaces to inspire those spontaneous connections to happen in communal areas. We wish to expand the idea of our outdoor deck into the interior space so that socialization and reprieve happens all year round. And because we have our branding as an anchor point, decisions around what to invest in become easier. It becomes a conversation around what physical interventions will best allow us to deliver on the transformative impact we promise our clients.

Image courtesy of Sasaki.

We have high aspirations for our space and our practice as both an engine for and embodiment of transformation. When clients, recruits, and employees walk through our doors we want them to see immediately what we know, which is that Sasaki is something a bit different. It should be apparent that this is a place where diverse minds convene, where we design with and for all kinds of people — that we are in the business of shaping a future that has no bounds. Cultivating that impression may start with the Sasaki sign on the door, but that is just the beginning. We will work on everything that follows in countless ways every day from here on out and that’s where it gets exciting.

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