Simon Endres on designing in an arms race of high-tech materials

The O’Reilly Design Podcast: The guiding light of strategy, designing Allbirds, and what makes the magic of a brand identity.

By Mary Treseler
February 16, 2017
Beacon. Beacon. (source: Pixabay)

In this week’s Design Podcast, I sit down with Simon Endres, creative director and partner at Red Antler. We talk about working from a single idea, how Red Antler is helping transform product categories, and the importance of having a point of view.

Here are some highlights from our conversation:

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Bringing the power of nature to the footwear industry

One of the founders of Allbirds, Tim Brown, is an ex-professional soccer player. Obviously, footwear was really big in what he was doing. He also went through design school in Cincinnati, but he was being sent shoes and taking a look at the landscape, and he realized that there’s no real innovation and thoughtfulness in the shoe category. There’s definitely technology and a lot of graphical doodads appearing on shoes, but no company has committed to real innovation to benefit the industry or the world, actually.

He was entering into the arms race of high-tech materials and new features. He was like, let’s strip everything back and create something that’s really elegantly uncomplicated, built around extreme comfort and versatility, and it’s made from New Zealand wool, Merino wool, which is incredibly durable and soft. What he wanted to do was hand us the power of what’s going on in nature and bring that to the footwear industry. That’s kind of the overarching mission. Then he connected with San Francisco native, Joey Zwillinger. Those two started the company, and I met them in New York for a meeting when they were looking for a company to work with.

They did a pre-launch on Kickstarter with a Merino wool runner. They got an outrageous response. They spent a lot of time trying to fulfill their orders. Through that learning and through that traction, they decided to double down and really create a business out of it. We were tasked, one, to build out the overarching brand and then build something that moved toward the launch of the Wool Runner, their first shoe. I think one challenge that they were coming to us with was how to bring a New Zealand sensibility without being a tourist postcard from New Zealand. That was really important: how do you translate that culture and the mindset and make it relevant for, initially, the American market?

Being here for a long time, I’ve worked through a lot of brands and communications and advertising, so I felt like I was well positioned to do that. Both my partners love New Zealand and they love Kiwis, so there’s a real empathy. We also really loved the mission to transform a category. I feel like with our experience with Casper, the mattress company, we really worked with them and helped them from the ground up to disrupt a really shitty industry, and there are obviously a lot more pain points in that industry. When we came on [with Allbirds], we were involved not so much in the industrial design of the shoe—a Kiwi guy named Jamie was working on that out of Auckland; he’s an amazing industrial designer who we’re continuing to work through now. We worked with him, we worked on naming, we worked through the strategic idea and brand identity.

The Red Antler strategy

We’re a strategically led company. Emily Heyward, one of the most brilliant people I’ve ever met that I have the pleasure to work with, leads strategy. She worked in bigger companies, doing on-the-ground research and groups across the country and the globe, really gaining insights from people and how they feel, what they think. That’s been a real core tenant, a pillar of our company. We use that as a way to help companies focus. They find it difficult to get clarity about that single thing they stand for and how to really express that single thing in a lot of different ways.

As a business, it’s very tough to have focus; what we do is bring a singular idea that everything we do ladders up to, and acts as that spinal through-line to, both the business and the work that we’re doing, so it all feels like it’s coming from the same place. In the end, we’re trying to create belief systems that feel unique and believable and cohesive and different. You can only do that through having something that’s singular.

I don’t think a solely mission-based brand is going to resonate and really engage people at the level that we really wanted. We wanted to ladder up to something, and this is a very Kiwi thing, the idea was like ‘get up and go’—no fuss, no bullshit, and just freedom. Flick your shoes on, get out the door and get going. To me, it’s all about movement and travel and an unfitted life and a sense of ease. The Kiwis have a saying: ‘She’ll be all right; just get on with it.’

Then we had other layers to the strategy. We have this big, singular idea that we constantly reference throughout the creative process. We have it up on our wall, we’re measuring the work against it, but we also build in other layers to the conceptual framework. In Allbirds’ case, we love this idea of curiosity. As a company, Allbirds is very curious about how to harness different materials from nature, how to make the industry better. From a design and brand identity perspective, we have photography and messaging and illustration that’s very weird and curious. People are moving off-frame or they’re moving in a very unusual pose. We have hands coming in from places and feet walking up stairs. All of these core ideas are great guiding lights for us as we continue to make things.

Having a point of view

I’m always looking for people who are great thinkers and also great doers. There are incredible design companies out there where the thinking is just incredible and sometimes academic, and the work is beautiful but somewhat abstract. For the kind of work we’re doing, we need to be making stuff and doing it strategically. I’m really looking for critical thinkers and people who are curious. We need to be very empathetic with our clients and also the users, so an emotional intelligence is necessary. I look for people who are good listeners but also can communicate clearly. I still want people who have a point of view—I really don’t want regurgitation of design blogs. I want people to get off their asses and their computers and get out there in the world, or look at other inspiration to feed into what we’re doing.

With that, I think having that point of view means you have to take risks. You have to be able to make those creative leaps into unexpected territory. For me, that’s where the magic comes. If there’s not that moment in the air that no one’s ever thought of, even yourself, then that’s what I think really makes the magic of a brand identity. Then, I wouldn’t say ego-less, because I think you need to have an ego, but I think someone who can work well on a team, working toward a common goal. We have sort of a no-asshole policy here at Red Antler. We’ve just got an incredible team because of it. There are some really great, hotshot designers that I’ve met and worked with, but, ultimately, they just didn’t stick around because we’re just not built like that. We don’t have a culture that enables that behavior.

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