Brand History of a Web Agency: Station Four 2007-2012
August 8th, 2012 by Chris Olberding
Clichés are clichés for a reason – they’re usually true. The old line among designers about how designing for yourself is a whole lot harder than doing work for your clients certainly proved true in the latest rebranding of Station Four.
The latest go around started with an intensive introspective gaze at ourselves and our company.
Station Four circa 2007: Inauspicious Beginnings
Where should I start? At the beginning of course!
In discussing the difficulties we faced and the approaches we took in the recent rebranding process, it will be helpful to provide the reader a history lesson and some context for our initial brand.
The Adventures of Chris & Chris – Pre-Station Four
In 2007, just before anyone suspected the economic disaster that was lurking right around the corner, Chris Lahey, the other founder of Station Four, and I were co-workers at a another web development company. The company was driven by an unknowledgeable and largely absent management team with a small group of salesmen that would have been a better fit on a car lot than in a board room discussing marketing strategies and development frameworks. Frustrated by working in a system that promoted sales commissions over happy clients and good work, Chris and I made a tenative plan to go out on our own in six months’ time.
I wish I could say that Chris and I spent the next six months working late into the evening, carefully drawing up budgets and marketing plans, learning the ins and outs of starting a small business, creating our company’s website, and padding our savings in preparation for the creation of Station Four – but I can’t.
At our jobs, the day after agreeing to a six-month timeline, we were forced to sit through a day of silly team building exercises and videos from the ’70s on working together. Immediately following this day long assault on my senses and intelligence, I resolved to quit immediately–plan be damned! Chris cautioned me to sleep on it. I took his advice and then, the next morning, gave my notice.
No clients, no money, no website, no problem!
So there I was, scarcely with more than a company name agreed upon and a little over a year of professional experience, a full-time employee of my own company; hooray. We didn’t have the money or work lined up for Chris to also hastily cut off his sole source of income. So in the early goings it was just me and my shared studio apartment…oh, and my cat (RIP Mr. Kitty).
As a firm specializing in web design and development, having a website ourselves seemed a fairly good choice as a starting point. Just a few problems–no logo, no clients, and no portfolio. After helping two other web dev firms get to the top of the search engines, I knew I could get us there, but as a completely new website and domain it would take some time. Our logo and first website were done over an exhausting weekend and deemed “good enough for now” as I moved on to search engine optimization and writing content…and then more content.
It begins with an…eh.
You can’t run from your past and, for better or for worse, unkerned Avenir and unoriginal borrowing of “web 2.0″ design sensibilities from the 2000s is part of it.
Station Four first brand assets – 2007
What our first website lacked in a cohesive direction or message was made up for in content and lots of it. Without much in the way of actual work to show potential clients, I thought at the time that visitors to our website would be interested in our business practices and philosophy, so I wrote a lot to that end.
Station Four’s first website – 2007
After a while, we did end up jettisoning the ill-conceived badge/button/square/mark thing in favor of minimalist sensibilities.
Business cards v2.0
Station Four 2.0 – Fast forward to ’09
Being a new design agency during the largest economic downturn since the Great Depression made for some lean times early on. I remember Chris and I watching Duce Bigalow 1 & 2 back to back on one particularly slow day. Nonetheless, Chris Lahey was able to quit his job and come on full time. We found a good deal on an office in San Marco through a family friend of Chris’, and we had a small but solid group of clients, including Underwood Jewelers, OE&S, Brandon Pest Control, and Jaycox-Reinel Architects, most of which we still work with today.
From the perspective of our visibility in the search engines, our first website was a success. In a relatively short amount of time, the site was coming up in the first couple listings for a handful of popular terms like “Jacksonville web design” and “Jacksonville web development.” However, the website was quickly designed and built around the fact that we had very little actual work to highlight. Over the course of a year and a half in business, this had changed. I set about adapting our current site to accommodate an increased focus on our work. In the end, all of my “minor” changes resulted in a wholly new design created from the top down. In retrospect, it would have made more sense to start from a blank slate and seriously evaluate a complete rebranding. By the time I came to this realization, it was too late, and we pushed forward launching the second incarnation of the website knowing that while it wasn’t perfect, it was an improvement.
Station Four Website v2.0 – April 2009
By all accounts the website was successful – improved search rankings, increased traffic, the bounce rate dropped into single digits, and most importantly a marked uptick in business. By mid-2009, we were looking to make our first hire and nervously hoist up the Damoclean sword that is employee payroll.
Rebranding Station Four – 2010
A year later, Station Four had grown to five full-time employees, had pulled in larger clients and projects, including a large project for the US Department of Defense, and won a national design competition. Winter is usually a slower time of the year and the time when I tend to push internal projects. Even though the winter of 2010 turned out to be pretty busy, that December we began an internal rebranding project.
Everyone at the company filled out a questionnaire that included questions about who we were as a company, who we wanted to be, how we were viewed externally, where we wanted to be in five years, and so on. Then, as a company, we discussed everyone’s answers and tried to distill the essence of where we saw Station Four going into a handful of simple concepts. Admittedly some of the questions were perhaps over the head of some of our newer employees, but I thought it was worthwhile to have everyone on board and to listen to differing opinions of the company. In the end, I’m not sure we were able to really get to the core of the matter; however, simply discussing these things helped center the conversation and focus everyone on the project.
For the next couple evenings, the other designers and I worked in silos putting together mood boards and doing exploratory sketching. At the beginning of each session, we’d present the work from the previous day and discuss. I encouraged the free flow of ideas and concepts between designers.
Logo exploration – December 2010
As you can see, we looked at a number of directions, including renaming the company to “Station Four Interactive” and relying more on “S4″ instead of “Station Four” than we had in the past.
To reiterate how I started this article, designing for yourself is hard. There are too many options, too many directions to explore. Through this process I made some decisions that would act as constraints:
- No name related imagery: Station Four, the name and word itself, is inherently meaningless (one day I’ll tell the story). There was no desire to strengthen the symbolism of the name by having, say, four areas of services or pushing some sort of fire station theme. Because of this, I felt we should avoid reinforcing the name with “station” imagery or including “four” elements in the design.
- No additional abstract imagery: With “Station Four” being an abstract concept, introducing another abstract symbol into the mix would likely only serve to cause confusion in the brand.
- Avoiding the addition of “interactive” to our name
- Increase usage of “S4″ in place of “Station Four” without completely abandoning the “Station Four” name.
- Colors and flexibility: The current brand used red/black/gray/white exclusively. Which I always felt was constraining. I wanted the new branding to accommodate a more vibrant color palette.
- Bold and stark: Our personality is more businesslike and serious than many other design-focused interactive agencies; the logo should reflect this and not be playful or cutesy.
Refining & Exploring
Based on our sketches and the above constraints, we agreed upon a heavy mark modified from Gotham’s “S” and “4″ letterforms. For the logotype, we used Proxima Nova, which is fairly similar to Gotham, and as far I can tell, since being added to Typekit, it has for better or worse become a lot more popular than it was when decided to use it.
Station Four’s New Logo – December 2010
Early on, I wanted the standard form of the mark to be black and then be able to introduce a wealth of color and complexity in the logo by using the mark as a mask.
In addition, I mocked up a handful of usage examples. On a side note, if anyone knows where I could get something along the lines of the notebooks below made for less than $50 a pop let me know.
New logo usage examples
We also considered using the black/red mark for standard uses while allowing for variation and silliness in other uses. We mocked up a bunch of possibilities for mini Moo Cards – the idea was that everyone at the company would come up with their own unique cards.
Mini Moo Card Concepts
Applying the Brand – Sorta
As I noted above, the winter of 2010 was unusually busy and unfortunately we weren’t able to apply as much follow through to the rebranding process as I had hoped. Client work beckoned and our focus followed.
This left us in an awkward situation. As a web agency, a true rebranding really needs to be reflected on the website. However, there was no way that a full redesign was going to happen any time soon. On the other hand, we had employees that needed business cards and specific needs to create project launch packets and sales materials. I made a decision that I would not recommend to any of our clients and began using the new brand and logo on an ad hoc basis, knowing that until the website was redesigned, the new brand really couldn’t be said to have been “launched.”
Over the course of the next six months, we redesigned our proposals, invoices, business cards, folders, and agency information packet first using Chaparral Pro as a secondary and body typeface before switching to Caecilia for the same purpose.
Various Brand Materials
Approaching the Website Redesign – July 2011
Eventually we turned our attention to redesigning the website and implementing the new brand there. I approached this effort similarly to the first rebranding efforts: we came together as a team, discussing what we wanted out of the website, and then each created exploratory designs to be reviewed as a group.
Some of my initial thoughts on the direction of the redesign:
- The initial and primary focus should be on the work. I believe examples of awesome work sell our agency better than any philosophy or clever slogan would. Also, images of websites and applications imply the nature of our business perhaps better than copy describing us as a “digital agency.”
- We work with some huge and recognizable companies. We should promote this.
- The site should be simplified. The v2 version has a ton of content, too much in fact. The content was not maintained well and contained a strange mix of marketing and non-marketing copy.
- De-emphasize focus on process, business practices, and philosophy. Trying to explain and sell to clients technical advantages like web standards and project management can be difficult. Probably up to 2008, many competitors were still coding in tables and few companies were pushing the “usability/users” message very hard. These days “web standards” are a given, everyone is a “usability expert,” and development methodologies are difficult and boring to explain. Going back to the first point, the emphasis should be on showing the work.
Initial Website Redesign Concepts
I’m not sure anyone on the team was blown away by the initial ideas presented. We ended up incorporating ideas across a number of the compositions.
S4 Redesign Composition: 2011
The design was fairly busy and incorporated hand drawn elements that were casually added even though the idea ran somewhat counter to our brand.
Bottom of the shelf when a user has scrolled down the page
Early 2012: Abandoning the Design
After agreeing upon a design, we once again were forced to focus on client work. With a small shop of five people, there’s not a lot of excess production to dedicate to internal projects when the projects are rolling in. So the going was slow. This gave us lot of time to stare and think about our design. In my experience, the longer I have to think about a design, the less I like it. In this case, I had entirely too long to think about the direction in which we were going. We designed the sub-sections of the site over and over again, running in circles, making changes that didn’t fit with changes in another section, changing the navigation dozens of times. All in all, we were a pretty awful client.
Sub-page Compositions: Unfortunately this is only a small selection of the variations we tried.
By February 2012, I officially scrapped the design and work on the redesign ceased.
Moving Forward: May 2012
Approaching the middle of 2012, I was acutely aware that our website was horribly outdated. I came back around to the earlier design and decided to move ahead. Even if I didn’t care for it, it was still a significant improvement over what we had. We took another pass, removed the hand-drawn illustration and 3D effects, then simplified the design, sitemap, and structure of the site.
Unfortunately, Caecilia is only available as a web font through fonts.com, which doesn’t have our other brand font, Proxima Nova, which is available on Typekit. Typekit has our original slab serif typeface, Chapparal Pro, but it looks a little wonky on the screen. We ended up using Arvo as our slab serif typeface on the web, which is available through Typekit.
S4 v3.0: Homepage
While simplifying the site structure, we’ve incorporated some very long, detailed pages. We use a sticky navigation on the top to help users while they’re browsing these pages.
S4 v3.0: Subpages
Lessons Learned & Next Steps
As we launch our website this month, we reach the culmination of an effort that spans over a year and a half–much longer than any of us would have thought or wanted. During a number of stages in the process, I pushed for inclusiveness, seeking direct involvement from everyone in the company. In retrospect, this potentially had a number of positive and negative impacts on the project:
- It gave everyone a stake and a say in the future of the company.
- It provided for a variety of viewpoints and opinions–analytically and creatively.
- In theory, should provide “employee buy-in” to the brand in the sense that they helped build it.
- It could cause resentment if an employee feels that their ideas weren’t used.
- It distributed authority and responsibility. Since everyone was participating, no individual should feel responsible for the eventual success or failure of the project. Additionally, work might get “mailed in” since it has a good chance of not being used “as is.”