December 14, 2017

Notes On A House Style

My family and I enjoy many different types of music. As my son has gotten older and through school has begun playing an instrument—the trombone, if you’re curious—we’ve tried to use music performances as teachable moments for him.


We had the good fortune of recently attending a live performance of Irma Thomas, Blind Boys of Alabama and the Preservation Hall Legacy Quintet. It was an amazing, award-winning lineup. My wife and I have both seen Preservation Hall in different settings before, including New Orleans, but the rest of the bill was new to us.


With a traditional show, when there are different acts one will typically open for the next. There are intermissions between each act as instruments are cleared away and the stage is reconfigured and equipment is set-up and tested. Maybe a musician from one band will sit in for a song or two with the other. There are contained roles.


Not so with the bill that night. Each of the acts blended from one into the next. Musicians came and went, personnel rotated between different instruments and the tempo remained upbeat the whole night blending talent, humor and friendship. There were moments where everyone played as a group and also moments when each musician was provided a solo moment or two to shine.


While watching this seamless handoff between traditional New Orleans-style jazz, gospel and blues, it occurred to me that while all of these acts were known for a particular style of music, their real style was centered around excellent craft.


Similarly, there has been a fair amount of discussion about the merits of deep specialization within the design world and I think it stems from two external forces: perception and technology. Perception centers around the dreaded question of, “What is it that you do?”. That answer is then assessed within an increasingly granular and fragmented communications landscape caused by a proliferation of tools and platforms (“How do you do it?”). The resulting combination often prompts a creative person to throw their hands up and say, “Well, I can’t do everything!”. The cautious and comfortable path means a retreat to the familiar.


I understand but don’t agree.


When people ask me what I do, I see it as an opportunity to frame our approach at Fifth Letter around how I could help their business. I ask them what they do and, upon receiving an answer, ask what it is keeping them up at night. If we can legitimately help them solve their problem, I’ll explain how and why. At that point, as far as the prospect is concerned, I am a specialist. I’ve provided an answer centered around their challenge.


Imagine a painter who only buys one color of paint, maybe two. Let’s say blue and yellow. While they can likely produce some very interesting work ranging from blue to yellow with all flavors of green in between, they can never use a fiery orange when appropriate. I suppose they could stick to subject matter that avoids the potential use of warm colors, but why limit your thinking or output? Sometimes being more of a generalist doesn’t mean a lack of focus. It means a more broad palette of experiences focused around shaping your approach to a challenge.


This was what I witnessed onstage. The musicians rotated between different instruments. The bass player began by playing an electric piano. The trumpet and trombone players were also singing. Their love for music in its different forms was obvious. And that love allowed them to broaden their reach beyond what they were strictly known for and grow their circle of friends. And their opportunities.


A firm I’ve long admired (and that we’ve had the opportunity to collaborate with) is Pentagram. They are arguably the most successful independent design firm in the world and are now entering their third generation of leadership. When I review their body of work spanning multiple designers, disciplines and eras, there is a thread running through all the work: It feels smart. It feels right. This is their house style. Not logos, the color red or anything else.


Excellent craft. Smart thinking. Just like music, both of these notions have universal appeal. Everyone just gets it. There’s cross-pollination. Mutual appreciation. Inspiration. And a push to do your best.


That’s our “house style” here at Fifth Letter. What’s yours?

Photo of Elliot Strunk

When not asking his son to play trombone, Elliot Strunk is conducting the house band here at Fifth Letter. Ask him how you can be part of one of our jam sessions at