At the risk of sounding highly Aristotelian, standards give us permission to meet the midpoints of radical extremes: one of ideals and goals; another of achievability and reason— things we must hold ourselves accountable to.
Standards allow us to set a universal language for everyone, from creatives to clients, and from brands to a nation.
Words by Lester Cruz
Illustration by Paolo Geronimo
As of this writing, there are two things that make me really proud of the Philippines (among many others): our mangoes, and this studio we built—Serious Studio®. The former is something you realize when you start eating mangoes from another country, but the latter is something we don’t easily grasp because of our inherent imposter syndrome, not just as creatives but as a national idiosyncrasy. Who knows, this must have unfortunately been something our collective unconscious has picked up after 350+ years of colonization.
We’d like to think our studio houses the best of the best in design and strategy, regardless of—and fortuitously because of—our different fields and experiences, from psychology majors to management creatives and more. This intersection of psychology, design, strategy, and stellar human intuition partly accounts for the recognizably good work we have pushed out as a small team. However, the reason for our success stories and little wins is not solely in our educational backgrounds nor is it the distinct character of the studio. What ties everything together is the set of the standards we’ve raised for ourselves. Good design, good brands, and good creatives arise from good standards.
Standards in Operations
We’ve spent months setting the right benchmarks on how long things take, including platforms that allow us to have a 360-degree level of transparency in how things should be designed and pitched. These systems aren’t meant to create what is perfect in terms of quality (nothing is perfect as quality is subjective). Instead, they warrant us to perfect our method of creating work on time without any compromise in quality. Finished is always better than perfect, but a guided set of standards of what you consider “finished” make up who you are as a brand or a creative.
These standards are simple. Does it make sense? Does it look good? There’s also the opposite to further guide you: Is this bullshit? Does this look like garbage? Whenever you are lost, remember the “Make Sense, Look Good” ethos, our studio’s ultimate truth.
Standards in Our Work
There is probably more than one way to make a brand look and be authentic. To some studios, this paradox sounds scary and extreme, but extremes lead us to eventually get to a standard that is humanely acceptable. Step back from what the client would normally need and slowly challenge yourselves to build things that are out of the ordinary brief. Show them what is good before they actually know it. Challenge yourselves to find the highest possible capability based on what cards you currently have.
A design team can be highly skilled in illustrating and making things “fun,” but it’s adding the left brain component of simplicity, composition, layout, typography that heightens the proficiency. This will justify the work to clients without designers even saying a word. And when clients do talk, “It just works” is the testament to that simple yet well-thought-of and effective design. On the other hand, while horror vacui is a cultural bias for us (and that’s okay), sometimes less is just simply more.
Let us make a conscious stand on making things simple without the cultural insecurity of it. The practice of deliberately stripping unnecessary details in our work makes us better designers. It is more courageous to leave space in a canvas than to obliterate it with unessential elements. The mix of our local design sensibilities with a basic foundation of minimalism and left brain design intricacies will allow us to create better work, and will allow us to be more deliberate in contrast to being lost and indecisive. We have to allow good design to breathe and show itself.
Standards in People
The people we allow ourselves to be with influence our perception of what is great. With this came the decision to stop hiring any more creatives as we want to hone only the best of the best. In our studio, every regularized employee has been thoroughly and deliberately decided upon. Your ability to raise your own standards and improve from what you were on day one to present will manifest.
Improving standards of what is good includes a standard for quality of life and work. With regards to the latter, this also gives you the responsibility to raise the standards for clients. In the studio, we strive to look for like-minded people who understand what it means when we say that people deserve nice things. To design is to reinvent the wheel for the better. Continue to look for clients or be clients who hold the same standards; clients who want to reinvent and uplift our quality of living as a country.
Standards in Our Nation
Standards may sound like it comes from a point of privilege. This isn’t to say we dream of a world where everyone wears Gucci or flies business class. Instead, standards are our way to weed out the bad from the good regardless of class. After standards are met, the aforementioned should be mere preferences.
Cases in point: humans from different professions making waves. Vegans and vegetarians have pushed the food and beverage industry to cater to their standards of health, ethics, and sustainability. Companies are slowly going plastic-free and carbon- neutral. Activists from all over the world have swayed their nation’s leaders to make significant changes that benefit the public good.
As designers, our job is to design brands, products, and experiences to a certain standard that is universally acceptable. To design for something lesser is a sin. Our geography, economic condition, and social class should not be hindrances for us to perceive what is generally and publicly good. This is what people hire us for, and should be our fuel for raising the bar for things, for the better. There’s this quote on AIGA’s Eye on Design and it reads, “Designers get so hyped on the fact that people are going to see their work. But the question is—are you influencing people in a meaningful way?”
Our local culture of complacency and unassertiveness upsets me as it leaves everyone with lower standards. You can see this in our everyday lives: a 2-hour shitshow called traffic, horrible “aspirational” brands (that term upsets me, too, but that is for another essay), ugly shoebox buildings that trash our skyline, below-service level agreement public transportation, un-walkable cities, among a plethora of others. These things lower the human condition, yet we are simply accepting of it. Culturally, complaining or calling someone out hurts peoples’ feelings and makes you an asshole. I feel that to live and let live, to not raise the bar is the decline of not just our creativity as designers but our decline as a nation. By designing and upholding our standards of how great our nation could be, we are holding everyone accountable for these standards to actually come to life.
Bringing this back to our role as designers, clients, and consumers, I believe our country could do better if we can all take part in helping. I would like to encourage you to call out what is garbage, to not coddle people despite the convenience of it. To get angry at our traffic is to ignite the fire that is our desire for a better human condition. To do the opposite is to let them win.
We want to be sticklers for design. With this standpoint, we find ourselves in the pursuit of what is beautifully and strategically designed; the highest possible standards we can set. This will attract like- minded people, and eventually will allow us to design a better nation with like-minded outliers. This is the future we envision not only for our own studio, but for the future and for the public good.
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