Dava Guthmiller on the industry "boys' club" mentality, and why the best portfolio projects are the boring ones
Apparently, founder and chief creative officer of San Francisco branding firm Noise 13 Dava Guthmiller discovered her love for design washing car parts.
Growing up, she'd help out in her dad's auto repair shop and join him at Hot Rod swap meets. A few years later, she found another passion—wine labels—and the two combined in her fascination with graphics and led her to found the agency pretty much as soon as she finished college.
It's fitting, then, that Noise 13's clients include Uber, Paso Robles wine country and Wine Country Botanicals. The agency has now been around for 20 years and has picked up a tonne of awards along the way for projects including booze packaging and cannabis branding.
Marking two decades in the industry, we had a chat with Guthmiller about the ins and outs of running an agency, her project highlights, how the design industry can work towards genuine equality and more.
How far do you think the design industry has progressed since you started in terms of gender equality?
I started in the design industry in the late '90s when almost all of the agency owners, teachers etc., were male. Design and branding took cues from advertising and that "boys club" mentality. Today I see more and more women and non-binary people joining the industry at the collegiate level as students are a majority female. But leadership is still primarily male. This is the same across most industries. It's getting better for sure, but if we have over 70% of females in the classes, we can do better promoting those voices to the top.
I have been surrounded by women on my own team, and I network with other female founders, so my space feels different than reality. Three of five of our creative directors have been female, and over 70% of my employees have been female over the last 21 years. Maybe that's who I attract, but it's for sure who I support and promote. Even through In/Visible Talks, we make a concerted effort to get diversity (and a lot of women) on our stage.
I hope that we are all providing more access to design industries, and places in leadership, for the full range of diversity that makes the world a better place. If we are not bringing these diverse minds (across gender, ethnicity and more) to the work, then we are not able to answer the needs of these audiences.
What advice would you give to women starting up their own agencies?
Most of my advice would be the same to anyone starting their own agency. Firstly, it's all about who you know – use your network. You will find your best consumers via referrals from those that know you best. Then, embrace change, even plan for it. Between the economy; quick changes in the design industry; team dynamic; and now pandemics and politics, you have to get used to rolling with change and be flexible enough to adjust quickly.
What else? Don't just watch your numbers, understand them. It's great to set goals, but you really need to understand what those numbers mean for your business. When is it ok to make less profit to invest in the future?
Also, delegate! Even if you can do it all, it doesn't mean you should. Women are the worst at this because we are actually great multitaskers. Hire great people and let them do their jobs.
And take care of yourself, or you won't be able to take care of others. This means managing stress and keeping yourself healthy and energised. If you are a mess, then there is no way you can support your team or your customers.
Finally, trust your strong feminine instincts. Most women have a crazy good sense of intuition, but they don't always listen. Once you have set your values as a company and a leader, use those both in how you hire and who you choose to work with. Pair that with intuition, and you will keep yourself out of too many bad business relationships.
Which Noise 13 projects are you most proud of and why?
I'm most proud of projects where we have a positive impact both internally for our team, for our clients, and to the people that brand connects with. One that comes to mind is the brand refresh of World Wrapps. This project benefited our team as we were training a senior designer as a creative director. It brought our team together as we had the budget to put more designers on the project together, and we set up a new review process for the whole team to be engaged in reviews.
Since the original owners of the restaurant chain had just bought the company back, we were able to pull from their long-standing passion for the strategy and messaging. And since this was a beloved Bay Area establishment, we were able to breathe life back into something that consumers missed without losing its soul. Of course, the design is super fun! We crafted a set of marks for the main flavours and sauces that were reminiscent of street foods for a pattern used on the wraps. We used a graphic of the sliced wrap to make the W mark, and we applied the mark as a stamp similar to the one you get in your passport when you travel.
Working on everything from the brand strategy and message to the identity, store graphic, food packs and uniforms made this brand really come to life and created a system for their growth as they started to open more locations again.
How do you overcome more challenging briefs or projects?
Almost every project that is negatively challenging is for the same reason [as it would be positively challenging]—the client does not value or trust us as a partner to their brand. When you hire someone, be it staff, a consultant or any business partnership, there must be trust in that relationship and an understanding of the value you are BOTH bringing to the work. When that trust is not there or break down, you need to take a step back, pause and rest or end that situation altogether.
Sometimes all it takes is an honest conversation about each side's needs and goals. Other times it’s best just to let it go. I have had to do both of these over the years, and the letting go is always hard. But I take our work really seriously as a partner to the brand and people we work with. We want people to succeed, and if we can't do that together, it's time to move on.
Why's the agency called Noise 13?
When I started the company, we had a lot of restaurant and nightclub clients, but we were also tackling internet startups who needed to go big, fast. They wanted their brands to stand out, make noise. Ideally, we would have just called it Noise but couldn’t get the .com and back then you needed your name directly as your URL. So, we added the 13 since our office was on the 13th floor – but it's also a lucky number for me.
If newer designers or grads come looking for placements or employment with you, what makes a portfolio and person stand out?
We see a lot of portfolios from new/junior designers, and the outstanding ones usually share a couple of things in common. To start with, there are always "deep design systems". At least 50% of the junior-level portfolios that we get are still filled with one-off logos, one-off packaging solutions, one-off posters and one-off apps. A brand is the sum of its parts, and a great design solution needs to work on all of those parts. The portfolios that show this always end up on top for us.
Then what about great work for non-sexy or non-fun products? Sure it's exciting to design for an artisan ice cream brand, but it is way more impressive to see great, memorable work for a quick-setting concrete mix.
Lastly, if you take the time to write a cover letter, we'll definitely read it. Sadly, the vast majority of these letters are void of any personality, charm, surprise or wit. You're applying to work at a design firm, not a law firm. Have a little fun! Also, design is not just visuals: words matter, choose them wisely.
The agency's been going for 20 years now – what do you hope for the next 20 years?
We have quietly been pushing for more sustainability in our work and in how we approach design with our clients for many years. Recently we've been seeking more ways that brands can embrace equity, transparency and generally doing good by doing good. Internally we research sustainable printing and packaging options and watch the space for alternative materials. We have updated our diversity and inclusion goals in our hiring practices and our mentorship roles. We are asking deeper questions, and working on strategies for our clients around how they authentically add sustainability and equity to their brands.
Our goal is to both work with the brands that are already great things for the planet and people, and those that want to get there. If we all take steps in the right direction, we can make a massive change. We can't just rely on the big guys to push the needle; it will take everyone to change things for a better future.
So 20 years from now, I want to look back and see the brands that we have brought along for the ride. I'd love to see a portfolio full of brands that are making a difference in the world, even in small ways. I would also love for Noise 13 to have our own brands or to be more vested in those brands we support. We do this now, but even three years from now I'd love this to be a bigger part of our process.
Since the BLM protests this summer, there's been an increased discussion around the inequalities in the design industry. What steps can design agencies take to improve things in that respect, and what do you hope will change for the better in the future?
We need to be more inclusive in our processes, strategy and thinking by including those we impact by making it a "design with process" vs a "design for". From doing more qualitative research to adding people on the team, even as consultants, front the target demographics, we are designing and marketing for.
We also need to constantly listen, learn and encourage our teams to build their lounges around diversity. Taking classes with groups like Creative Reaction Lab, or Kim Crayton from #causeascene, and actually applying and using those skills in our work and how we consult our clients.