Pum Lefebure of Design Army on creativity, leadership and the next big trends

Pum Lefebure is co-founder and chief creative officer of Design Army – a creative agency based in Washington DC that she runs with her husband Jake and oversees all creative coming through its doors.

With an impressive list of clients under her belt – Adobe, Disney, Ritz Carlton, Marriott and Lucas Film are just a few examples – Pum has spent the past 13 years building an international agency, winning top industry awards and being featured in an array of leading publications such as Entrepreneur Magazine and the Washington Post.

A native of Thailand, Pum moved to the United States when she was a young child and believes she brings a global sensibility to American design – a creative point of view that draws from different cultures and resonates with diverse audiences.

We spent half an hour chatting to the unstoppable Pum to find out what she thinks about creativity, the highs and lows of running a business and how the design and marketing industries are set to change in the coming years...

Tell us how you got started. Where did you study and what was your first job?

My love for art started at a very young age. Growing up in Bangkok, Thailand, my mother would take me to art lessons and my favourite toy ever was a set of 124 of coloured pencils. I later moved to America and became a senior in high school on a foreign exchange programme. This led to a partial scholarship at Radford University where I earned an BFA. I studied Graphic Design and took an internship at Supon Design Group, known as the hot agency of the '90s, and which led to a full-time job there.

You run the Design Army with your husband Jake. How did you two meet?

Jake and I met in 1996 at Supon Design. It was an intern/designer romance and was our first and last jobs, working for someone else. Then the Dot-Gone hit in the late '90s and we experienced some sad times watching some of our best friends being laid off. But we pushed on and after rounds of cuts we decided to call it quits. So yes, we see each other 24/7/365.

We founded Design Army in 2003 from our home, and by the end of 2004 we were out of the house, and down the street to our second office. After two years, we outgrew the rental space and decided it was time to find a permanent home. So we bought our current office/building in late 2005. It took almost 18 months of refurbishment before we were ready to move in and in the autumn of 2007, we were ready to move in. Today, we have a full time creative staff of 15 and approx 20+ contractors/freelancers; and we are ready to expand again.

What made you decide to go freelance together?

Back in the early 2000s it was a lot of late nights and slow computers – that led to love. We basically worked all the time and we figured that since we got along great at work, it could only get better if we were 100% committed – and everything just fell in to place.

How do you keep your relationship strong when you’re also working together and running a business?

At first we both did everything, but we soon learned that was not going to work and we now divide and conquer. I do the creative and Jake takes care of the business. I also like to travel – this gives me a break from work as well as Jake! And it's a chance to refresh. Jake just goes to his workshop where we keep all our photo props/sets and does his man-cave thing with his classic cars.

How do you handle disagreements in the office? Are there any recurring themes that you clash on?

We don’t. I always win.

Alice in wonderland for the Washington Ballet

Alice in wonderland for the Washington Ballet

Wonderland book

Wonderland book

Why the name Design Army?

My maiden name was Mekaroonreung, Jake’s last name is Lefebure — so Mekaroonreung-Lefebure Design is not very catchy. When we started it was just us, we wanted to be a little open-ended in the services we might provide and so Design was a given, but we also wanted to sound big and Army was a top choice. Well trained, organised, powerful, and easy to remember. Design Army was born. Plus, designarmy.com was available. Done!

You’re a big believer in keeping it simple. Your agency is based on this principle. What does simple achieve for you?

We’ve always been a low/no-fluff type agency and focus on the concept first, then the craft/execution. Simple makes people think harder and it lasts longer. But it's also harder to design. Simplicity is the way I run my business: Less meeting, more doing.

Can you give us any projects you’re especially proud of?

Too many to list, but the work we have done with Washington Ballet is always a favourite. In particular, The Wonderland book was the ultimate combination of fun and fantasy. It was a project where we had an idea, a dream and we made it happen. An idea is not an idea unless you execute it. Having access to a ballet company and creative freedom is amazing. It’s pure design magic that combines all our talents – typography, photography, illustration, copywriting, and of course design.

There is also the short fashion film we created for Georgetown Optician, telling the story of the family behind the fashion eyewear retailer. It's a quirky, creative spot with a high-fashion sensibility. Shot in a historic mansion in Maryland by director Dean Alexander, the film focuses on three characters — Isaac, the father; Irene, the daughter; and Ivan, the son. Design Army created the concept and storyboard; cast actors and voiceover talent; provided direction for styling and costuming; designed the set and build props; and oversaw every last detail of creating the film, including post-production colour grading.

Design Army office in Washington DC

Design Army office in Washington DC

Pum's "messy" office and inspiration board

Pum's "messy" office and inspiration board

What’s the creative scene like in Washington? Any reason why you’re based there?

Washington DC is in the news every night (for the wrong reasons) and that impacts the creative vibe for sure. But in actual fact DC has a great (and growing) creative scene. There are now less agencies and a lot more freelancer/independents working in the area. It’s a very creative/collaborative city.

Design Army is in DC because we love it here. It’s very green and clean. I’m a grownup and I need a lot of room to think. DC is fast-paced but not insane. And it’s also very international. Design Army is an international firm that just happens to call DC home. Most of our clients are outside DC, but I like that because we are in DC. I like the fact that clients select us not because of our location – we are not the obvious choice, but we are the right choice.

You’ve been going since 2003. Tell us what has changed in the design industry since then – for better and for worse?

This could be a long list, but the biggest impact is technology. It allows us to do more, explore faster, and take bigger risks. On the flip-side it makes us lazy and allows everyone to be a 'design expert'. But truly, at the end of the day, a good client knows the difference between good design and great design.

What trends do you see emerging from the design industry over the next 12 months? What should people keep their eye on?

How to scale intimacy in this digital age. How to market products and design in a one-on-one way. This is the age of Optimised Self. Everyone wants to be the best version of who they are and they want to have everything day and night. For example, someone might be an excellent lawyer by day, but a great singer by night.

There's also a rise in Anti-Authenticity. I think we're all pretty tired of over-designed Instagram feeds where brands and people tell a story that's almost too perfect. They employ edits, filters and everything in between, to create something that isn't authentic. I’m guilty of doing the same. Whilst I enjoy looking at and sharing beautiful posts, I'm keen to see something more legitimate. And I think most people feel the same way.

"Have the right mentality and act like a startup each and every day. Bring a tonne of creative energy. Never lose the drive. And most of all – be insanely passionate about what you do."

What are your secrets behind growing a successful agency?

We put growth emphasis on the quality of our clients and creative, not on the number of our staff. A secret of our success is being selective about the clients and projects we take on. Knowing how to say 'no' to the wrong project is critical for creative growth.

My advice to others? Have the right mentality and act like a startup each and every day. Bring a tonne of creative energy. Never lose the drive. And most of all – be insanely passionate about what you do.

When you talk about being selective about clients, does that mean you sometimes make sacrifices?

I think the secret to our survival over the last 13 years is about being very selective about who we work with and the kind of projects we take on. I firmly believe that the work we carry out today will always set the foundation for the projects we win in future. That's why it's so important to be picky, even if that project doesn't pay very well – it might lead to bigger things further down the line.

You have to think long-term and you'll definitely be on the right path. Essentially, you have to sacrifice something to gain something. That has always been my secret. So be extremely careful when considering potential projects.

Green Hat Gin package design

Green Hat Gin package design

Harper Macaw chocolate Branding and package design

Harper Macaw chocolate Branding and package design

What frustrates you about running a business? How are you trying to tackle these things?

I have little control over this, but time is my enemy. I need more hours every day to get all the great ideas out of my head and in to the hands of our clients. I try to be efficient to make it happen, but you just can’t rush perfection.

And what’s great about being your own boss? Tell us more…

You can’t be fired, but at the same time you can’t really quit either. A leader who spends time looking in the rear view mirror can’t lead and navigate the road ahead. You have to think 10 steps ahead before everyone else. I’m always trying to find a new venture to prospect. I don’t like to stand still.

And what’s not so good?

Having worked at an agency and now being in control of one, I can tell you that it’s a lot easier to have a job – but you will never be as happy working for someone else.

What does it take to become a good leader? How do you lead your own team?

A good leader knows how to motivate themselves and their team to reach a level of design that was not thought possible. Praise and criticism are things you should know how to give to your colleagues, if you want them to perform excellence.

Easy is also never an option. At Design Army I’m a coach, a cheerleader, and a plumber to my team. By being a coach, I strive to motivate my team and push them to the unimaginative height. By being a cheerleader, I let them play, learn, try and explore. And by being a plumber, I know how to fix things the minute a problem arises.

"Having worked at an agency and now being in control of one, I can tell you that it’s a lot easier to have a job – but you will never be as happy working for someone else."

What do you do to relax?

Wine. Instagram. Keeping up with trend-forecasting. Travelling. Cuddling with my daughter.

You mention travelling. Where do you like to go?

Everywhere! For the last five years, it's been a privilege to get asked to judge or speak at events all around the world. Last year I travelled to London for D&AD and I also went to Cannes Lions. I've even done workshops in Thailand and China. It's one of the many advantages of running your own agency – whenever there's an opportunity to travel, I can just go. It's usually with work, but I can add a few days of leisure to the trip and that's how I get to take some time off and explore.

Pum's living room where she loves to unwind: "It's a super clean home. I like to go home to a blank space to clear my mind every night."

Pum's living room where she loves to unwind: "It's a super clean home. I like to go home to a blank space to clear my mind every night."

Pum’s Instagram travel photos (Travel is her greatest inspiration)

Pum’s Instagram travel photos (Travel is her greatest inspiration)

What are you currently reading?

The Virgin Way by Richard Branson.

What’s next for the Design Army? Any exciting projects or updates you can tell us about?

It’s been almost 13 years in business and the plan for 2016 is to expand a bit more – both in terms of staff and clients. We are also just starting to build a new 10,000 square foot photography studio/warehouse that should be opening in autumn. We have also created a new product line (chocolate) with one of our clients and it will be available this spring.

I’m doing much more in-depth design consultancy with brands, more than ever before. Clients now not only hire us to design but to think of a product and process from the ground up. The project is much more profound than 13 years ago. As for actual client projects? Our next challenge is always the most exciting one. The best is yet to come.


To find out more about Design Army, visit www.designarmy.com. You should also follow the agency on Facebook and Twitter @designarmy. To see what Pum is up to on Instagram follow her at @pumlefebure.