Not long after graduating from the California College of the Arts, Tish Evangelista joined forces with two close friends, Ben Pham and Rishi Shourie, to set up their own branding and design studio in San Francisco. That was back in 1999, during an era of Flash graphics and bright colours, when the trio scooped a project that would set them on a path to success.
The work in question was their nostalgically-styled brand identity for Pottery Barn Kids, something that was instantly recognisable, unique to the marketplace, and strongly resonant with mothers. Today, Character employs 30 people and boasts clients such as Google, Adobe, Amazon and Facebook.
Aside from Pottery Barn, Character is also famous for its work for Android, Kohler, and Oculus. We spoke to Tish about her career and what it's been like to grow an agency in San Francisco with good friends.
How did you and the other three Partners meet?
"Ben Pham, Rishi Shourie and I met at art school. We were all attending CCA, pursuing our fine art degrees. I met Ben in my first year, when we shared an Art History class together. Ben and Rishi met the year before.
"We all quickly became friends. We bonded over design magazines, sci-fi films (Blade Runner and Aliens remain two of my favourites), first-person video games, and a love for the local family burrito joint (Juan’s). We often shared our (school) work with each other and discovered that we worked well together. In 1999, we started Character.
"Ollie Ralph joined us in 2011 as Director of Business Development. He became our Managing Partner in 2013. Ollie has been instrumental in driving the growth of the company."
What drove you to start your own business?
"While attending CCA, because we often worked so closely together – logging late hours at the computer lab, having conversations about where each one of us saw ourselves after art school, and we often joked that we should just start our own design company.
"It was with foresight that each one of us pursue different design disciplines. Rishi joined the design team of a large San Francisco advertising company, Ben started at one of the most prestigious corporate design companies at the time, and I had the privilege of working with Chronicle Books, designing and art directing.
"When we started Character, we were fuelled by the challenge of striking out on our own. We knew we worked well together, we had different strengths, which helped balance any of our weaknesses. A fantastic opportunity had also presented itself to us, one that we thought was too good to pass up. It was within the first few months of starting Character that we landed our first big account, branding Pottery Barn’s kids division."
With four different personalities, hopes and dreams, how have you managed to make it work?
"We treat each other with respect. Respect is important. So is a sense of humour. Conversations are key to making all relationships work. We root for each other’s successes. We also trust each other and know that we share the same goal, which is to make Character a success, and make it a great company to work with, and work for."
What's changed the most in the last 18 years? For better and for worse?
"These days, it’s far easier to have access to design 'inspiration', which has, on the one hand, fostered a greater understanding for its importance and relevancy. On the other hand, it can create repetition and redundancy.
"It seems like now everyone is out to 'build a brand/their brand', even individuals are now 'brands'. As people gain exposure to the plethora of websites and multimedia destinations, the noise and clutter is also heightened.
"The Internet has increased exposure to brands, product, services, information, and companies to help better educate, but on the flip side, it also confuses and complicates (just in terms of sheer number of brands). Brand associations have become more difficult and convoluted."
What ingredients make an agency survive two decades in the agency business?
"Grit. Tenacity. Not backing down from challenges. A love of the pursuit of the aesthetic. Making sure we are hiring talented people, good people."
For an established successful agency, your team of 30 is pretty nimble. Is this deliberate?
"Company culture is very important to us. We strive to ensure that Character be a supportive environment, comprised of hard-working, inquisitive, talented and passionate individuals.
"While Character has doubled in size over the last five years or so, we are sensitive to how quickly we grow and how it affects the dynamics of the company – because that can ultimately affect the output of the business.
"It’s our goal to continue to grow, but at the right time, at the right speed, and not just for the sake of saying we’ve grown."
Your designers often double as product developers. What's the reasoning behind this?
"As part of our focus on providing a cohesive brand experience, Character works closely with clients to shape their products and the customer experience."
Do you think the role of the creative agency has changed? What new demands are you trying to tackle?
"The Bay Area is at the centre of the current innovation renaissance, companies are making products and services that are changing the way we live and communicate.
"The Character team is constantly working collaboratively to crowdsource hot topics and trends, identify unique approaches and point of views, and sources of inspiration. Our goal is not just to educate current and future clients on the basics of branding but to help people think more holistically about brand, see best practices at work and put insight into action."
It's said that many of your projects influence copycat designs – the biggest form of flattery. How do you feel about this?
"Classical training as fine arts students studying others' work, dissecting and deconstructing it, then putting it all back together with the student’s own personal spin. It’s the way art students learn.
"People also can’t help be inspired by what they see, that’s human nature. It’s easy to replicate what you’ve seen others do. However, the easiest route is seldom the most rewarding. Where’s the fun in that?"
Tell us more about some of your proudest projects
"Pottery Barn Kids remains one of my favourites and one that I’m most proud of. It was our first Character account and dates back to 1999. The work was creative, thoughtful, and has proven to be timeless.
"Art.com and Teforia are also some of my favourites. Art.com is a wonderful client that understands and respects design, likewise with Teforia, which is a wonderful product.
"The Character team is also currently working on a very personal project. A number of Character designers, writers, and strategists have come together to develop InCharacter, a group of creatives dedicated to promoting positivity and opening up dialogue around prominent issues of the time: equality, immigration, healthcare and more. The InCharacter crew is currently working on 'statement' pieces to be sold at local makers’ markets, with 100% of the proceeds going to those charities and non-profits the team cares about and has been touched by. I’m very proud of the team and what they’re doing."
Take us through your process.
"The process always starts with identifying the problem that needs to be solved and attempting to see it from multiple sides; hearing the client identify as their needs and wants; and understanding the client’s business, their industry, and their products and/or services. Identifying the key messages that need to be communicated, the audience you are communicating with and the media by which you are communicating.
"Seeking inspiration from unexpected places is also an important part of the process, it’s easy to rely on online blogs for creative ideas, but more often than not, the best seeds are found in surprising places. Sometimes ideas can come from the commonplace everyday – the things that surround you, a conversation you overheard on the subway, a song stuck in your head; sometimes you have to go out of your way to find them – a visit to a small vintage bookstore, the local museum, by watching a noir film you haven’t seen in awhile.
"Sifting through the seeds of an idea and formulating a plan through organising the parts, brainstorming with the rest of the team, then lead to the sketching phase and the final execution."
When employing new staff, what do you look out for? Any tips you'd like to share to winning a position at Character?
"Remember to always be learning. We all never stop and are better off realising we can learn a thing or two everyday.
"Do your research and come prepared to talk about your work, chat about what you can bring to the table and what you expect to learn from Character in turn.
"Love what you do but remember that, at the end of the day, we’re people. Play nice, look out for each other. It makes for abetter workplace and a better daily experience."
Finally, what can we expect next from Character?
"It’s a thrilling time for Character. We’re in a position to grow and extend our offerings. We will continue to find creative people who are passionate and up for a challenge."