When it comes to creating a user-friendly design and cohesive brand identity, Tatyana Khamdamova is an expert. As the leader of Blue Fountain Media's design team, she has overseen the branding of countless companies across many platforms.
She shared her top advice for creating a design that users will engage with, what makes a great logo design (hint: it's not what you think...), and what businesses can do to make working with an agency simple and successful.
DesignRush: You lead the design team at Blue Fountain Media. What are some of your leadership strategies that ensure projects get done on time and to high standards?
Tatyana Khamdamova: My main strategies are selecting my team really well and taking care of the people I have on my team. When you select people that work well together, that have different strengths — or maybe the same strengths but they work well together as a team — every project will get on time.
Also, when I assign projects to the team, I try to assign things that are going to interest a particular person. For example, if someone loves comic books and we have a project that comes in and relates to comics, it would be great to get that person to work on it because they are going to put everything they have into it. Plus, they’ll likely have more knowledge than anyone else about that subject. So, I try to assign projects based on availability but also based on the interests that people have.
In summary, I think that cultivating a sense of people taking care of people, selecting your team well, working with people and making sure that there’s enough competition but that they still work as a team is what leads a project to success and ensures deadlines are hit.
DR: What are some of your favorite sites that you or your team has made?
TK: Recently, we worked on a really cool project for a continuing education website for The New School. They just launched this very unusual branding, so it was very interesting to try to implement that in the website design.
When we started working on this site, the new branding wasn’t implemented yet, so it was up to us to decide how the bold colors and interesting typography would be implemented into something that should also be very user-friendly.
Ultimately, on the site, we want people to be able to find the courses that they’re looking for very quickly and have a very, very clear checkout. Putting that together with the unique branding that they released made for a very interesting project.
DR: We're sure it was rewarding when you struck the right balance of branding and UX.
TK: Another company that we’ve worked on for a couple years now is Service King. It’s a completely different industry as a car repair shop with many locations throughout the United States.
Their particular web design project is interesting because, when you think about car shops, you imagine them dirty and filled with lots of car parts. Making that environment look nice, exciting, clean and user-friendly on web is very interesting.
Another challenge is that when people come to a website like Service King, usually their car is broken, they’re looking to repair it and they aren’t really in a good mood, so the information that's on the website should be very easy to access. That's why, when we work on something like Service King, in particular, we always try to think about the user first.
What else was interesting about this project is that we started with a website but it went into a marketing campaign. I remember we did a really fun marketing campaign when Pokemon Go came out. Projects like that -- that go beyond just a website -- are really fun.
Our mentality right now, as a team, is very human-centric. When we design something, we try to achieve the goal that the user has in mind. We aren’t really designing for ourselves, we aren’t really designing for the client — we’re designing for the customers that that client has.
DR: Where do you find inspiration?
TK: I actually use the best design section on DesignRush. I recently went there when we needed something for the agency. We are rebranding Blue Fountain Media right now, and that’s probably the hardest thing to do -- designing something for ourselves. There are just so many creative people and everyone has an opinion; you're trying to listen to one, ignore the other one, but you need a lot of inspiration.
Inspiration sites like DesignRush are great for something like this because you aren't just finding random sites, but searching for something more specific. I think a site like this is really useful, as it allows people to sort through all those categories -- you can find a site that has the specific navigation or specific feature that you’re looking for.
The internet is huge, as we all know, and there so many things there. When you have a resource that saves you from spending the whole day scouring the internet, that really helps.
DR: Definitely! It’s great to hear that section is useful.
TK: It is. And of course, inspiration isn’t just online, inspiration is everywhere. You go to the cafe, you go to the restaurant, you go to the movie and you find inspiration. In places like New York, you'll see all sorts of ads around you -- particularly on the subway. Sometimes you'll think, "Oh my God, who designed this? I have to redo this!" And sometimes you'll look at an ad, be amazed and send a picture to your team.
I remember doing this at the airport once. We were working on a campaign and we needed some big branding and messaging for them. I saw an ad that was really well done, so I took a picture, sent it to the team and said, “Maybe we should try this direction and see what we can do.”
DR: What are some of your favorite brand logos?
TK: It's hard for logos to be effective sometimes because logos are what we think of a company, in a way. For example, I think if Nike didn’t have the swoosh and had a different symbol, we would still know them because of all the branding and marketing they have across so many channels. I think this is what makes rebranding so tricky.
Sometimes it's really hard and really scary at the same time to rebrand because people get so used to what they see, even if it’s not a conventionally good design. Then if you relaunch it, people become confused and don't recognize your company.
For example, my father-in-law remembered the old Uber logo well --it was very clearly a "U." When Uber rebranded two years ago and changed their logo design completely, he thought it was a different company because the visual identity was so different.
I'm sure the Uber team thought they were doing something creative and modern, but some consumers thought the new design was another rideshare company infiltrating the market.
So, it’s hard for me to name a favorite logo because I think its all in how you market the product, the website and the company. If many people know about it, they will remember the logo. Conversely, you could have the best logo design ever, but if people don’t know about you, it doesn’t really matter.
DR: You work in both branding and web design. What's the difference between creating a brand identity and designing a website?
TK: For starters, brand designers use more paper than web designers. It's actually really good for one person to start with designing a logo when you’re working with a client because you can interview them and learn more about the company and its mission. You’re not just designing something out of nowhere because the logo represents the company. It allows you to get really personal with the designs.
Usually, before we start sketching the logo, we put together a word cloud of associations with the company -- things that come to our mind when we think of the business. We just try to put our thoughts together.
After word cloud, we sketch some possibilities, then create illustrator files on the best ones. Then, we present the best illustrator files to the client. There’s a lot that goes into the process of creating a logo and a brand identity, especially before you even show anything to the client.
Once we have the logo finalized and we start designing the website, we think about the functionality and how users are going to use the site while also branding the website with the logo we just made. But we like to do so in a way that, if you were to cover the logo on any page, you still know that it’s a particular company’s website.
DR: Are there any strong examples of this?
TK: If you went to Chipotle’s website, those little illustrations and tiny icons that they use throughout their branding make it really clear that you’re on Chipotle’s website, regardless if you can see the logo or not. You see these same elements in the stores, on the menus, on their social media and then on the website, and it just ties it all together into one cohesive identity.
To replicate that, when we’re working on a project, we like to gather any brochures, style guides or anything else — even interior design pieces in their own office — to make sure everything is branded correctly and consistently. Plus, it’s definitely good to have logo design team members and website designers work together.
DR: What advice would you give a young designer looking to grow in this field?
TK: The cool thing about learning to be a designer is that you have opportunities to do things. For example, it’s really hard for a mechanic to create a portfolio of the work he or she has done if there’s no car. But web, logo and branding designers have it much easier. You can go to any site that you don’t like and try to redesign it.
That's the best suggestion I have — work and work and work on something to improve your skills.
DR: That's an excellent tip!
TK: It’s interesting how many people come for an interview and say, "Oh, I didn’t really work anywhere or have really small, limited portfolios," or say that they only were given a few internal things. Nothing is stopping them from looking at Amazon and trying to recreate an e-commerce site, or redesigning a small mom-and-pop shop next door to them. They have so much opportunity to learn from what’s online and do the work that they want to do.
This is actually a reason I hired one of my current designers. He came to me saying that he had never worked as a web designer. However, he went to 99 Designs and tried to win the projects there, creating tons of designs. By taking the initiative to mock up designs, he had such comprehensive portfolio.
He worked really hard on his own, and not that many people do this, unfortunately. Many people go to school, graduate and go to an interview with nothing in their portfolio, but as a designer, nothing is stopping them from creating a couple sites or designs on their own. I think any agency that is looking for junior designers would appreciate that drive.
DR: How do businesses know when is a good time to rebrand?
TK: We recently worked on a big company that is a perfect example of this: Wholesome, which produces organic sweets. It was a very interesting project because they came to us wanting redesign the logo, packaging and website. However, they had just gone through a redesign a few years ago too, so their consumers were just now associating that new design and identity with the company.
When we were going through our logo process with them, it became clear that they wanted something modern and different, but it also was evident that it wasn't the right decision to go through a big rebranding and have to educate consumers all over again. Plus, that market is so saturated that you don’t want to lose the consumers that you have just because you changed the logo.
So as we went through the process, they actually decided not to go through with the rebranding at the moment, which was wise. We just cleaned up the logo a little bit to make it more modern (and it was almost 90 percent the same logo that they had before). And then we just branded the website with the little elements that make them stand out.
DR: What advice do you have for creating a design that is creative and usable at the same time?
TK: The main thing for both designers and the client to remember is that we aren’t designing for ourselves. For example, just because blue is your favorite color doesn’t mean it’s right for the business or the design. Businesses and designers need to talk to consumers and learn as much information as possible from them — how they shop, how they look for products, and so on.
Designers and businesses should talk to the users so they can create the best user journey possible, and the design that is going to speak to them the best and achieve the goals that the company has. Ultimately, you should implement user experience in every design you do.
DR: What advice do you have for clients who are hoping to hire an agency for a design project?
TK: When businesses are looking for agencies to partner with, they often look at their case studies, which is a great idea. But I would suggest looking outside of your industry and look at things like the technology used and the challenges faced within a case study.
People could be from completely different industries but they might face the same challenge. E-commerce is a great example. Someone selling sweets and someone else who is selling shoes may have the same problems that need to be solved by an agency.
Clients shouldn’t look at a digital agency and say, “Oh you haven’t done anything in the food and beverage industry.” They should look at the work itself and see if that agency can help with what they actually need, regardless of industry. Also, businesses should ask for the specifics of how an agency resolved the challenges faced to determine if they are the right fit for their needs.
Finally, businesses should meet with the team that they’ll be working with at the agency. You aren’t really hiring the agency, you’re hiring the people that work for that agency. So if you feel strongly about the team, the way they work, ideas they have and results they can provide, that is the most important aspect. The better the relationship between the client and the agency team, the better the project.
DR: Any final thoughts, comments or words of wisdom?
TK: For designers, don’t wait for the work to come to you, seek out work that will help you grow on your own. I don’t think people even realize how much their salary can change if they spend a couple months working on their skills in the evenings or weekends, but it is quite a bit.
For clients, be careful when designing something. Don’t focus too much on what you think it should be and focus on the user. Technology is evolving so fast and people are so focused on adding cool things and innovating things. Of course, your design should be cool and innovative, but it should be user-centric, easy to use and seamless for customers first.
Want more interviews like this?