Power of One by Min LewMin Lew
About this video
In the era of “iterative,” Min discusses the transformative power of leading with a singular vision, and how she applies the ethos to design projects, teams and the business itself. Join her as she shares her journey from designer to Managing Partner and ECD at Base Design, showcasing how one idea, when pushed to its limits, can drive remarkable change for clients and influence in the design world.
Hello. Hello, Toronto. I learned that yesterday.
Thank you so much for having me. I've decided that I would cook something new up for today's talk.
Obviously I was a little nervous and my husband said, you have nothing to worry about. You're going to Toronto. Canadians are the nicest people on the planet Earth. I know I'm in good hands with you.
Before we get into the talk, I’m gonna show you a quick reel just to give you a quick overview of the work that I do. A little bit about me. I'm Korean, but I was born in Germany and I grew up between the two countries, back and forth, back and forth until I was about 22. I moved to America when I was 24.
Like any teenager, I would ask myself, what am I gonna be when I grow up? I sort of knew that I wanted to do something either in psychology
or something related to creative. At that time, my mom, who is a very studious woman and academic person, good of her, she researched and brought me to this place called the Bureau of Jobs that looks like a Thomas Demand photo. You walk in, it's rows and rows of perfectly organized VHS tapes. VHS was the height of its technology, at the time. At least it wasn't microfiche. Each of this tape captured a day in the life of a job. Any profession you can think of, they would have it, again, only in Germany. They would have something like this. You take it out and you go into these viewing rooms and you watch, the life of a gardener, the life of an engineer, and so forth and so on. By the time I walked out,
I thought I had found my calling. I was gonna be in advertising. Fast forward to today, not in advertising, but adjacent to it. I'm in branding and I've been building base for the last 20 years, alongside my four partners. We have our base in Brussels where the company started. They're quirky and poetic.
Then we have a three year old startup in Melbourne, and they are obsessed about building brands through campaign work. Then we have Geneva, so Swiss, the perfectionist of the group and base digital,
our newest company full of technologists and developers. And last but not least, base in New York, the office that I run on a day-to-day basis.
Each individual office has a bit of their own personality based on the context of the location. But, we share one ethos and one approach for all projects. These are the wickedly talented people that I get to work with. It'd be fair to say, that it's an interesting time to be a designer, and to be a designer in branding because we live in the era of more, thanks to technology. There's just more of everything, more access, not only to information, but, access to easily starting any new business.
New brands are launching every day, and with that more money has been pouring into finding the next unicorn, one that will give 10 x hundred x in the shortest amount of time possible. Companies investing in design, to ensure commercial success, has become this gold standard. In the context of this phenomenon, I think, it really deeply influenced how we work in our industry, at large.
I'm sure this slide looks very familiar to you. You come across this all the time in your day-to-day practice, the more iterative design. As designers, we are asked to sprint to options, previews we're asked to or are expected to combine options and sort of figure things out as they go. Now, I know that star in true startups, business pivots, and, the digital products have to pivot. But this culture of iterative design has really permeated into the branding industry in general. More inspiration overload. I mean the Pinterest, the famous Pinterest effect. We have plenty of tools at all at our fingertips to share and look at references, beautiful references.
But guess what? Everyone else is looking at the same thing. Your peers, your clients. Everyone feels like they can speak design. They have an armful and chest full of beautiful references, which lead to more design by committee. I'm sure, compared to10 years ago, 20 years ago, there were only a few companies who actually invested, who acknowledged design as a business tool.
Everyone is looking great ,basically. We live in a sea of beautiful design. Yet this phenomenon, I think, creates more missed opportunities because it creates more similar things and more lookalikes, more blending in and less standing out. Meaning, while everyone is looking very well put together and handsome and beautiful across the board, no matter what sector you're playing in, no one's really putting a lot of energy and effort and looking distinctive or better, relative to your competition.
The question is, how do we fight this noise? How do we cut through and really help our brands stand out? Instead of looking out, looking at what everyone else is looking at and what everyone else is doing, I think, we need to look inside, inwards, inside the brand to reveal what makes them really special, about that brand and organization. Once you identify it, equally, try to express that idea in a unique way. Maybe push it and get it to a place where it even surprises you. When you're done with that, the brand and your work for the brand can become an irreplaceable one.
I always ask, how do I achieve that? I ask myself this every day for every project. Is it special enough? Is it different enough? Will it give the brand the extra edge? My own answer to that question has been relying on the power of one, identifying that one idea. Push it really as far as you possibly can to create a singular vision, a singular brand vision.
I'll let you in on a secret. I present only one option, most of the time. I think focusing on that one idea and putting the whole team’s energy, the collective energy, to test and to stretch and to investigate that idea gives you, by the time you land on something that you know you want to present, it gives you the confidence to stand behind your product. This is my recommendation for you, and, I really believe in this practice. What I'm about to show you is excerpts from clients, presentation round one, client presentation. Intentionally, I pulled quite a bit. Although it's only a small portion, just to kind of illustrate my point.
The client is the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. This is the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. They have a physical museum you can visit in Cleveland.
They also host, once a year, an induction ceremony, and they induct a small group of people, musicians, into the hall of fame during the latter part of the artist's life. It's sort of like a lifetime achievement award.
What's interesting is that by nature, this brand is designed to look backwards. Their identity belongs in the past. That’s really unfortunate.
It's really difficult to be that organization, that lives in the past. On top of that, this is how they looked and communicated. It's really deeply rooted in the visual vernaculars of the rock and roll genre from the eighties and the nineties, which is from the past. Yet they said, we really wanna be relevant. We wanna connect with the younger audience. We wanna connect with the youth. We wanna engage more than once a year. We wanna engage as much as possible, and, we ultimately wanna be part of today's popular culture.
It's a really difficult proposition. How do you get people, especially the youth of today, to be excited about a brand that celebrates, amazing musicians that peaked a decade ago, two decades ago. We had to go through a long journey of conversation, learning everything there is to learn about their history, their music, so forth and so on. We go really deep, to crystallize what do they stand for that no one else can claim, in an authentic, but also credible way. On top of that, one that would future-proof the brand.
There was one sort of obvious starting point. If there was one thing, one fact that this brand and this organization could own without any dispute, was that they were all about the great, the greatest of all time. They had a lot of ‘em, and they're gonna get more of them. We thought, hey, that's really interesting, because being the greatest of all time, being acknowledged as the one, is actually a universal truth. It's a human truth. Who doesn't wanna be considered a great, right? With that insight, we presented a strategy or brand story, that builds on and amplifies this very universal truth. We're saying to the client, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, you exist today in the world, to honor the music greats for their inventiveness, influence and invincibility.
My daughter, who is 11 years old the other day, true story, came to me and said, mom, I really, really, really, really need a Nirvana shirt. It’s a hundred dollars, kids, in New York.
We also said to the client that in order to actually achieve your goal, to expand beyond the past and gain relevance, you also need to be more proactive. You need to assume the role of proactively inspiring and cultivating the next generation of greats. That's the way, that will propel you into the present and into the future, and really actively celebrate your originality about being daring, taking chances. When you change your game, you're gonna have to be the first ones to really acknowledge and celebrate that. We call that the core idea, the brand idea, music, greatness, past, present, and future. Now, when I say one option, don't get the wrong idea. It's not like we do one thing and then we present that one option. Internally we go wide and deep in our design exploration to really find the most powerful, most accurate, and most iconic expression of that idea.
I'll show you a quick snapshot of the breadth of the explorations. This whole process is a learning process. If something works, why is it working? Why, what is it trying to say? When something doesn't feel right, why not? Every sketch that we leave behind contributes greatly,
actually, to the project. In this case, we learned that the brand actually has, embedded built in tension already. On one side, it represented all things rock and roll spirit, the youthfulness, the fearlessness, originality,
the power and energy. On the flip side, it also represented all things hall of fame, the prestige, the honor, the mastery, the timelessness. To signal this duality, we created a design system that comprised two core elements.
First, is the logo you will see, in a minute, which is rather classic. It's evocative of the sort of the rotunda where the gods are worshiped. We wanted to test if this kind of logo can live with a lot of different genres of music. We also tried it on quieter music. When it's still, or when it doesn't respond to music, it's quite proper. Because we wanted to signify the hall of fame, the prestige side of the story of the brand. We said, it's rock and roll, it can't be that proper. We gotta mess it up somehow. We linked this logo to respond to music. This is a quieter one or something with a heavy base. Refuse face, have face, I'm what's what? The second element was a font, AED font, that was more contemporary. It had four cuts again to accommodate to, for it to respond to music. With these two applications, elements as a base, we go into the application section.
Sort of the notional section, that every agency probably does. Every application, I think, is an opportunity to communicate something to tell the story about the brand. The mission in this section is, really not only to show how the graphic system works, or, how beautiful the design can be, it's really to make the future vision become visible right in front of the client. For example, when you launch, what do you want the story to be? What do we want the world to write about us? If you're a brand that wants to link the, past with the future, maybe your campaign can be about the flame, the story of passing the baton on. Maybe we can be the brand to inspire the ones, that we might not know the names of. For them to dream and to inspire, to become the great one day, by showing Hall of Famers like Bowie or Elton John, the way they were, before, they mega stars. They are. Then we keep going. You know, it can work on the streets, it can work on digital, it can be appropriate for a black tie event. It can dress up, it can dress down, never corporate. Always have a message, immortal never before.
It's about originality, forever, since it's about that timelessness. We don't really stop at this proverbial toque back page. We continued on to think about how to further activate the brand, to help the client see what can be possible. We're not necessarily pitching these specific ideas, but, it's really to open up their minds. The ultimate goal of the project is not only to look more relevant or look better, it's not just a facelift. The ultimate goal of the organization is to engage more frequently and gain relevance.
What are the things that you can do? We would obviously skin it with the design, but we're allowing them to dream, not just see the induction ceremony on HBO. If you're the music authority, why don't you flex that muscle? Put forward a sound that shaped today at Ghost. What if we produced Rock and Roll Hall of Fame collabs with the great current stars? What if we had them have a conversation between themselves? Music speaks, see the music, virtual costume exhibition, why limited to Cleveland Virtual Concert? Three years ago, metaverse was a thing. So, we’re pitching to the client essentially, dear client, this is the beginning of how we might envision your future brand Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, where the greats of past, present and future meet.
Now this is a couple of pages out of the round one client presentation,
and it’s a real commitment. While this might seem a little daunting,
'cause you have to go really far right before you know if they're gonna react. While it may be a little daunting, the truth is that the power of one idea can be very liberating. It frees you from the visual tropes so that the work can be less derivative. You're letting the idea inform the making itself. It can empower you, the maker to propose a vision, not only deliverables, not only the surface. It propels the clients, it helps the clients to escape the day-to-day, all the problems of why we couldn't do something.
And it positions agencies like us to become a true, in a way, thought partner, a brand partner, not just a service provider. Most importantly,
it gives you and the brand a very powerful point of view because I think helping brands find their unique identity, not only visual identity, but a true identity. Who, am I, in this world protecting? That is why they hire us in the first place. Changing gears a little bit. I’ve always been driven by doing something different. But, I realized it came with a price. It took a while for the team to understand why we operate this way or how do we even work in this manner, since it was quite unconventional.
On the business side, as partners, we had to ask ourselves, how do we grow? How do we run the business in a more sustainable way? I went into this a couple of years, a very, to be honest, difficult time in my career. A rather very introspective one. I had to, I proactively reexamined the way I worked, and figured out how can we do this without really jeopardizing or giving up the creative ambition. During this time, I read a pivotal book, a game changer for me personally.
Unbeknownst to you, and, I know, I don't really look the part, but I'm a huge basketball fan. I'm sorry, the Raptors lost. I came across this book called 11 Rings. It's the story about the Chicago Bulls and how they, the head coach Phil Jackson, created a winning team, so successful, that they won 11 championships. Those of you, who might know the story, you might say, well, but they had Michael Jordan, but the interesting fact is, until he got to the bulls, even though he was already deemed like the best player ever, he never won the championship. The coach created a unified team and a winning environment.
That really influenced my thinking very deeply. I used to think, that I'm in the design business for the longest time, but, I realized that, maybe I'm in the people business because all the creatives and the ideas, everything comes from people, both our team internally, but also the client. Without the relationship and without that common goal, we can't really get to the place that we want to get. I told myself, maybe my job is not micromanaging the fonts, what fonts to use, the angles and the colors and the hues, but, actually maybe my job is to guide the external and the internal advisor client and lead our internal team to dream together. I was obsessed with the results, what it can do, what it looks like, always trying to get to an interesting place, an uncomfortable place. I realized instead of only obsessing over the results, I should obsess over the business itself.
I went on designing the business around that result that I wanted to get
because I realized that great business has, or that sets the right conditions, will enable us to achieve the results that I really wanted, in this time, in a more sustainable way. I also realized that beautiful design or the great outcome, that manifests into design, isn't only up to the designers themselves. Everyone in the company, from all the different angles, really needs to participate in this goal.
The last few years, I spent as much time on projects as I did on building the system, the framework to do things right, to do things in a much more sustainable way from, who our clients are, who our talent is, what our culture is, and what our creative process looks like, all those things together, to name a few have to work in harmony. First, a client, not all clients are equal. It's not enough for only us to want the client or the brand, the organization to be perceived in a special way. We have to find the right client that shares the same ambition, to be unique, the client that is brave enough to want to do that. Then there's our talent, whether you're creative or management, whether you're junior or senior, I look for the same thing, next to them, being wickedly talented or skilled in their domain. I look for self-starters, the ones who have that entrepreneurial spirit, who are not afraid to break some rules, people who are not waiting around to be told what to do.
Personally, I invest a lot of time and energy in understanding each individual team member's superpower. What is it? How do we grow that? How do we nurture, so, that, while the company's growing, the team is also growing additionally? Why do I do that? I think if the internal talent feels seen in the company, they feel safe to experiment and fail without any judgment and feel the trust, the immense amount of trust and, the agency and the freedom given. It sets all of us up to push and take smart risks, not any risk, smart risks. Only when these conditions are there, you're allowing yourself and the team and the company to create something interesting and something more new, when it comes to the creative approach. When we actually start the design, the actual design phase, I say no mood boards ever. No option for option's sake. If there's a strategic reason, we are happy to do options.
It's not a dogmatic idea. It's more that, we, will not, verbatim, do three, five, because that's just an industry convention, no conveyor belt system. It's a system, where, I call each discipline. hands off, to the next. Strategy goes and then they hand off to design and so forth and so on. Instead, I do a round table, still many different disciplines as a core team, and they work on a project from beginning to the end. It's a much more expensive proposition, but it's really worth it. No templates. Every project is different, so always bespoke. Instead, what we do is, a couple of things. We dive in and then we express out.
While the projects that we do are sector agnostic and clients are
varied in terms of size or how long they've been around the process of really diving into identify, that idea, and then expressing that out in a unique way, is a constant process that we apply to every single project.
Doesn't matter what kind of project. Another thing that I do is concept first. If you're on that team on a project, you are asked to design and write and all kinds of stuff. You get airtime even if you're an intern. But, there's one rule. You cannot just stick something on the wall and see if, it lands. You have to come to the front and explain what the idea is, what the concept is, and try to tell the story through that visual or through that exercise, whatever, whichever domain you're in, to really further the story of the brand or of the project. You might ask why set so many conditions up? For me? Ultimately, it is to unleash maximum creative freedom by our team members. While these may sound very obvious, actually making this happen, is, an everyday exercise and everyday work.
The next project, that I wanna walk you through is our recent seasonal campaign for La Monet, the Opera House. We've been working with them for the past 16 years, at every campaign every year. This season was quite different. They gave us a really special brief. First of all, the campaign will run not only for one year, but two years. Second, it will be the current director’s exiting show before he retires. And third, they specifically asked this campaign speak to the youth and the younger audience. With that, he also gave us a theme. Fate. Fate. The predetermined end. It is when something stops, it's very apocalyptic in one sense, but on the other hand, when something ends, something new can actually happen. It's like a new beginning. We thought this was really beautiful.
Obviously. the core idea and the concept became all about fate. How do we communicate fate through messaging? We came up with this idea.
What if we spoil the end of each opera. The audience is gonna find out anyways. We synthesize the end of each opera. Like this. Fenner kills his brother over some jewelry. Sandra sees a planet end, but no one cares. Moving on. How do we integrate fate? How do we communicate fate through imagery? For the first time in 16 years, we decided not to produce beautifully produced images. We typically work with photographers, set designers, so forth and so on to create amazingly perfect opera images. But, instead, we took the opportunity to ask ourselves, what is our fate as artists? What is our fate as designers? Probably something that we all think about and buzz word alert. Yes, we used AI.
We took that one liner that we wrote and fed it into the AI and let the AI create these imageries. Based on the text experimented, there were, some of ‘em, so bad, they became really good. A lot, I think we did close to 450 images, four, nine final images. Anyway, after this long sort of experimentation, we arrived at this visual direction. So odd, so dystopian, but at the same time, so beautiful. And then we continued on. Can we actually merge fate and r and d? We asked ourselves, in the future, what would be our role? Will, we as designers and artists still be in the craft? Will we still be making or will we be just setting up the parameters to design the output? We played with AI and through different movements, we made them do a lot of fun things and tried to figure out how we can use it in our communications. We wanted to do a responsive poster and we also added sound. A beginning is a very delicate time.
Know then, that it is the year 10,000 1 91. The known universe is ruled by the Pasha emperor Shada LA four, my father, a beginning. This is the full explanation of the project and the final output. Opera house, 16th campaign collaboration with pace, Wagner's ring cycle and one theme fate. How to interpret fate and design, deliberately lose control of the creation. Surrender the imagery unto the hands of artificial intelligence. We ask the playwrights to summarize each play into one line, spoiling key elements of the stories to play with fate, then for these lines as prompts to the AI. We set off, endlessly generating, never knowing what the outcome would be. Born from the unexpected. A dance with destiny of sorts, always at the mercy of fate with Ray's life into these images, with the help of AI tools, made them speak, dance or suspiciously stare at us.
Finally, we took it to the streets. Listening, AI in the public eye, linking the cultural and institutional with an innovative experiment, infusing it with a breath of fresh air, with the very firm ambition to open up a debate around artificial intelligence and how we might come to use it as another tool for expression. As creatives, what are we up for? The red pill, the blue pill, blending in, standing out.
I want us to give ourselves the permission to choose because the choice can be ours, it can be yours. Don't try to be the best, the fastest, the biggest, the most famous, the most successful. I'd say try to be the one, irreplaceable one. I'm a believer that the rest will come.
Partner & Executive Creative Director at Base Design, Min oversees Base New York’s creative output and business. In her primary role as a “brand therapist,” she brings two decades of experience working intimately with founders and CEOs to help them build visionary brands. Min’s ability to think not between, but across, these dualities makes her a creative force to be reckoned with. Born in Frankfurt, raised in Seoul and now a veteran New Yorker, Min possesses a cultural sensitivity that allows her to create work that has true impact within its context. A humble student of the world, she’s forever absorbing new knowledge from sources far and wide.