Branding has become an integral part of the business eco-system, but how can we become experts on the subject? As part of an ongoing series, PSFK will be chatting with alumni from the School of Visual Arts (SVA) Masters in Branding program. We caught up with recent grad Noah Armstrong to discuss pursuing more than one creative discipline and the importance of community in becoming a better designer.
What made you decide to enroll in the Master’s in Branding program? What is it about our current society that makes branding so important?
My background is in design, and that is one of the things I am most passionate about. I wanted to enroll in the program because I’ve always thought of ‘branding’ as the height of design. Branding occurs when design has moved past pure aesthetics and into a space where personal connections are made, even if it is often subconsciously. The practice of branding is a little mysterious. There’s no single definition and there’s not a specific method in which a brand is created, or even managed. I wanted to be in place where I could explore something that no one has really figured out. And frankly, there was no one better to do that with than Debbie Millman and the faculty of the program at SVA.
How has having a Masters in Branding degree helped you to further your career?
It’s been integral in the development of my career on two levels. First, it was critical in shaping my own personal point of view. Throughout the year, you’re getting up in front of your classmates and professors countless times to defend your findings and your ideas. The program prepared me to not only to know what I believe, but also to be ready to share it in a confident manner. Having a point of view is essential to a career in this field.
Secondly, the faculty in the program literally changed my life. After graduation, I went on to work on projects with four different instructors, spent nearly a year working in the studio of one in particular, worked on some really rewarding projects with former classmates, and eventually joined the Design Intelligence team at Sterling Brands. I can say with certainty that none of those things would have happened had I not been a student in the Branding program.
What is the most surprising thing you learned about the process of branding during your time in the program?
The most refreshing thing I learned is that there are a million ways to come at the idea of branding. The most surprising thing I learned is how difficult it is to define the method that works best for yourself and for your clients.
What do you feel is your most valuable experience coming out of the Branding program?
Without a doubt, developing a community of friends here in the city has been the most rewarding experience. I can honestly say that I learned something valuable from each of my classmates. Admissions really knows how to curate a great class year after year. I moved to New York to enroll at SVA, and because of the people I’ve met through the program, it’s hard to think about leaving the city again.
Name two brands you think are standout examples of innovation in terms of their branding strategy, and tell us why.
Patagonia for their Common Threads program and Red Wing Shoes for repairing nasty old pairs of boots. Not only are both of their design aesthetics timeless and on-point, but they are brands that celebrate their function first and let the emotional connection follow naturally. Both of these brands want to see their products live long lives. They fix them when they break and they don’t fake patina. There is so much talk about ‘pride’ and ‘craft’ and ‘storytelling’ coming out of every other band’s mouth today but Patagonia and Red Wing are two that actually have those elements encoded in their DNA. They’re brands that legitimately do good work, and they’re richer for it. I can’t believe I’m qualifying this as innovative, but so many other mainstream consumer brands don’t seem to have this buttoned up.
If you had to offer one key piece of advice to interested applicants, what would it be?
Be prepared to kiss most of what you know goodbye for 11 months. But know that it flies by.
What is the one lesson you learned during the program that you use today in your job on a daily basis?
A quick backstory: I concentrated in both painting and graphic design as an undergrad and in the eyes of some of my professors, I think I was seen as wishy-washy, and I remember being told that I needed to choose one if I wanted to be good at either.
I say this because at SVA I never thought I had to ‘choose one.’ The branding program is made up of really intense classes having to do with design, pop culture, history, human behavior, and business – and we were encouraged to fall in love with all of them. Each class was integral in how we approached the next.
As a design strategist, if I don’t have a solid understanding of my client’s business, a firm grasp of the culture in which they operate, and an eye on how design can help give them a competitive advantage, then I’m doing it wrong. I can’t choose to concentrate on just one of those areas. The program taught me that it’s actually essential to be passionate about many things.