Rebranding does not happen overnight; it’s a steep and long process to transform from one brand to the next. Once a company decides to rebrand—a project usually defined by an external agency—internal teams take over and begin developing materials for the new brand. This involves, among other things, the creation of new systems under the new rubric, which often becomes a true stress test of the stretch and capabilities of the new brand.

In the following conversation, Design Director Jessica Svendsen and Brand Designer Pedro del Corro talk about the task of creating and maintaining these systems, the role of the Brand team, and how small, well-conceived ideas can yield comprehensive design systems.

Jessica: Before joining Dropbox, you worked in-house at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. How is working as a graphic designer for a large tech company different from working in-house at a cultural institution?

Pedro: There are many organizational differences, for sure, as both operate quite differently. At the design level, I tend to find more similarities, as both organizations have a great appreciation for design. Each has a design system in place that helps give structure and meaning to the work. In terms of the design system itself, it’s true that they are quite different. Our design system at Dropbox is open-ended, leaving ample room for interpretation and requiring a more active role for creative direction. Both experiences have sure given me a sense of the complexity in developing a system effectively.

Jessica: Between the Whitney Museum and Dropbox, you’ve designed within very different identity systems. The Whitney’s identity is highly codified, with a minimal number of elements. Their system uses a single typeface, on white backgrounds, with only one adaptable element—a “W” zigzag line. Dropbox, on the other hand, has one of the most flexible identity systems out there. We can select different colors, typefaces, imagery styles, and there’s a huge range of possible combinations.

Now that you’ve experienced both approaches, what are the opportunities with a more open-ended identity system? What are some of the risks?

Pedro: Most of all, I think our system requires being in good hands. We have a very talented team and network of collaborators, so that helps us ensure every interpretation of the system is within some quality parameters. It’s a system that encourages creativity, sometimes at the expense of recognition, since with every new interpretation we require our audience to readjust to some degree.

Jessica: So you’re a graphic designer on the Brand team at Dropbox. What exactly does a “Brand team” do?

Pedro: On the Brand team, we create and oversee everything that carries the Dropbox brand on it. This involves communications of all kinds, including events, campaigns, logged-out web, sub-brands, etc. So we are not involved in the design of the product itself. However, I’m glad to see how we’re working more cross-functionally with product designers, understanding their needs and trying to build a “theory of everything” together. After all, the public sees the company as one undivided entity, and the more we consolidate our design principles the more we will affect that overall perception.

Jessica: What is the role of identity design or a design system for a company like Dropbox? How has your understanding of identity design changed during your two years here?

Pedro: We design for a company whose entire experience is the result of graphic design from brand to product. Design really permeates everything. Because of this, and the number of talented people influencing design here, my understanding of identity has gotten more sophisticated.

Our identity system needs to meet a great range of needs, so I’ve been humbled by the work of anticipating all those needs with clarity. Identity rules that meet this caliber of needs tend to become more abstract and simple, and there’s a constant tension between being familiar and surprising. I tend to think great brands place more emphasis on the former (yet Nike keeps proving me wrong).

Jessica: I also started my career at a small design studio, where I controlled every aspect of the design. At Dropbox, it’s impossible for me to create pixel-perfect materials for every team and every communication. So part of my role is considering how to scale good design, so that others can also design materials that look like Dropbox.

How do you approach scaling your craft? How has it influenced other teams or collaborators?

Pedro: As you say, it’s interesting how a designer’s career naturally grows from hands-on work to directing the work of others. So there’s a transition from great craft to great communication. For example, in school—and you’d know this more and better than me—young designers tend to be better at creating work than articulating it. I tend to think it’s more difficult to understand one’s work than to create it in the first place. Scaling work takes tons of understanding and articulation. When designing a system for events at Dropbox, it dawned on me that I’d also have to respond to every question about the system, and a whole new door about design opened up.

In parallel, I think scaling requires a great level of empathy and seeing your work through the eyes of your collaborators—knowing there’s a component of subjectivity and artistry in design, while always trying to articulate some universal ideas to go back to.

Jessica: I often think about this balance. I have my own personal, subjective design point of view that I hope informs the work I do for Dropbox. Yet, as an in-house designer, I should be working toward creating a consistent, recognizable brand for the entire company.

How did your own design point of view influence the Keep It Flowing campaign? How did you go about negotiating what to communicate and how to make it look like Dropbox?

Pedro: Our system is open-ended, and that turns projects into interesting discussions about different approaches to the same problem. There’s usually tons of options, and the narrowing-down process isn’t easy.

In my personal process, I try to find aspects of the design problem that may help dictate the shape of the solution, as opposed to a more free-form or inspiration-led approach. In the case of the Flow campaign, the variety of formats we had to design for led us to create a modular typographic system that remained quite consistent throughout, solving a lot of problems at once. However, the end result would have been impossible without the artistry of animators Kenny Brandenberger and Anthony Velen.

“Flow” campaign: animation
Graphic system
A billboard for the “Flow” campaign hung brightly above Mel's Drive-in Diner in San Francisco, California.

Jessica: You shaped the Dropbox event guidelines, from initial concept to final fabrication. People across the company frequently tell me how your event guidelines set a new standard—every possible design decision, question, or consideration is documented.

How did you approach defining how Dropbox appears in the world, physically and experientially? What did you learn about design systems in the process?

Pedro: It was hard! As we were discussing before, this project was a great instance of how broadly scaled brands require simple and abstract principles. For example, in transitioning a 2-D brand to the 3-D/experiential plane, the idea of juxtaposition or layering from our core brand was very helpful in giving us an idea of the kinds of things that could take place physically: different shapes that complement each other, or sit on top of each other, being more than the sum of their parts. It also suggested the types of furniture or swag we could create. It’s great when a well-defined idea helps drive the work.

The project was a true learning experience for me in terms of events and ephemeral spaces, and the tons of constraints and needs involved in designing for events. The system is used today in events worldwide. We’ve seen it in use at events such as Adobe MAX, Salesforce Dreamforce, and Google Cloud Next.

In our event guidelines, we build out large spaces by layering colored panels with typographic treatment.
Dropbox event guidelines: tote bags

Jessica: After you design a system, it has this whole other life once the client or team or company starts using it. After you created our event design system, what did you learn when you handed it off to our events teams? These partners or vendors don’t typically have the same design resources. What tools did you provide to make it easier for them to still produce high-quality materials?

Pedro: This project had endless branches, and sooner rather than later we anticipated that the system would become quite dense. So, for example, we invested in great photography to allow vendors and teams to navigate it a bit better. Guidelines, aside from technical manuals, are a form of storytelling, so photography really helped drive that story, and I loved that we treated it like any other communications photo shoot with high-quality expectations. In addition, we provided succinct instructions, beautiful PDF manuals, simple templates, etc. Hopefully, it all helps teams make one less decision, which is always the aim of a system.

We had no precedent for a system of this kind, and we have learned that events are complex in nature and that a guidelines system can’t resolve every problem. There are always lots of ad hoc decisions to be made.

Large space 2
Way-finding signs

Jessica: In addition to shaping how Dropbox appears at events, you also shaped how the Dropbox identity moves. You created a robust library of bumpers of the Dropbox logos and messaging cards. These animations can start or end a video we publish on any platform—and when some are shorter than four seconds, they become very quick interjections of our brand. What opportunity did you see here to extend our design system or reinforce recognition? What’s the impact of these cards?

Pedro: Dropbox creates a lot of video content, so it was good to work on this. This system was a particularly straightforward application of typography with some very simple motion principles. I think it’s a good example of how some systems applications need to be simple and functional. Hopefully, it helped our teams make their video content feel more like us.

Type card

Jessica: From everything that you’ve learned as a brand designer, what advice do you have for designers who might be considering working in-house?

Pedro: In-house design teams operate in ways not so different from a design studio, except our clients are people within our own company. So I believe transitioning from one to the other isn’t as hard as it seems from the outside. I would say to focus on your own strengths and interests as a designer. Strong voices always stand out in today’s design landscape—I think that includes in-house positions. Being willing to learn new things along the way also helps!

We hope that by sharing stories like this, you get a behind-the-scenes look at our Brand Studio team. For more, read about how LaDonna Witmer Willems and Pedro del Corro worked together on a book for the 2020 Sundance Film Festival here.

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