*“This new world where it is prestigious to be a designer at places like Facebook, Google, and Dropbox only sprung up around 5–8 years ago.” *–Michael Jeter
Ok, so why am I going on and on about my view of what it used to be like to be an in-house designer? Well, I think it’s important context for the time-traveling journey we’re about to take. Dropbox, like every company at the time, had some serious growing pains to get through. The Brand team had to prove it deserved a seat at the table. And as a company’s needs are constantly evolving, Brand must always be aware of where they can add value. This constant pressure is why brand designers are passionate, dogged, and sometimes downright confrontational about their ideals. And this fighting spirit has ensured that Dropbox gets to count itself as one of those great design-centric companies.
Below are some of the key projects that the brand illustrators were fortunate to be a part of. There were, of course, many other things going on for the Brand team as a whole, but we’ll stick to illustration, as the stories of the entire team would fill up another two-part Medium post.
The Creation of the Dropbox Brand Studio
This is where a new character joins our story: a creative leader well-equipped to lead the team on the quest for keeping the Dropbox brand inspirational. Kristen Spilman, previously an associate partner at Pentagram, joined Dropbox to build a strong, scalable brand. Her entire career was built around the power a brand holds. She learned from and worked with some of the best of the best. The true design geeks on the Brand team became giddy with anticipation.
*“Kristen came from the design heavyweights, so she brought a legit nature to the team because she rubbed elbows with the design royalty. We would incorporate her feedback, and things always came out better even if at times it was difficult.” *–Zach Graham
Kristen’s first initiative was to build a separate arm of the Design org that was specifically working on brand work. She separated brand designers, writers, and illustrators from product design, which helped both orgs increase focus and expertise in their respective fields. Zach Graham, with the addition of three new illustrators, Brandon Land, Fanny Luor, and Dominic Flask, started to work on elevating the brand along with their shiny new team. First impressions can make all the difference for audiences evaluating a product. With this in mind, the Brand team focused their efforts on redesigning the home page. It desperately needed an update, and this was the Illustration team’s chance to come up with a new style and system for illustration.
“There were many reasons why we needed a new illustration style, but one of the most pressing ones was for scale. The role of illustration was prevalent in the product, the product was expanding, and historically, the illustration work had always been created by a single person, be it Jon, or Ryan, or Zach. The demand was growing and the illustrators were burning out. I needed to grow the team and ‘scale illustration’ so that we could meet the needs of the growing product, update our voice to feel current, and build a system with constraints so we could scale with consistency.” –Kristen Spilman
This all sounds exciting, right? But there’s something they don’t tell you about brand illustration. The process of creating a new illustration style is an excruciating one, especially when it’s coupled with something so politically heated like the redesign of the home page. The new style had the potential to be anything under the sun. It could have been 3-D, geometric, analog, vector, etc. Everyone had opinions about it. How the hell do you decide which direction to go? There’s no way to measure, test, or research in any meaningful way. In many ways, it’s a subjective pursuit led by intuition and gut. Don’t screw it up, team!
“Kristen really shielded us from a lot of the politics and negative feedback. She didn’t want the pressure of the world we were in to harsh our creative.” –Brandon Land
Projects like this tend to create a bit of a competitive frenzy if your team is full of talented, hardworking people who want nothing more than to prove themselves. And that’s exactly what Dropbox had. This was a chance for the Brand team to make their mark. The stakes were high. If there were places where the internal team was struggling, then the Brand leads would hire outside help to come mix up the process. Some illustrators worried about the final aesthetic that was to be chosen. What if it was something outside of an illustrator’s wheelhouse? Would they be axed? These were some of the fears and motivators creating a pretty intense moment in time.
With healthy competition in mind, the illustrators set off on their own to concept and iterate.