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5 min read

Studio How&How on designing for ambiguity

An interview with design agency How&How's co-founder, Cat How.

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From Brexit to parenthood to moving to another country, husband and wife duo Cat and Rog How have adapted to a lot of change over the past couple of years. But rather than shy away from it, they decided to embrace it, lean into the uncertainty, and start a new agency amidst it all.

Operating from both Lisbon and London, full-service digital design studio How&How specializes in designing and evolving brands across digital platforms. Recent projects include rebrands and marketing campaigns for high-end sneaker brand Kick Game, leading user research and testing app UserZoom, and fintech startup Trackinsight. How&How gained a lot of experience in working with technology brands, but increasingly their interest in sustainability has led to innovative projects, such as Eat Less Plastic and Deadly Dust, that raise awareness of climate change and the impact of plastic on our environment.

We caught up with creative director Cat How to find out about the origins of the growing agency, the challenges of branding in the tech sector, and the role research plays in their work.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Image courtesy How&How. Work for predictive intelligence brand-building platform Bera.

How&How isn't the first business you and Rog set up together. How did the new consultancy come about, and why the change in direction?

Indeed, How&How isn’t our first foray into being our own bosses. In fact, we started out over 12 years ago and have iterated businesses along the way — adapting to change in our personal lives (i.e. babies) and trying to mitigate other bumps in the road ahead (i.e. Brexit).

I’ve known my business partner and husband Rog for most of my life, we met when we were 18 at university in Bristol, and now I’m 39… so 21 years! Our first business was a market stall in Melbourne. This evolved into a larger market stall in Brick Lane as I was finishing an MA at Central Saint Martins.

When I graduated, we got married and decided to move back to Bristol and set up a design shop called Howkapow. This sold the work of independent designer-makers and illustrators, but when Brexit happened we knew it just wasn’t going to be viable anymore. We decided to set up a coworking business instead and collaborated with a designer on the brand for it — which is how our little agency was formed.

At first the agency was a bit of an afterthought, but we had already started to grow tired of all the physical work associated with the shop and the co-working, and the thought of just using our brains and a laptop really appealed. A few months into the start of the agency, we took the plunge and moved to Lisbon (I’m half Portuguese) and have since grown the team from here as well as London, which we believe is still one of the leading cities in the world for design and creativity.

What are How&How's core values?

Rog and I have very different ways of approaching projects — he thinks very strategically and analytically, while I’m more creative — which led us to coin the term “leftright thinking.” This is based on the fact that all minds think differently, and that both ways of thinking are equally valid. We believe that humans are multifaceted and want to celebrate this diversity through the work we produce, so we give equal weight to different strengths, sexes and skillsets.

We baked the egalitarian beliefs behind the concept of leftright thinking into the structure of our company — from an ideas-and-skills meritocracy to equal pay. We see “twoism” as a strength (we almost named our agency after it!), and working from London and Lisbon has meant that we’ve been able to use the best things about these two locations too. It also helps us to see value and connection in seemingly opposing things. Strategy and design; pragmatism and optimism; form and function; head and heart.

How important is tone of voice in developing an effective brand system? How do you help brands establish the right tone of voice?

As a former journalist, words are just as close to my heart as images. They provide the initial framework that all the rest of the creative is draped over. Tone of voice is how a brand speaks and articulates itself, whereas you could argue brand identity is concerned with how it looks and works. Images might be great to reference during initial stages of identity work, but it’s the “brand idea,” which is a slogan or phrase, that is the cornerstone to all the creative work that follows.

We always work with verbal and brand strategists at the early phases of a project. Having the strategy articulated in this way from the outset means that the creative that follows is a lot stronger and less wooly. Our project for fintech company Trackinsight was no such exception. For this exchange-traded fund (ETF) analysis platform, our brand idea was “an oasis of calm” where customers could focus through the ‘noise’ of ETF competition. We kept this phrase as our north star throughout the whole process, and I think it worked well in keeping the final identity super-solid.

Image courtesy How&How. Branding for UX insights brand UserZoom.

What are the main challenges of repositioning and relaunching technology brands like Trackinsight and UserZoom?

Tech products and the SAAS (Software as a Service) companies which sell them are difficult to pin down and position. The product sold is a cloud-based service, which is a lot more nebulous than relaunching a coffee shop or nice artisanal bakery. There is also a lot of competition out there in SAAS, so trying to find a position that has meaning and is different is difficult — but not impossible.

For both Trackinsight and UserZoom we relied heavily on good strategy from the beginning, doing a lot of research to find out exactly who we were speaking to and then dialling that up to 11 to make ourselves heard. It also really helped that we had excellent marketing managers on the client side — that was so important in shaping the overall outlook too.

Image courtesy How&How. Branding work for Eat Less Plastic campaign.

You also run a series of self-initiated campaigns, like Eat Less Plastic and Deadly Dust, to raise awareness of climate change effects and plastic pollution. What do these environmentally-conscious side projects mean to you as a studio?

They mean a lot. In fact, they are two of the projects I am most proud of, possibly because they are done completely off our own steam, using our own resources. Also possibly because they are the two projects that have led to the most interesting client work that we are doing now in the earthtech sector, with companies using technology to drive the sustainable transition. I also like how they both have really different personalities, but came from random articles I read in The Guardian one Sunday morning.

Image courtesy How&How. brand strategy and identity for Kick Game.

What inspired the visual components of the brand identity that you created for luxury footwear and apparel retailer Kick Game?

Kick Game was a project that was heavily quantitatively and qualitatively researched — the team there really wanted to know everything about their buyers and their buying habits. We conducted weeks of interviews and did stacks of polls and surveys. Sneaker-geeks are so, so interesting. What we found, ultimately, is that they are obsessed with details and detailing. So we got into it too: we analyzed the tread marks on the bottom of sneakers and mimicked the shine of materials and stitching patterns. We wanted to elevate sneakers to a higher form of fashion and art — literally framing them and putting them on pedestals. It was a really fun project.

As change is a constant in your career, how do you see How&How evolve?

How&How will definitely evolve, and as we do more and more work in the earthtech sector we’re already starting to see the beginnings of what this evolution might be. We’d like to think about venture capital and start investing in some of the earthtech companies that we build brands and websites for.

Ultimately, we’d love to do more work which has a direct impact on resolving some of the big climate issues of our time. It’s a small dream, but if there’s one thing I’ve learnt in my career so far, it’s that small dreams always have to start somewhere.