Member Spotlight: Ralston Vaz, a Brand Designer with Social Purpose

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“Branding is not about a logo. Branding is deliberate differentiation. It’s the ability to create a point of view about a specific construct,” – Debbie Millman

A capable brand designer, of course, has design expertise but also a process, and most importantly, perspective. Our newest Member Spotlight embodies all of those attributes and more: meet Ralston Vaz

Ralston has worn many hats under the umbrella of brand design and as a Skillshare student, he's shown how diverse our community can be. We spoke with him about the pillars of brand design and his journey from design student to leading his own brand consultancy, Thinkory.

Name one of the best lessons you’ve learned in the world design?

Have an opinion.

As a brand designer, I believe I should endeavor to add something substantial to the conversation. Working feverishly to follow a trend and create what is commonly created to render a client ‘happy’ is a waste of me — regardless of the payout.

It’s certainly true that ideas come from other people’s ideas, so inspiration is crucial to producing meaningfully good work. Still, I’ve learned that I need to contribute my perspective, experiences, and faith to best serve the people I work with and the problems we’ve come together to address. I need to have and share opinions on the way in which we go about solving those problems.

I learned that I have to be more than a doer, but a thinker. Guess that explains the name on the business card.

What are your best practices for sharpening your design skill set?

I believe nothing’s better than actually doing work to build skills. Design is no exception.

I literally thank God that I’ve had several opportunities to work in the disciplines of brand strategy and brand design throughout this entire year. The focus has allowed me to identify areas of my skills where I’m weak and leverage areas where I’m strong.

Visit Ralston's profile on Skillshare.

Visit Ralston's profile on Skillshare.

I also try to keep my mind rooted in inspired works. For me, that’s reading articles on LogoDesignLove, Identity Designed, and Brand New. And I enjoy replaying great classes from Mackey Saturday, Courtney Eliseo and George Bokhua on Skillshare when I’m sketching identity concepts for a client.

Where did you learn all of your different facets of design and how would you describe your style?

After we discovered a passion in me for graphic design, my wife, Alicia, encouraged me to at least attend an evening trade school for design in 2000. Much of what I know started there.

It wasn’t the best program, but there were a few great instructors with real world experiences who wanted me to succeed. The facilities gave me access to computer equipment, design labs and studios that enabled me to explore a broad range of creative disciplines. My favorites were web design, 3D modeling and animation, SLR manual photography and, of course, brand design.

My ability to develop concepts and distill visuals matured over time

I took from that 18-month experience whatever I could and eagerly looked for opportunities to put the design techniques I learned to practice as a professional.

My ability to develop concepts and distill visuals matured over time and with some great experiences, but I never actually think of my work in terms of a style. As a brand designer, I want to be sought out because I can create or facilitate the creation of the right solutions to unique and varied business problems. That requires a degree of creative flexibility and adaptability that a single developed style couldn’t serve.

I hope it would be described as visually clean and intellectually elegant. The logos, symbols and brand identities I create tend to be accessible on the surface and reward the curious with a depth of inspired and relevant meaning to the brand and the fan.

If there’s one golden rule for new brands and brand perception, what would it be?

I’ll take a great line from The Matrix and say, “Know thyself.”

People crave authenticity, we've gotten really good at spotting fakes and demand thoughtful experiences with every brand interaction. So don’t bother building a brand perception or position you can’t uphold under pressure.

Spend some time in introspection. Define the collective soul of your organization through the core principles of purpose, mission, vision and values. Commit to operating out of these principles no matter what. That time and vow will allow people to authentically feel the heartbeat of your brand with every engagement.

What’s your first step in branding a new project, idea, or client (as a strategist, designer, etc)?

Get understanding. I can’t solve a problem I don’t understand. At least, not in any enduring way.

Every one of my projects begins and progresses through conversation. The way I see it, an organization has lived with an idea or operated a viable business for years before I came into the picture, so I’ve got lots of catching up to do. I conduct interviews, ask probing questions, challenge responses and generally work to earn the right to represent a brand strategically and visually.

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Most times, getting understanding through explorative conversation takes weeks before we begin to produce anything tangible. But no time is wasted and everyone — even and especially the client — is learning much about the organization, where it’s headed, where it is today and what stands in the way. And once the root problem is clearly identified (which is often different from what clients believe it is initially), the fun of designing authentic and resonate brand expressions can begin!

Tell us about the inspiration behind starting your brand consultancy, Thinkory!

I think several things led to the founding of our brand consultancy. What readily comes to mind is something Alicia said to me years ago: “You’re not going to find your perfect world. You have to create it.” I was frustrated and unfulfilled in my work; tired of the cheapening of design to chase trends and make clients happy while eroding their market significance.

I knew there had to be a better way to help people as a designer and Alicia encouraged me to create it.

We realized the best use of our skills and abilities as strategists and designers was to help social enterprises.

It was with that motivation that we eventually founded Thinkory in 2011, though its core competencies went through a few iterations until 2014. That year, our family felt deeply led by God to live adventurously while learning to actually trust Him with our lives. We let our house go in a miraculous short sale, sold 95% of our possessions and moved from the Atlanta suburbs (our home for 11 years) to the Washington, DC area. We discovered a lot about ourselves, our family and our faith through that hard journey.

Out of that discovery and time of introspection, Thinkory’s purpose became clear: To make hope visible by illuminating good works with good design.

We realized the best use of our skills and abilities as strategists and designers was to help social enterprises. We narrowed our market to become a social enterprise consumer brand consultancy and began the continued work of honing in on our deep-dive, brand-building processes. The rest is a history still being written.

In one sentence, can you share a favorite class on Skillshare and why you'd suggest it?

A favorite Skillshare class to rewatch is Dynamic Brand Identity: Designing Logos That Evolve with Paula Scher because it’s intimately shared professional insight that recenters me as a brand strategist and designer.

Ralston Vaz

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