the ARGOT/NOTS

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         Our experimentation with exciting materials and scales when we feel the need to push the boundaries.

TYPE PLAYGROUND
        We love drawing letters, logotypes, & alphabets. Here is a sampling of some of our team’s text-based projects.

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We have been fortunate to have had so many interesting experiences that have taught us so many interesting things! We love sharing some of the lessons we’ve learned along the way, grouping them by the categories below.



Business as Sculpture

1. Built, Found, Assembled

Logan Hamilton Acton // August 7, 2022

TLDR: While a work of sculpture can be built, found, or assembled, a brand is always necessarily an assemblage of some which is built and much which is found.

Material transformation

Most people do not make sculpture. Okay, our art school training has taught us to question even that assertion because what, really, constitutes a piece of sculpture? Or an act of sculpture (for those of you inclined to privilege the verb over the noun in such a description)? But tantalizing tangents aside, we mean this at face value: most of our readers neither make, nor often think much about, sculptural works of art. When pushed, many are likely to think of marble, bronze, or clay when considering sculpture par excellence, and perhaps the occasional steel (stainless or otherwise). Please understand, we don’t mean this in any derogatory way. Instead, it underscores the rewards and hazards of specialization in education as well as the challenges of making and exhibiting contemporary three-dimensional art.

Plaster sculpture
As a budding sculpture student in many fine art programs, you are likely to take some sort of course on ‘materials and processes’ which introduces you to an array of traditional and current ways of taking raw material and transforming it into a finished artistic product (we’ll set aside considerations here of art, craft, and industrial design for want of space and endless tangents). Think woodshop, plaster, metal casting, perhaps construction or fabrication lab technologies. This particular unit of instruction is all about the aforementioned ‘material transformation’ by means of which a raw chunk of something joins with idea and varying level of skill to become something other, something more. The fundamental act of creation, of making something.

Postmodern principles and contemporary practice

Well. Then comes the rub. Any first semester art student will rattle you off a list of design principles — while we discuss these elsewhere, you may be familiar with terms such as repetition, variety, movement, balance, and so forth. Assimilating this knowledge can be very useful, certainly in understanding that which has preceded us but also in practicing our own craft. However…Olivia Gude either changed (or named the change critical to) contemporary practice with her ‘Postmodern Principles’ — appropriation, juxtaposition, recontextualization, layering, interaction of text and image, hybridity, gazing, and representation. Couple this with her ‘Principles of Possibility’ and hopefully you’ll come to appreciate why serious art education is not for the faint of heart.

As always, we’re aware of that tiny voice in your head now asking, “okay, so what can this tell me about business?” Thank you for bearing with us. The point: it is not enough to learn how to build. In the words of Seth Godin (perhaps mis-applied, but we’re running with it) — “Making is insufficient.” We cannot pretend that it is 1900 and seek to imitate the process of Rodin (or Carl Milles, if you’d like a Swedish sculptor dear to our heart). Today it is as viable a solution to find the elements of a sculpture as it is to make them, as respected to assemble as it is to construct. The beauty in this is the recognition in so much of the world around us of that which is already worthy of our attention — that seeing the inherent qualities of a piece of stone (or even consumer plastic) negates the requirement to re-shape it into something other. At the same time, the prerequisite of technical skill loses a bit of its edge: yes, knowing how to take a slab of clay and shape it into a vessel is powerful, but so too is the nuanced understanding of form that takes 1000 multiples of an object and finds a compelling outcome. What a strange and wonderful world we inhabit.

Sculpture including found and made objects
All things are not equal, but these are rich and challenging considerations when you next encounter a piece of sculpture (again, not to mention the incredible legacy of contemporary design that toys endlessly with the relationship of form and function). In such moments, ask yourself whether the outcome before you has been built, found, assembled, or some combination of these (or other inflections thereof). Meaning accumulates in unruly ways, which is much the point we’d now like to discuss as it pertains to branding.

What we talk about when we talk about branding

People use all sorts of ways to describe what a brand is (or means or does — even here things become slippery). As with most ideas (and the words that represent them) the second you start to look closely, you find yourself in surprisingly murky water surprisingly fast. Did you catch that? We slipped into metaphor to make a point that might feel abstract, far more concrete and, therefore, understandable. Language around branding does this in spades…fun, isn’t it? Working as educators taught us endless lessons — many of which we’ll share here over time — not the least of which was the centrality of metaphor to learning, and human understanding at large. Metaphor allows us to use something familiar as a way to frame, and therefore assimilate, new information. It enables us to see and think differently.

When you start listening for it, you’ll hear people (ourselves included) describe branding by all manner of equivalencies: a brand is a promise, a brand is an idea, a brand is the result of everything a company does, a brand is the feeling someone has when they think of your business. What’s interesting about this way of thinking is that all of these are likely to be true (or at least serve as effective pathways toward the truth) as is one of our favorite ways of considering branding — as a fantasy. In his book Brand Seduction: How Neuroscience can Help Marketers Build Memorable Brands, Daryl Weber uses the idea of the “brand fantasy” persuasively, to describe the loose (and messy) associations “of fleeting images, abstract thoughts, and nuanced emotions that, for the most part, live below our conscious awareness.” Weber tells us that all of this comes together to form a ‘brand fantasy’ — an aspirational representation of something “people want to have, something they want to be associated with and connected to, or provide a taste of the life they’d like to live.”1

We like this way of thinking because it resonates with our own interpretation of how we (and others) move through the world — as consciously and carefully as we’re able, but inevitably inconsistently and full of contradictions. As rational beings who enjoy thinking and analysis, it’s no small blow to our sense of self to admit that as fallible humans, we still operate as much by feeling as anyone else — as susceptible to the seductions of a brand as the rest, even as we think about their construction regularly. So a primarily semantic question in sculpture becomes a central problem in brand building: are they built, found, or assembled?

Some conditional conclusions

Unsurprisingly, marketers and designers often focus on the parts of brand development over which we have control. This not only makes sense, it’s also a crucial part of establishing a strategic foundation. There is so much outside our circle of control, and often any hope we have of nudging something across this boundary begins with giving it a name. You want to communicate more effectively so folks will buy what you have to offer? It really helps to know clearly and with nuance the person receiving those messages. The tone, feel, and visual elements that will be persuasive? Oh so critical to identify them thoughtfully. Hopefully even these snippets of the strategic process illustrate the point: this much can be analyzed and rationally developed, this much can be built. It is likely transparent at this point (but we never tire of stating the obvious) that the actual living, breathing humans with all their likes and dislikes, memories and desires constitute that part of branding which is found. Certainly we are all changing, changeable individuals, but our feelings can also be oddly resilient and irrationally stubborn.

To bring things back to our initial foray into sculptural practice, consider that even the most direct form of a found object installation necessitates at least one action from the artist: selection. In order for a piece to even register as art to others, an artist must point to the object identified, offering context by repositioning it to the space of the gallery, taking a photograph, or at least notating the selection in a written statement. In much the same way, as we work to build a brand it is not enough to merely find, unless we engage with that which is found. People bring all of their inner complexity and assumptions and associations to our shared cultural products, and ultimately a brand results from the aggregation of all this richness, individually and collectively.

This, then, would be our conditional conclusion: a work of sculpture can be built, found, assembled, or any mix you desire of these and other approaches. In the case of branding, the outcome is always necessarily an assemblage of some which is built and much which is found. Keep this in mind as you undertake the exciting (and hopefully rigorous) process of your own branding efforts. Be as thorough and conscious as possible around the proverbial white board, but give equal measure to the irrational and unconscious and messy nature of feelings we find out there in the real world. Respecting the found shapes how you think about the built, and greatly improve the odds for success in that which you assemble.


1 Weber, Daryl. Brand Seduction: How Neuroscience can Help Marketers Build Memorable Brands, Career Press, Wayne, NJ, 2016, pp. 14–15.




Notes from the Field

1. Guiding Principles

Logan Hamilton Acton // July 10, 2022

TLDR: A foundational brand strategy should inspire your team, identifying the north star that drives the business and the essential principles that define its character. By way of illustration, this list presents our core values and context for putting them into action.

1. Be human

Above all else, our clients are people. Our first priority is considering their well-being and committing to the success of their businesses. Empathy is the core of living well and design that matters. When we invest in relationships, treating ourselves and others with compassion, we can minimize misunderstandings and achieve great things together.

2. Almost anyone can learn almost anything

Our experiences have shaped the things we know and drawn the boundaries of the questions we ask. With enough opportunity and time, however, dedication and practice in unfamiliar territory can transform to mastery.

3. See potential

A good brief has tight constraints when you see opportunity instead of limitation. If a client or colleague shows interest in something unfamiliar, be a resource that supports their growth. See the best in each person and situation — through this simple act of faith in one another, more often than not, those around you will rise to the occasion.

4. Grow together

Empower others by sharing the things we learn. Our clients come to us because they need help. Empower them and future-proof your practice by generously facilitating understanding without judgment. Just as critically, we build our team to be leaders in their field of expertise, supporting education and professional opportunities — even when these may take them on new adventures elsewhere.

5. Be a generous guide

How fortunate we are that so many incredible people have blazed the trails we walk and left notes for those that follow. Share your knowledge and provide context with great documentation. Take the time to explain the process and you set everyone up for continued success — not least of all those intrepid explorers who share the quest for great design.

6. Listen between the lines

In the words of Joan Didion, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” As an outsider to the narratives of those around us, we have a great vantage point to observe the often critical things that go unsaid — the assumed, the omitted, the justified. Consider the thinking behind someone’s story and a world of complexity awaits.

7. Pursue understanding

Be curious. Ask questions. In relationships as in work, each encounter can teach us something new as well as put our strengths in action. Meaning does not stand still and the work we do presents a series of moving targets. To be responsible stewards for our clients, our world, and our own individual spirit, we must never go a day without asking, “why?”

8. Work to be understood

It’s not what you say but what others hear that counts. Remember this and we will be both kinder toward others and more compassionate toward those ideas they may find unfamiliar — perhaps we may also find the patience to explain ourselves more thoughtfully and so find our inevitable commonalities.

9. Be bold, be true

Live with the confidence that hard work and knowledge provide, balanced with the humility of a beginner’s mindset that reminds us of the infinite horizon of things to learn. To be authentic is to live free from pretense. When we make space for the best in ourselves and celebrate differences in others, our work overflows with the exuberance of feeling whole.

10. Craft is care

Excellence and quality are foundational to the way we move through the world. We live by the details. Everything we create results from thousands of tiny decisions, each one an opportunity to be present and focused. We treat each client with the same care we would ourselves because our responsibility to one another requires no less.

11. Design with purpose

It’s not just how a thing looks, but whether it works. Begin with purpose — from the simple need for clear communication to the imperative to support worthwhile causes. Spend your time and team resources well by making things that perform. Ask questions first so that if it won’t work, we don’t bother.

12. Play, seriously

Play opens our minds through lateral thinking and the joy of discovery. When we sneak up on a problem we find creative solutions rather than the anxiety of confronting obstacles head on. Design is important and we treat it as such — what better way to respect our duties than by performing them with pleasure through a sustainable approach? Humor reminds us that we can have fun while doing great work that matters.



Lessons From the Studio, or Things We Learned in Art School

1. Begin with the Obvious

Logan Hamilton Acton // June 30, 2022

TLDR: Consistently investing time in strategic thinking before implementation will save you time, money, and headaches.

The premise

For those of you who may not have experienced the wild beast that is an art critique (and certainly for those of you who have) suffice it to say that there are an abundance of learnings in this environment, both explicit and otherwise. First, perhaps, an introductory run-down.

The premise is something like this: an art or design student has completed a project and installed it for review in a semi-public environment (e.g. department gallery or crit space, or perhaps a studio which will temporarily serve as host for this group discussion). Other students and faculty will likely have had an opportunity to visit the work in advance of the critique, and perhaps one or two have been tasked with preparing written notes to get the conversation going.

Installation of sculpture in a gallery
In any event, once the group has shown up and settled in, something needs to get the ball rolling to get past the potentially awkward silence which may otherwise ensue. Depending on the faculty overseeing the festivities, there may be introductory questions or prompts (at least early in the day — by the time students are looking at the third piece on display it is mostly expected that they should have hit their stride by as caffeine will have kicked in and a sort of natural group rhythm emerged). Likewise there may be more or fewer guide rails to the crit as some faculty subscribe to a driver seat approach and others more of an assisted passenger seat sort of set-up familiar from driver’s ed vehicles — they are there to step in if needed, but otherwise learning happens best in the act of doing.

Finding a shared language

So. Where critiques can and often do go awry (and rather quickly, at that) is when the group skips over the crucial observation phase and moves straight to interpretation and judgment. In these situations something very simple has happened: nobody has taken the time to state the obvious. What is the thing in front of our eyes? The physical, tangible (or occasionally intangible but still sensorial) thing whose formal and material and durational qualities we can name? By starting with this basic approach we are consistently and helpfully reminded that what is obvious to one person is often not obvious to another, and sometimes not even easily navigable except by way of carefully delineated thought processes. In other words, our experiences and frames of reference shape our most fundamental understandings and without a clear, shared language for the object of our encounter, by the time we have jumped to interpretation or judgment or anything more advanced than “this is a painting” we may be hopelessly beyond any sort of consensus (or constructive complexity and dissensus, even).

Okay, you may be thinking, so all this to say that art school is exactly the kind of weird lawless place you always imagined it to be where what passes for education is a far cry from your own college or graduate school days. Maybe so — yet the lesson we have repeatedly extrapolated from these experiences holds true, not least of all when thinking about the most foundational of business practices: strategy and implementation.

All too often when we get in the thick of things and are just trying to keep our projects and businesses moving forward we make certain decisions that, while obvious to us, may not have a broad shared understanding team-wide. Add to the mix the additional contractors and vendors amidst our ranks who also don’t have the benefit of deep company knowledge or hours working side-by-side where other crucial learning takes place — particularly these days where remote working and hybrid schedules mean that some of the people you have on the ground (with their hands on the proverbial keyboard) might be working mostly in isolation. Without taking the time to put strategic thinking into so many words in documentation available across teams and departments, implementation is a gamble at best.

Differentiate through documentation

Perhaps an example to clarify: in our line of work it is common practice for companies to hire out graphic design work to freelancers or creative agencies (much like ourselves), many times on a campaign or project-by-project basis. In these circumstances, a thorough brand style guide is everybody’s best friend and the creative team’s guiding light. At a minimum, having key elements explicitly spelled out (the exact fonts to use to remain consistent, hex or Pantone codes to ensure the colors are just right) means that the assets your hired help are putting together have a greater likelihood of looking like they are yours.

Going a step further, however, can be the real game changer. By including more detailed written documentation about why decisions were made as well as graphic examples of a visual system in play, your semi-nomadic vendors can best work within the framework you intended with your strategic foundation, or bend the guidelines to their limits to create a fresh look and feel that still communicates all the essential characteristics of your brand. It’s this bigger picture thinking spelled out and explained — the shared understanding about why things are done and for which audiences, for instance — that can transform good outcomes to truly memorable and impactful.

Begin with the obvious

Invest the time to spell out your key strategic foundation — your brand personality, primary and secondary stakeholders, your vision and reason for being, among other things — along with the project-specific goals your team is there to achieve. By putting this in black and white before getting to implementation, you reposition a game of chance to much more solid ground — and likely save yourself a lot of time, money, and headaches. By making strategy before implementation standard operating procedure, your deliverables (whether copywriting or design or whatever other piece of the puzzle you may be tasked with) will cohesively communicate the brand — building you equity, loyalty, and that oh-so-important bottom line that proves return on your investment. Take it from us — we’ve sat through critiques that ignored the obvious, and we’d like to spare you the trouble.


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the ARGOT/NOTS
© 2022
︎     ︎     ︎     ︎     ︎
the ARGOT/NOTS
© 2022