Studio at WO: Vanessa Hopkins on Brand Identity and System Design

We interviewed Vanessa Hopkins, one of our Designers at Wolff Olins New York, about her career journey into brand design. 

How did you end up getting into brand design? What do you love most about it?

I initially went to school for environmental engineering but quickly realised that I was not a maths person and instead felt myself gravitating more towards the arts. I dabbled a bit in painting, sculpture, and illustration and once I took a formal design class, it all clicked for me. I knew that design was what I wanted to do with my life. It wasn’t my initial intent but I’m so glad I stumbled across it. 

Is there a cross over from engineering to design? Was it difficult to make the jump from one to the other?

Believe it or not, design has a pretty systematic approach to it. It’s about giving order to something. I’ve always been interested in this intersection of sciences and art, and so the jump was pretty easy for me. I also think that in order to create a really strong design, you have to be in tune with using your left and right brain. 

What do you enjoy most about creating a brand identity?

I personally really enjoy the variety. There are endless solutions, different ways to iterate on creating an identity. I love the challenge of creating a system. It’s not just about creating a singular asset that looks really beautiful, rather it's taking a core idea and distilling it into lots of applications. It’s tough to create something simple enough yet beautiful enough to be truly own-able. It’s the puzzle I enjoy solving every time. 

How do you navigate the challenges of working with a client who doesn’t agree with your design territory?

Of course, all designers hope clients listen to our expert advice, but that isn’t always the case. It is a balance of making sure you’re creating something they’re going to be able to use and so there is a decent amount of compromise that comes into play. I do find that more often than not, when you come across the right solution, there isn’t so much compromise and it’s something you both feel really proud of. When it doesn’t line up that way, you have to learn to not get too precious about your design, and be open to pivoting. 

What has been your favourite piece of work so far?

I worked on this project at Mother Design for a hotel called Park Lane and it was so much fun. We had a wonderful team (Matt VanLeeuwen, Molly Dauphin, Yaya Xu, Mark Sloan, Jerelin Reyes, Jorge Badillo, Betsy Dickerson, Nathan Manou, Sam Wright and Danielle Horanieh) and the client really let us go wild.

We got to experiment with a lot of things: play up the contrast, create cool textures, and apply it to really interesting applications, like scaffolding! The system was a cross of maximal and minimal, organic and inorganic, a true mesh of opposing forces and the outcome was really beautiful. 

My second favorite piece is the Eyebeam piece. Eyebeam is an art incubator in Bushwick, New York. They take designs that incorporate some elements of both science and art. It’s very modular and all related to this intersection of organic and inorganic. 

Who are your favourite designers? Why do they inspire you?

I always gravitate towards old school design even when I’m starting a project; I tend to find inspiration in design eras from the past. In terms of designers, I’d have to say I gravitate towards Bruno Munari, Ettore Sottsass, and Paul Rand. I admire how much they’re able to express with very few elements. It’s like they cracked the code on simplicity. They’re my North Star when I’m looking for inspiration. 

What advice would you give someone trying to move into design? 

Big changes are always hard, but in those moments, I’d say you have to follow your intuition. I didn’t know I was going to land in design but I knew heading somewhere in the direction of the arts felt more right than the direction I was previously heading. Follow what’s pulling you and see where it takes you.