Ashley Jankowski of Braizen & The Type Set Co.
On building brands, being bold, and keeping business all in the family.
photography by ANGIE WEBB
product photography by BRAIZEN
introduction by KIM CONWAY
This interview was originally published in Issue Two.
It’s quite literally all in the family for the creative minds behind the design and branding firm, Braizen. Siblings Ashley Jankowski and Walter Cochran, and their cousin Tyrie Smith, were already working together when they realized they shared a desire to approach their clients with a more confident and bold attitude. Starting with the name, Braizen came to be.
Whether it’s “bold and unapologetic” or “refined and feminine,” Braizen values great design, copy, and style that adapts to their range of clients. Between the ever-growing impressive portfolio of work and the personality of their own brand, Braizen continues to attract clients who are sarcastic and “don’t mind a little cussing.” Their end-game is telling stories visually as a means of encouraging their clients to own what they’re doing—and what they want to do.
Though every day is different for their team members, one thing is certain: Braizen’s ‘engineer meets designer meets serial entrepreneur meets folklore PhD’ roots ensure that no day goes by without an idea unturned. One particular idea—the result of a shower brainstorm—grew into an entire business of its own: The Type Set Co. The cooler-than-alphabet-refrigerator-magnets are one of Ashley’s creative outlets outside of Braizen, “The whole business keeps me inspired and has helped me work with branding clients in ways I never imagined.”
Read on, as Ashley discusses why the sum of a brand matters more than the individual elements and how real-time refinement sessions have made Braizen even more unique. She tells us about the integral role family plays in and out of the office and also gives us a peek at Braizen’s recent elegant-yet-down-to-earth client, Roam. If you’re bursting to be bolder and you’re craving to be confident—you’re fit to be Braizen.
Tell us about the origins of Braizen. How did it became a family affair?
It started, actually, after I decided to separate from previous business partners. My cousin and brother were also working with us, and there were things the three of us wanted to do a little differently. I don’t want to say anything negative about my business partners from before, they’re lovely people, we just had different mindsets about how we wanted to handle things. I wanted to be a little bit more bold and in-your-face, to feel confident in the professional opinions that we were giving our clients—that was important to me. And Tyrie and Walter felt the same way.
That’s where Braizen came from. We were like what is our attitude, what do we want to be? How do we want to be portrayed? For us it started with the name, Braizen. We wrote down the values we wanted to have and it developed from there. We’re not mean, by any stretch of the word and we always want clients to be happy, but we want to make sure our opinion is known and that a client really understands that. So it started with the three of us, and since then, my cousin AnneMarie has joined the Braizen team and also runs our sister company, Swoone.
Take us through a week in the life of Team Braizen.
Walter, AnneMarie, and Kallie are in the office with me all the time. We just added two contractors, Kelly and Hannah, who occasionally come up from downtown Atlanta. I used to be completely we can’t have any contractors, they have to be employees, and they have to be able to come here. I’ve loosened that a little bit, because it’s pretty easy to communicate now. And it is nice that they’re local. Kallie does all of our social media and Raquel is our Virtual Assistant. Every day is different for every person on our team. Walter and I don’t usually walk into the office until around 9:30 or 10AM, but AnneMarie and Kallie are early birds so they start at 8AM. Tyrie works remotely—usually in little snippets.
I think we all pretty much touch our email first. It feels good to get that out of the way and see if a client has sent us requested content before we start our day. We like structure when possible, so our projects are on weekly deadlines. We try to work with no more than two projects a week—two things happening for each designer. Mondays and Tuesdays are set aside for project kick-off, check-in calls, and refinement calls. Fridays are deliverable days. In between, we’re working on client projects. Everyone is pretty dedicated, so when there’s extra work to be done or a deadline to be met, we work a little longer.
What are the most beneficial aspects of running Braizen (and its sister brands) with a tight-knit team?
I think you can count on family or friends in a way that you might not be able to always count on a stranger. They’re more immersed in, dedicated to, and invested in what’s going on in the business, rather than coming to a job and leaving when the day is done.
How does Team Braizen stay productive, while also leaving room for fun and creative play?
We stay productive because we stay busy. Just because it’s creative work doesn’t mean we’re not working all the time. We do still cut up and have fun. We do birthday lunches, mid-day cocktails, and monthly in-office massages. And lunches around my kitchen table are never dull with a part-time comedian on staff. We’re also organized and try to stick to a schedule as best we can. Stress happens and productivity goes in the toilet when our schedules are thrown off or overloaded.
What piece of advice would you share with someone who’s looking to expand their team?
Write down your process! Before I brought on our designers, Hannah and Kelly, I knew I had to write down everything for them so they’d know how I want things. I created templates and a rulebook—essentially saying you can do this but you can’t do this, this is how we approach social media, here’s the size of the document that you make for a client, this is a mood board and how it looks so that everything is very consistent. Start with bullet points and think about what you would want to know if you were going to work for someone—I would want to know what their expectations were. Everybody has their own way of doing things, so you just have to address things as they come up, like, hey, I love the mockups that you made, but I have a tendency to like dropshadows instead of outlines. It’s all about educating and setting up good expectations.
I love your tagline, “experts in branding and badassery,” and how you unapologetically remain authentic in all of your branding—from the copy on your website to your social media posts, the personality of your company comes across confidently and consistently. How do you teach your clients to do the same in their own brands? How do you help them become confident in what makes their companies unique?
It’s all about telling their story visually. A lot of times they can tell their story themselves, but they don’t know how to put it into visuals. Tyrie, our copywriter, has a degree in creative writing and a PhD in folklore, which is weird, but really helps in branding—it really has that storytelling vibe. He’s very involved in our strategy and I’m the one who interprets that into visuals.
Badass or Braizen looks different for every brand. To us it’s bold and unapologetic, but for others it’s happy and colorful or refined and feminine. Our job is to help clients translate their Braizen into a visual story. We pride ourselves on not having a set style, but rather being able to adapt and tailor our work specifically for each client. That’s Braizen. Great design boosts confidence, in much the same way a great outfit does. It helps clients feel confident in their products or services, in themselves, and in their story.
Do you feel like there’s a difference in the level of confidence that your clients have when the project comes to an end versus when they first came to you? Do you see that they have really grown?
Oh, yeah! What I’ve learned is that a lot of people don’t say what they want. I’ve had clients who want to be a destination photographer, but they’ve never said it before, so they wonder why no one has booked them for any destination gigs. You have to say it in order for it to happen. And unbelievably, that is the simplest advice! If you want to do it, say you do it! Back it up and be simple about it! I also think people overcomplicate things and do too much. Niche down and say what you do. We might help guide them with copy or it might just be me saying, “You need to say it. What is it?” It’s coaxing out of them what they want out of their business and saying it in a tagline or their copy. And a lot of times, the brand gives them the confidence to say it. It’s the boost they need to make them feel like oh, this is legit. We’ve had several clients come back to us years later and say that because they said it, it made all the difference.
Is there a particular part of the process that you love? What role do you play?
I like to be the idea person. There is so much creativity in the idea. My favorite part is probably drawing an idea on a Post-It note, handing it to my designer, and letting them take that to the next level. We’re not over here doing hundreds of sketches. We’ve really embraced a one concept approach. Over the years, my instinct is something I’ve learned to trust. If I know it’s a good idea, then that’s the one we’re going to explore further. But I also talk with our designers—if they don’t think it’s a good idea, then we go back! I consider myself a creative director who hands off an idea and says let’s hear your creative voice and see what you can do with this.
What might surprise readers about the branding process?
We often tell clients “no” when they ask for something that we think is a bad idea or isn’t in the best interest of their brand—it’s part of our Braizen philosophy. People come to a designer for their professional advice.
What does the rest of your process look like with a client?
Our process is really only three weeks long—that’s it. The first week we’re getting to know them, what their likes and dislikes are, who their customer is, and if there are any discrepancies in their likes and dislikes. Next, I get to work on a strategy: here’s who I think your client is, sort of regurgitating what they’ve told us and adding our own opinions. I do a mood board and I break that down: this is the logo style, these are the colors, this is why we’re doing those colors, this is the illustration style, and this is why we’re going to do that. We have a call on Monday or Tuesday to discuss that, then we go away and we work the week. Fridays are our deliverable day—that’s when we upload a concept for a client. I like for them to sit on it over the weekend, because what I don’t want to happen is they have a reaction and three days later, they’re regretting what they said. That’s just my experience! Everybody has a different way of doing it, but I like to address it after they’ve had a little time. I like to do live refinement calls over Skype on the Mondays following the concept delivery. It doesn’t always happen this way, but we try to do the refinements and the file prep that week as well.
On deliverable days, what do your clients receive? Do you give them any guidance on how to process everything they’re seeing?
We spend a good two to three solid days on a concept and we build the whole thing out. They’re not just getting a logo, they’re getting four logo variations and we show them how secondary type interacts with that. If there was a logo anatomy, like if we built the logo to have these different elements that meant different things, this is what we would show. Then we do mockups; I usually always do a business card mockup. Here’s how all this stuff comes together: I like to tell clients don’t nitpick one thing out of this. You might not like the logo, but you like all of it together. And that’s what matters—it’s about the sum of the parts. It’s not about the individual elements. The color palette can say one thing and the logo can say another thing and the illustrations or icons can say another thing! All together, they tell the story. I say that with every single new client—that’s the advice I give them. You can spread all these graphics out. They can be independent, but come together in a very cohesive way.
What do your refinement calls look like with clients? How much time do they save you?
We do all of our refinements over a shared screen with our clients. I share the whole artboard so they can make a decision instantly and I’m not waiting for an email from them. If they’re like I don’t know if that blue is quite what I want it to be, we can literally adjust it in front of them. We call it a live refinement session and they’re fascinated! They have so much more respect for what we do when they can see the revisions live. It’s also nice to have a face-to-face, especially if they’re not totally happy with something. They’ll give nice, honest feedback because they can see me and see that I’m not upset. It’s very collaborative—instead of saying something looks bad, I can show them and say here it is, it doesn’t look good. And they can go you’re right, I get it. Or sometimes, I’m like you know what? You’re right, that looks good! It gives them confidence in that they can give me their opinion and I either agree with them or not—and that’s okay. It really helps our process a lot. Colors are easy to change, fonts are easy to change, even a minor detail, like one little letter, is easy to change. That’s a huge burden off them and us.
How intense or in-depth is the information you get from new clients?
A lot of people say our questionnaire is like therapy. Sometimes if I don’t understand a client on the first call, I send them the questionnaire as sort of a freebie. That helps me to know if they’re going to be art directing or if they don’t know who they are and they need to do some soul searching—then I can advise them from there. If I might have a red flag or if I’m just not jiving or I don’t understand what their business is, I’ll have them fill out a questionnaire—even though we try to sell it as a part of the service, I’ll give it to someone if I need a little bit more information from them.
You’ve worked with some incredible brands. What makes them say, “Here’s my money, I’m ready to go?” What advice would you give a new designer or new design team on how to set themselves up for success in attracting the people they want to work with?
I would say it’s a combination of our work and our personality that we put out there. Like attracts like, right? We get a lot of people who are very brazen. They don’t mind a little cussing, they are very sarcastic, they really pick up what we’re putting down, essentially! We can tell that from our contact form. We ask, “What’s my kid’s name?” That tells me a lot. Did they read my website? Are they funny? Because we get answers like his name is Bosephus—that tells me that they maybe didn’t read it, but they’re funny. And that’s okay. Honestly, our contact form weeds people out. Have a good contact form and put out the work that you want. By the way, my kid’s name is Opie. And he’s hilarious. He’s an only child and he’s just turned 10—a couple digits! We homeschool him and he’s already like a little entrepreneur. I think he would totally be an ace in the whole “sales guy.” People come up to him and they want to talk to him. When they find out his name, they want to talk to him more.
I would love to hear how The Type Set Co. grew from an idea to an actual product! What sparked the idea and what have you learned from adding a product to your service-based company?
I’ve been wanting to do a product for a long time. My husband’s an engineer and he’d say do it, do it! He’s always been encouraging and knows that I really like to do design for myself. In product design, you have to be in a problem solving mode and you have to find a void in the market. What is something that doesn’t exist or something that you can make better?
I’ve always loved the Letterfolk boards, but I’ve had issues with them. I’ve got to dump the bag of letters out, sort them out, stick them in, and then my finger hurts. And the felt has hair all over it, because I have three dogs and two cats in my house—I’m like I just never change this damn thing out! But I like the snarky comments—the words become art and I LOVE that. We’ve also painted alphabet refrigerator magnets gold to use in styled shoots. I was in the shower when I came up with the idea for The Type Set Co. What if we did alphabet refrigerator magnets and made them cool? I sat on that idea for a month. I did a ton of research: Does this exist? Can I find this? Does anybody make gold ones? Does anybody make white ones that you’d want to put on your refrigerator? I ordered every set of alphabet refrigerator magnets I could and analyzed them. What’s wrong with these? How can I make these better and more well-designed? We worked on it for over a year before we released it last December.
I will say, having a product is totally different than a service. I mean, it’s night and day. I never had to do marketing for Braizen, because of word of mouth or people finding me on Pinterest because my work got pinned. It’s organic. So I’m having to come up with a marketing plan—I don’t know anything about marketing! It’s not the same as branding. This journey has really helped me guide my clients better!
Your website states, “A product-based brand identity shouldn’t exist without an actual product.” Do you find that people think of a brand or company name without knowing the specifics behind the product?
I wish people would come to me with an idea and say here’s my idea, now what? Then we can take it from a story perspective. I’ve made a new rule: if you don’t have your samples yet, I’m not going to do anything for you. If the product doesn’t exist, we can’t package it.
For example, we had a product client recently who said, “I want a box.” And we said, “How big a box? How big is the product that goes in this box? What is your budget for this box? How would you like this box to open up?”
It’s almost like you have to do it a little backwards. You have to determine first that, this is the product. For The Type Set Co., we 3D-printed our letters first. I essentially made 160 of them, glued in magnets, and ordered all kinds of different tubes and bags and boxes like what are we gonna put these in? They weren’t the finished product, but it was a functioning prototype. You have to have something functioning, product-wise, first. Then you can make better, more informed decisions.
What do you do when you have a creative block? How do you stay inspired?
Creative blocks happen, but work still needs to get done. We have clients counting on us. We generally move on to another project to give our brains a little break from the project that’s blocked. Sometimes we peruse Pinterest, Dribbble, or Behance to get the juices flowing. Sometimes a walk on the property, a visit to the vegetable garden, or a little ball with the dogs helps to clear and focus the mind.
I started The Type Set Co. as a way to create something that was mine. It’s an outlet of sorts. The product development is my absolute favorite part. The whole business keeps me inspired and has helped me work with branding clients in ways I never imagined. We also have lives outside of work and I think having work/life balance automatically helps keep us inspired.
Tell us more about running Braizen from home! What is your office environment like?
Well, the commute is nice… at least for me. Ha! We used to be in my 1,500 square foot house in a 10x10 bedroom with three desks and our office manager at the dining room table. I had an intern, myself, and Walt in that room. It took us three years to find our new property. We now live on a picturesque 11-acre piece of land with rolling hills and a small pond. We built our house here about six years ago. We moved mainly to give our businesses more room to grow (and our son an awesome place to grow up).
Our office is now in the basement of our house which is around 1,700 square feet—big enough so that we’re not on top of each other, but close enough that we can easily collaborate. I’ve tried hard to make it feel less like a home office and more like a hip, professional office space. We hired Samantha Pattillo several years ago to help us design a functional and creative space that has a warm, eclectic, industrial vibe with lots of Braizen touches.
The main space is an open office plan, with four workstations and a casual sitting area. We recently converted our conference room into a private office for myself. Our space also includes a photography studio—where we shoot products, portfolio work, and social media fluff—and a stockroom for The Type Set Co. Overall, our environment and our work life is pretty casual and laid-back. There are dogs and kids, leftovers in the fridge, and a fully-stocked liquor cabinet... isn’t that what everyone’s office is like?