Benjie Wilhelm, Founding Principal at Singularity


What is your relationship to visual design?

In a practical sense I’m a graphic designer so visual design is my work. It’s how I attempt to pay the bills. I think in a more philosophical sense my relationship to visual design is pretty holistic. I tend to design every part of my life, and have from a very young age, and so it was a natural career path to lean into something that is about the ordering, arranging, and making sense of space and experience.

Does your graphic design background give you a different perspective on software design?

Yes, definitely. I think over time design as an industry has gone through cycles of niching down and creating all of these titles for all of the roles that people have, and then also broadening back up and using more umbrella terms and having people be more multidisciplinary. I think my education in design was very traditional, it was very print, type, colour, form, figure, ground.

A lot of things that I definitely think are relevant in visual software design but things that also probably tend to be made secondary when it comes to a developmental lens in relation to software, and so I definitely think that traditional background has played a solid part in improving my visual design work as it relates to software.

I would hopefully not falsely make the claim that I think I make or more functional software as well, because a lot of my visual design work has a very strategic, end-user focused lens. I’m more interested in building the software for the user than for the people building it.

Is it a good or bad thing that some of those graphic design techniques have taken a backseat?

That’s a good question. I think it’s a little bit of both, to be honest. I think if you would have asked me that question 5-10 years ago I’d have been like, it’s a shame, it’s a bad thing that it’s happened, because back then so much of our digital world was really informed by our physical world. The way we view a web browser as a stack of tabbed folders, it was informed by the idea of a hanging file holder, and then all sorts of other digital applications that really responded to our physical world, like the floppy disk as the save icon and things of that nature.

But now I would say that we’re really moving into a world where to some degree all those safe bets of digital experiences responding to physical things are sort of falling away. We’re seeing digital experiences that are really digital first, they’re not really informed by any physical mechanism or physical experiences that we’re familiar with, and so I think to a degree some of the semiotics of classic graphic design that say things should feel familiar, they should reference other known things, or should recall known experiences kind of does go out the window, and not necessarily for the worse, because we have these digital first experiences now that can still be really compelling and really intuitive and feel like they make really good natural sense and are entirely informed by our understanding of digital spaces rather than physical ones.

How do you discuss visual design with clients?

It’s almost entirely strategy based. Our big differentiator, not only in our region but pretty largely across the market, at least in agencies of our size doing work for the businesses of the size that we do work for, is that we do the same level of strategy work that large agencies do for corporations, we just do it for a lot less money.

We’re very surgical and focused in the way that we approach our visual work, it’s all informed by strategy, it’s all informed by discovery—what insights we can gather not only about their business, their product, their systems, their processes, but also their customers, and so when we get to the point when we’re ready to approach visual design and do visual work, we have all of that information to inform what we’re building, and our process allows us to bring the customer along on that journey and make them feel a part of that process.

We don’t ever want to be the agency that you pay a bunch of money to, they disappear for three months and they come back and it’s the first time you’ve seen something and they say, here are six options, pick one. That’s a really hard sell, I have to do a lot of work to try to sell you one of six things that I don’t even know if you’re going to like especially when likely only one of those options has true correlation with the insights uncovered in the strategy work.

I would instead rather do a bunch of strategy work, involve you in our creative process in every step along the way so in the end we’re creating one artifact, one thing that you have been involved in the creation of, so your voice is there, it’s heard from the get-go. It’s how we manage to leverage our deep expertise with our clients knowledge to build a brand or product that actually means something to their users / customers, and matters for the bottom line of their business.

Can you give me a practical example of how strategy informs visual design?

Yes. We’re doing some work right now for an organisation in Australia that is using a very ethical model of offshoring to provide work under the constraints of Australia’s very heavy social systems which on one hand is great because it provides a lot of worker protection but on the other side it can be really aggressive towards small businesses and make it really difficult for a small business to grow under the constraints of the system, and so they are working to ethically offshore just some small functional work to really strong agencies overseas that they have really long history with, we’re talking decades-long partnerships.

It’s an ethical model because the people that are working for these offshored agencies that they’re partnering with are going to bring in 40% more than the median income for their job in their native market, which is amazing, and then as a result they’re able to provide services to their market in Australia at a steep discount.

But a lot of our research into their business model and into the administrative financial services that they offer revealed a long history of just financial institutional history in regards to what do these types of organizations look like? How do financial institutions operate? What do they talk like? What do they sound like?

Then it also led us down this path of digging into some of what Ruben Pater has written about in his book about how capitalism took hold of design and understanding designs role with capitalism—origins of money and how they all had insignias, and that the insignias were dictating the validity of the money and it was all from monarchies and kings and were the result of attempts to build trust with commoners, etc.

The research also uncovered some weird consumer insights that most consumers trust organisations in the financial industry that have just been around the longest. They have no care in the world about their track record. I know over here in the States two of the highest-ranking ones are Bank of America and JP Morgan Chase, both in the last 15 years have been rife with controversy and how they’ve screwed over consumers, but they still rank in some of the most trusted financial institutions.

So we took this idea of, okay you’ve got this new organisation, this new company in the financial administrative services area that’s doing something revolutionary by offshoring in an ethical way that’s making everybody profitable, making everybody money and also saving their small business clientele a significant amount of money while offering the same quality of services. How do we lend them this insight that history and longevity and time in market is the primary motivator to potential customers?

Part of it was really leaning into the knowledge that their organisation, though built on the relationship between two individuals and then those two individuals’ relationships with these other agencies outside of the country, there’s decades of history there, so the two partners in the company have known each other for 15 years, the one partner has been working alongside these other two agencies for 15 years and so despite the organisation itself being very new the relationships it’s relying on are decades old.

It was really about how do we lean into that story to bring that sense of time or establishment to this new organisation? Then how do we brand it in such a way that it feels of that market but still differentiated enough to say we’re of this market but we’re something different? So we pretty extensively explored heraldry and asked ourselves how do we make it feel more contemporary and less like the Merryll Lynch Bull or the Royal Bank Lion and more like something new thats innovative and equitable.

What we ended up creating was this really beautiful griffin mark and used this really exciting and compelling colour story along with it to say, we’re of this market but we’re different than the rest of them, and here’s how, while still borrowing on that visual history, and then pairing that with this storytelling that talks about the decades of relationships that the organisation is built on to build that trust with their customers. I think that’s a perfect example of how strategy informs the visual design, but the non-visual identity as well.

Are there times when you need to convince clients to focus on visual design more, or less?

Oh yes, that same client, believe it or not. One of the partners was very like, I love this, this is great, from day one, the other partner was very like, what’s the purpose of all this? Isn’t this a little overdesigned? This is too much, why does it have to be a griffin? I was just thinking it could be something a little more simple, a little more expected, look a little bit more like what the market has already done.

We had to really show him the value of creating a container for the identity that had no ties to something already built, so that as their market experienced what they offer, that identity and visual design could hold those experiences and then become synonymous with that meaning. That was a very large uphill battle to explain this is an important thing to do to create this container that holds no meaning so that you can put all the meaning into it through driving great experience with your customers.

Alternatively, we’ve had customers before who felt that the most possible design was the best possible solution, somehow were deluded into thinking that the more space the design took up, the more value it held, when in reality what they were trying to sell was a simple solution to a complex problem and we had to get them to understand that we needed the visual solution to feel as simple as the solution they were providing because when they’re providing a solution for a complex problem the customer is already feeling frustrated, the viewer is already feeling frustrated and so you bring them into an experience where the visual design compounds that frustration or mirrors that frustration you’re going to create the opposite intended effect.

So yes, I think there are definitely times where you have to convince clients on one side or the other that more or less is better.

Why do clients object to more visual design focus, apart from cost?

Yeah I think they’re definitely objecting to cost. I think they’re also just objecting to the unknown. It’s really easy to say, I don’t want to explore something where I don’t have a guarantee that what the end result will be is something I will, a) personally like, or b) will be effective for what we need. That’s a harder thing to overcome because you’re always going to have some people that no matter how right a design is won’t personally like it.

It’s really hard sometimes for them to disconnect from the fact that even though this identity or this visual design is yours, it’s not for you, it’s for your customer, it’s for your client. Sometimes that can be a really big obstacle to overcome and sometimes you just can’t, sometimes you cannot get that person to lean into that process and be willing to see how this thing is resonating with their audience even though it might not be necessarily resonating with them on a personal level, and so most times I think they’re objecting to the unknown.

If someone is wary of the unknown, what do you think they would prefer to do?

That’s a good question. I don’t know that I’ve ever thought about it. I think most of my energy is always focused on explaining why the proposed solution is best. I would imagine they’re probably looking for something that feels incredibly familiar. They’re looking for the most recognizable visual application you can imagine because it’s comfortable, because it’s known. Something that they can understand and relate to because they’ve seen it so many times.

Maybe that’s just a simple typeset wordmark, a grid structure that feels familiar, a type application that feels familiar that isn’t too exciting, that doesn’t really have a personality. I’d imagine that’s probably more of what they’re looking for. Those tend to be the people that constantly say, I just want it to be clean and simple.

It sounds like these clients don’t want to stand out, but I’d have thought the benefits of that are easy to explain?

Most times it’s because, it’s not that they don’t want to stand out, because they do want to stand out, but they want to stand out for the right reasons. They’re cautious and nervous about standing out for the wrong reason so they worry that a visual design that is so differentiated that doesn’t feel familiar, that isn’t what they expect will make them stand out for the wrong reasons, that it will turn people away rather than draw them in.

Are there any visual design principles you seem to use for every client?

That’s a good question. I think that we, probably more than most agencies, are a little more undefinable when it comes to style. I think of AdamsMorioka when they were in business and they were doing identity work, their thing was always, it’s going to be simple, it’s going to be clear and it’s going to be impactful, and they came into being around the time of Carson and Ray Gun and the early postmodern grunge aesthetic, and so their angle was basically, we’re not that, we’re not scary, we’re not visual punk, we’re simple, we’re clean, we’re modern, we’re all-American, it’s safe but functional and still exciting.

I don’t feel we have that. I don’t know that you could throw down 30 examples of work, put 15 of ours in there and someone would be able to say, that’s Singularity and that’s not. I think a lot of that has to do with just our strategy-first approach, we want to be contextual to the work that we’re doing, and so our goals in terms of visual design are more related to contextuality than style.

We want the thing to be functional for you as an identity but also as a tool for your business. Part of that is the work has to be insightful, it has to have longevity, and by longevity, I mean it needs to be as functional in 10 years as it is now. It may not feel as contemporary, but we certainly do try to build a timelessness into the work so that in 10 years it can still feel as fresh as it does now, so we tend to avoid trends.

I would say that longevity, contextuality and insightful are probably the big rules that we have. I know doesn’t really relate directly to the visuals, and leaves the door wide open, but that’s just how we prefer to work, and it’s worked really well for us so far. We have a really varied portfolio of work that very little of it feels visually very similar.

Does your agency have any favourite visual elements it reaches for again and again?

Oh yes, definitely. In the last year or so we’ve really, really loved using Argent by Connary Fagen, it’s just a really gorgeous serif, it’s chunky and round and has these moments that are also pointy, and it just feels really nice, and I think we’ve used that on two or three projects so far in the last year, so we tend to fall into that one.

We have a habit, I don’t know if it’s a bad one or not, but typically we’re really good about using multiple sans fonts, finding a sans font that fits the aesthetic or the mood, however we tend to rest on our laurels a little bit when it comes to serifs.

I think it has to do with the fact we’re a bunch of type romantics and so when we find a serif that just feels really good, we tend to fall in love a little bit and just really like it and so we find ways to try to use it. Argent has definitely been one of those in the last year that we’ve used quite a bit, so probably we’ll have to be cautious about using that one in the New Year. I think that one’s used in about three of our projects in the last year.

Do you want to share anything important about visual design that we haven’t covered?

Yes, I think that we’re at a bit of a turning point in our industry, I think we’re at a place where the tools of design are more readily accessible than they have ever been before, and by tools I mean the practical tools, not necessarily the learned tools or the innate tools but the practical tools like the software and such that it has this effect of commoditising what we do.

The good news is that as some of our work becomes commoditised, the reality is that to do design you have to do good design. It’s like a table stake, you have to be doing good work, you can’t do bad work. You can, and there’s always going to be someone that will pay you to do bad work, but you can’t do bad work and have it be impactful, the bad work will never be impactful in a universal sense, thankfully.

But part of this commoditisation of our tools means that the rest of our skills are just that much more precious. The way we think, the way we build, the way we research, the way we understand how what we build affects those we build it for, how we remain curious to ask questions to say why are we building this? What’s the purpose of building this? Who’s it for? What’s it going to do? I think that begs a stance that we have to take where we have to be mindful of who and what we’re building for, what we’re lending our skills to, because in the last 10 years you can point every major societal shift that hurt people to something somewhere that was designed or built by a designer who didn’t fully understand the extent or the implications of what they were building.

I think as an industry we need to do a better job of gatekeeping our skills, of understanding that labour without counsel is not design and that it is our job as designers, as developers, as thinkers to ask questions about why something is being built and what it’s being built to do and what its intentioned to do.

The reality is, in the world we live in the companies we work for are never going to take the blame or the fault for the damage done by what we build, and so, the axe when it finally falls, will fall on us.

I think Volkswagen is a great example of that, with that engineer that helped them skirt regulations was sent to prison. Not the CEO. It’s the engineer that built the device who is paying for the damage their vehicles did to the environment. So we have to be vigilant, I think, and learn that saying no is a design skill and that if we say no to all the people wanting to build awful things, then the awful things won’t get built. That’s our power.