Following a two-year stint as a graphic designer in Spain, Thierry co-founded Base in 1994 with his two friends.
Base is an international network of studios, active in the field of brand creation for more than 20 years and extending its activities across Brussels, New York and Geneva. With projects ranging from visual identities to ad campaigns, their philosophy has always been to favour concise communication, simplicity, common sense and of course, people.
Introduce yourself and tell us how you take your coffee.
My name is Thierry Brunfaut. I like to take my coffee with a little bit of oat milk.
Did you go to university and what did you study?
I studied as a Graphic Designer at Art School here in Brussels. I never finished school because we started our own studio while at school when we were 23. We decided to do this with two friends, one of them being my partner 25 years later. It is kind of like a family business because you really get attached to each other emotionally.
The way you create your company sets up the whole DNA for it. The fact that we were friends and now have over 60 people in across different studios shows that friendship is one of the key elements of our company.
Do you think you complement each other’s strengths and weaknesses?
Yeah and I think you have to trust that–something that you have to realise quickly who is good at what.
You have an outstanding portfolio; Chanel, LV, Le Pain Quotidien, MoMa, The NY Times, The Art and History Museum and many more. What advice would you give on attracting the right clients?
I think what really worked for us is that, at some point, you work for your clients and are obsessed with their projects. But one day, we realised that our main project should be our company and us.
We started to define what we liked to do and how we could work better. It is not so much what you do but how and who you are going to do it with. For example, in the early years, a project would come and that project seems great but isn’t simply because you don’t get along with your client.
”You have to look first at the person and then at the project to see and hear if the relationship is going to work”
We are now attracting amazing clients because we stick to that. I rejected two clients last week only because I thought it was not a good cultural fit. The more you stick to your philosophy and the more transparent you are with this, the stronger you become, and the stronger people will follow you.
We are extremely transparent and candid and have been for over 25 years, and that’s what makes us attractive to our clients. Another key point is to make sure you’re always teaching your clients, so in that way, they will stay with you. Today, a lot of our clients aren’t found via the website but through other clients recommending us.
You have an office in Brussels, New York and Geneva. As the business has grown, how easy or difficult has it been to keep it operating in line with the vision you had for it?
It is extremely difficult. For us, the company culture is extremely important so expanding and keeping it consistent is really a challenge. We have had some setbacks. At one point, we were growing too fast, and we had to close three studios; two in Spain and one in Santiago because we were not able to build sustainable foundations.
It was a very painful experience, to have to go through the closure of two studios, you learn so much in the bad moments especially when you have to let go of people that you like. Today, one of the roles I take in the company is traveling to the all our studios around the world and ensuring the company culture is filtered down to ensure consistency.
Hiring comes with practice. What advice would you give to startups wanting to make their first hire and what do key characteristics do you think makes an individual become a good ROI?
My partner Dimitri is a true entrepreneur, and in that sense, I follow his advice: trust your gut. You need to look for people who can do things that you cannot do, but don't just look for skills as a person's personality is a big factor.
For me, nothing beats the real-life moment of meeting a potential hire. I always trust the first 5 minutes, and first impressions are key for me. I will ask myself, “do I want to spend a day with this person?”
I always cast personalities & potential over skills.
This has given me awesome results.
I also think the cultural fit is really important. When you do hire someone, you shouldn't bombard them with things to do, instead let them understand the company and be patient. They need to understand the processes and culture. I also like to talk to them about their fears, which helps to build trust and relationship.
Most people assume your logo is your brand, but your brand is about so much more than that. It’s essentially every little part of the work that you put into your business. It equates to customer trust and what drives business.
As a successful business owner yourself, you’ve managed to turn Base Design into a purpose-driven business and I have no doubt that it’s that cross section of your personality and your business which makes it’s a striking brand. For start-ups, how would one blend who they are with the business they want to be known for?
The logo is just a signature on what you are doing, but it is what you do that counts. I think there are different phases for startups where the first phase is that you are your brand. The founder must have a vision and know what they want to achieve.
In the beginning, startups are not brands. Then, they become brands. When we work with startups, we sometimes tell them that they don’t need us as a design agency yet; and that they need to grow more first.
You are the author of the 5 min poster series, which is a typographic work sharing a short bit of wisdom on design. Let’s talk about a few of these…
The challenge with agencies is a constant battle between profit, people and product. Do you curate your portfolio and what key factors do you consider when deciding whether or not to work with a client or not?
Being able to say no is one of the most difficult things in life and one of the most important. I think it is because we see no as a negative answer, but I don't see it that way. If you imagine a skier going down a hill and you put blue and red flags, this guides him, so if you see yes and no flags you can drive people exactly where they want them to go. ‘No’ cannot be a negative answer if you always propose an alternative.
For example, if we do not wish to work with a client, we will tell them no but will suggest other people they can work with. Don't be afraid to say no and then offer an alternative, this builds better relationships and people will see you as honest and transparent which is a strong asset.
For start-ups looking to build their brand and identity, what is the best advice you can give to them in finding the right identity unique to them?
Even though I work in branding, I believe that today, there is too much branding, too much visual noise. There is a need for more authenticity, transparency, and honesty. I see branding more as a way to connect people. So be good at that first and build your brand in a second stage.
Brands need to care about their customers and build a strong relationship– those are the brands that are going to win.
Indeed. The problem with big brands or corporates is that there’s too much red tape and bureaucracy. Too fear and too much ‘corporate bullshit’. Big brands often lose their ability to talk simply and honestly. We at Base always seek for authenticity and integrity at every step of the dialog. That is why when we collaborate with people, we always try to avoid Skype calls as we prefer in-person interactions.
“Don’t divide people between creative and non-creative’. This really stuck out to us because one of our missions at another startup story is to bridge the gap between creativity and entrepreneurship. There’s this myth that you’re either creative or business minded. Do you think people can and should be trying to be both?
I definitely think that people can be both. Every Wednesday at Base, we have a creative meeting. Everybody has to be there, from the secretary to the accountant or the designers, and we have systems in place to make sure each voice is heard. In these meetings, anyone can express anything. I encourage people to say whatever is on their mind, even if it is something that sounds stupid.
One stupid idea can give creators an idea. It is about creating a moment where anyone can express what is on their mind; making people feel more free and open. It is also very important not to judge anyone in these meetings: any idea is good, and if you disagree, you would have to explain your constructive reasoning.
”Ideas are not own-able and but merely things in the air that are open for discussion”
As an entrepreneur, the journey to self-growth is huge and you grow with the business. An important tool for this is self-reflection. How can a business implement this and review their previous work in the most effective way?
Feedback is extremely important. I think you need to implement this ritual in any company. At Base on Monday mornings, we gather for 30 minutes and discuss our challenges, personal or professional. Then on Fridays, we would come back to this and see if we managed to do it.
If you did it, then you would have met your objectives but if not then you would have to explain why you missed your challenge. This is an extremely strong process as people in the company have the ability to receive feedback all the time and learn from it.
It is also important to discuss what went wrong with your clients and get feedback from it. I am never afraid to tell a client that we are wrong. This again creates transparency, and demonstrates that we are in control and can accept our mistakes. Everyone makes mistakes, but we try to learn and avoid repetition of these mistakes. I think being vulnerable is important to be strong and free in this world.
As a guest writer on the ‘Entrepreneur’ what would be your top tips for any creative looking to start a business?
I think that when you start a business, you need to be focused. There are a lot of doubts that you have to come to accept. I also think that you should celebrate your great moments. If there is a problem, you should always directly face it as you will eventually have to deal with it. Don't forget that you can always change your decisions, and that is what gives you freedom. You can always correct along the way.
What is inspiring you right now?
For me, I am really into storytelling. From a young age, we've been told bedtime stories and we need to continue this throughout life in order to learn from them. One should expand instead of sticking to your area of expertise.
What does your morning routine look like?
My morning routine is made up of three things. First, it is a big cup of coffee with my wife, then I take a very quiet bath for about 15 minutes. This is almost like meditation to me where I empty my mind and where my ideas flood in.
Then I ask myself the question, “do I want to go to work?”, and if not, then I need to understand why although it is not often no. If it is yes, then it is because I want to see the people in my studio, those are the people who bring me happiness.
I believe that my workplace has to be a place where we can have fun. I also think that when I talk to some of my younger colleagues that are about aged 25, I learn a lot from them– this goes to show that you can learn from anyone. You should acknowledge new cultures, perspectives, music and ideas. I call my workers superheroes as I believe that with all of their strong personalities, they work so much better with others and the teamwork is what makes a business thrive.
What advice would you give 20-year-old Thierry?
So I have two daughters aged 22 and 19. At that age, you believe you have to make a decision that defines your entire life, but this isn't true.
I think the problem kids face today is that they have too much choice and possibilities.
My advice would be to just do it as nothing is irreversible, and you can always change along the way. You can start studying philosophy and end up being a creative designer. You can always change your mind and that is fine. Don't take things too seriously! Of course you should work hard, but have fun along the way.
If you could gift one book to someone what would it be?
There is a gift that I often give to friends – it is a book of drawings by Gary Larson.
Philosophy on life?
To continue being a kid throughout your entire life. That is pretty much what I do, and it has so far worked for me.
Thierry is a guest writer on another startup story, you can read his latest post on ‘Blanding’ here.
6 MAY, 2019