an interview

Mark Minelli

Our office was featured in an international compendium on branding published in China and distributed worldwide. Following is an except from the publication interview.

What made you start Minelli? Do you remember what most difficult and what brought you the most happiness when starting the firm?

My business plan was essentially coming into work one day and saying, “I quit”. I had worked in my professors’ design office while in school and it was a terrific experience. When I was offered a job in Boston, while I loved the city, the firm was not a great fit. It was not the kind of environment where the work really mattered. I just wanted more than that and was dumb or naive enough to just go for it. I was also young enough that I didn’t know what it would really take to start a new office so it wasn’t as scary as it should have been.


Since founding Minelli, what is your greatest achievement?

What really excites us is when our work helps drive real change. Just a small number of people working together with passion and creativity can really make a difference. We have the great opportunity to develop tools that really affect how people think about and act on behalf of an organization. That’s how we think about brand. A good deal of our work revolves around arts and culture, land conservation, and global health issues. When the work achieves its full potential, it can drive participation and momentum. These tools can be instrumental in creating internal alignment with staff as well as building external engagement with audiences. We want our work to be about something whether it’s for a non-profit or a big corporation. It doesn’t always happen, but that’s what we strive for.


Could you share with us some details of how Minelli runs a project? What is the process? How does your team work together?

We talk a lot about “Vision Made Visible.” We have developed a rigorous framework that is fairly organic in nature so we can apply the thinking flexibly as needed. Over the years, we have developed a nice set of tools to help us understand how an organization sees itself and how others see it. A great deal of complicated information has to be distilled into a simple, elegant idea that will be at the heart of the brand.

Of course, then the real trick is designing comprehensive program that captures that idea and shapes how an organization is perceived. Design gives us this amazing visual and verbal vocabulary that can convey a huge amount of information in very short real estate.


How does Minelli motivate its team members? How do you deal with problems when your team faces difficulties?

I think this is an ongoing issue for any firm. How do you keep generating new ideas and continue pushing creative boundaries? It’s the lifeline of an organization like ours.

We work in small teams of 5-7 people. I think that helps to ensure that everybody has the big picture. The intent is to have methodologies in place that allow the team to be their most creative. You never know where the inspiration is going to come from. We encourage staff on the research and account side to gather images that strike them and for the designers to write out their ideas. I think consistently good work needs both sides of the brain working hard.


Could you share your latest project with us? What are the concept and the process behind this?

Perhaps giving two brief examples of recent work will provide a better sense of the diversity and challenges of the studio today. I will speak generally since they are in process. Both are broad-based comprehensive branding programs for two very different clients. One is for the patient safety organization for all the Harvard teaching hospitals. We are working to build awareness and create a movement among the 13,000 physicians to create the safest health care system in the world. It’s a huge challenge since doctors are probably about the toughest audiences to engage. They are very busy and pulled in a million directions at once.

At the same time, we are working with a very innovative contemporary art museum in southern California. They are really transforming into an organization that can have international impact and reshape the cultural landscape in that part of California. There are some very interesting things happening on the west coast as they collectively challenge New York’s dominance of the contemporary art world.

Do you have any advice for small, growing design companies and young designers?

Do what you love, hire great people…and oh yes, get a good accountant. I assume I may have been like many other designer types where we look at financial spreadsheets and see grey value. That can get you in trouble pretty quickly.

Really, the common thread for absolutely any business is that it is built on people. I sat for three years on a CEO roundtable. The companies ranged in size from 12 to 4,000 employees and the most common issues by far involved people… how they worked, or failed to work together.

Having run the office for over 20 years, that chemistry ebbs and flows. It’s really dynamic. Sometimes it’s amazing, sometimes amazingly challenging, but you just have to keep at it and build teams that can really complement and extend the individuals skills.


What books have you read lately?

Here are a couple of relatively recent books that I love:

The Thing Itself by Richard Todd.

A wonderfully personal narrative about what is true in ourselves and in the world around us. Terrific ruminations on objects, places, and the modern media.

The Architecture of Happiness by Alain De Botton

A gorgeous book on how we respond to architecture, and how it can embody (or fail to) values that contribute to personal and societal well being.

I am currently reading The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande. It’s an insightful and often terrifying read on the importance of applying a simple checklist into the complex world of medicine today. It references the successful application in other complex industries such as airlines and the construction of skyscrapers.


At present, what are you most interested in?

At this precise moment, it’s snowing very hard so I am wondering why I am stuck inside writing and not snowboarding somewhere. More generally, I am really interested in how people process information and what causes them to shift their behavior. I think it is really the Holy Grail for a branding firm. Our society is getting more and more visually driven. It’s a new kind of iconic language that is emerging and we are in a unique position to leverage that to move and inspire people.