15 (^Amazing) Things We’ve Learned from 15 (^Unforgettable) Clients in Our First 15 Years

By Levi Brooks on

It’s funny. We think of ourselves as a young studio. Young at heart, young in average age, curious, hungry and welcoming of change. We intentionally live on the bleeding edge of art, culture and technology. So, yes, it’s funny to look in the mirror and see an established leader, rapidly approaching its 15th birthday.

That we feel so young is no accident. We were built to be different: a better place to work, a healthier culture, a team assembled based on our collective willingness to assess, explore and learn. We were born receptive of the idea that a studio like ours never truly arrives, that we’re always on the path to becoming. 

To become better, younger and smarter, we believe that a studio has to look outside of itself into the world that surrounds it, and so it’s only fitting that we’ve decided to celebrate our 15th year by looking back on 15 landmark clients and collaborators who have helped evolve and change our worldview in 15 distinct and invaluable ways.

We’ve had the privilege of working with a seemingly endless list of diverse minds. Diverse in race, age, identity, arena, acumen and more. This is a snapshot of the indelible lessons we’ve learned and the unforgettable people we’ve encountered in our first 15 years. Thanks to each and every one of them – and to those not mentioned; without you we wouldn’t be where we are today, nor would we be so comfortable not knowing where we’ll be tomorrow.

Thom Mayne, Morphosis
The Idea: It doesn’t always have to be one way or one thing.

Sometimes the best way to meet client demands is to question the confines of the demand in its entirety. As creatives we often spend too much time trying to make one thing everything to everyone. One website that checks all the boxes for two audiences is great when it’s possible, but two websites that connect deeply with two audiences on a much more elemental level? Well, sometimes that’s better. Renowned architect Thom Mayne warmed us up to this philosophy, one derived from his approach to designing large-scale buildings. Lo and behold, together we created two distinct microsites meant to be experienced completely differently by different people – and each was a distinct success.

Anne Marie Burke, UCLA
The Idea: Details matter. Even ones that aren’t specific to *your* purview.

While we’re all specialists at Use All Five, being serious about generalism isn’t optional. When we first opened, we acted like specialists. We made good work, when it pertained to what we knew. Designers didn’t spell check because, well, designers aren’t writers. Developers didn’t refine their presentation skills. Through our work with Anne Marie, we learned that taking pride in your work often involves putting the extra bit of care into *every* element of what you present. When you think this way from the start, it makes it possible to work smarter, not harder. It’s because we “think detail” that we’re able to retain our chill.

Alexander Chen, Google Creative Lab
The Idea: Tinkering is proof of passion.

You have to be invested to tinker. While the inverse is definitely not a given, people who don’t care don’t tinker. In our early days we worried a lot about speed. We made things well, sure, but we didn’t always let the love we had for what we do shine through. In time, and through our work with Alexander Chen, we found balance. We remembered how to take time to poke at the margins and explore the far reaches of a project. We started to make ourselves laugh (and cringe) on the way to better results. It turns out, small things can be improved in big ways. Big enough that they come to define entire projects. Tinker on!

Aaron Koblin, ex-Google, currently at Within
The Idea: Technology can make people genuinely emotional.

As designers and developers, we’re not shy about leaning into technology, but sometimes we get so caught up in what tech is *expected* to do or what it *can* do that we forget to imagine what it should do. It can tell stories and channel emotions just as well as any other medium. Through our work with Aaron Koblin, we were opened up to the power of reevaluating the tools at your disposal and then using them differently. We learned that with the perfect mix of art and technology you can make people laugh, show them things about themselves and bring them to tears – all in a virtual environment. Technology can open doors (when it gets out of the way).

Doug Aitken, Artist
The Idea: Test the boundaries of how creativity can impact decision.

It turns out that a lot of our decisions are based on convention rather than examination. As professionals, we tend to beat the impulse to ask “what does it all mean?” type questions out of ourselves. It might not be the fault of our mentors, but somewhere along the line, we were persuaded to be more efficient, to ask less and do more. But do what, and why? Working with Doug Aitken taught us – in practice not just theory – that a healthy dialogue is the source of most memorable creative solutions. 

Kwame Taylor Hartford, Chobani
The Idea: Invest in design.

This one might seem self-evident, but if you ask yourself what it really, really means, you’ll probably realize that it’s a genuinely uncommon point of view. As a design and technology studio, even our strategists, developers and PMs are aesthetically inclined. Over the years, we’ve worked with Kwame a number of times, and this has always been a consistent theme. Meet and become close to the best, most diverse set of people. Invite differing perspectives in design and beyond. Keep in touch with the magnetic ones, then when the time comes, pay whatever it takes to hire them. In the end, the money you reinvest in design will pay dividends across your entire organization. 

Scott Trattner, Airbnb
The Idea: Ask questions like an artist.

Whether you’re a designer, a developer, a strategist or an account person, it’s generally useful to look at every challenge less like a marketer and more like an artist. Why? (See what we did there?) Because the reality is that marketing is boring, and so are marketers. Marketers thinking like marketers is the root cause of 90% of the creative we see that either makes us cringe or is forgotten before it ever even registers. Scott taught us that regardless of the subject matter or your position, you should feel free to think about what people genuinely want (or don’t want) from the thing you’re about to make. The inventions, features, experiences and visuals that stick with us forever aren’t the result of accepting present realities.

John Eagan, Netflix
The Idea: Make daring choices feel less scary.

If it seems borderline stupid, there’s a 100% chance you can learn something useful by exploring it. Occasionally, we have to check our default impulse to take the safer route, to avoid ruffling feathers or having challenging conversations. It’s always been our philosophy to lean into the unknown and embrace the bleeding edge of possibility. Generally that involves pushing new technologies, but sometimes it means inviting anachronistic ones back into our process. Our collaboration with John taught us something we’ll never forget – that no matter the stakes of the project, in order to create something memorable you generally need to pull from outside inspirations, chase whims, encourage lunacy and most importantly, bring others along for the ride. It’s no longer scary when it works, and it’s not a waste if it doesn’t.

Eric Bost, Chef - Auburn
The Idea: Mix, match, marry and meld.

You’d imagine that a client trained as a French chef would be an unlikely source of life-changing takeaways for a design and technology studio. But, it’s by working intimately with clients from totally different industries that we come to realize, well, how interconnected all of our work actually is. Eric’s specific brand of creativity ended up deeply influencing how we think. The effortless intermingling of his life passions with his day-to-day work, the unique way he distilled the beauty he saw in the world into his food, and how he translated that life experience to us in order to improve our collaboration – it all came to teach us that sanctity is subjective. We now strive to inspire our clients in this same way, pushing to bring the outside world into the process, to blend disciplines and philosophies in pursuit of something unique.

Shepard Fairey, Artist - Studio Number One
The Idea: Images carry major weight.

Shepard Fairey was the first of many well-known figures in arts and culture that we’ve been fortunate to work with. As young founders, we were fixated on delivering quality work and building enduring relationships, and the timing of this engagement was opportune. Studio Number One was also relatively new on the scene, and their work was an immediate reminder of the power that images have to impact culture on a grand scale. Shepard routinely vetted and adjusted the most minute visual elements, working to convey the fullest possible meaning through the subjectivity of images. In our world, it’s easy to get lost in the Xs and Os of execution, forgetting along the way that the heart and the mind often react instinctively to trace cues in visuals. It’s something we have never stopped gut-checking since our earliest days.

Lisa Farris, GRAMMYs
The Idea: If you want to uplift a community, form an alliance.

Something we’ve sought to do more completely and genuinely than many of our peers is to cultivate, grow and sustain a community. We’ve always believed that any success we have is in large part attributable to the unseen positive influence of people on the periphery of our work. Artists, musicians, technologists and beyond who we call friends, peers and influences are a constant source of new thinking. Lisa Farris – through our ongoing work with GRAMMYs – has been a consistent reminder that the more inventive you are in activating experiences that truly help the community you serve, the more sustained your impact can be. Lisa taught us to remember who we do it for, and to form alliances with key people to help us uncover exciting ways to cross bridges and unite people through digital culture.

Guy Fieri, Renaissance Man
The Idea: Know everyone’s name.

So much of what we do and how we succeed is tied to how we make people feel. Where other studios may look to force projects to fruition, we pride ourselves on prioritizing listening. We get our hands dirty with every one of our clients, often inventing new, personalized ways of communicating and collaborating in order to ensure that they feel heard, and we owe so much of this approach to the influence of, you guessed it, Guy Fieri. In an industry dominated by hot tempers, cold shoulders and domineering personalities, Guy has managed to leave a positive mark on so many because of one key quality: empathy. It’s simple: try hard to make people feel good and important. Start with remembering everyone’s name, work at it, and let it grow into respect and love, because that foundation will get you through any challenge. 

Keith Cartwright, ex-72 and Sunny, currently with Cartwright
The Idea: Be brave.

If you want to stand out in the attention economy, you have to be brave. Sadly, our inclination is often to do exactly the opposite. Anyone who’s worked in our world knows that after rounds and rounds of conflicting, numbing feedback, results can become watered down. Instead of demanding attention, our work runs the risk of connecting with no one in a meaningful way. Keith is a heavy hitter when it comes to doubling down on creative audacity, combining heart, courage and brains to create something brave enough to elicit a reaction. Part of applying this philosophy is being brave enough to bring partners and clients with you on the journey, brave enough to say from the start “we’re going to do something great, or nothing at all.”

Adam Diehl, ex-Headspace
The Idea: Trust your brand.

We learned early on that great brands generally have detractors, where mediocre brands don’t. We’d gladly trade a brand with universally lukewarm perception for a cult sensation with a dedicated group of haters. Adam Diehl at Headspace was adamant that we accepted this reality from early on in our collaboration. You’re not gonna win everyone over, so focus on the people who have the potential to fall in love with you and forget everyone else. When you double down on what makes you *you,* trust your vision and make your brand work better for those you want, you stand a chance of becoming one of the greats. Vision-by-committee is generally not the look. 

Kerry Bennett, Upfront Ventures
The Idea: Bet on the underdog.

We’re naturally a sensitive group, so this has always been hardwired into Use All Five, but the reality is that betting on the underdog goes deeper than being elementally sympathetic. Kerry conveyed to us the importance – and savvy – of identifying those with unreasonable passion and putting your full faith in them, regardless of their experience. This inherently implies a strong bond between client and provider, setting a foundation of trust and belief. That’s something that has always stayed with us. If you take the time to build relationships based on mutual understanding, they’ll strengthen over time, and that bond becomes personal in a way that the client-provider relationship rarely is. Find those people, prove to them that you’re ride or die, and hang on tight.

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