One of the first album covers that had striking effect on me as a teenager was Blonde Redhead’s 23. The four-legged girl with a tennis racket hovering on a baby blue background, cut in half by a blood-red belly band really haunted me. At first I didn’t especially like the packaging—it felt contradictory to the previous, more subdued Blonde Redhead covers I’d gotten to know, and the shift of atmosphere, away from dusty colors and textures to more vibrant, contemporary tones, made the music feel similarly strange. After time though, I grew to love both, but that initial experience left a real impression on me, and it taught me just how much a simple image combined with a particular color palette can get under your skin.

The design studio behind that eerie, iconic cover—and therefore behind my first lesson in the power of branding—is Triboro. The Brooklyn-based studio has left its emphatic imprint on a number of high-profile clients including Nike, Nickelodeon, MoMA, and Wieden+Kennedy, and its contributed editorial design wisdom to publications like The New York Times Magazine and Wired.

Partners David Heasty and Stefanie Weigler have garnered a significant amount of expertise and experience over the years, which has been recognized by both ADC Young Guns and AIGA (Heasty is also currently on the board of AIGA/NY). With such a wealth of knowledge, it’s no surprise that they’re both dedicated educators; after years of running workshops on branding at Parsons, they’re now teaching at the School of Visual Arts in New York.

And since their work figured as the crux of one of my first key lessons in graphic design, I decided to ask Heasty and Weigler more about their approach as teachers. “Based on our experiences in the profession, we try to bring an ideal scenario to students, where we set the right mix of restrictions and freedom—free from the pettiness that comes when clients get involved,” says Weigler.

We see teaching as an experiment: it’s fascinating to follow a student’s thought process and see the unpredictable directions they take an assignment.

Like most designers and design educators, they’ve found that imposing restrictions actually pushes students to think more conceptually, something Heasty prioritizes even over design skills. “Often the less ‘experienced’ the student, the more unique their ideas are,” he states. “They care less about doing things that look like ‘Graphic Design’ and are more interested in the concept.”

Weigler finds trial and error to be one of the most important aspects of learning, and encourages her students to try a variety of styles and concepts. “Some students try only one idea, but there are so many ways to approach a project. As a young designer, you have to keep trying different ideas and executions to discover what works best.”

All in all, Triboro has three crucial lessons it considers the most vital for students tackling branding for the first time. Weigler breaks them down:

  1. “Do your research. You need to fully understand the business you’re working with. Concepts shouldn’t be random, but need to spring from something innate about the business. Ask yourself: what makes this company different from others?”
  2. “The logo is not the identity. Everything on the page contributes to the visual identity. Every ingredient requires a conscious decision and should be infused with the essence and personality you wish to communicate to the audience. Your job is to reveal the soul of the brand.”
  3. “Design is valuable. Branding has become the prime differentiator between nearly indistinguishable goods and services.”

For Heasty, the work he did during his early years as a graphic designer provided him with lessons that he still carries with him to this day. The first project he completed out of school was a logo for a data company called Coral Technologies. The client’s suggestion was to show an image of coral. Having just graduated, Heasty says, “I had it drilled into my head that you can’t show a picture of something and then say the same thing.” Instead, he presented two halves of a fish passing in and out of two holes and nothing else.

“The client asked ‘Where’s my coral?’” Heasty recalls. “I answered, ‘Everything around the fish is the coral.’ I realized that you didn’t have to do what the client asks, but sometimes even a bad suggestion can inspire a nice solution.”