“I’ve had every job here,” jokes Dana Arnett of VSA Partners, the Chicago-based branding and marketing firm he co-founded with Robert Vogele and Ted Stoik in 1982. But there’s a common thread running through everything he’s been tasked with from day one: design. Sure, that seems obvious, but more specifically VSA prides itself on broadening the conventional definition, by referring to it as design with a “Big D.”
“We believe in design in service not only of creative functions, but achieving business objectives as well,” says Arnett. “We’ve evolved the firm over time to embrace the larger definition of design.”
This sort of expansive mindset is focused on designing for a multifaceted marketplace. If you look at VSA’s impressive client roster, you’ll notice some of the most established brands in the world, spanning a variety of industries—think IBM, brewing company Anheuser-Busch, and Harley-Davidson. While their business objectives are clearly very different, they’re bonded by what Arnett describes as a “common design language and aesthetic.” So, whether you’re interacting with a VSA client by holding a tangible product, watching a television commercial, or following it on social media, you’ll right away recognize who you’re dealing with.
“Brands are more powerful when they’re unified, and design is that unifier,” says Arnett.
To help build this sort of consistent brand recognition across various platforms and channels, VSA’s nearly 300 employees across its three locations (including New York and San Francisco) hail from various disciplines including writing, strategy, design, and UX; but more importantly, possess “this aspiration that design is a unifying thought that can be integrated into everything,” says Arnett. “Design is not just about making things that look good, it’s about connecting the dots.” And because hierarchy doesn’t bear much importance in the office, you’ll discover interns working alongside company veterans.
“You won’t last here if you’re a bystander,” says Arnett.“You’re going to get thrown into the mix immediately, and be involved in every aspect of problem solving.”
As for how VSA works? According to Arnett, it’s all about “iteration and rapid prototyping with a human-centered approach. You won’t stay in your swim lane, because we believe this opens real innovation, and new ways of thinking about and expressing a brand.” A unique hybrid of a traditional ad agency and design firm, VSA assembles highly integrated teams pulled from its various practices for every job. “We purposely inter-pollenate our talent, so everyone has the opportunity to dance across a lot of mediums and get exposed to the greater potential of a brand.”
VSA’s office, which has been at its current location in Chicago’s Near North Side neighborhood for over nine years, isn’t super slick or overly designed. That, too, was a deliberate move by Arnett, who believes in “function over design,” and loves a “fast-paced and messy environment that isn’t precious.” Instead of a cubicle farm, you’ll discover an open, airy layout, with white walls everywhere to scribble on, plenty of space to spread out, and private nooks to work in peace.
“This isn’t just about maximizing our square footage,” says Arnett. “It’s about giving people an environment they feel really good about.”