The RoAndCo office is a study in contrasts—inviting leather loungers and artfully arranged greenery sets off stark white brick walls and industrial details. The staff work in an open-plan office on sawhorse tables, while founder Roanne Adams moves through the space with the solicitous air of a cool big sister—leaning over a screen to offer a word of advice here or tweak a color palette there. “We’re talking all day long about everything,” she says. “It’s kind of like musical chairs. I’m sitting behind each of their computers just talking about their designs. That’s my style of creative direction.”

It’s a warmer, more intimate environment than where Adams first cut her teeth, at global consultancy Wolff Olins. Working first as an intern, then as a graphic designer at an office whose size may not have been her first choice, but she counts her experience as a blessing in disguise. “It taught me a lot about about big-picture branding, and it also really taught me about how to structure a creative agency,” she says. “How to work with a team of project managers, copywriters, strategists, and production designers, roles that a smaller design studio might not have.” She was coming up in a company where each member had their own specialty, skills she would ultimately synthesize when she struck out on her own. That’s another way Wolff Olins helped Adams out. “Because it wasn’t necessarily the perfect fit for me, it kind of catapulted me into doing my own thing.”

And the timing couldn’t have been better. In 2006, she was named one of PRINT magazine’s “20 Under 30” for her work in visual art, and both press inquiries and freelance work suddenly came pouring in. The more time she spent working after office hours, the more she saw the need to cut loose. “At the age of 25 I made the decision that that was the best time to go freelance, because I don’t think at any other point in my career I would have had the guts to do it,” she says. “I wouldn’t go freelance now that I have a three-year-old daughter.” She was also at the beginning of a freelancer’s revolution, of sorts. Designers were beginning to realize they didn’t need to sit at a desk all day. As long as they had a laptop, a phone, and enough energy to hustle, there was tremendous opportunity in a city like New York.

Ultimately it would take a bit more than a laptop and a phone. Adams spent the first few months working out of her apartment with one intern (“Sometimes I’d be scrambling to get my clothes on in the morning and he’d be at my doorstep,” she recalls) before renting studio space alongside Refinery29. The studio also hosted set designers, fashion designers, and production designers, and during her time there Adams collaborated with all of them, a central pillar of her design ethos. As the business grew, they moved once, and then again, to their current ChoLiTa location (the meeting point of Chinatown, Soho, and Little Italy) where the staff numbers around 13 members.

Now RoAndCo is known for its distinct aesthetic—balancing the masculine and feminine, the classic and contemporary—and their work across print and digital platforms to help fashion and lifestyle brands convey their message beautifully. Adams herself is spending less time at the laptop these days. As RoAndCo’s chief creative director, she spends more time “coming up with ideas with designers and going on set and art directing photo shoots, but not actually sitting down to kern type or make logos or color palettes,” she says. Giving the designers a level of creative autonomy is important to Adams, who says she’d prefer to talk through ideas and strategic intent rather than “swoop in at the end and take control of their mouse.”

When a new project comes in, Adams assembles a team based on the needs of the client (whether web-heavy, print-oriented, or focused on art direction). From there, she’ll work with her creative director and brand development director to create a mood board of images and creative strategy to shape the project’s direction. “I want them to have ownership of their ideas, so I’ll just let them go right to the drawing board and create their own brand worlds,” she says. And while every project is unique, collaboration with the client is key for Adams, who asks them to share their inspiration materials and concepts whenever possible, so both parties have a sense of ownership over the finished product.

Take a look at just a few of their projects and the emphasis on dialogue is readily apparent. When asked to cite some of her favorite work, Adams immediately mentions her long-term partnerships with fashion houses Honor and Loeffler Randall, for which RoAndCo has conceived everything from branding and e-commerce to packaging design and invitations. The company also created a show-stopping booth at SightUnseen’s OFFSITE, where they worked together with PaperChase Press, Flavor Paper, prop stylist Olivia Simmons, and more to create a dynamic, 3D showcase for 2D designs.

As the firm continues to evolve, Adams plans to prioritize creative strategy and brand storytelling more and more. “At Wolff Olins I was taught how to create branding based on big idea, tone of voice, reason for being, and competitive landscape,” she says. “I kind of wanted to get away from that. We were in a recession, nobody had the time or money for that kind of thinking. Now it’s time to reinvest in thinking so as to not launch a brand that has no legs to stand on.” Her other big focus moving forward? Pushing beyond the design of a logo or a single photo shoot and creating content with a holistic approach for all the client’s needs. “We help brands establish their unique story and their own tone of voice to bring more value to their online experience. Helping our clients strategize and create content is something we’re expanding to provide,” she says.

Their latest partnership with streaming service Google Play Music embodies that mantra. The team created a series of still lifes “merging everyday objects into surreal pairings” as placeholder images for the site’s various radio stations. Piano keys pop out of a woman’s compact for the “Ultimate Girls’ Night Out” station, while “’80s Training Montage Radio” features a sweat-banded VHS tape. In addition to use on the site, these images crossover into print ads in publications like Rolling Stone. It’s a fresh, playful look for the new streaming service, and a study in the interplay between print and digital outlets.

As a designer who’s enjoyed a pretty stellar trajectory in a short amount of time, Adams is often asked for advice from up-and-comers. First, she says personality is key, especially when working in such a close-knit, team-oriented environment. She also suggests designers flesh out a wide variety of skills while nurturing a specialty—whether that’s your use of color, photography choices, a deft illustrator’s hand—that will stand out in a sea of portfolios. Most importantly, though, is the Golden Rule. “Treat everybody with same respect you’d want in return,” she says. “Your interns, your clients, your designers, because you never know when they might come back around. I had an intern years ago, and she’s gone on to work with so many amazing brands. I could collaborate with her someday, all because she had a good experience working with me back then.”

There she goes again—already planning the next partnership.