When former Pentagram partner and Apple design director Robert Brunner founded Ammunition ten years ago, he noticed an increased emphasis on the “strategic importance” of design. His aim, when he struck out on his own in San Francisco, was to “build a multidisciplinary organization around products and services, and people’s relationships with these things.”
Today, the agency is probably best known for its innovative product design for brands like Beats by Dr. Dre, Lyft, Square, and Polaroid, but there’s far more to its portfolio than slick consumer goods.
Ammunition is still based in the same spot where it began; a historic cable car roundhouse complex located a stone’s throw from the Embarcadero and the waterfront. The office is spread across different levels of two buildings, in a layout said to be reflective of Ammunition’s relatively flat corporate structure. Workspaces are free from any apparent hierarchies, and you’ll find senior staff working alongside interns.
Pretty much everything is cloaked simply in white, save for the occasional pop of color, and the Ammunition HQ feels vaguely industrial thanks to the architect’s decision to leave much of the original structure intact. Aaron Poe, vice president of digital, describes it as “a very calm space, so it’s easy to focus. Though it’s white and clean, it’s far from sterile.” Brunner especially appreciates how the space catches a ton of natural light, but feels secure, too: “There’s only a few ground-level windows, which is great since obviously we have confidentiality concerns with a lot of our clients.”
Since everyone works in the same area, it’s easy to walk to up to anyone and bounce ideas around. On top of that, everyone is working. Hard. Regardless of the project or its scope, Darcy DiNucci, vice president of user experience, says that every job commences with a service design sprint. “We go through personalities and scenarios until we get a good understanding of what the product’s features will be, what the touchpoints are, how people will interact with them, and more importantly, why.” At the end of these sprints, which typically span four weeks, DiNucci says they “have a pretty well-founded idea of where opportunities are for differentiation and delight, and also how to meet business and user requirements.”
Branch, a mobile bank and lending app launched in Kenya and Tanzania last year, is a terrific example of how Ammunition’s service design sprints help drive a solution “truly custom-tailored to the client,” in DiNucci’s words. According to Ammunition, Branch was offering something completely foreign to most Africans, so the potential to meet with skepticism was very high. “We had to come out the gate with a very considered approach to the brand identity, color palette, and usability of the app,” says Poe. The blue logo is striking and simple, comprised of a vertical line and three dots. “They become a running theme in the app, an indicator of a call to action,” Poe adds.
As for the people who work at Ammunition? Brunner says he seeks “a high level of talent, a philosophical viewpoint consistent with ours,” and the ability to work nimbly because “one week you’re driving your own thing, and the next week you could be helping somebody else. We have 50 people here that work like 75.” Though he admits that he can’t financially compete with bigger companies like Google and Apple, he’s still “good at finding people who grow very quickly and have a spark of talent we can build upon.” The Friday afternoon tradition of office drinks and team lunches on Wednesday—the kitchen was expanded during a renovation a couple years ago, so everyone could eat together—might help.
Above all else, there’s a shared dedication to “greatness.” As partner Matt Rolandson tells us, “with every single thing we agree to work on, the goal is to make it the greatest thing it can be. We’re fairly uncompromising and stubborn on that point.
“Sometimes, it seems like we care more than the people we’re working for. How to design something is one thing, but we’re always asking ourselves why are we doing this? That’s how we stay committed to seeing things all the way through.”