“The big corporate agency mentality was frustrating us,” says Fred Weaver, of his decision to start Tank, a design and communications agency in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with co-founder David Warren in 1994. “There was this idea that smart people think and solve problems, then pony up a design team to ‘decorate’ the solution. But for us, design is much more powerful than graphic decoration. It’s actually a way of thinking.”
Since 2000, Tank has occupied the same building, a former industrial warehouse for a pipe foundry that the company renovated, even though it has now grown to over 50 employees. And unlike countless other firms that have come and go over the past two decades, Tank has gracefully weathered both the dot-com crash and 2008 recession without having to lay off a single employee. What’s the secret to Tank’s ability to thrive, not just survive, in such precarious times? Simply put, the refusal to fail.
“It’s not just about letting down your client, but your team downstairs,” says Kelly Heath, Tank’s director. “You want to do great work for your clients, but you want to support your team as well.” Weaver puts it more bluntly: “We care about design. We care about our clients. We just really give a shit.” Warren adds, “We’re blue-collar. We believe in rolling up our sleeves and actually working.” Given their stalwart spirit, the company name comes as no surprise.
That sort of deep-rooted care has paid off in long-lasting, trusting client relationships. If you need proof, FedEx has been a client for 14 years, and a Tank employee has been on that account for 11. “The care our team gives to design is key, but the growth of our clients’ business also proves how much we care,” says Heath. “So they choose to keep us.”
Even when office and cubicle farms were the de rigueur for companies in the ’90s, even creative ones, Tank shunned them from day one. “The culture then was all very siloed,” says Warren. “People were stuck with labels, usually tasked with doing one thing too long, too many times.” Instead, the entire company works in one main room, accented with a vaulted high ceiling and sky lights, so everything feels airy, open, and spacious. Creative director Geoff Donegan says, “We do our best and most efficient work collaboratively, when people can leave their desks and talk to each other, rather than sending an email or setting up a meeting.”
While their client base spans a wide range of industries, from Reebok to RueLaLa, FedEx is one that Tank is especially proud of. Though it’s not a company that might top most creative agencies’ wish lists, according to Weaver, “Young and hungry designers usually have a list of dream clients, places where design sinks its teeth into a little more readily. But as we’ve gotten older we’ve learned how to bring that naive, wide-eyed spirit to everything we do. We rethink the ordinary, and surprise our clients—and ourselves—with what design can do.”
“You have to find magic in the problem you’re trying to solve,” continues Donegan. “We’re solving problems that might not seem sexy at first, but once you imagine the scale, scope, and reach, it all changes. For example, let’s you may be shifting some indicators or measurements in an automated email for FedEx. But if that email is being sent out hundreds of millions of times every year, the impact is huge. And you get a lot of satisfaction out of that.”
But no matter the client, all of Tank’s work is informed by a single, yet profound guiding principle. “We bring the same mindfulness to whatever problem we’re trying to solve,” says Warren. “Our brains enjoy solving real business problems, from systemizing architecture for a Fortune 500 company, to obsessing over kerning for a logo for a bar, to conceiving ad campaigns for Reebok. We know that we’re good, but we don’t stand around on a podium. We’re under the radar, sort of humbly and arrogantly at the same time.”