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Good vs. Great Design: Three Minutes with Julie Sherman

Good vs. Great Design: Three Minutes with Julie Sherman

What distinguishes good design from great design? The answer to this question spans ages and industries, and can’t be confined to a dichotomous debate between what could be considered classic or new-school. Design thinkers know that it is much deeper than that, and that is why it was a pleasure to (virtually) sit down with my colleague and collaborator, Julie Sherman, Founder and Principal of J Sherman Studio

Throughout our conversation, we explored the nuances that distinguish good design from great design as well as Julie’s journey and inspiration in founding J Sherman Studio, her design philosophy and branding insights, as well as her perspective on the Studio’s partnership with ERI. As we focus on digital strategy, design, and development, and with J Sherman Studio’s expertise in branding and creative, this conversation not only highlights Julie’s insights but also underscores the exciting collaborative foundation that is core to any successful partnership.

Journey and Inspiration:

Can you tell us about your journey in the design world and what inspired you to start J Sherman Studio?

I’d love to! It’s been a delightfully nonlinear journey that makes total sense in hindsight. Almost 17 years ago, I started the Studio. I left a strategic consulting firm on a quest for more purpose-driven work—and have been doing just that ever since.

Pictured here: Julie Sherman, Founder and Principal of J Sherman Studio.

I never set out to be a business owner, but—in retrospect—it is just where I was meant to be. After getting a BFA in photography and painting, my first “real job” was as an office manager at a small, very creative architecture firm. That early role gave me such amazing insight into running a small business. It also showed me that being creative and being in business didn’t have to be diametrically opposed! 

It still took me years to figure out how to really bring both sides of my brain together for my work. I even went on to get a masters in communications—thinking that in order to grow in my career that I would need to leave design behind. But thankfully, that degree ended up being the courage I needed to know that I could “do business” and that business could be design!  

What drives your creative process, and how do you stay inspired?

Here at the Studio, our process is driven by creative strategy. It’s one thing to make things pretty, it’s a whole other thing to make things effective. In our design process, we align on the project goals, potential impact, and future extensions. We always start big and then narrow down to the smaller details. 

My whole Studio team has different ways of staying inspired—first and foremost by turning to one another! Seven brains truly are mightier than one, and frequently we’ll get an amazing idea from a colleague or help each other dig deeper. 

We also all tend to look externally for inspiration—we go far beyond just looking at other design work. We are all avid readers and podcast listeners, and usually get great ideas from non-design related subject matter! We all seem to have quirky collections and interests. Some of us (me!) are really inspired by nature. I go for so many walks in the woods and collect interesting botanical illustration books! I also just love art history, so looking at these books or going to museums is another inspiration source. 

Design Philosophy:

How do you define the difference between good design and great design?

Hmmm… hard question! 

Good design checks the boxes. It’s aesthetically pleasing and it follows basic design principles. It follows all the rules.

Great design combines strategy into the visual. It takes it to the next level by bringing it all together—for both impact and beauty. Great design also knows just which rules to break! It gets it all right, and then it does something surprising and memorable!

Can you share a project that exemplifies the leap from good to great design and what made it stand out?

Oh, this question is also hard! Like trying to choose a favorite child. The one that comes to mind (but there are many others) is an appeal campaign project for a client that we do each year. 

We work hard together to figure out what the targeted strategy and surprising element will be for the year. The fact that it will be on brand and aesthetically pleasing is a given. But the challenge each year is what will be surprising and still reach its audience, and this usually is solved with a great theme and then design development that meaningfully ties into the theme. We’ve had some really playful solutions over the years, from doing a fold-out poster, to embroidered badges, to a woven die cut. And these print solutions have all extended gorgeously into the accompanying digital campaign. 

And, to connect back to the earlier question—we certainly find a few rules to break in the design for this project to keep things interesting!

Branding Insights:

What are the key elements that make a brand truly memorable and impactful?

A memorable brand clearly goes beyond just slapping a logo on everything . We know that design is a facet (albeit a critical one) but also just a part of the big picture! Here are our brand favorites—from a design perspective: 

  1. A logo that doesn’t suck! Something distinctive and adaptable. Let’s make sure it isn’t too bland that it feels like stock imagery but also not too complicated so it needs a decoder ring! 
  2. Message clarity and vibrant storytelling. The whole point is to connect, right? The most gorgeous visual identity in the world can’t make up for a lack of clear messaging or memorable stories. 
  3. Consistent but flexible visual identity. We don’t need to be robotic to speak in a unified voice! Your brand should be that adaptable friend who can join you for the black tie wedding but can also hang out and have take out Thai food in sweatpants! 
  4. Color that captivates. This is totally biased because our Studio just lives for color. We think a killer color palette is absolutely mandatory. And this goes beyond just having a good primary set of colors—secondary colors and accents need to give you the depth and range to go far!
  5. An element of surprise. Something eccentric, something memorable, something that shows you aren’t just the same as everyone else.

How do you approach a branding or design initiative for a new institutional client, and what are the most important factors to consider?

There is no cookie-cutter approach—the best fit for a new client will really depend on their internal clarity and what their goals are, especially with the many intricate dynamics of an institution. But EVERY project we do begins with a whole lot of curious questions and some depth of creative strategy. If we are laying the groundwork for something long and enduring, we will take more time together to establish the best roadmap. 

On the flip side, some projects can also just be fast and quick entry points. Sometimes doing an initial much-needed deliverable (for example, maybe it’s a strategic pitch deck that was needed yesterday) is a really good opportunity to immerse ourselves, give the client something they can use right away, and then we can come up with a better-informed and smarter strategy for the long term change.

Collaboration and Partnership:

In your opinion, what are the benefits of partnering with a digital strategy and development firm like ours?

The Studio loves partnering with other field leaders—like ERI! We are all experts in our respective arenas and when our forces collide, we collectively raise the bar to a whole new level.

How do you see our collaboration enhancing the design and branding landscape for our clients?

In a billion ways, but the most immediate way is that the combination of ERI + J Sherman Studio means that we seamlessly support many brand touchpoint mediums—from pixels on screens, to ink on paper, to immersive experiences in real life. It’s pretty meaningful to be able to get such deep levels of expertise and have them sync up so the brand is firing in harmony on every level.


Trends and Future Outlook:

What current design trends are you most excited about and why?

You might laugh, but we aren’t very trendy! In fact, we sort of pride ourselves on being uncool. We are thrilled when we design something that truly lasts, and frequently stay clear of anything that feels like it’s all the rage and might go out of style quickly. 

But we do follow trends with great interest and sometimes amusement. We tend to celebrate anything that is vibrant and emotive. Gritty gradients are something that has been around for a bit and we are still really digging. Chubby serifs make us smile, and a hint of nostalgia or retro elements can also be so fun to play with. But in all seriousness, the best trend is actually whatever fits our clients best! 

And… a true confession (that we might go back on) is that we aren’t really so into Pantone’s color of the year! This year it is Peach Fuzz, and we really haven’t quite figured out what to do with it yet. We might also just be mourning that it’s no longer Viva Magenta since we truly vibed with that color last year!

How do you envision the future of branding and design evolving over the next few years?

Our universe has been delightfully disrupted by AI and smart, user-friendly applications like Canva and Figma. I adore that we can now add these tools to our box and let them help us all work smarter. But like everything, shortcuts only get you so far. There are so many instances where you have to do the work to get the results.

I think the ability to thoughtfully differentiate with these amazing tools becomes a whole new ballgame, and one that I’m really excited to be a part of. It’s all about intention now that we have so many great resources… otherwise we’ll all end up looking the same! 

Success Stories and Challenges:

Can you share a success story where your design made a significant impact on a client’s brand?

One of the most gratifying things about doing this work is seeing our clients then step into their beautiful new visual identities. It’s like the expression: “dress for the job you want, not the job you have.” So watching our clients fill their new, amazing, shiny shoes with pride is something we never get tired of. 

We can think of many examples of this, one that comes to mind is a very long-time client (10 years!!!) whose robust annual project has evolved to become the yearly anchor for their brand. It keeps things fresh and gives them a theme to build upon for the entire year. We deliver a package of assets and guidance for how to use these elements alongside their project. This project has become such a vibrant internal alignment tool which radiates externally, gets so much use, and keeps the energy alive throughout the year!

What are some of the biggest challenges you face in the branding and creative industry, and how do you overcome them?

Oh stop with the tricky questions! I’ve got three that really rise to the top. 

  1. Establishing value for something as subjective as design, which lacks a direct ROI, is challenging. We try to find the right fit for each client. In some instances this means starting small to build trust, demonstrating intangible value, and growing from there. Additionally, we emphasize our expertise and the unique, high-quality outcomes we deliver, rather than just static investment.
  2. Navigating a culture of RFPs is another challenge. RFP’s often don’t benefit clients or agencies, and we strongly believe that the competitive bid culture is detrimental to the industry. We address this by engaging differently, focusing on building long-term relationships rather than merely competing for projects. This approach allows us to align better with clients who value collaboration over all else.
  3. Managing a democratic design process is the final challenge that comes to mind! Too many voices can lead to uninspired or disjointed results. We overcome this by ensuring alignment in creative strategy and consistently referring back to it throughout the project. This helps keep the focus on achieving the project goals rather than catering to individual preferences, resulting in more cohesive and effective designs.

Personal Glimpse:

What has been your proudest moment as the principal of J Sherman Studio?

My proudest moments have all been relationship oriented. 

It took me a while to mentally make the shift from maker to business owner. And now I take such incredible pride in helping my team grow. I’m most proud realizing that we’ve created something special and different from just your everyday design agency. When I look at our J Sherman Studio “gold standard designs” and realize how we have built them and maintained them, or when I see my team evaluate next steps with the lens of our Studio values (which we all created together)—then my heart just swells with pride!  

External to the Studio, the quality of relationships with clients is so meaningful to me. From the clients who have worked with us for 15+ years (yes!!!) to the new ones who we are still getting to know. Being able to form relationships that feel like partnerships (and frequently turn into friendships) is something that keeps me going. 

And finally, the partnerships we have made with kindred-spirit and complementary businesses, like ERI, who are equally as value, service, and quality aligned as we are make me realize we’ve got something special here.

How do you maintain a work-life balance while running a successful creative firm?

I try to keep an eye on what I need, what my family needs, and what my business needs. I know that I can’t keep everyone satisfied at once, but I’ve got perspective that it averages out. And I’ve learned that I’m a better parent when I really get my intellectual curiosity satisfied at work. Then I can be more happily present (and not distracted!). 

I’m also constantly calibrating. I’ve learned that what works for a couple years usually needs to evolve as everyone and everything grows up. I’m really good at building new habits, less good at shedding old ones. But I very much enjoy this crazy evolution of life! 

And finally, I would be completely remiss if I didn’t also mention that my incredible partner is part of what makes this all work. We made an important choice eight years ago that he would become the stay at home parent for our family, so that I could focus on growing this business. We’ve definitely upended the patriarchy here! He traded R&D science for a much more challenging (and rewarding) job of keeping two kiddos, a cat, and a very, very old house up and running. And that partnership and collaboration are just true happiness.



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