In 2017 the internet was a different place. It was before the D2C revolution. Before web3. Before COVID.
This internet-of-then was the business landscape that we started Alright Studio in, with the intention of being a different kind of digitally-focused agency. Our edge was—and in many ways, still is—the harmony of aesthetics and function, knowing one can’t hit without the other.
Over the past six years, we’ve worked with over a hundred clients, many of which you’ve probably heard of: Post Malone, Noom, Blank Street, AriZona Iced Tea, Steve Madden, Great Jones, Dame Products. A solid third of the clients we’ve worked with required identity development. Over three-quarters required art direction. In the end, not a single client required web design alone.
What soon became clear was the fact that, even though our focus was typically on web design, our scope of work was always much more broad. And while many of our clients come to us for “just” a website, the strategic, creative, and complicated process of actually creating a site that effectively communicates what a brand is online often led to an entirely new identity. Done correctly, web design is never just web design—it’s branding.
Work for Post Malone ('Twelve Carat Toothache'), Roberta's, Symbol, Body, Unspun, and Love Injection. Courtesy Alright Studio.
Branding with a capital B
Branding is messy. It’s personal and opinionated. Branding is also, by nature, a line item. Every creative agency you meet will sell the client a different suite of services that really boils down to a nice-looking brand book and a set of rules. The problem is that these rules, while valuable, expensive, and packed to the gills with work (often done for work’s sake), rarely answered the fundamental question of how a brand should look, sound, and act online.
So we began to ask ourselves questions that were avant-garde at the time, if table stakes for web design today: What if the margins were super tight? What if the logo took up the entire above-the-fold? Could the informational pages have tiny type with lots of info? These choices weren’t merely based on our desire to be contrarians. They were reflections of our clients’ existing brands, and strategic ways for us to nail the sometimes esoteric, often nebulous, directives clients gave us through scoping and onboarding.
But as the budgets got bigger and the services we were hired for began to expand, it forced us to grapple with the idea that we were often re-articulating opinions, inventing new points-of-view, or completely reinventing work that had been done by other parties in order to make our deliverable—the website—function effectively on the internet.
We learned quickly that while our full-time job was making these websites, most of our clients had never gone through the process of launching a big site before—much less a new brand to market. We found ourselves regularly educating clients on how to launch their businesses. There was so much to consider beyond just the design of the site: copy, photography, illustrations, merchandising, lead times, fulfillment, analytics, sales channels, requisite third party tools.
Design for Luaka Bop, a record label founded by David Byrne. Project included animation, art direction, design, dev, eComm, strategy. Courtesy Alright Studio.
What we didn’t yet know was how to ask for the time and money we really needed to solve these problems for people. Instead, we tried to just do it all ourselves, ad-hoc and as quickly as possible (or at least before the client could get pissed off at us).
Not quite sure how to talk about your company? We’ll draft a positioning statement. Need copy there? We’ll write a line, leave it in the design, and see if anyone asks us to remove it. Subpar product imagery? We’ll ship the items to our co-working space in Brooklyn, book the conference room, and shoot everything ourselves in an afternoon. Need illustrations for your services? We can get pretty dangerous in Illustrator.
Of course, none of that is what we were hired for. Our clients just wanted a website. But whether they knew it or not, they needed all of this other stuff, too! And we were always at least willing, if not happy, to provide the full suite of services.
But when clients didn’t think they needed to consider these other details, they’d get frustrated that we were trying to up-sell them, dragging our feet, or simply not executing the thing we had been hired for. At its root, what they needed was Branding. Yes, with a capital B. The bits and pieces that uniquely and fundamentally define a company, and that you need before you can really start making things from the point of view of that business.
The big shift that allowed us to have more license in defining how we work came when we had accumulated, almost by accident, a portfolio of diverse projects that showcased a range of approaches to problem solving—many of which effectively solved “capital B” Branding challenges. The breadth of that portfolio then allowed us to begin telling our clients what they actually needed, rather than letting what they thought they needed define our scopes. We were figuring it out :)
The Alright Studio website, which launched in 2023. Courtesy Alright Studio.
Mutual uncertainty, mutual evolution
Then, the world changed.
Alright was technically born in 2017, but was ultimately molded by the COVID-19 pandemic three years later. Businesses the world-over tried to figure out how to keep the lights on—ours included. Alright’s nimble nature and our, at the time, outrageously low budgets (seriously, we’ve been rejected for not charging enough) set us up remarkably well to evolve with our clients as they scrambled to figure out what was coming next.
With client budgets vacillating between “help me out, it’s a pandemic” and “I have all this PPP money I don’t know what to do with,” we began diversifying our outputs. We did this to make sure our projects could actually launch, and also because we were getting inquiries that were like nothing we had ever been contacted for prior. From set building and art direction to physical product design to developing bespoke back-end infrastructures, and constant strategy and copywriting; it was all over the place.
We moved entire brick-and-mortar businesses to online stores. We helped design, name, and brand a hyper-technical N95 mask. We did several socially distant photo shoots. And we were always thinking about imbuing the identity of our client into our work, based on what they were coming to us for. More than anything, though, we put our heads down and just worked and worked, sometimes for-profit and sometimes just to have something fun to do while stuck inside.
Work for Miracle Seltzer, Dame, One Canopy, Trippin, Great Jones, Bilt (including credit card design). Courtesy Alright Studio.
Throughout the pandemic, our clients were both understanding and grateful when we presented solutions to their business or brand problems. They knew that they were out of their collective depths (to be honest, so were we), and they were willing to defer to another party to help them change tack.
Our collaborations with fast-moving upstarts throughout the pandemic allowed us to intentionally evolve our process, so that we truly understand what a client needs before a project begins, rather than assuming that a client only needs our help with web design and development, because that’s what they told us.
It also led us to change our process of client education. We explain everything that goes into a website, from photography to copy to the implications of different content management systems, in plain English, from the start. The biggest goal in our pandemic engagements was making sure our clients felt heard and seen, and understood exactly what we would be delivering.
Pre-emptive problem solving
That has gone on to define who we are today, and how we work. Consider some of our work from 2021 and 2022; our first in the post-pandemic world.
We worked with the conscious travel company Trippin—for a year—to come up with a design system that felt like it was at the intersection of digital product and editorial experience. The brief to us was, more or less, to make their site—a veritable digital travel platform—more performant, organized, maintainable by their in-house staff, and mobile-friendly. We mapped their entire site, spanning thousands of articles, to clean up data structures and pathways, and identify the design cues that made Trippin, Trippin. We ultimately re-platformed them entirely, in the interest of performance and organization, and developed a net new design system, with design studio All Purpose, that was subtly referential of post cards from all over the world.
Great Jones, a design-forward, direct-to-consumer cookware company, came to us in the late summer of 2021 to markedly improve its eCommerce and transactional experience, while keeping the panache that already made the brand instantly recognizable—all before Black Friday. We started with our own research, auditing, and technical discovery. This all resulted in an internal brief to ourselves focused on much more than improvements to their eComm experience: We developed a retooled and robust site map, components and features, then wireframes of all core site pages, a tech plan, and, finally, full fidelity design.
The re-launch of sexual wellness company Dame’s eCommerce marketplace is perhaps the ultimate case study of web work as brand identity development. Dame briefed us to take the brand’s visual language out of its circa-2018 DTC design cues (think: flat, saturated colors and humanist sans serifs), while paying keen attention to site performance and conversion.
Alright Studio united and re-designed intimate wellness company Dame's eComm and editorial platforms so they visually coordinate. Courtesy Alright Studio.
In order to truly evolve the brand and create a site that not only left 2018 in the past, but felt fresh for the present, we ultimately recommended uniting Dame's eCommerce platform with its editorial platform. At the time, these platforms were two distinct web properties, each defined by distinct visuals and tones of voice. We then doubled down on Dame’s iconic blue as its primary brand color, and balanced that identifiably digital hue with warm imagery that feels both cutting edge and comfortable. And lastly, we rounded out the new iteration of the brand with upbeat, sex-positive copy writing.
Every project, in one way or another, is Branding. This could be a big (or small) website, a social campaign, or a packaging refresh. If a client has come to you, as an agency, they want your out-of-house perspective on how to present themselves. It’s on you to explain that pushing a brand’s identity doesn’t necessarily mean they need a new logo; it means creating a web experience that feels harmonious and authentic and distinctly that brand, no matter the user’s point of entry.
Execution and aesthetics exist in harmony; if it’s not functional, it’s not beautiful. To be meticulous in both means you have to be meticulous in defining what needs to be done. So what makes a site functional? Sometimes a client needs your guidance in defining that. We’ve learned to define it broadly.