‘Whatever we do, we do it through a design lens’ | Interview with Pum Lefebure - Design Army
Born in Thailand, Pum Lefebure, the co-founder of the award-winning agency Design Army, brings a global sensibility to American design—a creative point of view that draws from different cultures and resonates with diverse audiences. Guided by an entrepreneurial edge, Pum has elevated Design Army's reputation as a trendsetter, while establishing her own hallmark: a distinctive union of the artistic and the commercial. With a rare balance of creativity, strategic thinking and industry savvy, she has proven that good design is the cornerstone of good business.
The Washington DC-based award-winning Chief Creative Officer and business leader talks to Kernan Andrews about her career journey, her definition of leadership, keys to success and inspiration; designing the Future and her predictions of what the future holds for the industry.
DESIGN IS not simply a tool for promoting products and generating profit, it is also a form of visual art, a medium that can inspire, make you think and be part of the cultural debates of its day - or at least it is when in the hands of a master like Pum Lefebure.
Pum Lefebure, the Thai-born, Washington DC-based designer and co-founder of the award-winning agency Design Army, will be the keynote speaker at the Design Leaders Conference – hosted by Design Skillnet, in The Light House Cinema, Dublin, on January 26, 2023.
“Good design is smart business,” says Pum. “People might think all we do is design, whereas what Design Army does is provide solutions through a design lens,” she says. “When you think about the term design, it’s when you conceive and execute a plan. It’s not painting this wall pink and making it pretty. It’s beyond ‘What colour?’ and ‘What type fonts?’. You have to be the client's business partner and provide solutions through a design lens. It’s not only about how beautiful things are, it’s about making a product move."
Although today based in Washington DC, Pum was born and raised in the Thai capital of Bangkok. She credits her native land with stimulating a passion for and interest in, the capabilities and experience of colour, art, and design.
“Since a very young age I was that kid who draws and loves to paint and is fascinated by colour and texture,” she says. “Thailand is a very stimulating country, from the colours of the temples to the sounds of tuk-tuk, the food. Thai food is rich in flavour, so I feel I grew up among all types of art forms - dance, architecture, everything. I think it built me as an artist.”
Also influential, in her teenage years, were Benetton’s provocative, controversial, adverts, which questioned accepted notions about race, sexuality, morality and AIDs.
“You’ll remember the ads,” she says, “the priest kissing the nun and the three raw hearts and it said white, black, yellow. At that time, I didn’t speak English, but there was something that spoke to me about this type of art: there was an idea it was trying to communicate and I wanted to find out what this is - and it’s called advertising and design. You have to study design or art direction to study this kind of thing. I did some research and found out that Tibor Kalman was creative director at Colours magazine, which I also saw in the 90s, and that inspired me to study graphic design.”
Pum arrived in the US as a foreign exchange student. After college, she began work at a design agency in Washington DC (“I did millions of logos,” she recalls and worked on campaigns such as the World Cup and IBM Olympic”), beginning as an intern and eventually becoming Senior Art Director, managing a 50+ creative team. It was there she met her husband Jake and after six years at the same agency, the pair decided to strike out on their own. In 2003 they founded their own company, Design Army.
They also decided to remain based in Washington DC, instead of relocating to a more natural centre for art and design such as New York.
“We wanted to do stuff differently,” she says. “Being in New York, you could be one of millions, so we were asking, can we do fashion work globally here in Washington DC? Can we do luxury brands or luxury hospitality in Washington DC? That’s how we carved out a niche. We are not quite a design agency and not quite an advertising agency. We are kind of hybrid.”
While Pum admits Design Army began life as “a true graphic design branding agency”, as its reputation grew it began to branch out into other areas, expanding its range and fully flexing its creative muscles, each new project leading to commissions from ever larger clients.
“We got into magazine and editorial and did tons of photoshoots for the Washingtonian magazine,” says Pum. “That led to a big account with [US luxury department store chain] Bloomingdales, and that led to doing video and film.”
Today, Design Army can boast The Ritz Carlton, Adobe, Netflix, Saucony, the Smithsonian and PepsiCo among its clients, and the company’s work for The Hong Kong Ballet has been particularly acclaimed.
“It’s an evolution,” says Pum, of Design Army’s work, “but what has not changed is that whatever we do, we do it through a design lens.”
‘Design is art to me’
Any perusal through Pum Lefebure’s work, whether for the aforementioned Hong Kong Ballet or, even earlier work like Wonderland, the photographic book featuring performers from the Washington Ballet, leaves the viewer in little doubt - the imagination, creativity, sense of arrangement, use of colour and originality on display is the work of an artist, producing works of art, but which occur in a commercial, promotional and advertising realm.
“Design is art to me,” she says. “Whether we do a design, branding, advertising, or video, we are always looking and creating through a design lens. For me, a table is a piece of design, a chair is a piece of design. The chair can be an art form you can sit on.”
There are those in the fine arts who would disagree with this assessment but it should be remembered that many fine artists have also worked as designers. Picasso designed costumes and stage sets for Diaghilev; Peter Blake designed album covers for The Beatles and Paul Weller; and movements life Art Nouveau, Art Deco, and the Bauhaus saw fine arts and design as complementary forms, even natural bedfellows.
“If you talk to an artist, they might say design is not art, but we are living in the 2023 world and you see a lot of artists drawing digitally, a sculpture can be created in a digital form, so there is a huge blurred line. We are in a new revolution, is it like another renaissance going to happen?
“Art and design are one and the same. I don’t see much difference to it. I think the only difference is you have an audience of millions rather than an audience of one. If you’re an artist you have one person who falls in love with your painting and that’s it. I want my work and ideas to have scale.”
Of course, a passion for creating is an essential quality for any designer to have. "Without passion you will never become a great designer,” says Pum, “you’ll just have a 9 to 5 job."
‘To be future proof you have to be alert’
In a time when technology is evolving at an often bewildering speed, future-proofing a business is an essential requirement. By the same token, it is also a daunting challenge. As Pum says, “It is so hard now, as the future is changing every hour.”
“I just feel it’s going even faster and faster, even after the pandemic,” she adds. “So much has changed. I have a lot of friends at C-suite level and we are in the same boat, we are trying to keep up with technology, with AI, metaverse, mixed-reality.”
How can designers and artists compete with this ‘digital revolution’? For Pum, it is a case of artists and designers needing to get to grips with the new technology, and making it work for them, rather than making them redundant.
When Pum reflects on the digital revolution's potential impact on the creative industry and on creatives themselves, she mentions programmes such as MidJourney and DALL E-2, which create images from textual description. DALL E-2 took only 20 seconds to design and produce the cover for the June 2022 issue of Cosmopolitan - an instance that raises questions about what role artists and designers will play in the future, or if there is even a need for them.
“You saw it on Instagram recently,” says Pum, “everyone taking a picture of themselves with this app and the AI and machine learning will spit 25 different looks of my face. We are talking about human vs machine. That would take 25 illustrators to draw my face. Of the 25 images, 20 won't be good enough - and one you might really like - and one you may never think of. This app can spit it out in 30 seconds to three minutes max. It’s immediate. If I ask my team to draw something it will take much longer.”
So, the question is not ‘Are we going to be able to compete against AI?’, but ‘How do we work side by side with AI?’ As Pum says, “It’s happening now, so we need to get comfortable with it as it’s not going back.”
It is not just artists and designers who need to come to terms with technology and its remorseless advancement - all areas of business and industry face technology’s challenge: keep up to date or go out of date. In short - adapt or die.
“To be future proof, you have to be alert, be willing to trash everything you know and learn everything again,” says Pum, “otherwise you are that old fart who is going to be left behind. You have to be willing to relearn everything and start over.”
‘Doing work that matters to society’
Fascinatingly, Pum says she does not “look" at design for inspiration. "I hardly look at graphic design anymore. I don’t look at ads”. For her, the way to stay ahead is to “keep up with what’s going on outside your peers”.
“I am more inspired by going to the Venice Biennial, Miami or Hong Kong art bars, attending a symphony, standing in the middle of Times Square and observing people, or going to McDonalds, standing in line and see how people order food - be a keen observer is key to be a good predictor of the future as human interaction is real.”
This ties in with another central tenet of Pum’s approach to design. For her, design cannot just be about selling and marketing and the bottom line. It has to have a deeper and more meaningful message - and this too is key to future-proofing the industry.
“We are in an industry that a lot of young people do not want to be in - advertising,” she says. “It’s not as cool as it used to be. Now, they want to be a TikTok creator or Instagram influencer, as they grow up watching YouTube with a handy Skip Ads to get rid of the annoying pop-up they don’t want to watch, so why would you want a career in that [advertising]? The older generation of designers and advertisers has a responsibility to save our industry by doing work that matters to society. Designers and agencies have a role in culture as we can reach so many people”.
As well as meeting client obligations to promote their product, Pum believes designers should “create curiosity and make people think”.
“If it’s about ‘Sell me’ and ‘Buy me’ and about how great the product is, I don’t think that is enough,” she says. “We have the power to go much deeper on the messaging. We need to really think about that. The client invests in us to make business gains, more profitable sales products, but if you can inject the cultural relevance, messaging that someone would care about, you can change people’s beliefs and mindsets through your lens. That’s why I love what we do so much”
One of the key ways this can be achieved is in how designers approach the issue of sustainability.
“When you design something for a company, you don’t want it to be super wasteful,” says Pum. “Can you design something with less that can have a really big impact - can you put the stamp on it that says this is recyclable? Do you put a product in plastic or do you put it in glass? Will water be contained in plastic or in a paper box? These design decisions will have an impact on the environment and what we do on the design side really matters for the next generation.”
As well as conveying a serious message, Pum believes design can - and should - add a little joy and happiness as well.
“I always approach creative projects in a positive way,” she says. “You can see the work that we do as Design Army always has a joyful, fun and positive outlook to the world. Once in a while we’ll do some heavy duty, controversial work, but I think the role of Design Army is to create something that is nurturing the world, take people through a design journey, a little escape, a little imaginary trip when they watch a film, 90 seconds of happiness. That’s the strength of Design Army. We approach projects through a positive lens.”
Leadership and keys to success
While issues such as messaging, approach, future-proofing, and ethos are vital In terms of building a successful company, so is the role of leadership.
“You learn how to be a better leader through time,” says Pum. “There are different kinds of leaders. Some would step back and let everyone do their own thing, but my team is looking for me to have a really clear North Star, so they don't get lost along the way.
A strong sense of direction and an ability to be a mentor are crucial factors in this regard. “When you lead a team of 200 people on a big shoot, everyone comes to you. When you lead a team, you have to be very clear and know what you want them to achieve. Let them come back with solutions, but you have to be clear on the direction.”
Again, Pum returns to the idea of being ‘future ready’ and the role it can play in both developing the business while still allowing the business to innovate creatively.
“For me, I always have the eye on the present and the eye on the future, because I have to as a leader,” says Pum. “Where are we going three years from now? Are we going in the right direction? What do we have to do one year from now? You always have a long lens for opportunities.”
Pum says a design leader should never be afraid of taking on a project involving an industry “you might not have full experience of”. Says Pum, “I’m a strong believer in, ‘You learn by doing’.”
For Design Army, every new client presents such opportunities. “We learn a lot from them,” says Pum. From hospitality to high fashion, to retail businesses - each project and brand brief brings additional knowledge to the team and acts like a cross-pollination. “That helps,” says Pum, “make our design team a well-rounded team of thinkers.”
The Design Leaders Conference takes place on Thursday, January 26 in the Light House Cinema, Smithfield, Dublin.
For more information see www.designleadersconference.com.
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