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hollis design ignites fuel power

{ BY JONATHAN YOUNG } A great product without a great package is still a great product, but how do you make it stand out in an already crowded marketplace filled with competition using the boldest type and loaded screaming neon available? The Fuel Power solution was to attack on all fronts. Now part of a Fortune 500 corporation, the entrepreneurial venture contracted Hollis Design. All avenues were explored in developing a unique identity and branding strategy. The new look of Fuel Power Marketing shows that big things do come in small packages.

With a hip new logo and a revamped product line, Fuel Power's new look has created sparks in both the design and diesel worlds. Jonathan Young, Bright Ideas Editor, reveals how one design firm's unique approach helped propel their client across the finish line with flying colors.

Don Hollis's innovative approach to design is evident the moment you walk into his studio. Even before you get there, really. His office is tucked away in a renovated warehouse just outside San Diego's historic Gaslamp Quarter. From the outside, the building still has the rustic look of the city's industrial neighborhood.

Once you get inside, you're still a bit lost since Hollis Design shares the space with two other businesses -- an architectural firm and a packaging company. And if that's not enough, there's also a theatre just inside the building.

You'll find the Hollis Design studio up a flight of stairs to your left. There are no Dilbert-like cubicles, no stuffy business structures, no contemporary office furnishings or high-tech computer configurations. Actually, there's no ceiling either. The room maintains the industrial charm of the antique warehouse, incorporating the original brick walls and roof support beams into the office's atmosphere. Don even points out the circa World War II chairs and desks which were refurbished for his designers.

At Hollis's studio, you're in a whole new world -- somewhere between the middle of the century and the next millennium. After playing with the Fisher Price record player in their retro style lobby -- well, more of an entry area -- you just sit back and say "neat!"

Neat. That's the best way to describe the creative work done by Hollis Design. Not neat as in tidy or immaculate, since there's usually a project spread out on someone's desk. The Hollis "neat" is a result of innovative, inspiring, way cool creations -- designs that make you stop, look and sigh, "Wow!"

Don Hollis likes to push the boundaries in all areas of his business. "There's a mentality in the industry that everything has been done already," Don says. "We don't subscribe to that philosophy. There's still a left turn somewhere."

Hollis Design has turned some heads, too. Their interactive designs include Web sites for Sigrid Olsen, So Blue and Rachel's Closet. Their work has been honored with the Presidential Award for pioneering Web sites (his own Web site is a kick to tour) and they've also received many honors for their designs for Park Meadows Shopping Center. They are currently working on redeveloping the image of 24-Hour Fitness, including everything from the company's logo to the way each gym looks.

Recently, Hollis's designs have ignited the upstart company, Fuel Power Marketing. After revamping the small company's image, Fuel Power, now able to compete with the big boys, experienced such significant growth that they were eventually purchased by a Fortune 500 corporation.

surpassing the limits

Settling into the studio's conference room -- a space in the corner of his loft that overlooks the theatre -- Don pulls out all the pieces of the Fuel Power project. Within a few minutes, he arranges everything into a presentation display: the stationery elements, folders, labels, advertising campaigns (in multiple languages), brochures and cards. It's immediately clear that this is not a small job.

Like most of Don's projects, there are many stories that can be told about Fuel Power Marketing. Lessons can be learned about design concepts, packaging guidelines, layout principles, and even business practices and client relations. But the "neatest" story about this redesign is how Don and his design staff pushed the limits of design.

"We're not typically breaking any rules, but we enjoy bending them," he says. Just a few minor alterations here and there, and the whole package looks different.

"Everyone gets into a status quo mode," Don says of both the design and business world. "But there are basic things that can keep designs fresh. We look for opportunities to differentiate each product from another, but at the same time not be different just for the sake of being different."

There's only a short list of major design breakthroughs with Fuel Power -- unique die-cuts, elaborate color combinations, experimental printing techniques, making best use of design opportunities and so on -- and a number of more technical details. In each area, Don constantly questions the industry standards and expectations -- not out of rebellion, but more from the point of "how can we improve upon this?" The question "Why?" constantly challenges his designers to create a better package.

Why does a business card have to be one-sided? Why does a letter have to have a standard tri-fold? Why do we have to use traditional four-color printing? If we're going to be paying for a die-cut on the folder, why not do it at an angle? If we're going to be printing full-color on the envelopes, why just print in the top left? Maybe a more appropriate way of asking the question is "Why not?"

A lot of other questions, too, challenge their knowledge of the product -- equally important questions, like: How is this piece going to be used? Who's going to see this? What kind of response do they want?

For these answers, they had to do some homework.

do your homework

One of the most important contributions to this project is the research. "It's important because that's what makes a product different," Don says.

You can go into the Hollis Design studio and listen to any designer talk about the latest trends in the design industry. When they were designing the Fuel Power package, on the other hand, they could also give you an elaborate presentation on how a product line of six fuel additives could make your diesel engine run smoother. And we're not talking about the general sales pitch either -- they know exactly how the diesel engines really work.

"It's so important to get a grasp of what you're designing," Don says. "I now know a lot about fuel additives."

The research paid off. "It basically dictated the design," he explains. "Knowing the combustion process was our inspiration for the bottle design." That minor design element may not mean anything to the general public, but it is an eye-catcher for diesel mechanics.

"Getting to know the client and the consumer is what makes each project different," Don says.

for your viewing pleasure

As Don reviews all the pieces, he answers the standard list of interview questions. He rationalizes the look of each by explaining his design decisions. It's quite evident as the conversation continues that many basic choices evolved from the research. The logo, terminology, fonts, color and the like are not just random choices. They all have special purposes. It takes skill, expertise and a lot of talent to put everything together.

For example, Don did not choose the obvious engine or fuel icon for the company's logo image. Instead, an atom represents Fuel Power. "The atomic element is a simple graphic, but it says something about power and energy."

Even the colors of the overall package evolved from the research. "Orange is related to combustion and energy," Don says, admitting that red is more explosive, but orange is a cleaner color. "Blue is a cool contrast. It is more of a color balance, toning back the orange -- it gives your eye a break. Plus, it feels pure and clean."

Simplicity and functionality are key to the fonts, from the logo type to fonts on the labels. "There's a slight modern edge to the typography," Don says.

Fuel Power uses two font families: Franklin Gothic and Rotis Serif. "Franklin Gothic has a little more personality than Helvetica. We chose Rotis Serif, instead of Times, because it has a slight twist to it."

Don says the choice to use a serif font was a simple decision that had a major impact. "The competition mostly uses sans serif fonts and there's not a lot of contrast in their designs." This makes Fuel Power's products stand out on the shelf.

Hand in hand with the type is the choice of words used throughout the Fuel Power pieces -- not the text used with the brochures and advertisement, but words that are used as design elements. Technology, performance and reliability are the three key words the company wants to emphasize. "These terms really address the industry needs," Don says. "The product has to meet what the consumer is looking for."

all the world's a stage

There are a few visuals that are lost in a magazine story, even with the colorful photographs seen in this feature. You can't see the impact of the new look. How do the sales reps use the material to make presentations to retailers? What does it look like on the shelf? How do the consumers react when they see it in the stores? If you look closely, though, you'll see a billboard effect.

"There are a host of places that Fuel Power is sold, and it competes for shelf space at each one," Don explains. "Before, it was lost on the shelf." The basic black type on a red label wasn't working for the new product.

"The formula on the inside is cutting-edge technology. It's unlike any other product on the market," Don says, trailing off on a dissertation about how each of the six fuel additives work inside the engine. "This is a great product inside a bottle that looked awful. We needed to change that. We wanted to create an appeal that generated consumer response -- so it wouldn't just sit on the shelf."

Don's design staff didn't just create a fancy label. They suggested new bottle colors and configurations, and a new numbering system was devised to simplify the product line. Once finalized, the product didn't just look different on the shelf -- no, it was much bigger than that -- it had a new presence. "It had much more billboard-like power when you saw them all together," Don boasts.

"Position and first impressions are very important to Fuel Power," Don says, explaining that it forced them to come up with some attention-grabbing designs -- designs that had the same "billboard" effect as the products on the shelf. The result can be seen on the large envelopes, folders and business cards.

The design on the large 9 by 12 inch envelope makes good use of the space. It's not only functional -- meeting all the postal regulations -- it's also a full-color advertisement. Don says, "The envelope has to generate curiosity and interest. It has to say 'Open me first.'"

Fuel Power already wanted full-color printing on the envelope, so Don just went a step further. Instead of just highlighting the logo in color, he used full-color on the entire envelope. "In essence, the envelope was not just an envelope anymore," he says. "We made it into a small billboard." Don admits the colors full coverage on the envelope was probably a tad more expensive than just the cost of a color logo, but he says the price was only pennies more to make a major difference.

The envelope has the atomic logo, slogan (Surpassing the Limits) and the company's focus words (technology, performance and reliability) on one side. The return address is actually on the back, on the envelope's flap. "The post office doesn't care which side you put the return address on, as long as it's on the upper left," Don justifies.

The company's folder, which holds all the sales material, also uses the billboard effect with the same imagery, colors and words. "The folder enhances the company's image. It shows Fuel Power is not a fly-by-night company. The folder helps drive home the idea that they have a solid sales strategy and a scientific product," Don explains. Another neat element about the folder: it comes with a tab already die cut into it, making it perfect for filing.

sharpest tool in the design shed

Through all this, Don makes it fun to work. He makes it fun to design. Even his company's mission statement is inspirational: Envision, Inspire and Ignite. The way he describes each of these goals would make a copywriter tear.

Envision -- "The ability to communicate is no accident. We bring enthusiasm and creativity to every project, establishing focus and direction that gets your product and name noticed. Envision success as your name and product grow through effective branding strategies."

Inspire -- "We meet with you, listen to your ideas, then add our own expertise and inspiration to create a new vision. Working through this process together we create complete, comprehensive and successful solutions."

Ignite -- "This is the final -- and best -- part. You're sitting in your shiny, new silver rocket. The time has finally come to blast off into the galaxy. Hitting the red "ignite" button sets the spark that roars your ship up and onto your journey."

With these words as his business outline, Don says he always thinks about two challenges when he's working on a project. The first is "What am I going to get out of it?" He views each project as a self-promotion tool -- it's his portfolio. One piece could bring in two more with the right networking.

"The client ultimately makes out," Don says. "We achieve the client's objective and we also get something out of it too."

The second challenge should be quite evident since you've made it through this story: "Why?" he asks. "You have to understand why you are designing something, not just understand what you are designing."

As Don packages up the Fuel Power Marketing material back into his files, one question remains. How is the company doing? "Great," Don smiles. Within the first few years of Fuel Power's new look, the small company was bought out by a Fortune 500 corporation, and the founder now relaxes in his beach-area home in California.

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