After 20 innovative years in the design, branding, and art direction business, Base celebrated by giving its website a clean, fresh revamp, moving its New York office into a beautifully renovated townhouse in the Financial District (complete with beer on tap), and threw itself a knockout party at MoMA. The festivities included a performance by 30 artists and models wearing wooden sandwich boards emblazoned with messages like “Paying Attention is Free,” “Thinking Wrong is Right,” “Words are My Favorite Visuals,” and “Specializing in Not Specializing.”
It was upon this occasion that writer Sarah Schug summed up her experience with Base. She admittedly didn’t know very much about Base except that “everyone described them as ‘the guys who made it in New York,’” so what she wrote is the perfect introduction for anyone still unfamiliar with the agency:
“How did a rather small creative agency from Belgium manage to land NYC’s majestic Museum of Modern Art as a client? How do you make it from a petite studio in Brussels with not more than a few desks and a phone line to one of Belgium’s most reputed and cutting-edge creative studios with offices in New York and Geneva and clients ranging from The Olympic Museum in Lausanne to the Milk Studios?”
How indeed. CEO Dimitri Jeurissen more or less chalked up the success of the New York office to luck. “When we started Base and extended to New York, it was very impulsive and based on energy and instinct. We were rather naïve, open-minded, and adventurous. The entire plan was decided over a beer,” he said in a recent interview. But we knew there must be more to it than that, so we sat down with creative and managing director Min Lew in her brand new digs (at a table just across from where those wooden sandwich boards now hang on exposed brick walls) to see how she and her team get such excellent work done.
Lew knew she wanted to work at Base long before she landed the job, but even when she came on as a designer at 25 (fresh out of Yale and SVA before that), she fully intended to leave after three years to start her own studio. She certainly never thought she’d stick with it for a full decade. So why has she remained at the agency for half its lifespan? Lew credits her longevity to the variety of experiences Base offers. “I feel like I’ve had many different jobs, from a maker, to a director, to a legitimate creative director, to being the managing director,” even handling HR and the company’s business strategy. “I wasn’t ready at all to take on that responsibility—it’s outside my training—but I don’t think people should just move ‘up,’ because different roles flex different muscles.”
Now as a partner, she only designs in a pinch, like when the studio is on deadline. “My job is to create a culture where everyone can think for themselves, but I’m responsible for pinpointing where we should be aiming so they can find a Base answer.”
On the client side, however, Lew focuses less on answers and more on questions. “Asking the right question is more important than getting the right answer. A client might come to us and say ‘I need new packaging.’ But the right question could get us to discover, for example, that what they really need is something else entirely.”
Case in point: six years ago Chanel bought Maison Michel, a hat company founded in 1936 that they wanted to rebrand to feel like Chanel, even if you never saw the double-C logo anywhere. The client wanted to make new hatboxes a priority, but, constrained by a tight budget, Base decided to use the hat box as a way to design what the company needed even more: a real brand identity. “We thought it would be so sad if we just put the logo on everything and call it a day. That wouldn’t make a small brand prestigious.” So they created a hatbox that was more than product packaging; it became a covetable object—oftentimes, Lew learned, even more than the hat itself.
Because Base doesn’t specialize in any one sector, they deal with a wide range of clients, from luxury fashion brands to rugged outdoor apparel companies; from white tablecloth restaurants to corner bakeries; and from music festivals to royal opera houses (oh, and NASA). Still, certain methods apply to all kinds of work.
“When we have a new client we ask: Are we a good cultural fit? Do we share common values with the client? That’s really important because good work comes from a good collaboration with the client. We want to be seen as partners, co-creating something for the brand. The moment we become a service to a brief—we can do that, but so can everyone to a certain degree, and we want to be more effective and impactful.”
To keep the staff as a whole aware of what their co-workers are up to—and to help generate ideas when needed—Base holds weekly creative meetings every Wednesday morning. “I heard a quote recently: ‘If you want to go fast, do it alone. If you want to go far, do it with people.’ During the day we’re all going fast and working alone, but creative meetings come from a belief that we want to go far with everyone.”
It’s also an opportunity to step back and make sure the work aligns with the 10-point manifesto that defines the company:
Not only do Base’s Brussels and Geneva offices uphold this manifesto, but the structure of their basic workweek is identical, too. Before the Wednesday creative meeting, there’s a Monday morning meeting where weekly challenges are set. Thursdays are for business development and more task-oriented meetings, and on Friday the office has lunch together to see how everyone fared on those Monday goals.
Perhaps this is why, as Lew puts it, the three locations “really feel like a single office.” Client presentations are first shared amongst all the offices, designers can “swap” between locations in a kind of exchange program, and when Lew travels to Brussels or Geneva, she stays with one of the other partners, not in a hotel.
In fact, the way work is approached at all the offices is so similar that a designer in Geneva can pass a job along to someone in New York to pick up where they left off. However, each office has an independent budget in addition to the global budget, so Brussels isn’t on the hook for Geneva, for example. And while they each have Base’s mission statement in mind for every new project, they’re free to make their own decisions—it’s not design by global community.
The structure at Base hasn’t always been this free and easy; the agency has gone though a significant shift over Lew’s time there. Instead of a structure of owners and employees, where an art director or design director hands their singular vision down to a designer to execute, there’s a real dialogue. “It’s run by the people, and led by the partners. You’re not being told what to do. There’s autonomy.”