It was David versus Goliath, with Attila the Hun thrown in to make it interesting. had invited three brand designers to Redmond, Washington, in 2004 to present a new identity for the upcoming Xbox 360. Landor, the incumbent, was an obvious choice as it had created the packaging for Windows and attained legendary marketing status for transforming Federal Express into , including the slogan "The world on time" and the masterpiece logo. Turner Duckworth, out of London and San Francisco, authors of the identity (with its "logo that smiles from A to Z") was also a contender. And then there was David: JDK Design. From … Vermont.
Led by Xbox's global brand director at the time, Don Hall, some 20 members of the gaming division gathered to hear the back-to-back-to-back presentations. First up was Michael Jager, JDK's creative director. Standing before the tribunal, Jager (pronounced like the Rolling Stone) illustrated his vision through a combination of street theater, design psychology, and cultural fluency. Comparing the original Xbox with the Incredible Hulk, Jager used a razor to slash an X in a sheet of paper and then thrust his head through the hole. "X today is all AARGGHHH!" he bellowed. Pure aggressive power. He then withdrew his head, flipped the paper, and revealed how that X could become a doorway, "an invitation to an experience." Jager acknowledged power as a critical component separating Xbox from its competitors but urged the company to see it—and express it— differently. "Our approach was to transition Xbox from this hulk of escaping power into this quiet power that is lurking, something still incredibly dangerous but with more of an elegance and grace," he recalls. "The analogy we used was Bruce Lee." And thus were two firms felled by a single stone.
"We were all just blown away by JDK," Hall remembers. "As soon as Michael and his team walked out, I looked around the room and knew it was just a formality to sit through the other presentations." Indeed, Jager's illustrative shorthand became a mantra for the 360 team as it created the look and feel of the new system. "Whenever we evaluated our work in terms of guiding our decisions for Xbox 360," Hall says, "it was like, 'This is too Hulk' or 'We need more Bruce Lee.'"
Getting Away With It
JDK was no doubt the dark horse for the Xbox account, but the Burlington-based company is no overnight sensation. Over the past 18 years, its client list has included, , Levi's, Patagonia, and Timex. But the rock in JDK's sling on that day in Redmond dates back to its relationship with another Vermont shop. "In the beginning, we were three people in the basement of my house doing design, and Jake had come up the same way—five people in a barn pressing his own boards," says Jager at JDK's SoHo studio in New York (it has a third satellite in Portland, Oregon, and 105 employees). Jager's fellow basement dwellers complete the firm's name: "D" is Jager's wife, Giovanna Di Paola, the associate creative director, and "K" is David Kemp, the marketing director and CFO. "Jake," of course, is Jake Burton Carpenter, the founder of Burton Snowboards.
With Burton as its lab rat, the fledgling JDK ignored textbook marketing and branding strategies—and began producing things Madison Avenue had never seen. In print ads, Burton rarely used the same logo twice, and the messaging was often cryptic, even unintelligible, to outsiders. One 1992 magazine spread shows a snowboarder smoking a cigarette and charging into a splintering tree stump; a tiny fragment of text reads "lucky strike." On the facing page, in equally small type, are a phone number and the words "free catalog of new s—t." Near the bottom right corner is a wee B logo, barely noticeable and basically meaningless to anyone not in on the nascent culture. Another vintage piece, from 1993, shows a frog splayed on a dissecting board with the copy "Burton. Advanced Snowboard Science. It's what's inside that counts." "There were no traditions," says Jake Burton. "There was no religion to our logo or word mark. We felt free to do whatever looked good and whatever seemed to work."
Jager, who was and still is obsessed with snowboarding, saw he had a chance to not only help invent a culture but also crank his own creative dial to 11. "You can look back and say it was experimentation and challenging the paradigm of traditional identity, which is cool," he says. "But the reality is, at the time we were asking, What can we get away with? Why can't we run an image of Charles Manson with a Burton logo on his forehead? Why can't we take a page out of Madonna's Sex book and make it a poster and T-shirt? Who gives a s—t ifcalls us?"
Despite its growing status as a cult hero among boarders, JDK was hemorrhaging nearly $60,000 a year in working with Burton, leaving it to rely on early clients such as Converse to help underwrite Jager's "snowboard-design addiction." Not that JDK's design counsel to even that old-school client was remotely traditional: Jager worked with Baysie Wightman and DeeDee Gordon (prototypical cool hunters who helped inspire Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point) to pull dead products—the Dr. J, for example, and the One Star—out of the archives and repackage them with a retro-modern look. They launched a guerrilla campaign that plucked New York hipsters off the street, photographed them in a Larry Clark (Kids) documentary style, and then manipulated the images to create jazzy Blue Note—inspired album covers that became the centerpieces of the ad campaign. The early years also included work for an obscure local division of, a relationship that eventually produced a JDK classic: a postmodern take on the iconic Paul Rand pictogram poster (an eye next to a bee, followed by an M—get it?), which transformed the bee into an animated, chrome, Terminator-esque avatar for a Web redesign.
In many ways, JDK defies tidy definition. It is not a pure design firm or management consultancy or ad agency so much as it is a combination of the three. "As a consultancy, it is the anti-McKinsey," says Burton marketing chief Bryan Johnston. "It is not trying to run a company based on mathematical data or distilled versions of consumer logic. Michael utilizes all the hard information available, plus he has a deep understanding of culture—pop and everything else—that can't be taught."
The JDK crew is a bizarro creative hit squad that helps clients zero in on their psychographic id.
Asked for his influences, Jager responds with a list that runs from the Amsterdam-based Droog Design Collective to German artist Joseph Beuys (who saw society as a single great work of art) to eco-design hero Victor Papanek and former Clash singer Joe Strummer. "Hell, influences—they're endless," he says. "Influences rush in when you invite them."
More than anything, the JDK crew is a bizzaro creative hit squad that helps clients zero in on (and at times unearth) their psychographic id. "It's like we've given them the keys to our car and asked them to drive a bit because we're a little lost," says Duke Stump, chief marketing officer for Seventh Generation, an eco-conscious products maker and JDK client. Once the brand GPS is reset, JDK digs in to amplify its identity through a design offensive that covers the industrial design of the product itself, its online presence, advertising strategy, in-store merchandising, and trade-show displays.
But while JDK puts each client through a similar analysis, the end result is not some cool-pill-induced, cookie-cutter "personality." JDK looks instead to peel back the layers that may be concealing some inner kernel of zeitgeisty appeal. For backpack manufacturer Eastpak, it commissioned a Roman Coppola (son of Francis, brother of Sofia) video: The spot shows a backpack perched on a suburban mailbox, with a 1970s toplessBronco barreling down on it. In the backseat, a teenage girl wielding a baseball bat delivers the pack a brutal thwack. Then the Bronco screeches to a halt, punches into reverse, and runs back over the bag. The passenger then picks it up, the Bronco burns rubber, and it's off to school. With Levi's, JDK invited creative directors from around the world for a two-day "collaboratory" summit in New York. One afternoon, a creative director from London was smashing jeans covered in plaster on the sidewalk and got a vision for a new way to distress denim; because a fabric specialist from Italy was there as well, they were able to discuss whether it was even possible. "It's amazing how many times the process we use gets people in the same room who have never met or only know each other from email," Jager says. "Together, they had an idea and figured out a way to pull it off."
The ubiquitous design process leads to what JDK calls its Living Brand concept. "We had an early belief that design distinction is what drove things on every level," says Jager, who's 47 but looks much younger. "The Living Brand is about how to synchronize the emotional, rational, and cultural ideas of a brand into a cross-fertilized form."
Nowhere is the Living Brand more apparent than in Patagonia's upcoming spring footwear line. The project had multiple chefs and thus all the ingredients for a disaster: Patagonia licensed Wolverine Worldwide, a billion-dollar shoe manufacturer that not only produces its own line but also has deals with, , and Hush Puppies, among others, to do the manufacturing. Wolverine—which had worked with JDK on the hugely successful Merrell line—recruited Jager. "It was an interesting dynamic," says Wanda Weller, a Patagonia design director, "because with three parties, you're kind of always like, 'Who's on first?'" But with design, one plus one plus one doesn't always equal three—sometimes it adds up to ∏. "With Michael, it's almost as if there's no ego," she adds. "Even if he's working in an environment where there is turmoil or conflict, he just rises above and uplifts. He is one of the most optimistic people I've ever come across."
From this collaborative triumvirate emerged the slogan "One small step," a succinct capture of Patagonia's pro-environment philosophy of best quality, least harm. In this case, however, JDK's client came away with not only a line of shoes, boots, and sandals, but also a bonus product. James Lindars, JDK's "3-D design director," is obsessed with the burgeoning do-it-yourself movement; after several verbal jam sessions with Jager, he came up with a shoe for Patagonia that distills the company's 35-year history into a single, slightly odd-looking DIY shoe: a modern homage to a Native American moccasin—three pieces of leather and a footbed that are assembled by the customer. No adhesives, no toxins, no sweatshops. And not only are the mocs constructed of scrap leather, the packaging pouch is made from surplus material, too. It's a wearable philosophical statement, built from trash. "There's this idea of having a creative spine that makes everything work," Weller says. "The consumer may not know what the backbone is, but they still think, 'This works, this is beautiful, I get it.' With Michael and his team, there is so much thought on the back end that creates that subtlety of effectiveness."
The X Prize
Jager was surprised JDK even received a request for a proposal from Microsoft, let alone made it to the final three. "I was like, Microsoft is calling us?" he laughs. At the time, JDK was pushing capacity and Microsoft didn't exactly have a reputation for risk taking. But Jager was intrigued to see the guts of the machine. At least as important, he had a 13-year-old son: "Going into that meeting, I told those guys, 'This is great for me regardless, because my son thinks this is the coolest thing in the world.'" Then Jager—and Bruce Lee—closed the deal.
Microsoft's goal with Xbox 360 was to reach a more mainstream gamer while staying true to its hard-core, hard-won audience. It's a classic catch-22 of brand maintenance, the consumer-electronics version of going from indie-music darling to heavy rotation on. Microsoft's resident enfant terrible and development guru J Allard was keenly aware of the conundrum. "When we talked about the qualities of the brand that we wanted in 360, I immediately gravitated to Burton," writes a caffeinated Allard, who is a boarder in his own right, in a late-night email. It "prides itself on innovation and product quality, but more important, has scaled without selling out."
As JDK worked with the Xbox 360 team, they continued to build on the Bruce Lee idea. The final reverse-parenthesis design [ ) ( ] of the console is itself Jager's symbologic conjuring of the martial-arts master, representing the inhalation of breath before a strike. JDK helped design a font specifically for every aspect of the new system. Even the crossbar of the B in "box" packs a punch—it's shaped like a specialized type of box cutter, an Olfa knife. "When animated, this mark could unleash a razor-quick assault," Jager says. "Very Bruce."
Spinning off from the font itself, Allard and Jager invented a "codified language" based on a pattern of concentric circles linked to an alphanumeric system. "If you don't know what it is, it looks like this supermodernist pattern that was just sexy and cool," Jager explains. "But weeks before the release, we leaked hints on how to decode [it] to the core audience and created a subversive language." The code was disseminated via a Web site within teamxbox.com called the Colony (an allusion to the notion that ants, while individually puny, take on incredible power in the collective). So when Microsoft debuted the Xbox 360 in May 2005 on MTV, the half-hour telecast was pitched at two levels: On the surface, it was your standard-issue buzz circus with celebrities, athletes, and musicians taking the new system for a ride. But embedded on posters, stickers, and badges throughout the set were innocent geometric patterns that, to Colony members, carried hidden messages. The words themselves were not the point. They were simple and sarcastic: "Xbox is your friend," "You are the Colony," "Be the first kid on your block to destroy your block." But Microsoft's effort to connect on such an intimate—and complex—level certainly wasn't wasted: By the end of December 2006, it had sold more than 10 million consoles; that month, it outsoldPlayStation 3 and Wii combined. "There's a transformation happening that is about a need for the humanization of brands," Jager says. "If you can't humanize your brand and connect with the audience, you're f—ked."
In humanizing Microsoft, JDK won a major evangelist for the Living Brand idea. "[JDK] is the only company in my 15 years at Microsoft I've collaborated with [that] I've wanted to work for," Allard gushes. "I've had offers—silly offers—but as amazing as some of the people I've met and worked with are, I've never been tempted to consider a career change until I met Michael and JDK."
At JDK's current headquarters in Burlington, a well-used skateboard ramp nods to the company's roots. Behind a door lies a silk-screen workshop where staff members create posters and T-shirts for local nonprofits and charities. JDK also has a pro bono relationship with the local music venue Higher Ground. In exchange for total design freedom, JDK creates concert posters for bands such as Ween, Yo La Tengo, and Aimee Mann. Art covers the offices: A mural by one of Jager's friends stretches more than 20 feet across a wall in a common area; a trio of black-and-white photos of the Clash hang near the elevator.
In a top-floor conference room, floor-to-ceiling windows lay out a panorama of Lake Champlain, etched with the wakes of ferryboats. Here, Jager talks about the intersection of art and commerce. Turns out, he's still asking the question, "What can we get away with?
"I believe in an Andy Warholian philosophy, really. Just as the Factory helped Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground, John Cale, and Nico, I love to inspire progression and possibility because we all too easily get trapped by packaged process and protocol," he says. Then, indulging in a snowboarding metaphor, he goes on, "You try to lead by example, focus your energy where it's needed, and nudge people—whether designers or clients—as they stand, frightened, on the lip."
Mark Borden is a freelance writer who lives in New York.
A version of this article appeared in the April 2007 issue of Fast Company magazine.