On this special documentary episode of the Design Mind frogcast, we go behind-the-scenes to explore the real-time collaboration between frog and climate tech venture Made of Air. Listen to the podcast episode and find transcripts below. You can also find us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and anywhere you listen to podcasts.
Design Mind frogcast
Episode 18: Behind the Design: frog + Made of Air
Guest: frog + Made of Air team
[00:09] Welcome to the Design Mind frogcast. Each episode, we go behind the scenes to meet the people designing what’s next in the world of products, services and experiences, both here at frog and far, far outside the pond. I’m Elizabeth Wood. Today on our show, we’re pulling back the curtain on a real-life collaboration between frog, the global creative consultancy behind this very podcast, and Made of Air, a Berlin-based startup that is part of our frogVentures portfolio. It’s a little different from our usual format of conversations with leaders in this space. It’s a documentary we’ve been working on for some time and are so excited to finally share with you. We really hope you’ll enjoy, share with friends, rate and review everywhere you listen–you know the deal. Let us know what you think! We’d really love to hear from you. But first, let’s get to the story.
[01:15] Elizabeth Wood: To combat the climate crisis, Made of Air is on a mission to use its cutting-edge thermoplastic materials to permanently remove excess carbon from the atmosphere. And the potential impact of this new technology is massive. We’re talking materials with the power to transform everything from sunglasses to car parts to entire buildings in order to be more sustainable and to cause less harm to the climate. But to communicate what Made of Air can do and what their impact can be, they first needed new, strong brand foundations to take their business to the next phase.
[01:47] Elizabeth Wood: That’s why, in the summer of 2021, Made of Air came to frog at a key moment in their growth story. After a recent series of investments, Made of Air is currently in the process of rapidly scaling up their team, building up their production capacity, and forming strategic partnerships with well-known brands like Audi and H&M. Of course, in the startup world, scaling up is always the goal. But scaling too fast without the right foundations in place can be risky. According to a 2019 Startup Genome Report, 75% of startups fail from scaling up prematurely. This would be a challenge for any new venture. But when the stakes are as high as building a business to fight climate change, failure is not exactly a viable option for way more reasons than a company’s bottom line.
[02:32] Elizabeth Wood: To effectively ground the Made of Air brand in its purpose while shaping the company’s future, they needed a new strategic vision that told their brand story—that defined what Made of Air’s purpose is, who it’s for, who it partners with, and what it’s doing to combat the climate crisis—and they needed a compelling look and feel to match their brand’s ambitions.
[02:52] Elizabeth Wood: Enter frog. In this episode, you’re going to spend some time with members of the frog and Made of Air team. Working remotely from their homes and studios across Europe, from Berlin to Munich to Milan, Ibiza and more—the team let us in to observe every step, and is now allowing us to share with you real moments throughout the process—from the initial team kickoff to the final share-out, and everything in between. You’ll hear firsthand the real bursts of inspiration, the moments of uncertainty and the creative breakthroughs that make it all worthwhile.
[03:23] Elizabeth Wood: Now, podcasts are not a visual medium. So I’ll do my best to paint a picture. But you can always check today’s show notes to find images from our case study. You’ll also find the link to Made of Air’s website to learn more and to see the new brand story, mark and visual identity for yourself. So, let’s jump in.
[03:42] Ethan Imboden: You have to really be ignoring what’s going on around you to not acknowledge that this is a crisis.
[03:50] Ricardo Osório Santos: There is too much carbon in the atmosphere, which means there is a problem in the climate that affects us all.
[03:57] Elizabeth Wood: Innovation of all kinds is essential for dealing with the negative impacts of climate change. But it’s a complex, often overwhelming problem, with no quick or easy solution.
[04:07] Sesh Vedachalam: This is, I think, the biggest challenge that our generation has. And literally everything we’re doing needs to be focused on this problem.
[04:15] Elizabeth Wood: Made of Air is one climate tech startup looking to take on the climate crisis head on. Operating from Berlin, Germany, the venture creates thermoplastics out of wood waste collected in forests and farms, in a process that stores more carbon from the atmosphere than it emits. This earns the materials the distinction of being ‘carbon-negative,’ which, when put to use to replace traditional plastics made from fossil fuels, is ultimately a positive for the climate.
[04:43] Elizabeth Wood: Okay. If some of this is a little tough to follow right now, don’t worry we’ll get into it. But it’s also at the heart of the challenge Made of Air is facing right now. To scale their business, the leaders at Made of Air–who you’ll get to know more in this episode–are tasked with communicating the value and impact of their brand and their new technology in a way that is clear, compelling and convincingly backed up with hard evidence that proves their impact.
[05:08] Neema Shams: I think this is exactly the crux of the difficulty and the challenge of: what is the best way to tell the story?
[05:15] Allison Dring: I think we sit in a space of material companies. We also sit in a space of carbon-capture companies. Our approach is different because we put climate first.
[05:26] Daniel Schwaag: You can use the material, you can reuse it and in the end, you can put it underground forever. And that’s something new.
[05:33] Elizabeth Wood: But bringing something new into the world is rarely easy.
[05:37] Allison Dring: The thing that gives me anxiety is the unknown unknowns–the kind of black space just around the corner that we don’t know what’s coming.
[05:46] Neema Shams: Technology will only differentiate so much.
[05:50] Elizabeth Wood: When Made of Air came to frog for help designing their brand, the frog team had just ten weeks to fully immerse in the challenge of building strong brand foundations, designing a visual identity, including a new brand mark, website, and pitch materials to aid in upcoming funding and partnership conversations…all essential for really grounding Made of Air in what’s authentic and what’s valuable about the brand.
[06:13] Mattia Tarizzo: And now we get into the difficult part…
[06:17] Sesh Vedachalam: Like, you’ve got the pieces, but it feels like the puzzle’s not coming together yet. And it feels too scattered and chaotic.
[06:23] Ethan Imboden: I really feel like we need to push on this and we need to get them to a new place.
[06:25] Ricardo Osório Santos: The reality is, we are three weeks from the end of the program.
[06:32] Elizabeth Wood: But let’s back up. All the way back to the beginning.
[06:36] Ricardo Osório Santos: So welcome, everyone, this is going to be our first workshop together. One of many to come.
[06:40] Elizabeth Wood: No, not the first workshop. All the way back to the real beginning, just about a year before the initial kickoff work session. frog’s Ethan Imboden and Caroline Gudmondsson began regular communication with the Made of Air team long before a single contract was written. This is not exactly standard procedure for new client engagements at frog, but it does demonstrate how personal and time-intensive these sorts of business decisions can be. Here’s Ethan and Caroline now.
[07:09] Ethan Imboden: You don’t start in the first call and say, “Okay, we’re going to be talking for a year before we kick off, and therefore, here’s how we’re going to spend our time.” Right? You start and you say, you know, “Tell us a bit about what you’re up to.”
[07:22] Caroline Gudmundsson: For me, it is really starting up a new relationship for us and our clients. And it is very much the personal connection that also needs to be there. But nevertheless, what we are up to doing with each other is really cracking a design challenge, is really cracking an experience challenge for their customers. It is obviously cracking a strategic challenge as well. So it is a big business decision that the client is asking us to undertake with each other.
[08:00] Elizabeth Wood: Big business challenges and compressed timelines aside, at the start, Ethan had other reasons for believing this program was likely to be difficult for the frog team.
[08:09] Ethan Imboden: It’s hard for me to imagine making it to the end of this program without there being tears, not tied to the challenge or the frustration of the work itself. Particularly tied to the fact that I don’t think any of us spend this much time staring down the barrel of the climate crisis. Most of us feel powerless, desperate, depressed, helpless, scared.
[08:37] Elizabeth Wood: So while the stakes are high for Made of Air, designing solutions for the climate crisis is also something very near and dear to frogs across the globe. As executive sponsor of frog’s Sustainability practice, Ethan understands how fulfilling, but also how challenging this type of work can be.
[08:35] Ethan Imboden: It’s sort of two things at the same time. It’s like, Finally, I get to scratch this itch. I’m doing something. I get to take action. And not only sort of me as an individual, but this incredible organization that we’re a part of that has so much to bring to the table. And so that’s like, that’s just thrilling and empowering and exciting and so on. And then there’s the moments of when you sort of zoom out and feel the drop in the bucket.
[09:05] Elizabeth Wood: On the other side, the team at Made of Air spend nearly all their time immersed in understanding the impacts of the climate crisis. But they also have a business to run. So this means remaining hopeful, strategic and at the forefront of innovation in the face of this massive global challenge. Here’s Allison Dring, CEO and co-founder of Made of Air.
[09:23] Allison Dring: I’m one of the co-founders. And I’m currently acting as the CEO. I’m overseeing the scale up of the business. I would say I have, kind of, some key roles in that. One is putting the team in place to be able to do the scale up. Another is being out there. So, getting on stages, talking to people, attracting people to the company, attracting ideas to the company, new technologies, that sort of thing. So trying to be very visible and vocal. Another is keeping the company funded.
[09:11] Elizabeth Wood: Daniel Schwaag is also a co-founder and serves as Made of Air’s Chief Technology Officer.
[10:00] Daniel Schwaag: So, we have to capitalize on creating a role for us that is different from conventional players. I would say, in each context, we’re the odd ones out. So, in the concept world, we know more about the technology. In the technology world, we know more about the concepts and so on.
[10:17] Elizabeth Wood: Both trained architects, Allison and Daniel named their company Made of Air to communicate what’s unique about the material itself, but also to explain their approach to fighting climate change.
[10:28] Daniel Schwaag: So, the slogan is quite plain language. It describes the epiphany of understanding for the first time that a tree is made of air. For me, this is something that is easily overlooked. And I think I overlooked it too until I really internalized it. And it’s about this epiphany that sort of opens the potential to fix the climate, that solid materials can be made of air.
[10:52] Elizabeth Wood: This epiphany, when you think about it, is a pretty profound one. When Daniel describes a tree as made of air, he means that literally. Because, naturally, plant mass is formed by carbon drawn from the atmosphere. For Chief Commercial Officer Neema Shams, being a carbon-negative materials company is what makes Made of Air provocative and inspiring, but it also poses its own challenges when it comes to communicating the company’s value.
[11:16] Neema Shams: The easy story is “This is made of carbon that would otherwise be in the atmosphere.” It’s a very, like, sticky idea. Once you hear it, you’re like, “Whoa, why isn’t everything made of carbon from the air then?” I think there’s this perpetual pull of trying to tell that story in a simpler way, but balancing that with the fact that we are actively deciding to go the more difficult path of being a carbon-negative materials company because of this, because it is more difficult, but because it has the potential for a much, much, much bigger impact. I think if we can be the one to bring this education to the wider public, I mean, for me, I think it’s equal impact to making millions of tons of material. Education is really important. And like, I really don’t want to dumb it down, because it’s not an easy, simple thing, climate change.
[12:13] Elizabeth Wood: For Allison, the story behind Made of Air is essential to getting people on board with its technology and its impact. But it’s not always easy to communicate to investors, partners and new team members.
[12:23] Allison Dring: Oh, it’s all a challenge. It’s a field full of mines, I would say. I’m still really excited about this narrative. I, like, see it resonate in people. I see people that don’t get it and never will. And that’s hard for me. Like, I really struggle with that. I also enjoy how the narrative evolves. I talked to a furniture designer the other day about the meta narrative of an object on a table. And just from his point of view, how this story kind of transcends the other aspects of design and objects. And I just love that. And like, I can talk about that all day.
[13:21] Elizabeth Wood: But getting to a clear story for Made of Air that truly resonates with people will take some work. Let’s get back to that first kickoff meeting between the frog and Made of Air team.
[13:30] Ricardo Osório Santos: So welcome, everyone, this is going to be our first workshop together. One of many to come.
[13:36] Elizabeth Wood: This kickoff meeting is a chance for the frog and Made of Air teams to get to know each other, as well as align on expectations for the program ahead. Pre-pandemic, this would’ve almost always happened in person. There would’ve been handshakes all around, coffees poured, plates of pastries to share. There’d be freshly cleaned whiteboards and stacks of Post-It notes and markers to capture ideas with. These days, almost all frog meetings take place over video via Microsoft Teams.
[14:02] Elizabeth Wood: On this day, one by one, excited, smiling faces from frog and Made of Air fill the screen, each from their respective home workspaces, some with their own drinks and snacks in tow. And instead of real whiteboards and Post-Its, the team is using a digital tool called Miro to collaborate. To get things started, frog’s Ricardo Osório Santos, Principal Designer on the program, chose a somewhat unusual activity to break the ice.
[14:28] Ricardo Osório Santos: And then you can start by answering the question: Which band, dead or alive, would you like to play at your funeral? I would like to have either Lou Reed or the Velvet Underground playing at my funeral.
[14:38] Ethan Imboden: First I was thinking about Missy Elliott, and then I went pretty quickly to David Bowie instead.
[14:43] Neema Shams: So I don’t know if any of you’ve seen the movie Old School, but there’s a wedding singer. And it’s just ridiculous.
[14:50] Allison Dring: I put the Pixies. They sing about really wacky things, which I think is really what life is about.
[14:56] Elizabeth Wood: It might seem a little morbid to use a funeral playlist as a getting-to-know-you icebreaker game. But actually, ‘end of life’ will be a recurring theme throughout the program. This is because while Made of Air’s materials are created to be carbon-negative, there is ultimately only so much the company can control over how a final product made with their materials is used, and what happens once a customer is done using it. This poses the difficult question of: how much can a brand ever really promise?
[15:25] Allison Dring: When you have something that a customer is just going to throw away eventually, you can’t verify that the co2 stored in the product will be responsibly disposed of–it’s not a closed-loop thing.
[15:37] Elizabeth Wood: For the Made of Air team, communicating the value of permanently trapping carbon inside a product over, say, recycling the material in a way that could potentially release carbon back into the air again, or relying on a circular business model, is mission-critical. But it can also be a bit confusing for the average manufacturer, not to mention most consumers.
[15:41] Elizabeth Wood: Another major challenge is communicating the value of the technology itself. During the kickoff, CTO Daniel Schwaag mused on the potential of marketing Made of Air as an ‘ingredient brand,’ which is a strategy where a brand becomes known for the quality of its components within a different company’s products. Think Intel chips inside different computer brands, or Hemi engines in competing car models.
[16:05] Daniel Schwaag: I’m really starting to wonder, how important is it for the brand that the end consumer completely understands it? Because there’s so many things in life that are successful brands and people don’t really understand it. GORE-TEX or something, like, even material-minded people don’t really know what the GORE-TEX fiber is, but they just buy into the magic of it. We as a company, we have to have all these different levels of information: that we can appeal to people emotionally through the simple message, “It’s made of air,” and we need to be able to respond on the expert level. And so then you have a sound brand, because it will generate emotional responses, it will generate skepticism, then you can convince the skeptics. And eventually you don’t have to explain anything anymore. And that’s the major benefit or additional value that we’re selling to our clients is that if we can put our mark on it, the value is clear.
[17:20] Elizabeth Wood: During the nearly three-hour kickoff meeting, the team completed a prioritization exercise to determine how they’ll measure program success. By a landslide, the team voted that the new brand design will fail unless it succeeds in reaching people emotionally. Daniel was curious if this is the norm.
[17:37] Daniel Schwaag: Wondering from your experience if that’s an obvious outcome? That brands try to reach people emotionally or are there some that try to reach them on another level?
[17:48] Elizabeth Wood: frogVentures lead Ethan Imboden and the rest of the frog team smile. They don’t look too surprised.
[17:53] Ethan Imboden: Is this the time to drop the original frog slogan?
[18:00] Ricardo Osório Santos: I guess, I guess it is.
[18:01] Allison Dring: Here it comes!
[18:02] Ethan Imboden: You ready? Alright. So the founding principle of frog, frog being founded at the time of “Form follows function.” As a rebellion against that, Hartmut Esslinger went forward with “Form follows emotion” and really tried to embrace the other dimensions of our relationship to products, brands, services around us and how we engage. So no, it’s not a surprise.
[18:26] Elizabeth Wood: As the design lead on the program, Ricardo is inspired by other successful brands that are intentional about reaching their customers on an emotional level.
[18:34] Ricardo Osório Santos: Our associations with products, how we interact with them, are defined by what we feel and how we connect to them. A brand, a well-known brand like Nike, the emotion that it gives people is empowerment. So, underneath that, there is a core belief that if you have a body, then you are an athlete. And the purpose of Nike is to actually allow the athlete to expand that potential that they have and to bring the best out of them by empowering that purpose.
[19:05] Elizabeth Wood: After kickoff, with priorities in place for the rest of the program, it was now time to really get to work. From here, the frog team conducted individual stakeholder interviews with members of Made of Air and several of their partners to gather insights that would inform the rest of the program. Before we dive into these insights, we’re going to take a short break. When we return, we’ll pick back up on these ideas of emotion and purpose and how they relate to Made of Air’s brand strategy. Plus, we’ll dig deeper into the highs and lows of collaborating on a challenge like this remotely. Coming up after the break:
[19:40] Sesh Vedachalam: How do you build a company that is profitable, yet purpose-driven?
[19:44] Zuzana Peskova: I wonder what’s the right way to finish the project?
[19:48] Ricardo Osório Santos: They are emotionally very attached to the mark.
[19:50] Ethan Imboden: I would warn them, we’re going to push you very hard to consider moving beyond this mark. We need to get away from the Church of Circularity, and this is circularity.
[20:35] Elizabeth Wood: Now back to our behind-the-scenes look at a real collaboration between frog and Made of Air. When we last left the team, they were conducting stakeholder interviews to find insights that would inform the brand story and visual identity. Next up, we’re going to take you through a few key moments throughout the ten-week program, moving from strategic brand foundations, to exploring visual identity and even the design of a new logo and brand mark.
[20:59] Elizabeth Wood: Throughout, a lot of decisions about the work take place during big checkpoint meetings, when the whole team gets together to review progress and give feedback. But on a day-to-day level, a lot of the most important work happens at what we call daily ‘standups.’ This is where the frog team meets, over video in this case, to discuss what they’re working on, as well as any blockers they’re facing. For anyone with experience in remote work, some of these scenes might be a bit familiar.
[21:25] Ricardo Osório Santos: Can you hear me? I don’t hear anything.
[21:27] Mattia Tarizzo: Yep, yep. Can you hear me?
[21:30] Zuzana Peskova: Sesh, are you there? Maybe you’re on mute.
[21:31] Sesh Vedachalam: Sorry, I forgot to put myself off mute. I hope you can see my screen.
[21:37] Mattia Tarizzo: Ricardo, we don’t see your screen. Are we supposed to?
[21:40] Ricardo Osório Santos: Yes, you are supposed to. I forgot to share.
[21:44] Ricardo Osório Santos: I have to speak very low because my kid is sleeping next door.
[21:46] Ethan Imboden: Hey, shh! You guys, stop! Sorry, not talking to you, talking to the children.
[21:50] Elizabeth Wood: Yes, remote work does lead to the occasional awkward tech moment here and there. But it also brings an intimacy to the situation not present within the formality of a traditional studio. Think about it: you’re effectively meeting in each other’s homes, day in and day out, getting peeks into one another’s lives, seeing each other’s taste in furnishings, even meeting your colleagues’ family members. And while it’s difficult not having that in-person time together, something that was certainly felt by the team over the course of the program, they’ve also found value in working digitally, where all artifacts of daily discussions can be captured, recorded: all easy to share, review and refine in real-time.
[22:29] Elizabeth Wood: Zuzana Peskova, a service designer at frog helping to navigate some of the complexity of Made of Air’s branding needs, shared how working remotely impacted this project.
[23:39] Zuzana Peskova: Well, I think in this specific project, it works really well because a lot of this stuff is digital in terms of, like, branding material. I wouldn’t imagine it being different, even if we were in a physical office space. The fact that we have an international team all over Europe is something that wouldn’t have been possible. Also, the fact that the client was, you know, on holiday, and we were still able to work together on collaborative workshops, which would have been probably not possible. So I think just a lot of flexibility.
[23:20] Elizabeth Wood: By this stage of the program, the team has been busy gathering insights from interviews and research that will inform Made of Air’s new brand design. We take you now to the brand foundations workshop. This was a time for the frog team to share their findings, and get clarity on some of the most important aspects of the brand from the Made of Air team. Ricardo introduces the day’s objectives.
[23:37] Ricardo Osório Santos: So I think that the main focus of today is actually to define the brand foundation. So, we will mainly ask you to be contributing in some exercises and then we’ll try to synthesize those with you.
[23:51] Elizabeth Wood: Building the brand on its purpose is essential for Made of Air, because beyond trying to succeed as a business, they are actually trying to fight the climate crisis–something that affects everyone, not just those inside the organization. Being able to communicate a higher sense of meaning and value beyond the bottom line is something that also resonates with society-at-large. According to the Capgemini Research Institute, 78% of consumers believe that private companies have a larger societal role than looking after their own self-interests. Ricardo goes on to describe a brand pyramid, which when completed, will be a framework for all messaging related to the Made of Air brand.
[00:00] Ricardo Osório Santos: The first layer is going to be tackling the brand differentiator, the functional benefits, the emotional benefits. The mid layer is going to be touching on the core beliefs, which is basically what the company believes that resonates with our customers and clients. We will come up with a set of objectives that clearly define the brand point of view and personality. And ultimately, we will reach the top of the pyramid, which will be the purpose and the reasons why we exist and what we bring to the world.
[25:02] Elizabeth Wood: To build this pyramid, the team is completing a series of exercises using the digital whiteboard tool Miro. The tool itself is very simple in design: it’s basically a big, seemingly endless grid that you can add basic shapes, blocks of text and digital sticky notes to. This sounds simple, but it’s the blank canvas the team needs to organize their ideas.
[25:24] Sesh Vedachalam: In the differentiator, we can maybe play with a slightly more future-facing take on why us as a partner? Why work with us?
[25:31] Ethan Imboden: I think it’s fine for this to be aspirational. And to push toward what might be a future state. Rather than just defining the current state, for sure.
[25:40] Elizabeth Wood: There’s something hypnotic about watching the team dig into the exercises together. As each person moves around the screen, in real time their name trails behind their cursors in a narrow bubble, sort of like a long, pastel-colored tail. Watching the cursors move together, it’s almost like watching little birds in flight.
[25:56] Ricardo Osório Santos: You’ll see a lot of arrows moving around as well. It’s all of us working like busy bees.
[26:03] Daniel Schwaag: Maybe we’re pushing the technology here. I also hear some laptop fans really working hard.
[26:10] Elizabeth Wood: At the heart of the brand foundations discussion is defining a purpose. In this case, it means coming up with a short statement that explains who Made of Air is, and what value they offer. While their technology is what helps them stand out from the pack for now, Chief Commercial Officer Neema Shams warns that focusing on the specific technical aspects of their offering do not fully capture who they are as a company.
[26:33] Neema Shams: We are, even though we say we’re not, we are a materials company. To me at least, it feels like the company is not about that. It’s not about spec sheets.
[26:40] Elizabeth Wood: This sentiment that Neema describes here is important for a lot of reasons, not the least of which because technology changes. Fast. So basing your whole existence on what’s possible today is not ideal when thinking long-term. Mattia Tarizzo, program manager and long-time frog based in Milan, agrees that technology alone does not make a brand. He points to the way IBM and Apple historically took very different approaches to telling their story, and how that’s played out in their brands over time.
[27:10] Mattia Tarizzo: For me, the difference taken in history is IBM versus Apple. So I am doing the same thing. I’m doing computers. The value proposition is very different. So IBM started more from a technical point of view. So I’m giving the solution to the technician. Apple’s giving everybody a user experience. In terms of approach, it would be great to be design-oriented, because if you are design-oriented, you are prepared for change and prepared for changing habits. And then the technology comes after that.
[27:42] Elizabeth Wood: For Made of Air CEO Allison Dring, explaining the value of the company means putting yourself in the customer’s shoes. What do they need to know? What promises can Made of Air make to them?
[27:53] Allison Dring: So we were thinking about, like, what is the beginning for the customer? And for us? And we were thinking about, like, is it around emissions? Right now you’re producing emissions, you have to own that as a manufacturer–that you are using materials that are creating co2 emissions. And what we are going to come in and do is reverse that and we’re going to sink emissions. Like, reversing the process. We’re gonna use technology to get you there.
[28:20] Elizabeth Wood: This idea of reversing the processes that negatively impact the climate is an important one. Hold onto that for now. It’ll come back later. Getting this messaging right takes context outside of specifically Made of Air’s needs–it takes understanding of how the brand can create value for others. Sesh Vedachalam, Associate Strategy Director in frog London, is leading the effort of using the messaging framework to develop pitch materials that the venture will use to pursue new investors and new clients, many of whom may be new to the idea of sustainable materials.
[28:53] Sesh Vedachalam: I think people have woken up to the fact that a problem exists. But many people haven’t really understood what is their range of possibilities and solutions that exist to actually help in this challenge.
There’s a challenge in the fact that this particular client, this material that they’re creating is so new, that there’s vocabulary that you have to establish to make people understand what this is, and how it benefits people.
There’s a lot of skepticism. So to help a client, to help Made of Air in this case, define brand and messaging and positioning, all of that…they’re trying to both scale a company and sell a product, while actually creating the whole product category and the words and the awareness around it. So it’s not a simple challenge in any way, right?
[29:40] Elizabeth Wood: But messaging is not simply a matter of words on a page. For the frog team, setting these foundations is only part one of expressing the brand. Next on their list, is tackling the brand’s visual identity. What does the brand look like? What colors, imagery, iconography will they use to differentiate themselves? And, how does this translate into a new brand mark? Here again is Principal Designer Ricardo Osório Santos.
[30:04] Ricardo Osório Santos: Consistency is something that is super important for a brand. So when interacting with the brands, the end consumer needs to experience the same kind of feeling, whether they go to a shop, whether they consume a particular product. And also the tone of voice and articulation of that communication should also be consistent and should reflect what the brands and the values of the brands try to communicate. Emotion is the glue that ties the brand with the customer experience and allows for the brand to evolve as well. So what we create, our brand promise, and what we deliver creates this enduring value that, if it’s consistent, will allow brands to be perceived always the same way across their scalability and across their transformation.
[30:54] Elizabeth Wood: Getting to the right design usually takes exploring a few possible concepts. This is a subjective, personal process. It’s a matter of interpreting the need, and finding inspiration for the direction that a possible design can take, which in many ways, is equal parts art and science. Does the design support the story you want to tell? Can it speak for itself? By week six, having synthesized a month’s worth of immersion, the frog team was ready to share four different visual directions the Made of Air brand could take.
[31:24] Ricardo Osório Santos: I will start with direction A, go to B, C, and D. And then at the end, we will have an overview of the four directions. And I think the main goal of this exercise or presentation, is basically to measure your pulse and hear you talking about the directions in where you believe all the work that we’ve been doing on the brand foundation, on end-of-life communication messaging, how this could be visualized, and what would be the right tonality to give to that work.
[31:52] Elizabeth Wood: It’s common practice for design concepts to have a name that communicates the visual expression.
[31:57] Ricardo Osório Santos: We have Direction A, which we named ‘Pop.’ So, this direction basically celebrates strong and bold accent colors that are present in the natural world. In this particular case, we looked into volcanoes. We looked into, off and crazy colors that sometimes show up in plants and leaves. Direction B, We call it ‘Elemental.’ And the main idea is to actually display the MOA materials always on a backdrop of these light, pastel, earthy colors. I think there is also something around alchemy in the way that all these things and all these elements come together to form a material and this somehow connects very much with the name ‘Made of Air.’
[32:40] Ricardo Osório Santos: The third direction is a slight departure from this one, we call it ‘Spotlight.’ And it’s a rather minimal approach from the first one. It kind of departs from the first one. It tries to reduce the number of colors. But the only problem is that we need to connect it to nature somehow.
[33:00] Elizabeth Wood: For the fourth potential visual direction, the team really wanted to highlight the look of the material itself, which is always dark, charcoal black.
[33:09] Ricardo Osório Santos: The last direction we call it ‘Black on Black.’ And as the name says, it’s a very, kind of, refined, premium and tactile as well because you believe that there is something also on the textures of carbon and the roughness of carbon itself that we can play with, particularly on the background. But the main idea here is to have actually the material sitting on black and we can elevate the material either by light or by adding an interesting texture to the background.
[33:42] Elizabeth Wood: After presenting the four possible directions, the leaders of the Made of Air team share their initial reactions.
[33:48] Allison Dring: The ‘Black on Black’, for me what I like about that is what we’re doing is urgent and serious and sobering and humbling to people and to companies. And I just feel like the brand better sit in that a little bit. It should not feel like a lifestyle choice. I think people should feel the urgency that this is a movement, that it has gravity to it and that we’re working on something bigger.
[34:19] Neema Shams: It’s funny that like 10,000 miles away and it literally feels like you’re in my head. I feel pretty much exactly the same. When I think about this, I want it to come out and grab you and shake you and say, “Wake up. Look around.” It was 145 degrees in the northwest of America last week, which is mind-boggling. That’s like 65 Celsius. You can’t be outside for more than five minutes. And I think, like, reversing climate changes is…the magnitude of it just, like, it breaks your head to think about. But I think it’s just so urgent, so important.
[35:05] Elizabeth Wood: Because the climate crisis is such an urgent matter, it stands to reason that the visual identity of a company focused on reversing the negative impacts of the crisis should reflect that urgency…without being intimidating, off-putting or scary. It’s a tricky balance to strike. After the meeting, the frog team gets together to go over Made of Air’s feedback.
[35:27] Sesh Vedachalam: I feel like they were 70, 80% towards ‘Pop.’ Maybe like the ‘Black on Black’ was more sort of like, you know, when you apply to colleges and you have a safe school? So it’s kind of like a safety school in a way.
[35:38] Ricardo Osório Santos: Again, the color is being used sparsely. But there is still something. I think this kind of flashes of lights reminds me of sirens and of ambulances speeding through the dark and just leaving this trace of urgency in the black, the blackness and darkness of the night.
[35:57] Sesh Vedachalam: I don’t think this one has to be like completely sirens, alarm bells, which I liked that we pushed it. Because I think realistically there are some moments in which the alarm and urgency would be appropriate for them. But in other moments of their buying process or selling process or whatever, it’d be nice to have the option to just tone it down. I think this sort of autumn theme connects me in my mind like this may be a bit of a jump, but the sunset of trees or, like, at the end of life of trees, that’s where we come in kind of thing…how we are stepping in to sort of pick up where the tree leaves off. That could be a kind of story that we build.
[36:32] Elizabeth Wood: The team decide to lean into a warm accent color: a rich, reddish orange shade to help communicate the urgency of the matter at hand. But they also needed to bring in elements of nature with the imagery, and create a design system that allows the branding to showcase the blackness of the material itself. Next up on the visual identity checklist is to create a new brand mark. This is important for Made of Air because their mark needs to be more than just a logo that catches the eye. It needs to signal to consumers that no matter what product the material is used to make, the material itself is better for the climate than those used in traditional manufacturing.
[37:09] Elizabeth Wood: Now, the Made of Air team had a logo before the program. It played off the old recycling symbol from the 1970s. You know the one–the triangle made of arrows. Ubiquitous now, the recycling mark was designed by graphic designer Gary Anderson, then a student at the University of Southern California. According to the book Seeing Green by Finus Dunaway, Anderson claims his design signified change, and was inspired by the “Möbius strip to symbolize continuity within a finite entity.” Change, circularity, continuity–these are all, of course, important sustainable ideas. But in the case of Made of Air, simply recycling doesn’t go far enough. So their idea was to deconstruct the classic recycling logo to tell their story. Here again is Made of Air CTO Daniel Schwaag.
[37:52] Daniel Schwaag: So Gravity’s Rainbow played a big role in the formation of this company. If you look at the logo, it’s this sort of play on recycling, which has a little bit to do also with Kekule’s discovery of the structure of benzene, which allowed the unfolding of all the organic chemistry that we have today, all the functional chemistry around organics. I think it’s one of these things that seems really obvious, but I’m never sure that people really got it.
[38:20] Elizabeth Wood: frogVentures lead Ethan Imboden is not convinced that the logo goes far enough to communicate the revolution that Made of Air’s materials offer.
[38:28] Ethan Imboden: It springboards off of the recycling symbol. I think it’s interesting that it’s a twist on that mark that we all know so well. Because it’s directing the carbon down ostensibly. It’s not radically different enough to represent how radically differently we understand our challenge today. I just feel like it’s way too soft in message. And they are saying we need to get away from the Church of Circularity, and this is circularity.
[39:00] Elizabeth Wood: As design lead, it’ll be up to Ricardo to bring viable brand mark options to the table for Made of Air to review. But the time to get it right is ticking away.
[39:17] Ricardo Osório Santos: The reality is, we are three weeks from the end of the program.
[39:19] Elizabeth Wood: Coming up after the break…
[39:22] Camille Chouard: We need to stand out from the competitors and be bold and be different.
[39:27] Mattia Tarizzo: It’s difficult to nail it because it’s not based on measurable criteria. They have to see it and feel it.
[39:34] Sesh Vedachalam: But I think we’re close, I think it’s gonna all start to come together pretty quickly.
[39:36] Ricardo Osório Santos: I might have a heart attack by the end of the program. I’m going to give you all my bank account details and you can all have my savings. Have a party in my name.
[40:18] Elizabeth Wood: Now back to our show. Ricardo and team have been hard at work translating the brand’s story into a new visual identity that helps them stand out in the marketplace. In a checkpoint meeting with the Made of Air execs, the frog team presents a grid of different brand mark and logo options.
[40:35] Ricardo Osório Santos: The logo doesn’t necessarily have to tell the story. It needs to be memorable and to be recognizable. And it shouldn’t be weaker when present in the context with another brand. That’s something that we also need to consider.
[40:45] Elizabeth Wood: One of the possible logos presented reimagines the words Made of Air as an acronym: M-O-A, comprised of bold black triangles and circles. In another direction, particles create a black forest scene that appears as a sort of shield above the Made of Air name. Other versions forego a specific mark, leaning into different typeface styles to make up the logo–some are sophisticated and lean. Others are more playful and rounded. Made of Air Chief Commercial Officer Neema Shams assesses the options, using his index fingers and thumbs like a frame to view them through. But after reviewing the many marks, no immediate unanimous decision could yet be made. It wasn’t exactly the response the frog team was hoping for this late in the program.
[41:27] Ricardo Osório Santos: So neither Allison nor Daniel said, “Okay, we go with this one.” And Neema also didn’t put it like that ever. So within the three of them it was very hard for them to reach a consensus.
Because we need to move forward. We have a week left, I’m going to be on holidays. The colors we kind of have defined, but we don’t have the mark yet. So I asked Camille to just execute and iterate on the mark and see if there’s anything there.
[41:58] Elizabeth Wood: While the team prepares for the next checkpoint with Made of Air, within the frog team at least, one direction for the brand mark is clearly rising to the top. Breaking the carbon cycle has been a theme throughout the program, ever since early end-of-life discussions. So it’s only natural it should inspire the winning brand mark. Here again is Made of Air CCO Neema Shams from an introductory interview at the start of the program.
[42:19] Neema Shams: The carbon needs to be returned to the ground. It was pulled out of the ground put into the air. So, in order to fix the problem that we’ve created, it’s not good enough to do circular. It’s not good enough to do efficiency because even if we got down to zero emissions today–just turned them all off–there would still be a century’s worth of emissions that shouldn’t have been there in the first place. You can’t circular your way out of that.
[42:52] Elizabeth Wood: Agreeing on how significant this message has been throughout, the team is in alignment.
[42:58] Ricardo Osório Santos: Let’s stick to the carbon one and make a case for it.
[43:03] Elizabeth Wood: This direction is all about breaking the carbon loop. The mark began with the six carbon ring of benzene, depicted by the hexagon. This shape was chosen and modified to evoke the carbon cycle—the process of carbon moving through our air, plants, oceans, animals, soil and back again. The broken hexagon of the mark reflects Made of Air’s commitment to helping reverse climate change by capturing carbon from this natural cycle and sequestering it permanently. At a critical make-or-break moment in the project, Ricardo decides to leave Munich and head to Berlin to meet with the Made of Air team in person for the first time.
[43:34] Ricardo Osório Santos: So I sat with them individually. I sat with Allison first, then I sat with Daniel, then I sat with Neema. And then I prepared something for them. And I told them to review that alone on their own in the night, and then look at it in the morning again. And then meet the three of them, take a decision, and then talk to me.
[43:56] Elizabeth Wood: It was a make-or-break moment because until the visual identity is completed, no final assets–be it the brand playbook, the website, the investor pitch materials, or even an image library can be finalized. So without a decision made here, the team is in a holding pattern–and in the final week of the program.
[44:17] Elizabeth Wood: In a standup meeting, everyone’s waiting to hear Made of Air’s feedback from Ricardo’s visit, and whether they came to a final decision on the direction of the brand mark. frog Designer Camille Chouard has some news.
[44:25] Camille Chouard: I had a call this morning with Ricardo and it seems that they’re going for the “break the carbon loop.” So Ricardo is refining this logo.
[44:36] Elizabeth Wood: They’re on mute, but I promise, the team is thrilled.
[44:40] Ethan Imboden: I’m glad that breaking the carbon cycle is moving in a different direction from the original while maybe helping them by still referencing something that’s familiar to them. Cool, great.
[44:51] Elizabeth Wood: But as Ethan’s no-nonsense tone suggests, now it’s already onto the next thing. With the visual identity in place, the team can finally do the work of refining all the remaining assets and rounding out the last days of the program. On the strategy side, Sesh and Zuzana are tasked with delivering the final investor and partner pitch materials.
[45:12] Sesh Vedachalam: We’ve just been trying to pull a subset of the slides that we’ve been working on so far and thinking what are the slides we’ll need if it is a Series A pitch deck…
[45:22] Elizabeth Wood: Senior Strategist Nieves Padilla in frog Madrid began this track of work during the first half of the program, spearheading the company’s end-of-life positioning strategy.
[45:32] Nieves Padilla: It was very interesting for me to understand the disruptive mindset they have in terms of sustainability or end-of-life approach.
[45:43] Elizabeth Wood: As an industrial designer, Camille Chouard is used to designing physical products at frog. But his background in materials also perfectly positions him for this type of brand expression, too. He’s created all sorts of renderings of Made of Air materials in action, from furniture to architecture to inspire clients to find out what’s possible with carbon-negative materials. Many of these images you can see in the case study in our show notes.
[46:06] Camille Chouard: We’re trying to show the material in every application as possible in every industries from furniture, products, architecture, but also focusing also on the texture and the process from granules to samples.
[46:22] Elizabeth Wood: René Mambembe, visual designer in frog Munich, joined the team in the final week of the program to help launch the new website. His job was to put the new brand language to its first test.
[46:34] René Mambembe: The idea is just to really look at what is in place. Which symbols, colors, lines are used? And then just embrace, and just replicate and duplicate: making sure that when I see all those things together, it’s matching. So I’m really into consistency.
[46:53] Elizabeth Wood: With the website underway, the Made of Air team is nearly ready to reveal its new brand to the world. On the company’s homepage of the new website is their newly defined purpose, an output of the brand foundations workshop in the first phase of the frog program. Made of Air’s purpose is clear: ‘We’re in business to reverse climate change.’
[47:12] Neema Shams: Like, the larger picture: let’s ignore product and process and just focus on Made of Air, we’re in business to reverse climate change.
[47:25] Ricardo Osório Santos: You are here to help your partners achieve their climate goals and you’re also here to help reverse climate change.
[47:31] Allison Dring: What we’re going to come in and do is reverse that and we’re going to sink emissions. Like reversing the process will do that. Like, reversing the process will do that. And we’re going to use technology to get you there.
[47:40] Caroline Gudmundsson: I think that’s the biggest challenge we can ask for.
[47:47] Elizabeth Wood: Here again is Sesh to explain why defining this purpose is so important for the present and future of the Made of Air brand strategy.
[47:52] Sesh Vedachalam: A purpose is the ‘why.’ It’s the reason you exist. A purpose is something that should by definition transcend the ‘what’ of what you’re making. If their purpose of being in business to reverse climate change, if that is the sort of ultimate thing that doesn’t change, no matter how long they’re in business, then tomorrow the solution or the product that they get into might be completely different than carbon-negative, bio-based materials. But it should still feel relevant and authentic for them to be in business.
[48:32] Elizabeth Wood: Ultimately, teams are made of people. And these people have real lives of their own outside of their work. Over the course of this 10-week program, work-life balance was definitely put to the test in different ways. Some of the team, including the client, took their summer holidays. Strategist Nieves Padilla took leave halfway through to get married and take a much needed new mom break. Some had to keep odd hours in order to tend to loved ones while working from home during a pandemic. And now, they’d just about made it to the end.
[48:58] Elizabeth Wood: Program manager Mattia Tarizzo spent some of the project working from a holiday home in Ibiza, providing some pretty spectacular tropical backdrops on his video calls. His role on programs here at frog means keeping the team together, wherever they are, on track and working towards a shared vision.
[49:14] Mattia Tarizzo: Every project for us is a sort of startup. So if you put five, seven people of us working with four, five different clients, so it’s a new team that starts with a goal and has to reach it within a given time. But basically, you have to start to work as a team. My metaphor is to basketball. And I believe there is a team of players. And this is, for us, often the design team. And they are the players. And then on the sideline, you have the coaching team. And the coaching team for me is made by the PM, the creative director and the clients. But definitely we have to work together and we need to help the team to deliver the best work they can. So in the end, as frog, our goal is not just to deliver work in line with the expectation, but is also to help our client to reach their internal goals. So, to go, I will say, a level deeper in trying to have an impact.
[50:15] Elizabeth Wood: So, to hyperextend a metaphor, the team is in the final quarter and the game clock is just about to run out. It was now time to hand over final work to Made of Air. They meet once again with CCO Neema Shams, who just so happened to take the call while riding in a van through Germany with his partner.
[50:32] Ethan Imboden: Is this a rental or are you making this a lifestyle?
[50:37] Neema Shams: It’s semi her lifestyle at the moment at least.
[50:43] Elizabeth Wood: The team walks Neema through the deliverables in preparation for the final shareout.
[50:47] Neema Shams: Thanks for walking through it. I don’t have any added points at the moment. Super excited about that ingredient brand element. I think it’s much more clear to me as well how we can present that using those tools. That, for me at least, achieves a big point, also with the renders and other stuff, which is basically we’re a very small, early stage company, but we don’t want to appear that way. We want to appear like partners. That was a big reason for doing this project. I think it does feel like we have those assets to go and play that role to the best of our abilities.
[51:29] Sesh Vedachalam: That’s the whole mission, right?
[51:32] Elizabeth Wood: As someone who has spent more than a year deeply entrenched in understanding Made of Air’s needs, Director of Business Development Caroline Gudmundsson is thrilled by the outcome.
[51:41] Caroline Gudmundsson: I really have that rush of happiness. I mean, I haven’t been that close across the last two weeks now. And now seeing this all come together, I’m really overwhelmed. So it’s really cool.
[51:52] Ethan Imboden: What a great beginning because I think we’ve got a long way to go together from here. Together, we’ll be doing a lot of work. I think there’s a lot of opportunities we can help to surface for you. We’re definitely committed to that. So, be seeing you all the time, Neema and team.
[52:11] Neema Shams: Sounds good. Thanks, guys.
[52:12] Multiple Voices: Thank you. Thank you, bye!
[52:15] Elizabeth Wood: Behind every frog program is a story. And it’s a story written together by everyone on the team. That’s everyone who contributed their ideas…
[52:24] Sesh Vedachalam: The bigger tension in my mind looking back is how much just putting visuals in front of them brought up a different almost conviction that they felt in expressing the problem as clearly as the solution.
[52:42] Elizabeth Wood: everyone who shared their inspiration…
[52:46] Ricardo Osório Santos: Everybody looks at sunsets, everybody looks at the sky uh for inspiration.
[52:50] Zuzana Peskova: It’s a project that really is aiming to do a lot of change in the world.
[53:05] Elizabeth Wood: everyone who shared their concerns…
[53:10] Ethan Imboden: We’re peeling back the layers of the onion, but we don’t know if it’s an infinite onion or if there’s actually a center to get to. It’s kind of hard to know where to stop.
[53:17] Elizabeth Wood: everyone who shared their expertise…
[53:21] Allison Dring: So a plastic has uh a co2 emission equivalent of about positive two tons per ton. And we are currently a negative two tons per ton.
[53:29] Elizabeth Wood: and their own unique perspective.
[53:32] Daniel Schwaag: I think for the end consumer, it’s about an idealism. And it’s about activism. It’s about the possibility to elect sustainability and change.
[53:41] Elizabeth Wood: This story is the result of weeks of conversation, constructive creativity, debate, care and emotion. To see the final brand for yourself, check the show notes for a case study with more backstory. You can also visit madeofair.com to learn more about how they’re carbon negative materials are transforming industries like mobility, consumer goods and the built environment.
[54:06] Elizabeth Wood: That’s our show. The Design Mind frogcast was brought to you by frog, a leading global creative consultancy, part of Capgemini Invent. Check today’s show notes for transcripts, plus links to the case study with images from the final design as well as a link to the Made of Air site. We sincerely want to thank Made of Air and the frog team for sharing every step of this process. That’s a big thanks to Allison Dring, Daniel Schwaag, Neema Shams, Franziska Hammerl and Taylor Hirshfield of Made of Air. And to the whole frog team involved in this project–Mattia Tarizzo, Caroline Gudmundsson, Ethan Imboden, Sesh Vedachalam, Ricardo Osório Santos, Nieves Padilla, Zuzana Peskova, Camille Chouard, and René Mambembe–thank you so much for your trust and your openness.
[54:52] Elizabeth Wood: Special thanks to Richard Canham of Lizard Media for putting this very special episode together–and every other episode of the Design Mind frogcast for the matter. And another big thanks to former frog marketing interns Eden Ayers and Annie Mendlovitz for poring over hundreds of pages of transcripts and dozens and dozens of audio files. You’re both already very, very missed. Thank you as always to the frog marketing team. Your relentless enthusiasm and commitment to quality in everything we make together is always felt and always appreciated.
[55:23] Elizabeth Wood: Last but certainly not least, we also want to thank you, dear listener. If you like what you heard, tell your friends. Rate and review to help others find us on Apple Podcasts and Spotify . And be sure to follow us wherever you listen to podcasts. Find lots more to think about from our global frog team at frog.co/designmind. Follow frog on Twitter at @frogdesign and @frog_design on Instagram. And if you have any thoughts about the show, we’d love to hear from you. Reach out at frog.co/contact. Thanks for listening. Now go make your mark.