Designing with a Purpose

Eric Ressler of Cosmic, a digital design and branding agency with a focus on social responsibility declares, “branding and marketing, they’re multipliers of impact. They have the ability to take an organization that’s only known in a small community and [make it] known around the world.” This is one of the concepts that Ressler and his team have introduced to both the nonprofit organizations they work with as well as the for-profit clientele that have a social cause cooked into their mission (think Warby Parker, which donates a pair of glasses for each pair purchased, or the Renewal Workshop, an apparel repurposing company that Cosmic works with).

Their small firm, run out of a bright and spacious open office space in downtown Santa Cruz, has carved out a niche in the world of branding. “The main thing that sets us apart is that we specialize in what we call social-purpose branding,” Ressler says. A transplant from La Honda and San Diego, he moved to Santa Cruz to play bass in a band with some friends and experience a change of scenery. Although he never intended to stay long, he fell in love with the community. A self-proclaimed “design school dropout,” he began his career by doing freelance website work, eventually building enough of a network of clients to form a full-fledged design and branding agency, which he has now been running for about seven years.

Ressler didn’t start out with the specific goal of working with socially conscious brands, but at a certain point, his feelings of responsibility to the community around him and the world at large made him ask some important questions of his own work. “What is our purpose as an agency? What are we trying to accomplish with the work that we’re creating? And then, what’s it doing for society?” he asks.

It’s an idea that has also permeated Cosmic’s non-hierarchical office culture. “We’re very collaborative, very flat in terms of our structure. There’s not senior and junior designers here. The analogy that I like to make is that we’re kind of like a basketball team, and I’m the coach, versus, I’m the boss, and everyone else is my underling.” In addition to being non-hierarchical, the company maintains a four-day workweek, with Fridays off. “In the advertising world, there is a very high-pressure, always-on, always-working-late-nights, crazy-deadlines kind of culture, and we have decided to opt out of that,” Ressler exclaims. Cosmic gives staff three-day weekends every week so they can step away, recharge, have a life outside of work, and spend more time with family. “Creativity is not something that is sustainable in an environment where you’re overdoing it. You have to step away. You have to have room in your life for an idea to pop into your head—when you’re out surfing or when you’re in the shower—and if you don’t have time for that, your creativity starts to diminish,” Ressler adds.

Working with nonprofits and social-purpose brands is not always easy. Budgets tend to be a challenge, and marketing isn’t always prioritized. “We find a lot of nonprofits have a zero marketing budget. People are spread very thin. Everyone wears a lot of hats, and there’s not a lot of overhead, so marketing can be kind of piecemeal,” Ressler says. Even worse, he maintains, society has a negative attitude toward nonprofits spending money on branding and marketing.

Fortunately, Cosmic has experience with traditional corporate brands, along with a determination to find ways to make the marketing happen, no matter how small the budget. “Sometimes we get creative around where the funding comes from,” Ressler admits. “But learning from the corporate world—best practices around branding and marketing—and applying that to these social-purpose brands will allow them to actually achieve their mission much more quickly, more effectively, and to a deeper level.”

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This article originally appeared in Issue 10.2 “Sight & Sound”