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Where Fine Art and Design Coexist: How Studio MPLS Makes Beautiful Brands

by Theresa Christine Johnson on 08/09/2021 | 5 Minute Read

In some projects, it’s easy to see a blend of impeccable design and fine art. Studio MPLS, however, believes the disciplines of design and fine art should always go hand in hand—that one should solve a problem like a designer, but through the eyes of an artist. But what does a studio look like when it operates with artists that specialize in packaging and branding?

Dan Olson, Founder and Creative Director of Studio MPLS, started the studio back in 2009 after leaving Duffy and taking some time to reflect on what he wanted to do. People inquired directly with him about taking on projects, so much so that he decided to hire a small team and start Studio MPLS. 

Even before then, though, art guided design for him. “I've always thought that art should lead the way,” said Dan. “At other places I’d been, I always felt that if we were thinking in an imaginative, artful way, we would differentiate ourselves from others out there.”

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Studio MPLS has grown from two team members to six, and Dan carefully selects who they work with. He’s far less concerned if people know the disciplines of design and instead wants to see how they express themselves with the arts.

“I’m interested in if someone is creative,” he explained. “Can you do art outside design? Do you paint? Are you a photographer? That’s where I see sparks of interest for me, when I see a great photograph they may have done or a small illustration they did. If I see creativity there, the design can be taught.”

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This art-first approach benefits clients, too, since the work is uniquely ownable. Rather than replicating what others did before or what is the convenient norm within an industry, Studio MPLS can explore possibilities that are as one-of-a-kind as something you might find in a museum. The result differentiates their clients in the marketplace.

“I don’t think you can do that if you don’t have designers who can illustrate or paint or do fine art,” said Dan. “You would probably be looking to hire an illustrator or photographer or someone outside of the studio to create something interesting. It’s been my experience that when you have to go outside to find talent that’s also been used in similar settings and situations, the work always ends up in a fairly expected place.

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“Our ability to think about art, first and foremost, is a benefit to our clients, and I think it moves products off the shelf.”

When a brand has an artistic approach, consumers might feel differently about the item in their homes. Rather than stash it away in a cupboard or toss it in the trash, they want to display that purchase on a shelf or counter. The design works to initially capture your attention and pick it up (or click that URL), but it also stays with you in a more meaningful way.

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When a new client approaches Studio MPLS, they always start with an in-depth questionnaire to really try and understand the brand. From there, the team pulls select words and images to create a collage which they then present to the client. This collage helps to jumpstart conversations and narrow in on what works and what doesn’t.

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“It’s our guide,” Dan said. “I say it all the time: if you squint your eyes at the collage, you begin to see what your brand is going to look like and feel like. And then I ask, ‘Does it feel right to you?’ And typically, our clients are saying yes because they’ve been a part of the process with us. It’s important that our clients know we are representing them in a way that feels good from the beginning, and that they’re being listened to and that we care.”

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Their thoughtful process has led them to retain many of their clients, including Rishi Tea & Botanicals. So many tea brands feature images of tea getting poured from a pot or a quaint tea setting. But Studio MPLS wanted to highlight the origins of the tea leaves, whether that’s a lush landscape in Southeast Asia or somewhere near the sparkling Mediterranean. Working with the brand for almost a decade means the studio has gotten its hands on the brand’s new products, too, such as sparkling tea or botanicals.

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“They’ve been able to get into places with our design that they haven’t been before,” Dan mentioned. “Rishi Tea is now in Whole Foods and Target and other bigger venues, and they’ll tell you that it’s based on design. That makes us happy that design has been the differentiator to get them to new places.”

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Studio MPLS has some new and exciting work on the horizon, including with Duluth Candy Company—plus Dan hopes to start a sock company on the side, something he’s been talking to his designers about for nearly a decade. And while their ethos emphasizes fine art first, Dan admitted it’s adventurous, bold clients who keep them going.

“Clients are so important,” he said. “We can design all day, but we want to convince our clients to do something unique and interesting and unusual or unexpected.”

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