Mon: Tell us. a little about your background and how Combo started.
Kapono: I grew up a bit all over the place. I was born in Nashville, but lived in Hawaii for the first 6 years of my life and then made the move to Korea. My father is Korean and my mother is Hawaiian, Scottish and Chinese. My father was a designer and had his own firm called Sympact in Seoul. He taught us all how to be detail-oriented and that true design is in the details.
I moved to NYC 20 years ago to go to design school. I attended Pratt in Brooklyn for Communications Design, while my younger brother Lucas was in the architecture program. Pirco Wolfframm and Ali Madad were my 2 most influential professors. Ali even helped me get my first job at Ogilvy’s Brand Integration Group. This was in 2006, around the time when advertising dollars were being redirected towards brand. We had amazing budgets and even better timelines. Projects were years long and sometimes never saw the light of day, but it was amazingly fun to work on. After the financial crash in 2008 though everything changed. Branding became more important but budgets and timelines got cut in half, and suddenly everyone wanted to be a designer, the competition was extremely high. I moved from BIG to the Brand Union, to AR New York and then to Mother where I learned that people are now hiring me for my opinion.
Kapono: I always wanted to start my own thing and I felt Mother was doing things the old way. I was doing the work, yet there were 6 people between me and the client. There were a number of inefficiencies that I felt I could improve on. I had the idea of going in-house and branding companies from the inside out. This would allow a company to not only devise a new brand, but also feel ownership over the creative. I had the opportunity to do this first at Cole Haan when Nike sold them, then at Tommy John, and Ann Taylor. After that, the 2 founders from Away luggage; Steph Korey and Jen Rubio, contacted me and I helped take their 10-page presentation deck and turn it into a brand. I helped design everything from the logo to color, to the design of the suitcase and email blasts. I learned everything about how to create a startup. After such a successful launch, more startups began reaching out. Combo was born.
Mon: How did you go about initially building a portfolio and client base for Combo?
Kapono: Really, it's about being kind to people. Build relationships, create connections and be really communicative. We are in the service industry, which means you have to be good at serving, if you are good at that, people will consistently refer you to others.
Mon: Combo works with a lot of direct-to-consumer brands, are there unique challenges to branding these as opposed to established brands?
Kapono: Working with a start-up budget is really difficult. However, founders are unique in the sense that they have true passion for what they’re building. Which makes it easier to work with someone who just wants to create. It makes working with them infectiously inspiring and fun. Creating change in this world is what we all want to do, and I get to interact with those who are so passionate about it that they create companies to do it.
Mon: How has the pandemic altered the way the Combo team works?
Kapono: It has completely shifted the way we work, I find it really difficult. There are so many affirmations we get from interacting with people that you don’t get from scheduling a zoom call. I creatively connect with people in person, there is an energy and tension that is created when you are in the same room as another person.
Operationally we work with google slides a lot and use it as our board to pin up on. That's helped us still be collaborative and contribute to each other’s creative process.
Mon: How much importance do you place on having a diverse team with different backgrounds and world views?
Kapono: This is what Combo is built on. Homogeneous thought is the killer of originality. It’s how mediocre work is created. Our industry has been doing that for decades, hiring the same white folks from the same background and education.
We partner with Scope Of Work, a talent development agency for young BIPOC creatives in NYC and have been fortunate enough to have several talented SOW members become employees over the past 4 years.
Most who have been hired at Combo grew with us from the start. We slowly built the team as we added more projects. Each person we hire, we ask whether they will help build our community and help grow a young person one day.
Mon: You've mentioned you have an interest in product and graphic design, do you think graphic designers should be more involved with other design industries outside of branding?
Kapono: I love design in all its forms. I love thinking about how people interact with design in 2d as well as the 3d and 4d. The fact that we have the ability to control every aspect of an experience, whether it's an unboxing or telling a story through scrolling, is what gets me excited. If you are a designer, you should explore as many different types of design that interest you. Design is all about how you approach a problem, so looking at other design disciplines helps you approach problems in different ways.
Mon: I get the sense that Graphic Design firms are becoming more specialized, do you prefer this trend or are you more partial to the Pentagram or Terrence Conran "we design everything" kind of mindset?
Kapono: Terrance Conran was my design hero, he created everything and that's what I want to do. I love specialists, but I want to create as many things as possible. Terrance Conran designed full experiences in restaurants, in homes and in product. I loved that he designed every part of living. When we designed Away, the ambition was to design a whole airline. That would be a dream project for me.
Mon: Where do you see the future of design going? Are there any trends or new technologies you see coming that could change the industry?
Kapono: In the past all you needed was a functional product to have a company. Then, due to the fact that there were multiple choices, in order to stand out, you had to have a brand and a functional product. Now, not only do you need a functional product and a brand, you also need morals. A company cannot exist today without morals. Everyone is not only looking at if you have a good product and brand, they are now looking at if your morals align with theirs.
Mon: Can you think of any design or branding projects that have blown you away recently?
Kapono: I think Telfar.tv is pretty brilliant. Telfar created a whole world for people to be in. That kind of global world-building causes a creator to design from the ethos of a brand. Telfar is obviously a loved brand and are known for their logo. Starting Telfar.tv allowed them to control the way their media looks. They can design and feature a world that they envision. They can see themselves and their community the way they want to, because they can design every little piece being featured. They started over 15 years ago and have just broken through in the last 5 years. Telfar doesn’t only design bags and clothing, they design and celebrate community.
Mon: Any exciting projects coming soon that you want to talk about?
Kapono: We just finished a project with ForFreedoms called Hear Her Here. An initiative by Converse to highlight Black Femme Creatives. They partnered with ForFreedoms which is an artist led organization that models and increases creative civic engagement, discourse and direct action. The work they are doing with converse is a series of murals being put up in different cities.
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