Types & Symbols

A creative studio focusing on the Adventist Church

Ivan Ruiz-Knott Co-founder, Partner

Mark Cook Co-founder, Partner

Bryan Gray Partner

Writeup by Ivan

Types & Symbols is a niche creative studio focusing on the Seventh-day Adventist Church that I started with Mark Cook.

Mark used run a studio called Thesis with Brian Edlefson in Southwest Michigan, where I interned during college and then worked for a year after. It was a great job.The two of them were super talented, and lucky for me were pretty committed to having a really nice studio space in the same middle-of-nowhere area that I went to college. A small group (there were five of us at our biggest), I got to touch a lot of things and pick up a lot of new skills.

The Saint Joseph Thesis office

The old Thesis office in Saint Joseph, Michigan.

A little while after Livvy and I moved to Boston in the summer of 2015, Mark reached out and shared that he and Brian were going to be closing down Thesis. We ended up emailing about what he was going to be doing next, and he mentioned that he wanted to start a new design practice focusing on Adventism. Ourselves Adventists, he and I would often talk at Thesis about how disappointingly bad our church’s design tended to be: cliché art, bad Photoshop, poor typography. I had had it as a goal, in the far future, after becoming a respectable designer, to start a studio focusing on Adventism, so when he mentioned his plan I begged him to led me start it with him.

28 Points Identity Deck

I first weaseled my way in by asking him questions and giving feedback on the identity and market (I had a lot of opinions), and then pitched him on partnership based on my design chops and connections (which, at the time, were really primarily Livvy’s connections, and later turned out to not be very helpful). I remember looking over the above deck while riding the T back from my apprenticeship at Upstatement, an incredibly cool digital agency that I sometimes wish would have offered me a full-time gig.

Mark’s first idea was to focus only on self-initiated work—maybe it would just be something of a side project he did on nights and weekends—but things shifted to focus on client work to start. But we had almost no idea what we were doing. Adventism is a relatively small market, with a relatively small reach, with relatively shallowly-pocketed organizations, and as a whole it seemed like the members and the organizations had gotten accustomed to sub-par, dated-looking design work. Who needs good design when you have the Truth, right?

So things were very slow. For a very long time. Outside of designing our own identity three times, we had few projects that first year. Thanks to Martin Lee (one of our few pre-existing connections), we were brought on to work with Hope Trending, and from our attempts at networking we were able to meet Julio Muñoz with whom we worked on the identity for the Sonscreen Film Festival (a punny name I continue to dislike). When Mark ran out of runway he took a year-long hiatus from the studio to work in corporate, and I kept the studio hobbling along while Livvy supported us.

The opening titles for the Sonscreen Film Festival. Yes, Adventists have enough film programs to hold a festival. Yes, it is tiny.

We were lucky to meet Bryan Gray early on, who if we weren’t so naïve would have already been known to us as the Adventist designer. He had touched many of the projects we had seen and sometimes critiqued, including the corporate identity for the Adventist church itself and the Adventist Review (a publication that’s older than the New York Times). Knowing our background in brand identity work, Bryan tapped us in early 2016 to help contribute concepts for a revision to the church’s corporate identity. That work took some time to go anywhere (it did eventually lead to us getting the full project in the spring of 2017), but it led to a good working relationship with Bryan, who we ended up bring on as a third partner, lending us his clout and lending him Mark’s administrative skills.

Though Mark and Bryan gave feedback throughout, outside of Bryan’s redrawing of the symbol I worked on this project alone and almost burnt out on the studio. While there are things I would change about the project, and how it was communicated, I’m largely very proud of what we were able to accomplish with the budget and the impossible task of providing a flexible identity system that is mostly opt-in. A light case study can be seen here.

We had a few other projects sprinkled in throughout that time, but after Bryan officially joined up, we had the opportunity to pitch Adventist Review Ministries (the publisher of the Adventist Review which Bryan had been designing off-and-on since 1987) on a redesign and ongoing editorial design for Adventist World, and were fortunate to win that bid. With that contract in place, we were able to stabilize. Mark came back to the studio full time, we were able to have Brett Meliti join the team full-time (he’d been assisting as a contractor for a bit), and we hired Ellen Musselman.

The video we created to help the team introduce the redesign to church administration.

It’s been 7 years since we started, and we’ve remained small (only very recently did we grow to 6 with the addition of Matthew Leffler). And while I inevitably compare us to other studios who are just as small but doing higher-profile work, or studios that have grown much larger in the same amount of time, I’m also still constantly surprised that we’re still in business. We have such a small niche, and sometimes I think we’ve run dry of the kinds of clients we can do our best work for.

But it’s also clear that this niche is the reason we’re still kicking. While my own relationship with it has shifted, we know the Adventist church well. We’ve worked with many of the major names and organizations within it. We understand the politics, and the budgets, and how creatively conservative or risky our clients want to be. We’re also, I’m pretty sure, the only design studio in North America committed to working with the Adventist church. There are plenty of sole-proprietors with the same market position, as well as studios with a different market position who are willing to work with the Adventist church, but if anyone is looking for a team that can do a large-scale project and is also Adventist, we might actually be the only game in town. Which is an okay spot to be in.

The Buchanan office

After many years of not having a true brick and mortar location (the studio was distributed since the start and continues that way), Mark set up shop in Buchanan, Michigan, in what I like to refer to as the Greater Berrien Metropolitan Area. Here, Mark and Marc (friend of the studio) are setting up for a video shoot.

We definitely aren’t making piles of money, and because our clients themselves don’t have piles of money we don’t always get to do the highest caliber work. Read: we rarely get to art direct custom illustrations and photography. But we’ve literally only had one difficult client relationship since starting (they know who they are), and though the budgets are small the challenges and the reach can be deeply satisfying. We’ve created brand identities, redesigned magazines, crafted user interfaces for websites and apps, that have been seen by millions of people across the world.

And lately, much to Mark’s long-delayed satisfaction, we’ve been able to start launching our own projects. We’ve crowdfunded and published a few heirloom editions of classic Adventist books, created a highly produced podcast, and we’re currently working on a digital product.

I’ve deeply enjoyed being a part of this studio, and helping shape its direction. It’s possible it could do me some good to try out a different type of role in the future—perhaps I might better enjoy different kinds of challenges, and I’d likely thrive in a more relational job—but I’m grateful to be working with my team, for the kinds of people we do, and with all the say and flexibility that comes along with ownership.

Site designed and developed in-house by Ivan & Livvy. Project managed with Notion and Slack. Screens designed in Figma. Custom fonts “Suits”, “RK Sans”, “RK Serif”, and “RK Mono” designed in Glyphs. Hosted with Netlify, managed with Contentful, built with Gatsby, styled with Tailwind. A work in progress. Site version 1.1.
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