Graphic Design for a Conference, a Network, and Beyond: A Conversation with Giant Shoulders

Sarah Lyman, FINE Director of Communications

Illustration of a cross-section of dirt showing carrots and mushrooms growing, bird and bees and ants; worms and insects.

FINE enlisted Giant Shoulders, a strategic branding agency based in Providence, RI, to design the visual identity for the 2023 Northeast Farm to Institution Summit. The beautiful illustration shown here was designed by Taylor Chandra-Axtmann, in collaboration with the firm's CEO Tino Chow and FINE staff. FINE's Director of Communications Sarah Lyman sat down recently with Tino and Taylor to talk about that process. Their interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Three portrait-style photos showing Sarah, Tino, and Taylor.
(left to right) Sarah Lyman (Communications Director, FINE), Tino Chow (Founder and CEO, Giant Shoulders), and Taylor Chandra-Axtmann (Graphic Designer, Giant Shoulders).

Sarah: Hi Tino and Taylor! I was so impressed with the design process you used with us as clients - it was a collaborative approach that went really smoothly. Thanks for agreeing to meet up to chat further about it! Won’t you introduce yourselves? 

Tino: My name is Tino Chow, and I’m the founder and CEO of Giant Shoulders, a strategic branding agency [in Providence, Rhode Island].

Taylor: I’m Taylor Chandra-Axtmann. I’ve been working at Giant Shoulders since June, and I do graphic design.

Sarah: How did each of you come to that?

Taylor: I studied fine art in college, but I just enjoyed graphic design a lot. I’ve always been drawn to type and color, and systems and things like that, and it was just the natural progression.

Tino: I always feel like a three-headed monster walking into the room. There’s this design side, an ops [operations] side, and a business side to me. Ages ago, I was in the military, where I saw good operations and why that is so important. Then I went to Rhode Island School of Design to get my Industrial Design degree. People often say, “Wow, those are so diametrically opposed places,” but actually there’s a lot of discipline in creativity. So as I was graduating college, a lot of my friends were getting these jobs to make plastic trinkets that you might find in a conference gift bag - you know immediately that they’re so poorly built and designed that they immediately wind up in a landfill. And I didn’t want to have anything to do with it. I was curious along with a couple other students, what are we going to do with this degree that cost a quarter million dollars? 

There's a lot of discipline in creativity.


Illustration of a carrot

We knew from reading and our research that our heroes were doing amazing work all around the world, and we thought, “Let’s go visit them!” But then very quickly we realized that we couldn’t afford it. So we did the next best thing: we started a conference and raised some money - that was the first time I ever saw a business model - and brought all our heroes from all around the world to Providence to speak to us at Brown and at RISD. It's called Better World by Design. And that completely changed my life. 

One thread in a lot of their stories was how critical business is to turning a world-changing or life-changing idea into sustainable business. Because without that, you can’t really change the world. You can have the best products, but if you don’t have the business piece, no one will benefit from it. So that is when I dedicated my life to working with mission-driven leaders. A lot of the clients that we work with at Giant Shoulders are business leaders. Although we love working with nonprofits as well. And working to create a sustainable future for all our clients. So it’s not always easy, but being that three-headed monster has sustained me. Having the opportunity to work with FINE has been a huge privilege, in a sweet spot in what we do. 

Sarah: Wow, when we first chatted, I did sense some mission alignment, but I didn’t realize just how deep your experience with that goes. This process you used with us was clear and transparent; you set goalposts for every step and kept us on track - and we love the final product! Will you walk us through that process, how you use it with clients in general, and how you came to design that process in the first place?


Mushrooms illustration

Tino: Our top value is collaboration. We build Giant Shoulders for the future of work. That was five years ago, before the pandemic, even before the term “gig economy” was popularized. But when you look at the creative world, it’s how we’ve been working for a long time. So we intentionally built the business around freelancers and contractors. To be able to guarantee quality work comes down to process, even if we are bringing in different people. We want to make room for individual processes to shine as well. We believe with clarity you can have confidence, and with confidence, you can have autonomy. So with our internal team, with contractors, and with clients. The last thing you want when leaving a meeting is to be unsure.

We believe with clarity you can have confidence, and with confidence, you can have autonomy.

Initially we do a lot of co-creation with a client, where we draw - that’s better suited as an in-person activity. With the pandemic, we shifted and do a little less of that, and the creative shows up with ideas for the client to push off of. We always make decisions in person or on the call. It comes with a little debate and a little discussion. The reason for that is that we all come to the table with different perspectives and those are valuable because each other’s blind spots. So even in our meetings, we have an ED [Executive Director] and other participants with different needs. As discussion happens, and this is something that happens all the time, [someone will say], “I didn’t realize this would have an impact in this way; what if we did X.” So by collaborating up front, ideas are not set in stone yet - no one’s feelings are hurt yet! The ideas are still kind of malleable, and we make sure we do that alongside the client. So that’s the core pillar of how we collaborate, and how we involve our client. And sometimes it actually doesn’t work. Sometimes with certain clients, they don’t want to participate - they want the answer - and we’re like, sorry, this is not how we work. We don’t drive results without participation from the client. And y’all were fantastic clients!

Sarah: Well that’s good to hear! So much of that resonates with what we do as well - collaboration, transparency, the iterative change. From your perspective Taylor, Tino sets these high level expectations about cadence of communication and so forth, and then what’s happening behind the scenes? You’re running this flurry of design in the background! Can you talk a little about that? 


Illustration of a beetle

Taylor: I would say it’s a lot of collaboration between people on our team as well. Especially between me and our art director, which is usually Tino. Making decisions together, having a lot of conversations about all of those decisions. 

Sarah: The first part was the Creative Brief Development, and then the Mood Boarding?

Tino: I can talk about the creative process, the reason we start with the Creative Brief. As a strategic branding company, half the work we do is strategy. Strategy means asking the best possible questions. That is what we did in the creative brief. What is the problem we’re trying to solve, and what are the parameters? And who is this for? And most importantly - why? By establishing those, it’s a great way of aligning ourselves with our clients. Most of our clients are not creatives - I know that you are, Sarah - so that has an additional layer of understanding and collaboration that we can have with you. But typically, the rest of the team may not be, so this is a great way of aligning everybody with words. So it’s all about asking the best possible questions, and then from there, Taylor has clear direction.

Strategy means asking the best possible questions.

Taylor: I feel like the Moodboarding stage is translating that conversation before diving in and doing all the work.


Illustration of a bee

Sarah: I often don’t know what I like or I don’t like until I see it. I don’t have the vocabulary to describe what I like. And sometimes even when I get the idea in my head down on paper, that’s often when I realize the idea I have in my head - I also don’t like! It seems like that’s why it’s great to have many people in that creative initial phase because everyone looks at the elephant from different parts. Each person adding their own piece amplifies the final vision in a way that just one person cannot. I appreciated that part of that as well. What’s the right number of people to have at that creative brief and moodboarding stage?

Tino: That’s a great question, and there’s a balance between “more the merrier” and who the decision makers are. You want to find a happy medium. Trying to facilitate a conversation between twenty people can be a nightmare rather than productive. We do have clients where we do that - but we do that as a full-day workshop to get to know people, break it down into different exercises, we have co-facilitators so we don’t have one person trying to manage twenty people. Because there’s an exponential number of relationships that can exist within twenty people. On this project, we had at most 4 or 5, that’s a good sized group. The way to build these teams is less about the number, but we focus on what blind spots we need to cover. We have an ED with a distinct perspective; Sarah, you come to this project with a specific perspective; and we have Dana and Peter who were more involved in the operational and planning side of the conference. It seemed like we were covering all our blind spots, the big ones that would affect the project. 
Sarah: As you were speaking, I’m reminded of how at FINE, we’ve started a journey toward being an agile organization. That agile methodology of collaborative decision making - involving all these different perspectives early and often helps to do exactly what you’re talking about - identify blind spots. All of these details at the very beginning make it a smarter and more efficient process in the long run. It seems like there are a lot of similarities between that and agile.

Tino: Absolutely. And there’s a lot of my military experience that kind of haunts or helps me. That plays into one of the misunderstandings of how military organizations work where everyone just follows orders. But leadership plays a critical role in any organization and people following orders doesn’t always mean they are making the best decision or they have autonomy, or have clarity about what they’re doing. This is where my influence in the military set the stage for my business - we need to have an understood collective goal, and a team that have different skill sets that are complementary, that sets us up well for collaboration. I could tell Taylor, “just go do this,” but the quality might not be there without the clarity of the goals and what we’re trying to solve. So that’s where a lot of it comes from, it’s very similar to the agile methodology that you were describing.


Illustration of mushrooms with ants sitting on the heads

Sarah: When you were doing the moodboarding, can you talk a little bit about how you translate from this big board of internet images into something tangible or digital?

Taylor: I think it helps to have concrete parameters that are set from our conversations together. For example, having a color palette, that’s pretty concrete, it has to work with your brand. And some of it is a feeling that you wanted to get from it. And then it was experimenting and figuring it out. 

Sarah: The farm to institution movement is huge and it encompasses so many different parts of the food system, from procurement, to food insecurity, to environmental sustainability, to food justice - so how to get all that into a poster?! Kind of a monumental task! So I really appreciate the care that you both took in helping us translate this really complicated concept. And it’s not all in there, of course, there’s no way to visually represent everything! But it resonates with any part of that food system. And I think that’s a real skill, and I appreciate that.

Tino: Thank you! I’m curious why you chose us? Was the experience the same as what you were expecting? 


Illustration of a blue bird

Sarah: Yes, so FINE heard about Giant Shoulders through a network recommendation and ultimately we chose you because we had such great values alignment. Tino, you have some connections in the food system world; you are physically located where we’re having our [2023 Northeast Farm to Institution Summit] conference. And one of the values of this conference is to focus energy, attention, and support for the community. And the fact that you laid the steps so clearly in advance made it seem like we were in good hands! 

Tino: So I know this may be too early, but how has this work impacted your organization?

Sarah: Yeah, I think I’d have a better answer for you in a little while, but again, I was very impressed with the process itself, and I think the more we dig into it on our side. What we’re doing at FINE, we’re network building, we’re trying to construct something from an idea or a concept and pull it into systems change. And that’s not dissimilar where you’re creating a visual where you have a concept, an idea, and then it’s a combination of creativity and implementation to make it work in the real world and push on those systems that need changing. I think there’s some overlap in our two processes. 

Tino: Well we really enjoyed working together, and I hope there will be other opportunities!

Sarah: Thank you both so much for your time today, and for your care in this project. We are looking forward to sharing these visuals with our network - and using them at our Summit and well beyond! 

About the Northeast Farm to Institution Summit - April 2023

The biennial Northeast Farm to Institution Summit hosted by Farm to Institution New England (FINE) strengthens the regional food system by celebrating and supporting the role of institutions as anchors in the region. By bringing together a diverse group of stakeholders in a collaborative process, the summit generates ideas and connections that advance the ability of the Northeast to support viable farm, food, and sea businesses and healthy, just communities. Registration opens February 2023.

About Giant Shoulders

Giant Shoulders is a brand strategy and design agency located in Providence, Rhode Island who works with mission-driven companies to create a better future.