What is it about Minneapolis and design? The same town that gave us Duffy, Charles S. Anderson, and a slew of other top-notch design shops is also home to WINK, a modest two-man firm that is making its own mark on the Minneapolis design scene as well as the national one. Formed in 2000 by partners Scott Thares and Richard Boynton, WINK lives up to its name by producing clever work that often has a light, playful sensibility but is rooted in rock-solid conceptual thinking. Its client roster has grown to include American Eagle Outfitters, AIGA, Blu Dot, Daub & Bauble, Marshall Field’s (now Macy’s), MTV, Target, Nike, and Turner Classic Movies.

But even with all that work coming in from name brand clients, the operation continues to be just Thares and Boynton, relying on outside help as needed on projects. The two have an interesting working approach in that each tends to look at a project from his own perspective, which can lead them to present differing ideas to a client—and depending upon which version is accepted, that person becomes the lead designer on that project.

“Scott and I tend to bring our own individual points of view to the work and that way, we’re never presenting anything we’re not passionate about,” Boynton says. “You sometimes have design firms that talk about their process as if it is designed to ensure that no matter who in the firm is working on a project, it will come out a certain way. But Scott and I don’t try to separate ourselves from the process—there is a personal statement to everything we do. I think that design resonates the most with people when you can tell that there’s a real human being and a real sense of personal experience behind it.” But at the same time, Thares adds, the firm also believes that “concept is king.”

WINK began drawing attention its very first year, when the firm landed an assignment from Target to produce a sporting goods catalog. Thares and Boynton produced an eye-catching 26-page magalog (which had a print run of over a million) and the partners oversaw every detail—“we shot it, art directed it, laid it out,” says Thares. The catalog fused tech and fashion, and threw in a good measure of cheeky wit. Target loved it, and more projects from the chain started coming to WINK, including a rebrand of the “Start Something” educational mentoring program done with Tiger Woods. Success with one big retailer begat opportunities with others—including Marshall Field’s, which came to WINK for a complete rebranding of the company. Field subsequently invited Thares and Boynton to try their hand at “experience design,” as WINK was charged with helping to create distinct candy stores within the larger department stores.

The partners haven’t shied away from expanding into new opportunities, whether it’s retail design, corporate identity, annual reports, product packaging, and even product design and development. For its Daub & Bauble client, a maker of soap, WINK managed to elevate the packaging to that point that it is the product. According to Thares, the idea was to design bottles and labels “that almost become limited edition packaging, changing every time you buy it. So that the soap becomes an interior design accessory and not just something you clean your hands with.” The firm’s efforts on behalf of Daub & Bauble earned a Gold Pencil at last year’s One Show Design in the “package design campaign” category. One show judge Brian Collins commented at the time that the Daub & Bauble products “look like they were done by someone who wanted to make my kitchen or bathroom look delightful, instead of being designed just for “shelf pop.”

With another client, Rebel Green, WINK is beginning to move into actual product design, creating reusable tote bags, fruit and veggie wash, T-shirts and other eco-friendly products. At the same time, says Thares, “Advertising is something we’d like to get more involved in.” Boynton notes that advertising and design tend to have a “dysfunctional relationship—like in one of those movies where the two people argue all the time and then come together to make love passionately in every other scene. There’s mutual respect in certain areas, but the personalities in the two industries don’t want to take a back seat to the other.” Still, he adds, “all the art directors I know wish they had a designer that came in at the end and dressed up their ads, and there are a lot of design firms that wish they had the money and the clout to reel in the big clients on their own. I think where everybody’s coming together now is the Internet—it’s a medium that almost forces the disciplines to all work together.”

Boynton and Thares feel their firm is reaching an important evolutionary stage now, and it is prompting them to broaden their working approach somewhat. “We started out being these two guys who thought strategically, but were designers—and from that, we built a client base that was largely agencies or in-house design departments at big companies like Target,” says Boynton. “For those types of projects, we were often starting out with a brief that already had a lot of the strategy and research built in, so we weren’t being asked to do that. But that’s changing now, as we start to get asked for those kinds of services, for different sized clients that need it. So now we need to have that club in our bag—now the unscientific part of what we do will have to become more rooted in real research.”

At the same time, as corporations slim down their in-house design departments, WINK may not be able to rely on the manpower those departments have previously offered—meaning that Thares and Boynton’s workload on some of these projects may increase. And that means this two-man operation may have to “start adding people here and there,” Boynton says. The partners have enjoyed doing it all themselves, but, says Boynton, “whether or not it stays that way is probably going to be out of our hands.”

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