Editor’s Note: This project won Best of Show for the 2018 HOW Promotion & Marketing Design Awards. See all of the winners here, and don’t forget to enter the 2019 Promotion & Marketing Design Competition — accepting submissions now!
Design Army had the covetable chance to refresh and rebrand Neenah Paper’s CLASSIC Collection, resulting in a contemporary twist on a classic favorite.
It had been seven years since the iconic Neenah CLASSIC brand and product had been refreshed. So working hand in hand Neenah Paper, Design Army set out to give the collection a modern spin. “It was time to revise, edit and create something fresh, imaginative and exciting that would continue to speak to Neenah Paper’s current audience and to new a generation of designers,” says Pum Lefebure, Design Army’s chief creative officer.
Designed by and for designers, the new CLASSIC Collection has been consolidated to three swatch books featuring eight new colors and two new textures. Since the re-launch, Neenah has seen a steady increase of orders and countless media impressions from both the design and fashion industries. The revamp also earned Design Army the Best of Show in this year’s HOW Promotion and Design Awards.
But there’s an inherent challenge to making paper relevant and exciting in a digital world. Things move faster, evolve quicker. The goal was to simplify the design process for the designer, which meant streamlining the design of the swatch books while creating a user-friendly experience. “Swatch books are a key element, the first step in a designer’s journey when looking to buy paper. It’s sensory—where sight and touch meet,” Lefebure says.
The 18-month project began with research and development for new papers. This included an exploratory period—looking at color and texture—before moving into concept and design. The first question the designers asked themselves is how they could make classic current again. “We wanted people to go beyond the surface and start to rethink the meaning of classic,” Lefebure says. “Classic doesn’t mean old; it’s foundational. Like learning the principles of design. It is a way of thinking, and it is the only way to create work that is timeless.”
The greatest challenge the project presented was a technical one: product development. “It’s really art and science to create the right formulas to reproduce a color. Essentially, a color recipe that produces a result that is not just ‘close,’ but exact—it had to be perfect,” Lefebure says.
It was a long process that involved some predictive analysis to determine what was relevant yet classic. What colors would last for years? What colors represent classic? And they not only had to create the colors, but also name them.
One lesson learned: The more saturated a color, the more difficult it is to find the right formula. “Imperial Red, one of our favorite colors, was also one of the most challenging to bring to life,” Lefebure says. “The smallest addition of blue would turn the vibrant red a deep purple. It was a process of trial and error, less and more, requiring not only a great deal of patience, but determination. Because color is a key part of the audience journey, even when the lab techs wanted to give up, we kept pushing a little bit more, until the perfect recipe was found and the exact color produced.
“For an uncoated sheet of paper, the Neenah team was willing to push and try to produce what was in my head,” she continues. “The Imperial Red was the reddest red I have ever seen. It was inspired by my trip to Beijing and took multiple rounds to produce the color. I am amazed at how hard the Neenah team works and how dedicated they are.”
Dallas Duncan Franklin, creative director for Neenah, is equally impressed with Design Army’s dedication. “Design Army is passionate about paper, experts at forward-looking trends and creative thinkers. Working with them helps to raise the bar for our own work,” he says. “We love that the partners are hands-on: Pum ran to the art store to buy tubes of paint to mix the exact hues that were envisioned, she personally supervised multiple photo shoots, and she collaborated in-person with our color lab and papermakers to make sure the final recipes were just perfect.”
Once the colors were finalized, the team turned to the swatch books. Each one features a beautiful, well-organized alley of color, like a waterfall, making it easy to see the range of color and to touch and feel textures and weights. From a functional standpoint, Design Army wanted designers to see how different designs can look on color paper, how they can use color paper for their projects. And they wanted to spark imaginations. So they included printing samples show potential uses for the papers.
For the art direction, they was inspired by classic art movements, but the interpretation was very modern. For example, the Classic Crest cover is a nod to Magritte, but they reimagined the work in very new way. With Classic Linen, they were inspired by the Bauhaus movement, incorporating classic geometric shapes reinterpreted with a surreal edge. The Classic Textures book was inspired by Rodin’s work—specifically his hand and foot studies. They painted arms in Neenah Classic colors and used textures found on the papers.
Design Army also wanted to communicate the strength and potential of Neenah CLASSIC Paper by illustrating different production techniques. “Neenah CLASSIC Collection is premium paper. As the foundation of a project, it makes the work enduring, more beautiful and more special,” Lefebure says. “Hence, we showed a full range of printing techniques to highlight the quality of the papers: 4-color offset printing, die-cutting, embossing, foil stamping, debossing, letterpressing and duotone.”
Since the launch, Lefebure has seen work from other agencies and designers using new papers from Neenah Classic that were inspired by their work. “It is really exciting to see how other creatives use the paper and colors we created,” she says.
The opportunity to work with a paper company is an enviable one for many designers, and Design Army has had the good fortune to collaborate with Neenah Paper for more than a decade on numerous projects including the original CLASSIC rebrand, Neenah Environment and the forthcoming Neenah Design Collection. “I think every designer’s dream is to work on creating paper,” Lefebure says. “We were fortunate that we were given so much freedom. However, as in any project, there are still some guardrails. We still had to hit timelines and due dates, budgets had to be adhered to, and there are revenue goals and business objectives that need to be met. So, you can dream and do big, but within a frame. I had this vision of a beautiful, bold fuchsia in my head, but I knew that I would be the only person who would use the paper. As amazing as it would have looked, it was not practical and it was off brand—too trendy for Neenah Classic.”
Lefebure says she has learned over the years that those types of restrictions can actually push you to be more creative. “While we wanted to create something for the design community, we are also responsible to Neenah Paper,” Lefebure says. “We want to help them achieve their goals. I am actually still just amazed that we had so much room to move on this project.”
She’s also a believer that Design Army’s work is only as good as the client allows it to be. “I think the most important thing is the relationship we have with Neenah Paper, our client, and the trust they have put in us,” she says. “We don’t take them for granted, and we try to outdo ourselves every time. In turn, they allow us more freedom to push boundaries and innovate.”
Neenah was equally pleased with the collaboration: “The results for the full range of work—the new textures, a completely refreshed color palette, new sampling materials and exciting promotions—truly exceeded our expectations,” Neenah’s Franklin says. “But the real payoff is what our customers are saying and buying: The results are even better than we had projected. Design Army is an incredible partner!”
THINK CLASSIC by Design Army, Washington, DC; www.designarmy.com: Pum Lefebure (chief creative officer), Jake Lefebure (CEO/co-founder), Sucha Becky (art director); Neenah Paper (client)