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The Keystone Design Union We discuss the agency’s mission to deliver high-end commercial solutions and to bring more creative members into The KDU fold


he Keystone Design Union (The KDU; isn’t an agency for everyone. Established in 2003, by KDU president David Gensler, it thrives upon working with progressive brands run by innovative and passionate managers. This means that The KDU sets extremely high standards and strict criteria for work to meet its internationally recognised standing. Gensler is very honest and frank about this, as he explains: “The final say (for inclusion) ultimately rests on my partners and me. We have to be tough to keep the quality high. We’re not Behance. This is not an open-door portfolio to showcase your work. We aren’t a social network or a bait-and-switch marketplace – our mission is acutely focused on building brands for large international clients. To accomplish this, we’re forced to maintain the highest standards.” Gensler’s principles are reflective of his own initial motives when formulating The KDU initiative. Prior to The KDU, he was CMO at ROC brands, which included Roc-A-Fella Records and Rocawear. At the time hip-hop was the centre of youth culture – this was before blogs and the street culture mania. He wanted to build something fresh, something independent. He already had great authority on the subject, as creator of the firm Human Brand, which he founded at 25 years old. “I have always focused on the convergence of business with design and art,” he reveals. “I always rejected traditional systems, which seemed slow and predictable. I wanted to create The KDU to be the better mousetrap.” The KDU revolves around trust and personal relationships, rather than technology, and this is how it has grown. Gensler explains in more detail what this means: “We now have 1,250 people [across] roughly 100 countries.” Essentially word of mouth is key and The KDU’s good reputation is crucial to its success. Gensler goes on, “We’re lucky that 90 per cent of new business comes from word of mouth. Our existing clients are strong advocates and help us to spread the word. Typically a client comes to us wanting a new product or help promoting an existing product.” The KDU tends to focus on niche markets, including new urban and influencer markets as well as celebrity interaction. The core team behind

the organisation manages all creative direction and strategy development. “When we need to expand the team to develop something specific, we tap into our global network,” Gensler says. “Unlike other models that might seem similar, our network is built one member at a time and is the antithesis of crowdsourcing.”

ULTIMATE AGENDA The KDU agenda is simple: to develop a more efficient and effective way to build brands.

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The Keystone Design Union

KDU ICON TRUST: “Created by 17-year-old German prodigy and core member of The KDU, Magomed Dovjenko. This is a poster of our main company logo” © The Keystone Design Union SIETE TRIANGULO POSTER DESIGN FOR IDN ANNIVERSARY BOOK (TOP LEFT): “This poster

was produced for the IdN’s 15th-anniversary book and was designed by KDU creative director Aerosyn-Lex” © The Keystone Design Union

ECKO EMBLEM (LEFT): “This piece was part of a large collection of designs produced for Ecko Unlimited, designed by Magomed Dovjenko” © The Keystone Design Union

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Interview It felt like I definitely stepped into the rabbit hole of digital art

But how does it set itself apart from competitors? The answer is simple – by accomplishing a real working model, as opposed to just theory. The KDU finds the best emerging and established artists around the world and brings them together to test and deploy them in highly focused teams to tackle a range of projects. The results are solutions developed by only the most professional and progressive talent, regardless of age or location. “If we make a connection between a brand and talent, we don’t take a commission,” Gensler admits, which might come as a surprise to many. “Members do projects called ‘flags’. These flags help build relevance, test skills and generate momentum for both the agency and the talent. Things have to be a win-win or it’ll never work. The young talent need help understanding business, the industry and also exposing themselves in a unique and creditable way to potential clients. We [by way of The KDU] provide the platform.” He continues: “As an agency, we work to deliver 36 true solutions – to walk this walk we need to offer a long list of services. You can’t just park 400 people in a room waiting to serve the client, even if you could afford to. It’s not an ideal environment for creativity. We put together a team of the right people, usually from all over the world, and work begins.” Operating like this, the client clearly gets a much better deal than they would with a traditional agency, which is forced to utilise mostly in-house talent assets to feed its economic model. “We have several key advantages,” Gensler explains. “One is depth of talent at our fingertips. These individuals are not just names on a list – they’re family. We understand them inside and out and, because of this, when we collaborate we move fast and accurately. Many minds and hands working in unison to solve problems is quite different [to] the chaos created by the recent trend of crowdsourcing.” With such a large database of creative talent, organisation of the collective is absolutely paramount. So too is a comprehensive but clean presentation of members’ portfolios. With this in mind, it’s easy to see why The KDU adopts a minimalist and chic approach when it comes to its website design. “We have a lot of work to show,” says Gensler. “The network produces an overwhelming amount of new design each week, both professionally and personally. We just want to showcase this work in a simple format. I wish BROOKLYN MACHINE WORKS (TOP LEFT):

“Developed by Magomed Dovjenko for legendary [brand] Brooklyn Machine Works. We created this as part of a series of icons for BMW’s 15-year anniversary” © The Keystone Design Union

TRUST THE FUTURE (LEFT): “KDU member HelloVon illustrated this piece for Solstice magazine, as well as a series of lectures and talks I did in 2007” © The Keystone Design Union

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The Keystone Design Union the site was even simpler. I think the work itself should be all that is absorbed and nothing else. We build brands – we’re not self-serving hype machines, unless we’re seeking buzz for our clients. This means our company site needs to be as simple as possible. However,” he adds, “it’s a work in progress.” Although The KDU website’s cool black gloss, white and gold tones give a sense of regal authority – as an extension of the community’s utmost professionalism and quality – essentially the site acts as a means to showcase the many new pieces of artwork constantly being produced by KDU members – all with a straightforward click-and-browse operation. “Most agencies have the reverse problem, trying to spread out a few projects to create the perception of depth,” explains Gensler. “We’re constantly trying to figure out where to put everything.”

Expanding the family The KDU brand itself doesn’t seek to determine its portfolio – there are no ‘house’ or ‘signature’ styles, per se. On the topic of style, Gensler says: “I think I’m too close to it to see any one particular style. We just revamped our own personal company identity, out of wanting to try something new. But, overall, not having one [single] style is probably one of our biggest advantages. We focus on what the client needs and never just try to sell them on our own personal aesthetic.” The KDU is littered with design trends, methods, styles and tools, all being used daily throughout the network. Here is a place that encourages and nurtures informed experimentation, as Gensler elaborates: “What is exciting is when an artist remixes various styles and tools in a unique way. We live in a very postmodern world – the modern artist is really someone that has diversity and can remix freely. I’m excited to see the new young generation of designers focusing on a balance of traditional craft and digital. I think my partner Lex Mestrovic ( is a good example of this balance. His design focuses mostly on ink and calligraphy colliding with computer-generated aesthetics. Magomed Dovjenko (www.iammago. com/blog) is another great example, along with Daren Newman ( and Josh Vanover (” It’s quickly apparent that each and every KDU member is integral in pushing forward the agency brand and developing those of clients, but this huge creative family is also responsible for reproducing creative talent over and again, expanding The KDU clan. “I personally rely on existing members to suggest new ones,” explains Gensler. “As the scale increases, it’s impossible for me to personally find each new member. I trust the network family and, more often than not, they suggest amazing talent. If someone writes to me respectfully and presents themselves professionally, I will always invest the time to review their work.”

URB x KID SISTER (ABOVE): “We worked with the first KDU member – Chuck Anderson – on this one. Chuck reworked the image in his classic glow style to heighten the feeling of summer” © The Keystone Design Union Puerta a la Vida (LEFT): “This was produced for a luxury spa resort in Costa Rica as part of a total branding initiative, designed by Aerosyn-Lex” © The Keystone Design Union

Serum Versus Venom VAPORS (LEFT):

“Serum Versus Venom piece that was illustrated by KDU creative member HelloVon. The brand has always been deeply rooted in the ideological basis for creating high and sustainable value in the modern, oversaturated consumer landscape” © The Keystone Design Union

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Not having one single style is probably one of our biggest advantages 22 018-023_AVP_81_Interview.indd 22

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The Keystone Design Union

TRUST (Above): “This image was created in collaboration with Brazilian KDU member, Nelson Balaban. It was made for an issue of our Solstice magazine and focused on our ‘inside trust’ mantra” © The Keystone Design Union Hennessy Limited Flask (left): “This is a project we did for Hennessy, creating both the 3D object, a limited flask cover, as well as the communication campaign” © The Keystone Design Union Reebok, American football (opposite page): “StudioKxx from Poland worked with us to hand

create this piece as part of a series for Reebok, expanding the aesthetics of American football, hockey and basketball” © The Keystone Design Union

All about location But it’s not just the family expanding; it’s also the family home – or The KDU’s base of operation. Working from a compound in Williamsburg, NY, provides the core KDU members’ room to expand and experiment. “We aren’t trapped in a tiny space in the city with a trendy address,” Gensler explains. “We have photo studios, a library and cut-and-sew studios, outdoor space, gardens and ample open space to let our imagination play. We now have about 10,000 square feet inside and out.” Part of the office is like a hunting lodge, warm and comfortable, while other parts are more geared towards technical work and can change function on a daily basis. “I don’t like to sit in the same place for too long – so things change a lot,” he quips.

The main design room is the nerve centre of The KDU’s headquarters – pulling together all the projects and creative directors into one space. All core members working in Brooklyn are creative directors – no juniors are present here – to maintain this level of creative energy, so the space has to be highly adaptable. But why Brooklyn? “It’s where I find daily inspiration,” Gensler says by way of explanation. “There’s an energy here that doesn’t exist in other parts of the city – it’s something that’s balanced with calmness. I need both to function. I think Brooklyn is a bit more timeless than other areas too. It has a real sense of itself. It forces you to fit into it and does not tolerate much bullshit. For me, it keeps me on my toes and keeps things real. I leave the glitz and

hype in the city and come back to Brooklyn to get the real work done.” With such a commanding work ethic, The KDU is an agency that will continue to grow – in both membership and reputation – ensured by its singlemindedness on offering nothing less than excellence. Personal achievement is all the artists need to keep them lean and hungry, rather than fat on false accolade. Gensler explains: “We don’t engage in award shows since the time required to participate detracts from our clients and [our] own personal projects. I had a boss named Steven Grasse at the Gyro [Worldwide] agency in Philadelphia, who instilled this ethic in me – and it stuck. Focus on the work, not the awards.” The KDU strives to continuously better itself through presenting professional and modish creative solutions. “As we continue to grow, it’s exciting that we have obtained a level of success [that enables] us to say no and [means we’re] not required to take on every project,” Gensler confides. “We now understand that wasting our own time with brands and managers not willing or able to focus on true innovation will pull us back into a traditional agency model – something I would rather die than allow to happen.” Somehow, we think he means it.

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Photoshop Magazine - KDU Interview  

Photoshop Magazine - KDU Interview

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