Spotlight: Chase Design Group

Chase Design Group is a creative agency with offices in California and New York. With over 28 years in the design industry, the agency is dedicated to achieving client success through innovative strategy and breakthrough design. Their team crafts effective and award-winning solutions that are compelling to the end consumer and produce tangible results. 

We met with Margo Chase, Executive Creative Director and Paula Hansanugrum, Creative Director in their California office to ask them some questions on the agency's beginnings, and how their work has impacted the consumer brand sector.


What inspired you to start your own design firm?

Margo Chase: "It was an accident for me really. I was a biology major and I took some design classes as an elective to keep my GPA up. I fell in love with design. I tried to combine biology and design in graduate school by studying Medical Illustration. But it wasn’t as creative or exciting as graphic design. Most medical illustrators spend a lot of time in hospital basements…definitely not as glamorous as design! 

After I realized I wanted to be graphic designer, I started interviewing for jobs with a portfolio full of surgical procedures and drawings of the human foot. None of the design firms in San Francisco would touch me. The remains of my student loan were disappearing fast so I moved to LA and couch surfed with friends until I got a freelance job at a small ad agency in Long beach. The agency handled packaging for Ralphs grocery stores. I ended up designing plain wrap, not the glamorous work I had dreamed of! 

Friends from college came to my rescue and connected me with a publishing company where I was hired to do some book design work. In that same networking circle, I met a woman who worked as an art director at Warner Brothers music. She hired me to design logos for bands and music packaging. That was my big break. I spent the next 10 years of my career designing music packaging. It was a blast.

It was never my intention to start my own company. I kept thinking I would find a kick ass job and never did. I wouldn't recommend just stumbling into running a business. I didn't know anything and had to learn by making mistakes, lots of them. I’ve been fortunate to find smart people to help me along the way. I wouldn’t be here without them."

California staff

How important is it for designers to be able to talk about design?

MC: "It’s incredibly important. While there is a place for a talented designer who is not particularly articulate, they run the risk of always being just a designer. In order to move up the food chain, you must be able to talk about your work to clients. In the end we are designers creating work for clients who can't do it themselves. Clients hire us because we are experts at the visual language that is design. We have to be able to translate our visual vocabulary into words that our clients can understand."

How have brands and consumer packaging changed?

MC: "Design has become a mainstream conversation. Both clients and consumers are more visually literate now. Clients come to us and say, "I was on the dieline and saw…”, or they're collecting images on Instagram or Pinterest and making moodboards for themselves. Designers can’t get away with just making things pretty anymore. It has to be more than just pretty - it has to actually work."

PH: "Also, we used to be only focused on packaging, we’re now expected to think through how everything we do on pack translates to every medium – print, broadcast, digital, even promotional events. It’s much more 'big picture' world for designers these days since consumers are more design-savvy than ever."

What's a Dream project?

MC: "I would love to brand an airline."

PH: "A dream project would be branding a boutique hotel. I love the idea of being able to design and curate a complete experience for someone – from the identity and website, to way-finding and environmental signage, to toiletries, in-room materials – everything!"

How do you define passion?

MC: "Passion is the belief that design can change the world. We have incredible power as designers. It takes a ton of work but with the right message, in the right place, we can change people’s minds and make anything happen.

When you’re passionate about something you don’t mind working hard at it. When you work hard at something you get good at it – which makes you even more passionate. It’s a nice feedback loop. During my first decade as a designer I worked out of my house. I’d get up in the morning and start working and suddenly it would be midnight. I definitely put in my 10,000 hours. Today I have a lot of incredibly talented help but I still work hard. It is all absolutely worth it."

What is Chase Design Group’s philosophy?

MC: "Our basic philosophy is, “question everything.” We come back to this mantra a lot. If you don't ask the right questions you will never really understand the problem that your design needs to solve. Questioning things is important all through the process. Ask, 'Is this good enough?' 'Is there a better, simpler way to communicate this?' We try never to stop at 'This is fine.'” 

Paula Hansanugrum: "Margo really practices what she believes. She’ll be the first one to look at her own work and say “Not good enough.” That sets a great example for all of us. It keeps us in the mode of always learning and improving."

What are you looking for when hiring designers?

MC: "A good blend of skills. Paula is a very talented designer - when she interviewed she had a good portfolio and good work experience, but more importantly, she was articulate and could explain the why behind her work. We look for right and left brain balance, good designers who can think strategically and explain the reasons behind their work. Clark Goolsby, Creative Director of our NY office, is the same. He’s an incredible designer who can also write great copy, develop strategy and talk articulately to clients. Some people on my team have a classic graphic design background, but others have illustration, science, fine art or even finance backgrounds. All of this diversity creates a smart well-rounded design team."

You were named one of the most influential design firms from the past 15 years in Trending USA. What are some things that brought you success?

MC: "Some good luck and a lot of hard work. I’ve been lucky to have the help of talented people and make a few good connections. We’ve been lucky to have clients who have wanted to work with us repeatedly over the years. For instance, we have one client who started at Mattel, then moved to Target, then to CVS and finally to Starbucks. She brought us with her to each new place. We have a few relationships like that and they are priceless. A good client relationship is just as important as doing great design work."

How much does luck play into a designer’s career? 

MC: "I think good luck is the thing that happens when you work hard and are willing to take risks and grab opportunities when they present themselves. In some ways it’s much harder to distinguish yourself now because there’s much more competition. It was a lot easier when I started because there were fewer of us. You still need to work at it, but today you can cultivate an online presence, which was impossible when I started. A lot of independent designers are getting smart and taking advantage of social media and inventing new ways to get their work out there." 

NY Staff

How has design changed throughout your career?

MC: "Style and trends always change but changes in technology have been truly dramatic. When I first got started in design there were no desktop computers. I did logos and lettering by hand. We used photo-stats and rubdown transfers for comping. It was a huge amount of work and took forever. 

I got my first Mac in 1991. It was incredibly expensive even though it had a 256Mb hard drive and did almost nothing. Photoshop had been around about a year and was pathetic and slow, with only one undo. It was unbelievably primitive but at the time I thought it was amazing. Adobe Illustrator was another gift. Suddenly I could set my own type and didn't have to use a stat machine. Hand-inking symmetrical letterforms is really difficult (I was into symmetry at the time) so Illustrator was a huge improvement there too.

In the record business, CD's emerged and that was a huge change. And then the internet happened. The internet has completely changed the way people think about brands and design too. The internet has made design and branding household words and put immense pressure on designers to keep up."