Henrique Penha is tough to get in touch with, and for good reason. As the Director of Experience Design at Skype, he’s responsible for making sure Skype looks and sounds like, well…Skype. Experience design means he’s involved with the way audiences experience the Skype brand, from interface design, colors and imagery to internal communications, t-shirts and even the Skype office. Prior to Skype, Henrique was a Senior Designer at Modernista! and freelanced for a number of big time agencies like Mullen, OgilvyOne and McCann-Erickson.
I couldn’t wait to ask Henrique some questions about one of today’s coolest brands.
Who makes up the Skype branding/creative department?
Our Experience Design team looks after the entire spectrum of the Skype experience. We look after everything from researching and designing our products on a variety of platforms (Skype for Windows, Mac, Linux, iPhone and more) to everything that encompasses the Skype brand (from our website to our TV advertisements). It’s about looking after our products, which ultimately constitutes the essence of our brand. The team is an eclectic mix of researchers, designers (interactive and visual), art directors and copywriters.
Who is responsible for Skype brand management?
The responsibility for Skype’s brand identity lives within the Creative Team (part of the Experience Design team). There’s also shared responsibility from a brand strategy standpoint with Skype’s Marketing team and our creative agency as well.
What are the brand values on which Skype was founded and how do you reflect them in your verbal and visual communication?
Skype has always been about enabling the world’s conversations. Our basic value proposition was around ‘calling people for free’, and that’s where it all started. In the early days it wasn’t possible to use Skype to make low-cost calls to landlines and mobile, make free video calls, send instant messages or SMS, or even share files. Over time these enhancements have added incredible value, and as millions of individuals and businesses use these features everyday, they have become core to the Skype experience, allowing people around the world find new ways to connect with each another.
Our goal has always been to break the mold, remove the barriers to communication and to disrupt what the traditional industry was doing. Our product is our brand. Both are helped by the fact that Skype is a viral product. We reflect that in our communication by having a human tone of voice that tries to make technology, and the benefits of that technology, easy to understand. We’re approachable and straightforward and fundamentally try to design our products and brand to avoid the fine print and technological jargon.
How has the Skype brand evolved over time?
A brand is never static, and Skype is no exception. As our company grows and our user base moves beyond early adopters, we’re on a journey from the functional to the emotional. The fundamentals haven’t changed. The tone is still the same, but over time we have sophisticated the building blocks that constitute our vocabulary. We started with simple colours and illustrations. Then we introduced photography, clouds and rainbows, and new ways to coordinate our products. It’s a geometric chaos, but with some order to it.
What have been the biggest challenges with regard to branding?
Our challenge has always been one of scale. Even with over 480 million registered users, we’re still a young and fast growing company. We’ve tried to be smart about setting a foundation in place that helps guide us and our partners. This way the viral component of Skype plays itself effectively, but still stays true to what our values are.
How do you manage affiliates or partners and maintain your unique identity?
We have different levels of engagement depending on the partner. Sometimes, we collaborate very closely with a number
of our strategic partners. In other cases, we provide a toolset for them to operate with. Our brand and partner guidelines are at the heart of it all. It’s a great framework for people to understand our values and deploy them consistently across all initiatives.
What would you recommend as key tools, processes or policies that have helped you build the Skype brand?
It’s ultimately about creating a great product. If you do that, everything else follows. We focus a tremendous amount of energy on the overall experience of Skype, from call and video quality, to the fact that there’s nothing to configure (i.e. firewalls), to the UI – be it on Windows, Mac or mobile phones. We still have plenty of work to do to improve the experience, but we are on the right track. As I’ve said before, our product is our brand, and our brand is our product.
We also treat all of our design and creative partners as members of Skype’s design team. Design is a very collaborative but fragile process, and we’re very keen on protecting that, even with our agencies.
What does internal branding mean at Skype?
Skype takes the role of design seriously, as we are one of the only teams in the organisation that touch the entire business. You can see a bunch of our work out there, but we’re also involved in everything internally. From communications to designing presentations, making t-shirts for the teams, and even looking at the best way to design our offices. We try to always be involved in the conversation, preferably from the beginning. Design isn’t about aesthetics, it’s about how things work. Our business has a distinct culture, and being design-led, we are always thinking of problems we should be solving for people in relation to their communication needs.
What does a typical day look like?
For me, it’s always making sure the design team, as well as our partner creative and design agencies have the right space to operate. If I can create a space where design and creativity can take place, then the rest takes care of itself. It’s ultimately about the balance between creativity and business, and a typical day reflects that. From reviewing design work with the different teams and agencies to understanding the business needs and initiatives and helping prioritize and articulate the best course of action for any given initiative. We’re obsessed with process, it’s at the heart of good design. A lot of times great stuff happens when you’re sharing a slice of pizza with some team members and talking about a problem. We make sure our space caters well to those “lucky encounters” too.
What tips would you share with others trying to build brands?
Be generous as a brand. Everybody wins.
How is Skype approaching social media?
Skype has always lived in the social web – our earliest adopters spread the word about Skype in their blogs and in forums, and that continues to this day. Skype’s own blogs have tens of thousands of subscribers, and we stay in touch with hundreds of thousands of our fans on Facebook and Twitter too.
The objective is simple – to reach our users wherever they are on the web.But it’s not just about telling the world – we get involved in conversations around the web (whether in blog comments, on Twitter, in forums or elsewhere) to answer our users’ questions, solve their problems and gather opinions about our products. Those conversations are fed straight back into our product development process, helping us to make Skype even better.
Skype’s brand is super fun and playful. Check it out for yourself.
Skype’s Brand Book has two parts–’How We Look’ + ‘How We Think’–and is a piece of art in itself. A must-have for any good identity collection.
Beth LaPierre is a Brand + Creative Strategist. When Beth is not helping build brands she’s on her snowboard, spray painting something, or drinking copious amounts of espresso. Follow Beth on Twitter.