Michael Jager Turns JDK 'Inside Out' | Live Culture

Michael Jager Turns JDK 'Inside Out'


  • Courtesy of Solidarity of Unbridled Labour
When Seven Days wrote about JDK's "redesign" last year, the Burlington design firm — a powerhouse that has helped shape the brands of Seventh Generation, Burton, Nike, Pepsi and more — stood at a crucial turning point. David Kemp — the "K" in JDK — had left the company. The 47 Maple Street headquarters housed just 30 employees, down from a high of 125. JDK faced the same questions beleaguering other large design firms across the country: Was it time to ditch their high overhead in favor of more flexibility?

Michael Jager, JDK's longtime creative director, wouldn't say much at the time about what was next for the company. "The plan is about focus, and intelligent focus," he told Seven Days in November. 

That plan came into focus publicly on September 1, when Jager unveiled JDK's new identity. The new firm — called Solidarity of Unbridled Labour — is tucked in the basement of the converted warehouse JDK long called home. But a peek inside the office this week revealed a shop radically different, in many ways, than the JDK of yore. 

"We effectively turned JDK inside out," said Jager, the firm's creative principal. He was sitting in a spare conference room with Christine Dodson, the company's managing director, who summed it up this way: "What we do hasn't changed. But how we do it has." 

Solidarity of Unbridled Labour, like JDK, specializes in strategically guided brand design for local and global companies. (No clients left because of the redesign, though the firm did opt to pare down some accounts.) Whereas JDK, at its largest, was a behemoth — with those 125 employees in Burlington, and offices in New York and Portland, Ore. — the new firm is small by design, with 17 employees and a network of freelancers and collaborators (some of whom keep offices in the Karma Bird House coworking space upstairs in 47 Maple) on tap. 

And it's not just the size that's changed. Solidarity did away with titles for employees; staff are dubbed either "creative" or "account strategy," but that's where the external hierarchy ends. JDK's former offices, upstairs, were fortress-like and private; visitors had to check in with a receptionist on the ground floor before proceeding upstairs. Once there, most offices were tucked out of view.

At Solidarity, almost everyone sits at the same table: a massive, 31-foot-long workstation that can accommodate 15 to 20 people.

"This was the whole concept — everyone around one table," said Jager. Collaboration here extends beyond design work and into the details of the business. The new firm is about "radical transparency," Jager said. "That table knows everything." 

That proximity "just makes the work better," said Dodson. The spirit of partnership even extends to clients, whom Jager prefers to call "collaborators." He said the "old-school style" of design meant designers retreated to their black box, and returned a few weeks or months later with a fully realized idea. That doesn't work as well in today's creative economy, he said.

A smaller-scale operation comes with this additional benefit: Whereas JDK's overhead meant the cost of working with the firm was sometimes inaccessible to small companies, Solidarity is excited about connecting with local clients. The firm recently worked with the Vermont Symphony Orchestra on its new identity, and is helping some "edgy startups," said Jager, that may not have gotten in the door before.

Finally, what about that mouthful of a name? "It's gotten a good response: a lot of people scratching their heads," said Jager a bit impishly. "You've got to wear it for awhile." 

Jager said the name is "a statement of intent" — and deliberately different from the short, staccato, "sticky" names of many contemporary brands. (Think "Uber" or "Lyft.") "Solidarity" refers to the firm's spirit of collaboration. "Labour" is a nod to the makers' movement, and the quirk of its British spelling is simply because Jager and others liked seeing "our" embedded in the word.

"Unbridled," of course, hints at a spirit for which JDK was long known, and which Jager hopes will carry over to the new company: a "culture of invention," as he put it to Seven Days in November. And there's a little bit of humor embedded in the word, too. Solidarity of Unbridled Labour is, after all, launching in the Year of the Horse. And with that, it's off at a gallop. 

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