Earlier this year, the internet gushed over Burger King’s spicy new look, its first major overhaul in 20 years. Reviewers called it a “sizzling masterclass in flat design” and “design fit for a king.” Illustrator Jessica Hische said her appreciation for the rebrand was “a little unhealthy.” But while a rebrand of this scale was certainly a departure for Burger King, it wasn’t a one-off for the designer behind it.
If you’ve dallied in the grocery store dairy aisle, picked up a newspaper, or made a doctor’s appointment online, you’ve likely interacted with the design work of Lisa Smith, an executive creative director at design agency Jones Knowles Ritchie. But the significance of her career isn’t that her work is everywhere—lots of corporate brand designers and commercial artists experience that kind of market saturation because they design the look of mass consumer goods. Though relatively unknown, Smith’s work is unique because it has consistently changed the visual landscape, disrupted popular aesthetics, and started trends of its own. Burger King is just the latest example.
Smith, 43, has been at Jones Knowles Ritchie for two years. Prior to JKR, she built brands from both sides of the table: in-house and on the agency side. Smith designed in-house for the Victoria & Albert Museum in London and, notably, Chobani. At her previous agency, Wolff Olins, she overhauled brands like USA Today, Zocdoc, Grubhub, and, controversially, the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She says she generally seeks out companies that are at a major inflection point. “I’m not good with small change,” she says. “I’m really good if you’ve got a really big business problem that needs solving.”
When Smith takes on a new branding challenge, she starts by distilling the company’s narrative into a single guiding phrase, and then uses visual design to tell that story. “I love the future and the past, and having this core creative idea. . . . I measure everything against it,” she says. In short: Don’t go to Smith for design tweaks. Her brand work presents a whole new vision, and as her biggest rebrands show, they often disrupt the aesthetic landscape, too.
“Life to art, art to life”
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, an institution with a 100-plus-year-old history, was ready for change in late 2013. The museum had plans to expand its modern collection to another location, the Met Breuer, and had three separate sites (including the Cloisters) to unify. It also wanted to be more accessible, reach younger audiences, and counter a perception problem: Despite its high attendance, the museum “had found itself, however unintentionally, becoming more and more elite,” says Cynthia Round, the Met’s senior vice president of marketing and external relations at the time. And that’s where Smith, then at Wolff Olins, came in.
Along with a strategist and project manager, Smith audited thousands of pieces of the museum’s printed materials and digital assets and then analyzed the branding of other major museums around the world. They spent eight months designing a new strategy summed up in one phrase: Life to art, art to life. Connect the past and future, and make the collections—which consisted of tens of thousands of artifacts spanning 5,000 years—more accessible through digital assets, wayfinding, and unified branding.
As part of the rebrand, the museum dropped its previous logo, an M in the style of the DaVinci alphabet, and introduced a new wordmark designed by Gareth Hague that used the museum’s colloquial name: The Met. Hague, with Smith’s collaboration, combined the letters to signify connection, and chose red because “it transcends cultures” and “represents vitality in art,” according to Round, who said Smith understood that “we needed something that had the gravitas and stature of the Met, and at the same time could meet this objective of being more welcoming and opening and friendly as an institution that belongs to everyone.”
The Met had “never considered themselves as having a brand,” according to Round. That soon changed, as the new identity caused an unexpected uproar. I called it one of the most controversial brands of the decade, and others were much harsher: Some called it “a typographic bus crash.” It’s ironic, because the end result was actually the most conservative of the three identities Smith developed. “I had never experienced that much hate,” Smith recalls. While people were upset about a beloved brand changing, Smith’s perspective of what a storied institution could look like in a contemporary context also propelled it into public discourse. And even with the vitriol, it functions as she designed it to: It’s instantly recognizable, a clear interpretation of the museum’s mission, and it unifies the visitor experience with bold, coordinated banners that help navigate its maze of rooms. You can even find a spoof of the logo on baseball hats in support of the New York Mets.
“Fighting for Happily ever after”
After the Met firestorm, Smith took on a challenge that on its face seems pretty vanilla: yogurt. In January 2017, Leland Maschmeyer, then chief creative officer at Chobani, recruited Smith to join the company in-house. “Lisa was one of the few who had a narrative sensibility and had experience with a large-scale implementation of brands,” Maschmeyer says. And that was exactly what Chobani was looking for. The 12-year-old yogurt brand had outgrown its startup look from 2005 and was due for an overhaul as it expanded beyond Greek yogurt, which it had dominated. Maschmeyer had already landed on a brand positioning—as a food wellness company that offers a “return to simple, natural food.” He wanted the identity to have a sense of romance, nature, and the craftsmanship inspired by Northeastern American folk art.
Here again, Smith focused the direction on a single phrase. Maschmeyer recalls walking past blackboards full of inspirational imagery and seeing a single phrase at the top: “Happily ever after.” “I went over to her and said, ‘That’s it,’” Maschmeyer says. “The language focused the narrative of what Chobani was trying to do.” It captured the wholesomeness of the product and folkloric nature of the food. Smith later reworked the phrase to “Fighting for happily ever after” after she read a story in which Chobani founder Hamdi Ulukaya talked about being a shepherd of delicious, accessible, and nutritious food, and a warrior for ethical food practices. “We talked a lot about compassionate power, and those were words I could turn into design,” Smith says.
Prior to this rebrand, Chobani could have been selling yogurt or software. The logo used thin, angled sans serif font and super crisp product images against a stark white background. The rebrand team introduced the chubby, whimsical Cooper Black-inspired serif typeface, a style that was hugely popular during the ’70s (including the era’s wellness movement). They softened the packaging’s harsh white backgrounds to cream and introduced painterly illustrations inspired by Matisse and the American craft movement. After looking through hundreds of food magazines, they introduced colorfully saturated, minimally retouched food photography with multiple depths of field.
Smith and her team weren’t branding a product, they were building a world. According to Maschmeyer, they overhauled the brand identity, website, café, and packaging, and expanded products like the Flip, a yogurt that has toppings consumers dump on top. One critic called it “literally and absolutely perfect.”
Smith’s work at Chobani launched a humanist, personable, retro design trend we’re still seeing today—and pushed back on the flat and functional minimalism that dominated branding for the first part of the last decade. It’s a big reason why consumer packaged goods—and, frankly, a lot of corporate branding—looks a whole lot friendlier. The typeface style itself, with its expressive, squishy serifs, has been a trend for years now, used by everyone from mega brands like Dunkin’ Donuts to startups like Olipop and Buffy.
“Your way, way better”
In January, Smith and her team launched Burger King’s rebrand, which they’d been working on for 18 months. It took the chain’s more synthetic-looking logo from 1999 off the menu and reintroduced an updated version of an older one, in which the type is placed between two buns. The company plans to do away with its artificial flavorings, and the rebrand was meant to signal that change. Again, Smith distilled the company’s ambitions to a single phrase: “Your way, way better.” To bring this to life, she and her team used custom illustrations and a bulbous, stretchable typeface. She added macro photography so consumers could almost taste the food with their eyes. The rebrand was dripping with personality, even while remaining streamlined and flat so it would be legible online.
Unlike recent rebrands for Petco, Snapple, and Foursquare, which all shifted to an interchangeable cobalt blue and serif typeface, Smith showed that corporate brands can embrace digital-friendly flat design and keep a unique identity. And it seems to have paid off: 56% of consumers surveyed in an Ad Age-Harris poll said that Burger King’s rebrand made the food look more appetizing, while 44% picked McDonald’s.
What makes Smith unique is her particular combination of strategic thinking and loud, personable design sense. No two brands she’s worked on are similar. “The fact that she’s able to disconnect herself from an aesthetic that she applies to everything, that she can be malleable to a bunch of different problems—that’s what makes her a designer with a capital D,” Maschmeyer says. “Design is about intentional change. Understanding it, eliciting it, and executing it. Lisa does that.”
Smith is also versatile in her ability to work across industries and audiences. “Lisa has the remarkable ability to bring the best possible design work to the broadest possible audience,” says Michael Bierut, a partner at Pentagram, who wrote in defense of the Met logo in 2016. “To define the look of one of the world’s greatest museums and one of the world’s biggest hamburger chains takes hard, serious work. Lisa makes it look easy.”
Sometimes, like with the Met, consumers aren’t ready for change. But initial reaction aside, Smith’s bets have paid off. The Met was among the first major museums to modernize, Chobani among the first consumer goods to go maximalist, and Burger King is still riding the wave from its rebrand. Smith’s brands always get a reaction. But they’re also built to last.