The Play’s the Thing

Today was the deadline to submit to AIGA’s much-talked-about Justified competition. We had been planning not to enter until I read a comment on Paula Scher’s original article from a designer named Marc Levitt. Levitt’s studio worked with AIGA to develop the branding (including the controversial name) for the competition. His comments concluded with the basic plea, don’t knock it until you’ve tried it. 

Ok. We’ll try it.

Below is our submission, verbatim, to Justified. It took 3 hours and 43 minutes of my time ($750) to write the 1,757 words required by the entry form. Granted, I punted on a few of them. It took an additional 1/2 hour of our intern’s time ($32.50) to gather the required images, format them to the entry form’s specifications and submit the project. The entry fee was $55, bringing our total investment for one submission to $837.50. We’re small studio, so that amount is significant to us. After completing the first entry I decided we could not justify the time to submit the 4 additional projects we were considering entering.

For several questions, AIGA asks for metrics, data, research, focus group feedback, audits, etc. Unfortunately we have none of that. It remains to be seen whether that will preclude our project (and others) from consideration.

Certain questions, like divulging out budget (a required field) we abstained from answering. I appreciate that it provides some context for evaluation, but that is a private matter between us and our client, and not something I want to indiscriminately share with my colleagues at large.

The process of completing the competition forms was revealing. For one, we just don’t collect the kind of data that AIGA was requesting. I wonder if most firms do. For most of our projects we don’t engage in focus testing, but rely on our professional experience, intuition, artistry and skill to make creative decisions. I see this as a big part of the value that we bring to our professional engagements.

Another major realization is that we don’t often collect a lot of sharable documentation of our process. Several questions asked for images related to the initial problem (‘before’ pictures?), the strategy (flow charts? timelines? decision trees?), the research (field studies? visual surveys?), etc. Some of this we do have, but not in a format that we are comfortable sharing outside of the studio for reasons of privilege, competitive advantage and aesthetics.

So those were some of the challenges.

I will say that it was gratifying to have the opportunity to provide the context around many of our decisions (lack of data points not withstanding). Most competitions only ask for a few brief sentences and even these are rarely read. I’ve judged a number of competitions (including AIGA’s 365) and I’m curious to know how the judges will negotiate the volumes of text this new format will generate. If ours is a typical entry (the forms actually allow for up to twice what I wrote), and the competition receives, say, 2,000 entries, that’s the equivalent of reading Hamlet (Shakespeare’s longest play) 110 times. It makes for a challenging weekend…

With that in mind, here is our one submission to Justified. I leave it to you do determine whether we adequately made our case:


1. Personal information
Submitted by: Christopher Simmons, MINE™


2. Project details

Title: Bun Mee

Client: Bun Mee, llc

Discipline: Brand and Identity Systems Design

Industry: Restaurant & Food Service

Duration: 6 Months

Team: Design Firm: MINE™, Creative Director / Designer : Christopher Simmons, Designer: Nathan Sharp, Designer: Justin Holbrook, Interior Architecture: Abueg Morris Architects, Hand Lettered Signage: New Bohemia, Interior Signage Production: DPI

Budget: Confidential


3. Project description

Include in your project description: Client’s project brief, Overview of market.

Décor Concept: “hip Asian diner/gourmet sandwich shop”

We are a gourmet Vietnamese –inspired sandwich shop that seeks to move this popular street food item out of the alley ways of Chinatown onto Main St. Although banh mi is the only sandwich to come out of Asia, it is still relatively unknown by mainstream Americans. We see our role as educators and innovators of this food item. We want to make our food accessible, fun, and most of all delicious. Everything we serve is fresh and prepared in house using recipes that belong to my Vietnamese mother in collaboration with distinguished SF chefs from the Culinary Edge. We pay careful attention to sourcing high quality ingredients locally whenever possible. We want to serve good food with heart. We hope to build a brand that is synonymous with gourmet banh mi sandwiches.

Similar concepts to Bun Mee: Numpang Sandwich Shop (NYC), Baoguette (NYC), Nom Nom Truck (LA), Spice Kit (SF), Baguette Box (WA), Xie Xie (NYC), Out the Door at the Ferry Building (SF), Lee’s Sandwiches (SF).

Branding: Our brand should express hip, urban energy that is charming/witty with an artisanal feel.

Target customer: Young urbanites, college grads, professionals 20-40s that are ethnically diverse, well traveled, and educated. Many would label themselves foodies.

Menu: The star of our menu consists of 9 specialty banh mi sandwiches. Some of our sandwiches are a higher quality version of current traditional banh mi offerings while most others are creative new options that are unique to our brand while staying consistent with SE Asian flavors. We will also serve meal salads, rice bowls, desserts, and appetizers that include sweet potato fries, grilled corn, imperial rolls, and salad rolls. For beverages we are serving house made sodas, imported Asian beers, wine, Vietnamese coffee, and teas. Banh mi sandwiches are a street food item in Vietnam. It is a staple of Vietnamese cuisine but considered simple food for workers and is always served at outdoor street food vendors. We want to capture a bit of this experience for our customers.

Overall customer impression: The customer should feel as though they are in a bustling urban Asian diner/sandwich shop. Key elements include an open kitchen and a shelf display of baguettes, tea, coffee, spices, etc. I prefer clean lines for the counter, tables, chairs, and stools but want an element of thoughtful whimsy that adds character and charm in the smaller details – either in the lighting fixtures, hanging paper lanterns, art work, bench pillows, table setting, condiment setting/table, food displays, etc. The space should emote a feeling of casualness, comfort & warmth; a homegrown neighborhood spot that provides credibility and context to the food.


4. Project challenges
This was our client’s first restaurant and she had no previous food service experience. Her product, a Vietnamese sandwich known as banh mi, is not widely known and those who are familiar with it know it as a very low-cost street food. The client’s goal to open an upscale sandwich shop in one of San Francisco’s most expensive retail neighborhoods presented a unique branding challenge: How does break into the the food scene in a hyper food-savvy city by effectively mergingVietnamese street culture with the chic sophistication of an upscale retail experience (on a budget)?



The Bun Mee logo features custom lettering inspired by Parisian brasseries — a reference to the French colonial influence which made the banh mi possible. The scooter represents an intersection of Vietnamese street culture (scooters are the primary form of transportation in cities like Hanoi and Saigon) with the hip urban lifestyle of San Francisco (where scooters represent a lifestyle choice).

The scooter serves as an emblematic element of the identity, and often exists alone (on t-shirts, packaging, the exterior blade sign, etc.)


Exterior photo of the restaurant, showing its street presence. The exterior lettering was 100% hand painted giving the identity an artisanal feel and promising the same for the food experience.


The interior decor was created by salvaging and repainting old frames from flea markets. The images are a combination of custom created graphics, photos that the client (and one of her business neighbors) took, pages from old magazines, and vintage scooter manuals, maps and other paraphernalia.


To fill out the space at minimal cost we created vibrant packaging for the restaurant’s signature scooter t-shirt. We used motor oil cans for the package and included some playful copywriting on the label. The packaging was so popular that customers created their own waiting list for t-shirts when the client ran out of cans — even though the shirts were still in stock and available!


A detail of a distressed sign we had created by Nutmegger Workshop. The idea was to distress an element of the logo as a way of suggesting that the identity was inspired by some vintage source.

To cover an unsightly utility box, we created this dramatic digital print on FSC-certified plywood. The sign is visible through the front window and serves to educate customers about the basics of banh mi, while also connecting the quaint facade with a more contemporary interior design sensibility.


Viewing our entry online makes it almost impossible to appreciate the nuances of craft that are essential to the experience; these are details of some of the textures found within the space.

The afore mentioned t-shirt


T-shirt packaging

A detail of some of the packaging copy, including suggestions for its creative reuse.


Ideas and implementation for satisfying the brief within the context of the challenges and market demands (600 words max)

Beauty and craftsmanship were our strategy.


6. Effectiveness
Include metrics and client quotes when possible.

Why does your client consider the project a success? 

In a recent feature interview for a San Francisco newspaper about the role that design plays in restaurant branding, our client offered this concluding thought: “Small business owners are always concerned with cost and are always looking for ways to save. The one piece of advice I would give them is not to skimp on design, but to invest in it. It’s made a huge difference to our success.”

Why do you consider it successful? 

We consider the project successful for many reasons. Not only is our client still in business (according to a joint study by Cornell University and Michigan State, 50% of restaurants fail within their first year), but her restaurant is thriving. We are currently preparing to work with her on a second location and expand her catering business. We think design has played a major role in this success, as has the client’s business and marketing savvy, her management style, the quality of her product and service, the quality of her staff, her pricing strategy, personality, etc.

Unfortunately, none of these factors are measurable, nor can they be parsed out to determine the relative impact of each with regard to sales. 

The restaurant has received a lot of media attention — newspaper articles, television interviews, blog posts from local, national and international sources, etc. This is almost unheard for a first time restauranteur with no previous following. We believe that the quality of design and the clarity with which we have helped our client express her brand have been influential in these results.

Basically, though, we just think it’s really good-looking, well-crafted design and we think people respond to that.

The client’s business is booming, often making per hour what she had projected to make per day. I don’t think we can say definitively what portion of that our design work is responsible for, but we believe it to be a significant factor. We think the visual expression of the brand has helped attract customers to the restaurant and that the overall quality of the experience has allowed our client to command price points that are significantly higher than some of her perceived competitors.

After one year of business the restaurant has more than 700 Facebook fans and a 3.5 star rating on Yelp based on 393 reviews. Neither I nor the business owner have any idea if 700 fans is meaningful, how that compares to similar businesses, or what the value of each fan is to the business, but it does seem to indicate that people have a positive relationship with the brand. Bun Mee’s positive rating on Yelp is probably more of an indication of the quality of their product and service, though many reviews specifically mention the design as a positively influencing factor.

Most of the interior design elements are made from reclaimed materials — frames from flea markets, ‘artwork’ created from old magazines, salvaged metal for the counter fascia, etc. The menu board is treated with chalkboard paint so updating requires no material replacement. All paper products (menus, business cards, packaging, etc.) are on recycled stock and/or FSC-certified sources.

One of the primary design considerations was that the business meet the sophisticated design expectations of the trendy/upscale neighborhood. There is a deliberate artisanal quality to this design solution — all of the exterior signage is hand painted, and there are custom hand finishes throughout the interior. We conceived, wrote and designed additional display signage that communicates with honesty and wit, further creating an environment that signals care, intelligence and customer engagement.

7. Research
Research and factors other than design that contributed to the success of your project. Provide sources and audit or market data.

We did no market research. We have no data.


8. Additional information
Additional project information, links to videos (600 words or less)

For a comprehensive look at our approach to this project, as well as our design process (complete with diagrams!) and  thoughts from our client on its overall effectiveness, you can watch this half hour video from the Brand New Conference:

I realize that this kind of in-depth review is probably not realistic, so I will summarize it thusly:

We asked a lot of questions of our client up front, explored a lot of options, gained her trust and together we made a series of choices based on intuition learned from years of professional experience. Everyone loves the way it looks. The business is doing well.


That is the extent of our submission. Our justification of the design work is based on little more than anecdotal evidence. You’ll notice that we used words like, think, believe and intuition. I happen to think that the work is beautiful and well done, and that it has been very effective for our client. Our client happens to agree. Can we prove it? No. Can we measure the role that hand lettering, good typography, color, texture, scale and form played in propelling this little sandwich shop to such success? We cannot. Can we know whether this is good design or not? I think we can. I think we know good design when we see it. I think we know it when we feel it.

But the question remains: can it be justified?