by Melay Lapeña
Taking inspiration from around the world, designer Pum Lefebure is the creative mind behind numerous successful campaigns. Among these are visually stunning short films for The Washington Ballet’s Sleepy Hollow, clever and playful designs for swimwear by Karla Colletto, and surreal and whimsical animations for One Show 2012.
Lefebure, who is Design Army’s co-founder and chief creative officer, started the company in 2003 with her husband Jake. From working out of their home, the company has evolved into a full-service agency that has done everything from naming new companies and products to designing high-end swimwear collections. Design Army also produces video work and does environmental design, such as helping The Ritz-Carlton align their 87 properties around the world in terms of the sensory experience they provide to guests.
Pum explains that everything is still rooted in graphic design, but the company takes it beyond that. “We do beyond beautiful graphic design; we’re creative consultants that help clients resolve their business problems,” says Lefebure, who explains that there is a lot more to addressing a problem than fixing it. “In the old days, a designer was like a plastic surgeon who just fixed a problem. Now, clients almost view us like a really good internal specialist, who has a deep knowledge and can analyze your problem and come up with a remedy. That’s where we’re headed - more of the diagnostic work first, understanding the problem, and then coming up with a creative solution,” she says.
Declining to define where she’s taking Design Army next, saying “the world will take us where it needs us to go.” This belief may well be based on experience, as Lefebure has lived half her life in Asia and half in the U.S. According to the Bangkok native, this gives her the advantage of “really, truly understanding both sides.” “I grew up in Thailand, where color is crazy and vivid. And then in America, it’s so mass market - McDonald’s, Times Square - everything is loud and in your face,” shares Lefebure, whose unique perspective has given the company a distinctive voice and vibe. “By not relying on a perfect translation across languages, I learned how to speak visually, explaining concepts and directions without words,” she says.
Getting out there and being exposed to different cultures is food for the creative spirit, according to Lefebure, who says that while traveling isn’t that productive, it brings inspiration. “That’s when my mind is the most free - even traveling for work, there’s something about being outside that makes you feel more creative, like you can dream and not be confined,” she says. For her, travel is almost like research, and in the same way that primary sources are the most authentic, vicarious experiences simply aren’t the same. “You become a better designer when you actually see a place or an object. Travel gives me greatest inspiration because it’s real - what you see on Instagram is not real. You have to go,” says Lefebure, who believes everyone should take a vacation. “You have to be able to get out, so that you can come back refreshed,” she says.
Design Army Posters
While her work has taken her around the world, Krabi is still her go-to place. “I love the ocean, southern Thailand, and Thai food. It’s my happy place. I want to be there and have a ‘do nothing’ day,” she shares. Apart from home, Paris and Tokyo are also her favorites. “If I could move there and set up a studio, I would,” she says of Paris. “Every street, every cobblestone, every design decision is amazingly rich in heritage and culture. Parisian design is really amazing; you get Baroque design, painting, architecture, as well as the really new, experimental stuff. I also love Tokyo — the combination of the old and historic with the new and super weird is so appealing to me. That mix is incredible, and everything is all about quality.”
She would like to visit Argentina and Brazil, but the place that stands out on her to-visit list is Iceland. “I’m a city girl, but a beautiful landscape calms me and makes me feel small, which is necessary. There’s a spiritual quality to the experience of feeling small.”
The idea of smallness and simplicity is something that resonates with Lefebure, whether it’s about everyday good design or bigger things, like innovation. She cites sticky notes as one of her favorite things, because it’s both functional and beautiful. “It’s simple, square, I can get organized, I can make art out of it. It was something that probably started out very small and simple, but the concept really has legs,” she says. She also appreciates good design that is more aesthetic. “Good design has the power to transform things around it. Think about two coffee shops: one with terrible interior design and one with a really beautiful interior. The coffee is going to taste better at the second one, you’ll stay longer, you’ll spend more money on the coffee. Good design has that kind of power,” she says.
On the other hand, innovation as Lefebure sees it is less about technology or beauty than it is about solving a problem. As an example, the Nutifood’s plastic bottle life vests by Y&R Vietnam. “It really struck me as a creative way to solve a problem, and that’s the core of innovation. It can be a way of solving a problem with available resources, and it starts with thinking about ‘what is the problem’ and ‘how can we solve it’,” she explains.
Another great example of pragmatic design, according to Lefebure, is a collaboration between Crown, a moving company, and the Salvation Army in Hong Kong. They designed a moving box that allows the sender to display either “Keep” or “Gift” on the top panels, depending on how the box is closed. Movers then know which boxes are to be brought to the new house, and which are intended for the Salvation Army. “That, to me, is innovation — not how pretty the box is, but how it can make a lot of peoples’ lives easier,” she says.
Lefebure’s belief in learning from experience can also be seen in the way she brings up her daughter, who grew up in the art studio. Having an early exposure to her parents’ work has given her an edge in the sense that she can do things other kids can’t do. “I think she’s efficient almost automatically. She’s been on photoshoots since she was two years old; she’s never gone to a shoot and not helped or contributed in some way,” says Lefebure, who is unlike some parents who choose to keep their work and home life separate. It seems to have turned out well, as Lefebure describes her daughter as a creative problem-solver. Apart from learning the processes, she also learns the value of hard work. “She understands, through growing up in our business, what it’s like to be a self-made person - nothing is ever handed out. She sees the process of our big projects from start to finish, so she knows how much work goes into creating art. As a mom, I see everything as an opportunity to teach, and kids are like sponges, absorbing everything they see. I think it’s been a good way to prepare her for the future and help her get ahead,” she says.
Although it has worked well in Lefebure’s case, people are often warned against going into business with friends or relatives. The way to do it, she says, begins with finding the right partner. “It has to be someone you trust, who is truly committed and shares the same vision. They have to be willing to work as hard as you do,” she says. The second tip she gave is to fail fast. “Expect right away that you will fail. Edison probably tried a thousand light bulbs before he got it right. Just try to fail as quickly as you can — jump back in and try over and over until you get it right,” she says, before giving her final piece of advice: make sure you’re really passionate about whatever business you’re starting. Pum relates passion to creation.“If you’re not passionate, you’ll never become a great creative — you’ll just have a job. Owning a business requires a lot of passion; you have to love your company and what you create more than anyone else, and deliver that passion to your clients and your employees."
Design Army's flight of fancy on poster
NOTE: This article was first published in the September-October 2015 issue of adobo magazine.