Taylor Cowan • May 03, 2023
A Window to Another World. An Interview with JJ of Citron Design
Until 2022, our brand was the very one we launched with. It centered around black boxes, an all-caps sans serif wordmark and a stylized tea leaf budset. The first website was black and grey and sparse in decor. The landing page featured “Earth, Humanity, Heaven” in all capital text.
It suited us while it did. And I think as a company going against the current as we were in 2014, you sometimes need a weapon. The branding was meant to be a statement, an announcement, a declaration of our intent against everything we loathed about the tea industry. It served us well and, despite some of our relative embarrassment looking back, it’s important to honor your younger selves. We were twenty-somethings with a bone to pick. Our prefrontal cortexes had not fully developed. And yet there is something worth honoring about well-meant conviction.
If you’ve been along for the ride now, you’ve watched the old brand thaw quite a bit over the seven years we had it. We have been aware that our initial identity, while stark, did not reflect the people who comprise our team, nor the producers we work with at origin, or the welcome and warmth that Spirit shares. So, part of this new look is to more accurately reflect the feelings of those involved and honor the identities of the people who make it all possible.
Beyond any artistic or soulful pursuit, the rebrand also came about from the need for a new box. What’s uniquely complicated about tea packaging is this: fifty grams of tea never looks the same twice. It may be tightly compressed and baked pearls in a tiny tin—it also may be bulky, whole leaves that barely fit in a shopping bag. So, cheers to the brave branding agencies who take on the task of a tea company: the systems are complicated!
We worked with Citron, a studio led by Jennifer James Wright out of Austin, Texas. Founded upon the simple notion that design is best used "for good"... whether it’s giving visual voice to cannabis activists through editorial design, creating coffee packaging to have a smaller environmental footprint, or simply using our craft in support of fellow artists, design is undoubtably a powerful tool to make small differences around us."
Needless to say, we were ecstatic with the result. With our rollout complete, I wanted Jennifer to speak to the decisions she made in regard to their design; to gather insights and learn from her about her process. Below is the transcript of my interview with her.
1. The identity is named "A Window'"—how did you arrive at this?
There were actually a number of paths that led us to this notion of a window or an opening. One in particular was Spirit Tea’s past sourcing trips. Reading your travel documentations and flipping through old photos was fascinating. Each tea is rich with stories and through your work, we’re fortunate to not only have access to these uncommon, handcrafted teas but to also have a window into the people, the traditions, the histories, and the climate conditions behind each one. I’d be remiss to say too that the simple experience of drinking tea can often feel like an opening or portal into the present moment, a slowing down of time. An excerpt shared at the project’s start touches on both:
2. Were there specific parts of Spirit's inspirations, stories or previous identity that you felt most inclined to explore?
There was so much to feed our creative explorations, it’s hard to pinpoint. The poetry, the field notes, the drone shots of emerald green farms, the stories of how Spirit Tea even came to exist… we were flooded with ideas. The most challenging part was probably knowing when and where to stop developing these conceptual frameworks and visual explorations. The opportunities felt endless.
What came through in the final branding feels best captured in these original words of yours, “What’s humbling about this trade is that we are witnesses or searchers at best. […] We do everything in our power to source teas that tell their own story—from rains to hands to teapot.”
3. How did you and Alice meet and decide to team up?
Alice and I first met in 2017 as colleagues at a brand design studio in Austin. It was a collaborative environment that gave us ample opportunity to co-create. I eventually left to focus on my own small practice, and Alice joined in years later. She’s also now a part of the Broccoli team where we collaborate on various publishing projects year round.
4. I remember the color palette took a bit of back and forth—ultimately, why did you find this combination conducive to Spirit?
After a bit of research, we found most tea brands in the US rely on a fairly minimalist design aesthetic. While often beautiful, this visual language can feel a bit serious and inaccessible. We saw it as an opportunity to break from the norm.
One way to do so was by embracing an unexpected hue. A vibrant lilac proved to be playful and welcoming, a perfect lead color to help spread tea to the masses.
5. What's your most conducive creative environment?
In truth, absolute solitude. I’m fortunate in that my studio is in my backyard, which for better or worse, suits my hermit ways. When the weather allows, the french doors are propped open with a Chinese scale chime singing just outside. Unless I’m writing, music is on. I must have listened to all of Ballaké Sissoko’s albums on repeat during Spirit’s rebrand.
6. Dala Moa is a really special typeset and a defining piece of the brand identity. Can you speak to why you chose it specifically?
Going back to this notion of windows or openings, a stencil typeface seemed like a must. We loved its inherent cut-out nature and saw opportunities for future die-cut type treatments. If you look closely, you’ll also notice circles are a recurring detail in many of its characters. That lent itself so naturally to the packaging’s circular window. I should mention too, Dala Moa has a rich glyph set that we pulled from to build Spirit Tea’s budset icon along with some other supporting graphics.
7. There must have been some challenges taking on such an unusual project as designing packaging (pouches, boxes, sleeves etc.) for a tea company—what were some of the biggest hurdles or learning experiences for you in this regard?
Tea is interesting in that there’s much volume variance, unlike coffee. 50g of an oolong like Li Shan looks pretty different from 50g of a black tea like Ambrosia. This was, of course, a challenge your team was already familiar with, and one we found equally challenging! That in combination with widely varying product quantities (a Signature versus very limited Tier IV tea) made for a good puzzle. Ultimately, a flexible labeling system and a “universal” inner box design helped us get there.
8. With Citron specifically, what does the place where life, work and passion exist in appropriate balance?
It’s something I ask myself almost daily and that in and of itself is a privilege; working for yourself certainly allows more flexibility and space to make changes.
Personally, the “passion” piece is most challenging because it’s the easiest to shed or prioritize when life flares up. Instead, I probably sub “play” for “passion”.
I need something as random and frivolous as learning the hammered dulcimer to help balance out the grind of work, parenting, and other demands.
9. What's next for Citron?
Most immediately, some exciting publishing projects are coming out later this year. We also have a special hospitality project debuting soon in my hometown of Houston, a hotel in the museum district. Further down the road, it’s hard to say.