Branding agency Templo on how design 'born out of frustration' brings social change

Our Future – a positive global awareness campaign by Templo for Amnesty International

“We’re not going to save a life, we’re not going to end world poverty, but we wanted to make a difference in any way we can. And that’s how the ethos for Templo came about.”

Managing director Anoushka Rodda and creative director Pali Palavathanan lead the five-strong branding and digital agency Templo, based in London’s creative agency capital; Shoreditch.

But unlike a lot of creative agencies in Shoreditch, Pali, Anoushka and their team work alongside journalists, human rights lawyers, investigators, charities and organisations such as the United Nations (UN) and Amnesty International to bring about significant social change.

Anoushka and Pali had been working in the industry for years, Anoushka as a managing director and Pali for agencies such as Johnson Banks for over ten years. Both separately connected to what they felt was their personal purpose – creativity for change – and this became Templo’s mantra.

Unsatisfied with industry practices that felt contradictory, as we’re sure many other designers have felt in the past, Pali and Anoushka were willing to step out and take a risk.

“In past places it’s been quite contradictory, really,” says Pali. “We’ll do some impactful stuff, but then some dodgy stuff – it doesn’t make sense to do charity, then alcohol, for example, or cigarettes. You can’t pretend to be ethical.”

Brainstorming at the Templo studio in London

Anoushka and Pali wanted to create an agency that knows it has a clear difference. Templo’s difference is quite specific: truth telling.

“We’ve got to keep it pure, as pure as possible. We don’t want to lose our principles or integrity,” says Anoushka. “You have to just stick to the truth.”

But although taking a moral high ground is a promising goal, Templo has chosen to couple this with design in a challenging realm that doesn’t value designers. 

Stop Torture

Templo's Stop Torture campaign against human rights violations in Sri Lanka

Templo has navigated through discussions and campaigns most designers would never dream of, with their work for the UN and issues such as conflict in the Gaza Strip, torture in Sri Lanka and the effects of drought.

“We’re trying to muscle in on conversations that shouldn’t necessarily be part of the design process and that’s quite fun for us, quite disruptive. [We’re] saying, ‘If you’re not going to sort it out, we’ll take it on board and see what we can do,’” says Pali. Templo says despite being an iconic brand, the UN was struggling to maintain a relevant public image, so it looked into ways to stretch the brand and provide a system to work with.

In fact, before Templo even had a chance to create a credible online presence for its own brand or the UN, the agency’s first project captured global attention beyond its control in 2014.

Stop Torture was a brand system and campaign that sought to expose horrific human rights violations in Sri Lanka. The campaign provided a platform for advocacy and lobbying to be carried out in Geneva and New York, and as a result UN countries voted for an international independent inquiry.

“I had an overnight bus experience going through from east to north Sri Lanka. I went through a military camp who tried to take my passport and you sort of feel something, you feel a problem,” says Pali, who was born in Sri Lanka.

He wanted to create a design process that was coherent and would shed light on the human rights violations in a way that Western society could clearly comprehend.

“Branding is actually quite powerful because you can package stuff up and communicate immediately. Normally it’s to drive services and products, but you can use it as a powerful weapon, and that’s what I’m finding more and more when I say ‘branding’ – lots of connecting dots, not just a poster here and a poster there,” he says.

Templo created logos that fused Sinhala, Tamil and English to create the word ‘Stop’, bridging the two languages of Sri Lanka whilst connecting to people on a global scale. The campaign served to highlight a commissioned report written by human rights lawyers and endorsed by Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu. Templo designed accompanying infographics and the report was presented to the UN in New York.

Stop Torture written in three languages – Sinhala, Tamil and English

The report was accompanied by online and social media activity, including an interactive storytelling of the White Flag Incident, a day when 143 Tamils disappeared without a trace. As the user reads the content on the website, the flags slowly disappear never to be found again, emotionally connecting the user to the events of the day.

A celebrity event, chaired by BBC journalist and presenter Jenni Murray, helped raise further global awareness for the Stop Torture campaign. Cara Delevingne, M.I.A., Bianca Jagger and Maryam d’Abo read survivor testimonies from the report.

You may have already heard of the Stop Torture campaign, but not Templo. That’s because they waited to put their name to the project for legal reasons.

“It’s been difficult because Stop Torture was unlike any other project before, in terms of process and content. We co-created it really with journalists and lawyers,” says Pali.

“We decided to do something, and then we brought in lots of players that contributed their own expertise and we co-built that thing together, and it was really quite difficult at the beginning to bring other people on board from the creative industries – that was really quite frustrating.”

The dark side of life

After this project, Anoushka and Pali had to learn how to run a small business for the first time.

“When you’re running a company it’s like balancing the amazing work with your processes. You have to be really on it,” says Anoushka.

“I knew that, and I did that, but I didn’t know that as I do now – we’ve learnt about running a business and the work we want to do. We’ve turned down clients.”

In fact, Templo has turned down many clients that didn’t fit ethically, even though it would mean missing out on significant revenue.

And it’s not only revenue that might cause the team to lie awake at night, it’s the emotional scars that come from unpacking the horrific side of humanity.

“Psychologically it’s hard. We’ve just done a project to do with torture, and you see images of people’s bodies and what torture actually looks like,” says Anoushka, who describes it as “the dark side of life”.

Everyone who worked on the Stop Torture project had to complete a vicarious trauma workshop.

But what about the design? How does an agency go about designing visualisations of such harrowing subjects?

“Our whole thing is about conveying what needs to be conveyed as clearly as possible. And I would say, stepping back and looking at our portfolio, there is a kind of energy and freshness and vibrancy to our work despite the hard-hitting subjects,” says Anoushka.

At the Templo studio (Anoushka Rodda, right)

Templo’s team are not afraid to explore human rights issues through a vibrant colour palette and beautiful aesthetics. In fact, Pali says the challenge lies in creating something beautiful that also carries a purpose.

“That’s the challenge. And actually it’s quite rewarding because it feels like uncharted territory. There’s people coming up to us [such as Amnesty International] saying, ‘This is beautiful, how do we do this?’”

Uncharted territory

Templo created the brand and website for the UN's International Truth and Justice Project

Templo has been shaped by the UN and the projects it’s involved with, but it isn’t necessarily a symmetrical relationship. Pali says design is undervalued in the intergovernmental organisation, if it’s even recognised and acknowledged as a powerful tool for change.

He spent months in the UN headquarters in New York, observing and learning the procurement system and how it works.

“It’s quite powerful to be in there,” he says, “to not be the person that’s important in there, to be a sort of mould. And being able to see how information is transferred through the mechanism is actually quite cool.”

He was fascinated by the fact that design isn’t a section of the UN budget. Templo has had to come in “as a flight to Sudan, for example – that’s the only way around it”.

“The word design doesn’t exist within the political mechanism, which is fascinating,” he adds. “And that’s when you know it’s uncharted territory. That’s a strong indication for me that design hasn’t been required.”

But Pali wants to show members of the UN how design can show the public what project it’s working on, such as aiding Syrian refugees or the drought in Somalia. “Bizarrely,” he says, “this tiny studio in London got chosen to handle the [design for the] 2014 Gaza inquiry.”

The work is not groundbreaking but the process is

Templo's brand storytelling for the UN

Templo designed data visualisations that told the story of an international investigation brought by the UN into the Gaza Strip. The information was used to provide explanations to people within the UN, in the media and online; it had to be accessible for everyone. Basically, Templo had to connect the dots for everyone, under the UN brand.  

It’s been described as the ‘war on families’, because terrorists lived with their families in one block. So if the opposition destroyed one block, that “was guaranteed one family”, says Pali.

“[The Gaza Strip] is the world’s touchiest subject. We didn’t want to piss off the Jews, we didn’t want to piss off the Arabs. If you choose a side, you’re open to all sorts, so we had to work out a way to walk in the middle of that,” he says.

“The work is not groundbreaking but the process is. As designers we couldn’t share any digital content, we couldn’t send any emails because emails were being hacked by the government. There’s a lot of corruption and people stepping on toes. The process was fascinating from our perspective.

“I had to sit down for three hours with the world’s leading artillery expert and work out what a blast radius would look like. I took Wembley stadium and did a simple comparison.

“It was quite a scary thing and we didn’t want to put our name to it. A lot of our projects, we can’t put our name to it immediately.”

It’s not all doom and gloom

Pali Palavathanan

Pali says he is a man of movement, fluidity. He walks on average 20,000 steps a day, and loves spending time in the mountains. He says he can plot on a map where every single idea has come to him.

“I come up with literally zero ideas at the desk. We use this space as a conversation, to stick everything together really, but everything happens in motion for me,” he says.

“One day I was running [Templo] from my kitchen desk, the next day I was at the UN for two months and I had a whole room to myself.”

Templo in a nutshell

We take a quick snapshot at Templo’s recent design projects, including its work with universities, the Union Club and its own personal project on diversity that rolled out at Somerset House on the day Brexit was decided by the UK public.

Creative Journeys

Templo designed the brand for the Creative Journeys project by the Sorrell Foundation

This was an initiative set up by the Sorrell Foundation to encourage students to choose art, design, and design & technology subjects at GCSE level.

“When we were coming up with ideas for this, Creative Journeys has the same amount of letters in each word,” says Pali.

“We wondered whether there was something silly but serious to do with that. The J of journey to create the C of creative. It’s for students but for parents as well, playful but serious at the same time.”

Union Club

The Union is a club in London's Soho district

Union Club, an exclusive club in London’s Soho district, was in desperate need of a rebrand and fresh website to raise its profile and attract younger potential members.

Templo created a secret brand for the members club that unpacks and is decoded once you enter the space.

Going off the idea that the club’s owner collects things from all over the world and puts them on the walls of The Union, Templo identified all the beautiful things he collected and brought them together in an over-layered effect, reflecting the “mishmash” general aesthetic of the club space.

Brit-ish Project

Templo worked with The Saturday Club Trust to create an exhibition of flags at Somerset House

This diversity-based project was born out of an encounter Pali had when crossing from Colombia to Ecuador.

“It’s not safe to go into Latin America through a border crossing on your own, so I spotted a tall ginger guy and said, ‘Let’s go through together, it’s safer,’” says Pali.

“So he went through, showed his passport, went through fine. I went through just after him, was stopped. [The guard said], ‘You’re not British, you can’t be British’, and laughed at me.”

It began as a personal project, wanting to create a system where modern British citizens could create a flag that represented their cultural heritage.

“When my parents came in 1963 they didn’t bring Sri Lanka and the kitchen sink with them, they fitted in and they took us to church and Boy Scouts without losing a sense of identity, and that’s when I think it works the best,” says Pali. “I think you have to be respectful in certain ways. We have to queue here.”

Pali create a template online where different flags could be created. The project was taken to different schools throughout England and the end results were showcased at Somerset House, on the day Brexit was decided by the British public.

“It’s quite controversial sometimes because the Afghan flag and Brit Union Jack have collided, but that’s reality for someone so let’s talk about that. Sometimes someone had three flags. It’s just a different way of talking about where we’re all from.

“The day after Brexit, when everyone was depressed, it came back with a vengeance. We need this even more in light of Brexit. Let’s remind each other where we’re from.”

Plymouth College of Art

Templo's Octopus skin branding for PCA last year

Last year Templo created a campaign for Plymouth College of Art (PCA) based around octopus skin, using it as a visual metaphor for creative energy. It was used on posters and banners across the university campus.

This year, Templo focused on the principal’s philosophy about creativity acting as a continuum that you can dip in and out of at any time. After “bashing our heads for months”, Templo came up with 10 viable options before choosing this final design – a never-ending loop, wrapped around the diverse nature of students that attend the college. This is expected to be rolled out in September.

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