Shelley Batuyong on design, diversity, and Thinkso’s next chapter
Experienced design leader and creative strategist, Shelley Batuyong, has stepped into the role of creative director at Thinkso, after the agency’s co-founder and executive creative director left in March 2023.
I sat down to ask Shelley about her vision for the agency’s next chapter, her approach to design, and the significance of Thinkso becoming a women-led agency.
How would you describe your design philosophy?
I see design as a service industry where nothing I create is truly mine; I don’t own any of it. Instead, I leverage my taste and expertise to serve others. Design can be a powerful tool for helping people, because it’s so much a part of our everyday lives. In that way, I believe that good design really can make the world a better place.
What experiences shaped your philosophy?
A big thing that shaped my design philosophy was studying industrial design in college. Many people think that user-centered design originated with the internet, but it’s much older than that and really came out of industrial design, and that’s my foundation.
I highly recommend reading Henry Dreyfus’s book, Designing for People. It really lays out the importance of designing from a user-centered perspective and had a huge influence on me as a designer.
Graffiti art also had a huge influence on me. Even though the aesthetics don’t influence my design choices today, the artists had a profound impact on my approach to typography. They are some of the most highly skilled typographers in the world. From studying their art and practicing myself, I learned how to shape and mold typography and push and pull at the limits of design until it felt just right.
That’s a skill I use constantly to this day. At Thinkso, when we’re designing something — whether it’s a logo, motion graphic, website, or something else — we ask ourselves, how artistic can this project get? How much can we yank at and stress test this design before it loses its utility? By reaching that breaking point and then stepping back from it, we’re able to create genuinely creative and unique designs without compromising usability.
You spent your early career working in the fashion industry. How did that influence your work as a designer at Thinkso today?
One of the biggest lessons I learned in fashion was the importance of concrete metrics, particularly sales data. My team’s success was directly tied to sales, and that taught me to take feedback objectively, be adaptable and flexible, and remove any sense of ego from the design process. This mindset is invaluable in my role at Thinkso, where we approach design with a focus on results and client feedback, always striving for improvements and refinement based on measurable outcomes.
Fashion also required me to create unique, seasonal design sub-brands (called “capsules” in fashion) that also fit within a larger “umbrella” brand. At Thinkso, when clients come to us for event- or campaign-specific branding — like KCG’s annual UnConvention and Instinet’s REDD Positive initiative — I draw on my experience exploring the interplay between sub-brands and brands for fashion brands, even though I’m designing websites, invitations, and campaign collateral instead of graphics for clothing.
My experience in fashion also taught me to maintain consistency and brand integrity while tailoring solutions to suit different mediums and audiences. In the fashion context, this meant translating branding to items like t-shirts, bags, and packaging. Here, it translates to adapting branding to a diverse range of digital and print assets.
You’re now the creative director of an agency that has particular expertise in sophisticated B2B professional services sectors, such as finance, law, and technology consulting. But before joining Thinkso, you spent the bulk of your career in the fashion industry. How do you square that circle?
Let me start with this: There’s a lot of sameness in professional services design. Thinkso has always embraced doing work that is at once “appropriate” and really different for the sector. You can see that in our work across the board in finance (KCG, Instinet), law (Haynes Boone, Cadwalader, Choate), and technology (Mindtree, ISG). And I think our unique ability to do this stand-out work is why clients hire us.
Second, the graphics we create for these clients are rooted in problem-solving and help audiences understand complex and abstract ideas through infographics, data visualization, hierarchy, and other tools. To do this well, we need to understand the client’s industry, goals, and content on a deeper level, while maintaining sophisticated and cutting edge aesthetics.
My nonlinear background has given me an edge in both of these areas. I never designed for professional services before joining Thinkso ten years ago. Coming here from industrial design (problem solving) and then fashion (retail aesthetics), I have a really broad toolkit that I apply to everything we do here — including the professional services stuff. It helps me color outside the lines, so to speak. And because we have writers and strategists on staff who know the business of professional services firms really well, our integrated team can both push boundaries and still create work that’s super effective for our clients.
And, to be honest, this work is extremely challenging in the best way. I have to use both sides of my brain. And the work is better for it. And I’m better for it, as a more thoughtful and informed design leader.
What excites you about your role as creative director?
What really excites me is the prospect of igniting a fire in our thought process and the opportunity to shape the way our creative team behaves and thinks. Complacency is the last thing we want; it’s boring. I want to create an environment where we challenge each other and where sharing opinions is not just encouraged but celebrated.
This approach goes beyond the end product — we already hold ourselves to an extremely high standard and we’re going to continue to produce excellent work. Rather, it’s about being excited by the entire creative process. Whether it’s designers, our editorial team, project managers, or anyone else on the team, collaboration is key. Thinkso’s roots lie in a holistic, multi-perspective approach, and I want to reinvigorate those roots.
It’s also exciting to be a woman stepping into this role. Now that Elizabeth is the sole owner and I’m second-in-command, Thinkso is a woman-owned, women-led firm, which is really rare in the creative services industry.
In my 25 years in design, I’ve never been part of a women-led organization — until now. It’s literally taken me a quarter of a century to find myself at a completely women-led company, and I’m thrilled to be one of those leaders.
Why do you think it’s important that Thinkso is now a women-led firm?
It’s not about women behaving differently; it’s about breaking down barriers in an industry where leadership has often been male-dominated. We’re increasingly working with female clients in leadership positions, and while we look forward to the day when such diversity is the norm, for now, it’s something to celebrate.
The impact of being woman-owned and woman-led on our design and client interactions is more about breaking stereotypes and embracing diversity. We have to be cautious not to perpetuate stereotypes about women being more sensitive or taking a softer approach, as this can be a dangerous cycle. Our focus is on fostering creativity and collaboration, regardless of gender.
Are there any aspects of Thinkso that you want to evolve or strengthen?
Absolutely. Thinkso has always excelled at pushing boundaries to help our clients stand out, including those in typically conservative industries such as legal and financial services. But now, I think more members of conservative industries are waking up and realizing the power of design, so we’ll be getting the chance to do even more of that work.
And, at the same time, we’ll be able to push the limits of our own creativity and innovation. For example, we’re currently having a lot of conversations about the importance of dynamic logos and how motion behavior can help define a brand.
I’m also passionate about increasing equity and diversity at the firm. Historically, there’s been a lack of people of color in the design and creative services industries overall, and that’s translated to a lack of diversity at Thinkso. But as creative director, I’m excited to contribute to Thinkso’s efforts to change that.
We’re committed to expanding our search for talent beyond traditional educational backgrounds. Our standards won’t lower; instead, we aim to break away from the formulaic approach to hiring that relies heavily on specific schools or degrees. We recognize that attending certain schools can be a privilege, and we’re eager to embrace talent from different backgrounds and experiences.
What is your vision for Thinkso going forward?
I think we’ll continue delivering excellent work to our clients in the industries our practice has been focusing on. But I also see us working with clients in different industries, specifically sectors that are a bit less conservative, where we can really explore all the things we’ve been talking about — motion graphics, UX design, and so on. For example, the recipient of this year’s Give a Brand!, Catapult Opera, is an arts organization, so we’re really able to push those creative limits.
To sum it up, I see us producing the same high-quality work with the same exceptional service. But we’re also going to try new things, expand our capabilities, and foster even deeper collaboration.
Interested in working with Shelley and the rest of the Thinkso team to meet your organization’s needs? Reply to this email or drop us a line at email@example.com