How one company deals with the age-old problem of defining a style

Editor’s note: Finding your voice or style is something that we all struggle with and is an increasingly difficult thing to do in a commerce-fueled service industry.

We’re all told in our portfolios to only show the work that we want to make. Inevitably, tastes changes and you can easily find yourself pigeonholed doing that same thing over and over again. To stay engaged and have a connection with the work that you are doing can be a constant struggle.

I was immediately intrigued when State Design release Understated. I had a chat with creative director Marcel Ziul of State, and in this Guest Post I wanted to give him the opportunity to expand upon the ethos behind State and how they deal with the age-old struggle of finding and defining your style.

Uncommon Angle

Regardless of how talented a new studio is, we all feel we have to prove ourselves to the world.

I remember when we first started, I decided to see every project as an opportunity. Every project large or small was our chance to build our portfolio.

Of course, staying profitable is a must for any studio, but for myself, it is a fundamental need to see more than just cash. In my case, I thought that every project had to lead us to something else. You did a project? Great. Now, who can you show it to in order to have the opportunity to make an even better one?

After putting that simple thinking process in place at STATE, here we are four years later.

Some people may think that having a successful studio is about having a hundred employees or a 10,000 square foot office.

For me? NO. I always knew, once you go big, it’s like creating a Godzilla. You may spend every waking moment feeding the beast, but he will still eventually fall. And the bigger they are, the harder they fall.

Looking back, I can say that while it hasn’t always been easy, we stuck to the plan. We stayed laser-focused, and so far have avoided going too big and losing our soul.

Finding The Heart

As Creative Director, it’s my task to get everyone excited about every single project so we can make the most of it. It’s a huge challenge to do this consistently, knowing that you are only as good as your last project is a heavy weight to bear.

My top priority was for my studio to develop a heart, a deep soul. I desired that everyone — our team, our clients, and our freelancers — somehow feel connected to it.

But, how do we get people excited every time? Is that possible or even sustainable? Most creatives tend to get bored if they do the same thing over and over so exploration is part of our DNA. Usually, I’m obsessed with making something that I’ve never done before. It’s an odd mix of fear and excitement while exploring the unknown. It’s a rush!

Awareness Mode

But then, there was this one, beautiful Wednesday afternoon. I was working on a concept for a pretty cool project that had just come in.

I saw myself getting trapped in a visual trend. I felt bored. I stepped back and started questioning myself. Why was I stuck? I noticed that I was trying to automate my creative process. My references were the same as the last project. WTF? Here I was getting lost in a vicious creative cycle I set out to avoid.

A few years ago it was so easy to count all the famous studios in town on one hand. I’m sure the others were trying to get their name out there, but only a few were succeeding. It was a daily struggle to make a name for yourself.

Flash forward to 2018. With the boom of social networking, everyone began advertising and posting online. Studios were able to get exposure with little to no money. The unfortunate side effect was that the easier it became to promote, the noisier things became.

To study this, I took a screenshot of the home page of five badass studios. I noticed that they all looked the same.

Then it clicked.

The Ambush x Escape

I realized I was getting caught in the same creative trap. The problem was simple: people tend to copy each other, and the result is — you guessed it — a “trend”.

Look around and think of how many taco trucks you know. How many “best” coffees are there in town? Businesses copy the success formulas of other businesses in hope to achieve similar success. It’s human nature.

That really struck a chord with me because I knew that was not STATE or my intention. I had to shift my mindset away from my comfort zone. It was time to get comfortable with being uncomfortable again. That’s when things started to get back on track.

A few months later, we were due for a website relaunch. It had been almost two years since our last major website update.

We prepared everything: projects, reels, copy, etc. We spent hours and hours choosing the best thumbnail for every project. (Who doesn’t?!?) As I see it, clients notice how well you take care of your brand because that reveals how you well you will take care of theirs.

The week before the launch, my partner Tais Marcelo had given me a book called “The Missing Piece” by Shel Silverstein. The story is about a Pac-man looking circle that rolls around the Earth looking for his missing piece to feel fulfilled. The circle stops along the way to smell the flowers, get into trouble, and sing songs. Spoiler Alert: The circle eventually finds his missing piece only to discover life isn’t suddenly perfect. The piece and the circle part ways and the circle continues on his journey. It’s a simple story about how happiness often comes from the search for happiness itself.

That message was 100% what I needed. I was about to release a website showcasing two years worth of work! It was critical that I communicate the core value of the studio: Our never-ending search to find our next style.


I knew I couldn’t release our website by just saying, “Hey, check our new website!” like everyone else does. No one would care.

Instead, I wanted to communicate our soul, how we think, and how we are striving to continually evolve. We needed to create a spot to communicate our ethos.

So we did! And we launched it.

Our definition of success has evolved. It was less about a number in our bank account and more about the constant process of discovery. And the ability to choose the projects we were passionate about. It isn’t always easy but it’s how we stay engaged in the work we are doing.

There’s something special when you deliver a visual message that screams your inner soul, your voice, and your attitude.

“Understated” was born for that purpose, to show the world who we are and to get people thinking about how everyone’s journey of finding — or not finding — your style is uniquely theirs.


Creative Director: Marcel Ziul
Executive Producer: Alex dos Santos
General Manager: Tais Marcelo
Producer: Krissy Estrada
Art Direction: Marcel Ziul,
Designers: Arpine Alexanian, Janice Chang, Marcel Ziul, Nataly Menjivar, Luis “Lucho” Suarez, Mau Borba, Ricardo Perosa
2D Animators: Luis “Lucho” Suarez, Ricardo Perosa, Marcel Ziul, Alicja Jasina
3D Animators: Mau Borba, Marcel Ziul, Tyler Heacox, Rodrigo Rodrigues
Cel Animators: Lyuben Dimitrov, Danni Fisher-Shin, Connie Chan, Song Kim
Sound Design: Combustion Studio
Copywriters: Jameson McLeod & Brittany Poole
Voice Over: Beau Stephenson

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About the author

Joe Donaldson

Joe Donaldson is a director, designer, and animator who worked on Motionograpgher from 2014-2020. Previously, he was an art director at Buck. Over the past decade, he's lived and worked in Chicago, New York City, and Los Angeles and has directed work for clients such as Apple, Google, Instagram, The New York Times, Unicef, Etsy, and The New Yorker. In addition to his creative work, in 2018 he started Holdframe. He's now working as a professor at Ringling College of Art and Design and when not teaching he can be found spending time with his family or out running.