Vancouver’s Arithmetic Creative adds up a niche client list, an appreciation for beautiful things and a thoughtful branding process to equal an award-winning formula for success
Arithmetic Creative is a tiny design shop nestled in a loft-style office on Vancouver’s trendy Granville Island. Headed up by Margherita Porra, a 33-year-old creative director who launched the company in 2007, the staff of four has attracted a base of local and international clients in fashion, food and beverage, and health and wellness.
The team has brought home some heavy hardware this past year for two of these clients: a Typography Award of Excellence for Packaging Design from Communication Arts, an Applied Arts Design Award, and now the Design AACE for Amola Salt, as well as a Silver Pentaward for Packaging Design and an Applied Arts Design Award for The Granville Island Pet Treatery.
“We’re a small boutique studio,” Porra says. “It’s nice to stand shoulder to shoulder with some of the big guns.”
Branding for The Bread Affair
When Eric Pateman, president of Sea to Sky Seasonings Inc., hired Arithmetic he ran a small store on Granville Island that sold seasonings. He wanted to expand, but before approaching mainstream grocers in Canada and the U.S., his premium product needed a complete brand overhaul.
“We needed someone who understood food, but also had varying aesthetics,” says Pateman. “In my past experiences, most design firms tend to be one-dimensional, and Margherita was good at thinking
outside the box, plus I liked her style.”
Porra says she felt that the name Sea to Sky Seasonings and its Vancouver-specific product names limited the company’s potential for expansion outside the area. Research into salt trading told her that salt was once worth more than gold. She chose the name Amola, a play on amoleh — the word for pound bars of salt used as currency — and one that she believed would convey salt’s rich history. “I loved the prestige the name carried,” she says. “A lot of us were raised on table salt and depreciate it. This was a mission to increase the perceived value of salt, romanticize it and celebrate some of its rich history.”
Pateman told Porra that his customers — mostly foodies and restaurateurs — must know that his product worked with meat or fish. The tagline became “table top necessities for land and sea."
The package design was trickier. It needed to convey great shelf presence in an already crowded category. Porra decided on simplicity mixed with optimal impact. The black and white pop out in a category that uses a mosaic of colours. Up close there are myriad details, which Porra says helps tell the story of the brand through visual and narrative cues. She also wanted to show the rugged industrial history of shipping and salt importing. “Black-and-white is the most important cue to show the strength and masculinity, but then I really wanted a femininity to the brand. To ensure this balance between masculine and feminine, there are ornate little details on the packaging.”
The trim on the lid is designed to look like lace. “We designed the packaging so people will be inspired to leave it on their counters at home,” she says.
Pateman says the new packaging and design has fast-forwarded Amola Salt’s entry into the U.S. market. “Many of our distributing partners didn’t even care what was in the box, they were so impressed with the aesthetics that they knew it would sell,” he says. “We are on our way to having a record year.”
The Design AACE–winning Amola Salt packaging
Names are important to Porra. Arithmetic, for instance, sums up both her company’s design philosophy and her own background. Porra’s father and brother are engineers, lending her an analytic side that’s as strong as her creative one.
When Porra started casting around for a metaphor to sum up her work process, she was seeking a bridge between ideas and solutions. “There is an underlying structure and formula in the way I work,” she says. “I loved the connection between art and math and that there is actually a mathematical sequence in creating beauty.” She references the golden section and the rule of thirds as traditional examples.
Arithmetic’s creative process starts with conversations with the client and a questionnaire to get to the core of what makes the brand unique. Careful evaluation, psychographic research, competitive analysis and what Porra calls “cultural connectivity assessments” help guide the story of the brand.
“Once we have nailed down the tonality and narrative of the brand, we move onto the design process — brainstorming, sketching, writing, ideation and initial design conceptions,” she says. “In my design work, I try to make an emotional connection and I think a lot of that comes in the storytelling aspect of the work that we do.”
In the case of Amola, the process led to a storied name and a playful logo placed on packaging that was carefully designed to achieve maximum yield on the retail shelf, while at the same time offering multiple merchandising opportunities.
Packaging for The Granville Island Pet Treatery
Another small business that recently received Porra’s attention is Woofles and Meowz, a fixture on Granville Island since 1985, and one that is gradually transitioning into the less kitschy-sounding Granville Island Pet Treatery.
The company is known for its pet toys, accessories and organic pet treats that it makes and sells out of a red caboose. The business recently changed hands, and new owner Stuart Scher plans to take it from a small retail operation into a wholesale pet food manufacturing business. Scher liked the idea of working with another local business and asked Arithmetic to brand and reposition the company.
Porra decided to celebrate the company’s history and highlight its niche — producing organic, gluten-free, dairy-free and vegan options for dogs — and design the packaging so it would appeal to both the grocery and gift categories. The story of the company became part of the packaging.
Arithmetic took the dog cookies out of cellophane bags and put them into smart, gift-ready cardboard boxes with clear windows and a dachshund logo. “We wanted to be able to show the product because it looked so great, and we wanted it to be able to work on a peg wall but also be able to sit on a shelf,” says Porra.
Scher says while they have done little marketing, the company has already seen a sales explosion in orders from pet stores across Western Canada and from sales in his own retail outlet. “We took our cookies out of the old, unbranded packaging and put it in our new packaging in our little store, and almost overnight our treat sales went from six per cent to just under 30 per cent of overall sales,” he says. “Everyone loved the packaging.”
Kokostar branding and packaging
Porra tends to seek out clients that align with her own interests lifestyle because she says common values help her create design solutions that speak directly to the end consumer. “It becomes personal for me and my level of consumer empathy is greatly amplified, and it enables me to have feet on the ground in a very real way,” she says.
While Arithmetic’s award-winning clientele may be mostly hyper-local, its Vancouver location and “made in Canada” brand strategy has made the company attractive to international brands. Some of Porra’s more recent endeavours include the launch of a Canadian water brand in Hong Kong and packaging for a beauty care line out of Korea.
With growth in mind, she’s looking to build her already diverse group of “passionate foodies and obsessive travellers” with thinkers from different backgrounds who share her values.
“It’s exciting territory for us,” she says.
See more of Arithmetic's work in the top slider.
Eve Lazarus is a Vancouver-based communications specialist and bestselling author.
Content from the February/March 2015 issue will be viewable for two to three weeks, and reposted after the issue is off newsstands.