Approachable, Human Design: How an Illustrator & Letterer Bring the Gusto Brand to Life

When you’re at the theatre, you don’t often think about the backstage crew. Behind every actress on center stage are dozens of skilled supporters, running in dozens of directions, to bring every stage production to life. HR professionals are often the unsung heroes of organizations that keep teams operating on a daily basis. Gusto, an all-in-one provider of payroll, benefits, and HR solutions, makes these backstage players the stars of the show.


Helping tell the story of their brand are Jenna Carando and Camellia Neri, two Bridge Alumni who are communication designers at Gusto. We sat down to discuss how the combination of illustration and lettering has brought Gusto’s brand to life and to learn what else happens behind the scenes at this company that makes “behind the scenes” their business.

What makes Gusto interesting for a communication designer?

Jenna: Because our team is small, everyone on our team is a generalist but we each leverage really unique, specialized skills in our work every day. It’s just the three of us: an in-house letterer, an illustrator, and an interaction designer who codes.


Camellia: When I received my BFA in Illustration, I assumed that I would be going into the children’s book world, but had a hard time making rent. When I finally got to San Francisco, I had worked mostly as a designer first and illustrator second. It wasn’t until Gusto that I was able to call myself an illustrator again. I still collect and am inspired by children’s books, and I see that come through in my work at Gusto. I work to tell the Gusto brand narrative in the same way that illustrations tell the story of a children’s book. Both are utilizing visual metaphor.

lumi carando 2

Jenna: I came to Gusto as a designer who is also a letterer, but these days I’m more of a letterer who also designs. What stood out to me was how interested Gusto was in adding this approachable element—hand drawn typography—into their brand.

And it makes sense for our brand. Lettering and illustration work in tandem to make Gusto unique and add a level of depth to our design. People don’t usually love their payroll company. Our challenge is standing out in this space and creating a brand that our users will actually love. We aim to humanize payroll, HR, and benefits. Our brand is uplifting and vibrant—we don’t want to be looked at as heavy.

Tell us about the “For HR people who do everything” commercial with Kristen Schaal.

Camellia: A few factors collided in September 2016 to make it happen. Gusto had never done a brand awareness campaign before, and we wanted it to be ready for Dreamforce—which was happening that month. We had also just launched a new product for HR teams, so it was the perfect time to raise awareness.

Jenna: We started with research and learned a ton about our customers. With all this information, we needed to choose an angle. How do we tell this story? Is it emotional? Do we want to emphasize function? Or do we make it edgy? The marketing team ended up dividing into three groups to explore each of the story angles.

Camellia: And even though the brand team knew the timing was right for an awareness campaign, we had to prove it to the company—which meant getting out of our comfort zones a bit. We acted out our commercial scripts for the CEO (I don’t think any of us will win an Oscar anytime soon) and even mocked up billboards and signage before we got budget, because we knew that people needed to see the possibilities first.

We ended up choosing “edgy” as our angle for the campaign. Part of that strategy was hiring a celebrity. We had to ask ourselves: “Does anyone know how to get a celebrity?” and then we just started to hunt down the phone numbers of actors we wanted to work with.

Jenna: We played a lot of “everything roles” in that project.

Why did you go with illustration instead of photography for the billboards and other out-of-home ads?

Camellia: We were developing the ads in time for Dreamforce, so at the time we were thinking about how Gusto could stand out in a sea of 200,000 attendees. Illustration and lettering is a visual language and combination that set us apart from our incumbents.


Camellia: Plus, Payroll, Benefits, and HR products are pretty complicated. It’s difficult to find photography that effectively synthesizes the features of our product within an image. It felt right to go with a highly illustrated and lettered campaign to evoke the emotions our users feel when using our product or interacting with our brand.


Your latest campaign takes you on the road to meet with actual customers. Can you tell us more about it?

Jenna: Gusto’s mission is to serve our customer, which truly permeates through everything we do. Last year, Josh [Reeves, CEO of Gusto] began shadowing teammates, which had him wishing he could also shadow our customers. This idea spawned what became a cross-country road trip to meet small business owners from coast to coast.


Jenna:  We created the Extra Mile Award to celebrate business owners who went above and beyond to take care of their team. We drove in an RV for two weeks— from San Francisco to Jacksonville, Florida— to interview these 11 winners and present them with a $1,500 check to donate to a charity of their choice.


Can you talk about some of the creative that went into it?

Camellia: The brand team worked hard on creating a singular message, which is “The secrets of businesses that go the extra mile.” We looked through our database to find the winners and interview them before the trip. The interviews served as the inspiration for the look and feel of the entire campaign.


Camellia: The photography, lettering, and illustration is inspired by the trip itself. The fun part of illustrating for a company (and the challenge, really) is creating work that can exist in many places. We get to use it over and over in lots of different ways— even on an RV.

So, how did you come to Gusto in the first place?

Jenna: We have pretty different stories. I’m here because of Designer Fund, mostly. I was living in Boston and was dead set on moving to San Francisco. The night before my flight (I was recklessly moving without a job), I received an email from Designer Fund reminding me, “Last chance to apply to Bridge.” So I applied! The very next day, I got an email from Gusto asking if I wanted to come in for an interview. It felt very serendipitous.

Camellia: Mostly because of the wonderful Heather Phillips at Designer Fund. She had hired me as a brand designer at a company called RelateIQ and once she moved on to Designer Fund, we kept in contact. She had encouraged me to apply to Bridge in the past and when Gusto started looking for a designer with an illustration background, everything fell into place. I feel pretty lucky.


What impact has being a Bridge Fellow with Designer Fund had on your work?

Camellia: The number one thing is community. Bridge has an ability to bring talented folks together and now we have them for life. We can meet up and talk about our daily traumas and daily joys. We’ve learned so much, of course, but really it’s the friendships that I think about.

Jenna: I agree that community is important. It may not sound work related, but really, it’s made my work stronger. The feedback sessions we had in Bridge were such a safe space. Now I have this group of 30 people I can turn to at any point—and that doesn’t even include all the alumni. Designer Fund is only two blocks away from Gusto’s office, and I love being able to grab lunch or stop by to visit the team if we need to bounce ideas off of one another. As someone who had just moved to a new city, it was invaluable to be immediately embedded in this community.

Bridge has an ability to bring talented folks together and now we have them for life.

What do you think about Bridge’s new program for product & communication designers?

Camellia: I’m jealous! It’s amazing that there are going to be even more opportunities for designers. Brand and communication design are a massive part of the success of a business. It’s crucial.

Jenna: For anyone who applies, do what you can to make your portfolio really stand out. Keep applying and don’t give up.

Camellia: And once you get in take the time to listen to what’s going on. Be mindful. You never know how relationships will help you. A casual conversation you had the night before can lead to a breakthrough the next day. Another conversation can lead to finding your next mentor.

Any parting advice for businesses out there who are growing their design teams?

Jenna: People don’t spend very long getting to know a company. It’s the communication designers role to make it clear in that short period of time what a company does while evoking what the world could be for the customer if they used your product. If you’re not investing in your brand and in communication design, it can hurt your business.

And for designers who are having a hard time, they should seek a community like Bridge. Bridge can give you the ability to navigate that; it’s why they focus on design-led companies that truly give designers a seat at the table.

This year, Designer Fund is expanding Bridge, our professional development program, to have a specific focus in communication design. Our second program of the year, Product & Communication Design, is for experienced designers who want to connect with a vibrant community and learn best practices on creating leading products and brands.

If you’re interested in design opportunities at Gusto or another one of our partner companies, apply before May 23, 2017.

Gusto is hiring designers & a creative director.