The Well Design Studio team in front of its new Fulton Street office. From left are Samantha Cornwell, digital designer; Tyler Doornbos, partner, creative director; Josh Leffingwell, partner, creative director; Amar Dzomba, partner, lead designer; and Meahgan Goeman, designer. Courtesy Well Design Studio
Well Design Studio, a community- and nonprofit-focused branding and web design firm, is making itself a team player on Grand Rapids’ West Side.
The group has a long history of working with a community mindset. Two of the studio’s partners, Josh Leffingwell and Tyler Doornbos, have been working together since 2011. The two began designing novelty T-shirts to advocate for a bike-friendly Grand Rapids.
From the beginning, Leffingwell and Doornbos had the ethos of using marketing and design to draw attention to positive causes. During these formative years, Doornbos was running a web-design firm and Leffingwell was focused on marketing and social media.
The two joined together formally and formed North Sea Studio in 2013. The firm focused primarily on for-profit clients and was their only feasible money-making venture at the time.
At the same time, the two were running an urban advocacy group called Friendly Corps. The firm partnered with Downtown Grand Rapids Inc., the city of Grand Rapids and other organizations to put on urban advocacy events.
“If they wanted to try out bike corrals, they would allow us to help them install bike corrals somewhere. We would pilot it there and help them create the program,” Leffingwell said.
The two also conceived the Salon Grand Rapids, an urbanist meet-up and speaker series for community members to get together and talk about urban issues.
“It was a really productive place until about 2016 when it became a dumpster fire, and we said, ‘I think we’re good on this,’” Doornbos said.
Late in 2014, Leffingwell left North Sea to be the communications director for the West Michigan Environmental Action Council. While he was there, he realized WMEAC had relied on pro-bono work for the better part of a decade.
“That becomes such a detriment to nonprofits, this free work, because none of it has any strategy,” Leffingwell said. “None of their communications has any strategy behind it. It’s all, like, ‘Hey, I need a poster. Make a poster.’”
When Leffingwell first started at WMEAC, the organization had about 13 different websites and 13 different brands, he said. The reason was somebody decided each new program needed its own brand and website independent of WMEAC.
Leffingwell was able to help build a cohesive brand for the organization and bring it down to one website by the time he left and rejoined with North Sea in 2015.
“When I was leaving, I was thinking, this is something that can be brought to nonprofits across the city,” Leffingwell said. “So, we decided we would give it a shot.”
Well Design Studio was created that same year with the idea that nonprofits have goals and communication capabilities, but they don’t have the capacity to do it all, and they can’t rely on free labor to do it.
“For-profit companies know this. They’ve been doing it for decades,” Leffingwell said. “They have a communications team that knows marketing is what they need to do in order to sell their products. Nonprofits have a different motive than for-profit companies, but they are still selling something. They are still looking for the same results.”
Well Design still has WMEAC as a client, as well as the Grand Rapids Civic Theatre, Kids’ Food Basket, Friends of Grand Rapids Parks, the city of Grand Rapids and the state of Michigan, among others.
In the first two years of business, Well Design has worked with over 100 nonprofits, Leffingwell said. The studio also has been formulating how to develop similar solutions for small businesses.
One of these solutions is Featherlight, a cash-flow-friendly website builder, which Well Design developed.
“Most folks are like, ‘How do we make more money? Let’s build really big websites,’” Leffingwell said. “We actually did the opposite and said, ‘Let’s build websites most people can afford.’”
Similarly, Doornbos, along with some friends, utilized the solutions-oriented mindset to develop the Beer o’ Clock Grand Rapids website to help bar goers find happy hour specials happening in real time at bars throughout the city.
“It was one of those things that came out of experience for solving a real-world problem and not creating solutions for problems that don’t exist,” Doornbos said. “That’s part of what comes from working with nonprofits when you only have budgets to solve things that are real.”
The ever-evolving list of services Well Design provides also includes branding, designing logos, illustrating, lettering, photography and human-centered design.
In early April, Well Design moved from the Ledyard Building at 125 Ottawa Ave. NW to 705 W. Fulton St.
“It’s a beautiful building, but we had always been off the ground,” Leffingwell said.
“Which on the fourth floor was kind of cool,” Doornbos added. “You felt kind of Mad Men-y looking down on the hustle and bustle of downtown. … It felt kind of cool despite the fact you were in 390 square feet.”
Well Design is now in a 750-square-foot studio where it can host clients. The group also wanted a standalone building where it would be on the ground level and more engaged with the community, keeping with its ethos.
The office also has a side yard, which Well Design utilizes for social gatherings.
“Tyler and I are both on a community soccer league, the Grand Rapids Champs League, which we do the branding and website for,” Leffingwell said, “and we wanted to be able to, after a couple of games, get some of the teams together on our little side yard and drink beers and kick the ball around.”
Leffingwell said he and Doornbos were excited to come to the West Side. For them, it’s not only an area with reasonable land value but an opportunity to be experimental, as well.
“The neighbors will pop their heads in, and they’re excited. They feel like they don’t have an abandoned building on their street, but they’re also excited to see things happening around them, and we’re excited to be a part of that, too,” Leffingwell said.
But Well Design wants to set itself apart from being a gentrifying force by being integrated and collaborative in the community and not trying to mold it into its own designs, Doornbos said.
The group throws a joke around the office that design studios are one of the “four horsemen” of gentrification, riding alongside vintage clothing boutiques, craft breweries and “bougie” coffee and pastry shops.
“It’s about being integrated and respecting the community you’re a part of,” Doornbos said. “We have a pop-up theater product that I put together with some gear we had … what we want to do is have community movie nights, God and our landlord willing.”