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  • Alumni Spotlight - Sharon Werner

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  • Every Font Tells a Story

    Sharon Werner, ’85, is a masterful storyteller uniting words and type

    Alumni Spotlight - Sharon Werner - Full PictureShe exudes a calm, quiet confidence; a bit of an introvert who likes order and harmony. But Sharon Werner packs a punch. She’s one of the country's leading graphic designers and brand strategists.

    Her studio in St. Paul produces projects for clients like Target, VH1, Comedy Central, Nick at Night, 3M, Chronicle and Moët Hennessey.

    But to hear her tell it (in Felt and Wire magazine), her office is "a scuffed-up brick building with no real style, in a decidedly not posh neighborhood…an average hardworking street in the middle of a practical, hardworking (hopefully up-and-coming) neighborhood…no facade or false front, no reception area that hides the work being frills."

    It’s the same with Sharon Werner. She's a pragmatic, genuine, hardworking woman who delivers simple, honest and practical designs that tell a story. "We aren't extravagant or 'cool.' she said. "I prefer to be called smart."

    Werner has produced a lot of smart work during her 26-year career, receiving numerous national and international awards and honors, among them Target's Vendor of the Year (2002); inclusion in 100 World’s Best Posters; and work that's part of the permanent collection of The Library of Congress, Musée De La Poste, Victoria and Albert Museum, Musée des Arts Decoratifs and the Cooper Hewitt Museum.

    "Awards are always good for business, but good design increases sales or delivers a successful launch for a product."

    Internship to Leadership

    Alumni Spotlight - Sharon Werner - Werner Design WorksWerner was legendary ad man Joe Duffy's first-ever intern, also working with design genius Charles Spencer Anderson, in a little offshoot of a company called Duffy Design Group (now called Duffy & Partners).

    Joe, the ad man, and Chuck, the designer, were often at odds about design. "When Chuck asked me to work on something I tried to think like him, and when Joe asked me to work on something I tried to think like him. Sometimes I'd stay late and do my own version," Werner said. “It was an incredible yet frightening experience, but I learned to channel different ways of thinking."

    Her diligence paid off in a six-year climb that ended as senior designer/creative director for Duffy Design Group, but with “nowhere to go and a need to broaden my experience.” She interviewed with some of Twin Cities' design legends—Tim Eaton, Eric Mattson, Tim Larsen. They all suggested she strike out on her own.

    "It changed everything for me."

    In 1991 she opened Werner Design Werks, inc., in a nondescript 500-squarefoot studio. She owned a wooden drafting table, a moving cart with phone, and a chair. Then fear set it. “I thrive on a little fear, but I was scared.”

    Excitement and fear go hand in hand. Both are equally motivating.

    Her experience at Duffy equipped her with a vast network of designers, art directors and account executives to build a business. She got her first paying job with a small agency that wanted her assistance in creating a sales pitch for Mystic Lake Casino. They netted the account, and a lucrative design project for Werner, who earned profit the rest of the year.

    Today's Werner Design Werks is Sharon, MSUM alum Sarah Nelson Forss ('96, art) and a design intern.

    "Our body of work looks fairly different, considering that essentially only two people are producing it," Werner said. She describes their work as approachable, friendly, not too highbrow or edgy. We strive to not have an office style but do what is appropriate for each client."

    The small, familial company serves Werner, and her clients, well.

    "I don’t want a big, chaotic machine that has to be fueled every day," Werner said. "Our studio is manageable and very hands-on. Our clients appreciate that, large or small, which is why we do well with start-ups and decision makers who are personally vested in their projects."

    Alumni Spotlight - Sharon Werner - Mrs MeyersLike many MSUM design alumni, Werner’s client list reads like Who’s Who, including her all-time favorite client, Mrs. Meyers Clean Day, which sells environmentally friendly aromatherapeutic cleaning products.

    "We brainstormed the Mrs. Meyers name based on the owner's mother who raised nine kids, dogs, cats and fish in an Iowa farmhouse. Who better to tell the story for a cleaning product than a busy farm wife who doesn’t like to clean? We built everything around the concept that Mrs. Meyers can make cleaning more enjoyable, easy, fast and effective by using these hard-working products."

    A recent story in Fast Company's online magazine praises the creative genius behind the brand and design.

    "The clever brand identity...leverages a scaleable toolkit of typography and colors to impressive effect, employing a universal system of labels that looks so good at point of purchase that it commands great shelf position…This unorthodox typographic approach might spell trouble in most designs, but here, it is just the right mix of wrong. It’s all about typographic craftsmanship and nuance."

    Designer to Author

    All designers embrace type, but Werner took it to an elementary level. As members of the Type Directors Club, she and Forss designed the organization’s annual call for entries poster featuring animals made out of type. Twenty-eight thousand posters were mailed worldwide and within days two book publishers called suggesting these animals would make a great children's book.

    Knowing nothing about children’s books, they worked with Blue Apple Books. Their first concepts were like museum books, Werner said. "It wasn’t interactive or kid friendly. Harriet (their editor) hated it. She said, 'I sell children’s books that children want to read, not museum books.'"

    They tweaked and redesigned, returning with new concepts that were perfect. Alphabeasties and other Amazing Types was released in 2009 and received accolades from kids, parents, teachers, and most importantly, librarians. It was named Oppenheim Toy Portfolio Best Book, Platinum Award 2009.

    Werner learned that "Parents are passionate about the books they buy for their kids. It opened a whole new world for us."

    And even though she doesn't subscribe to 'design coolness', her son, more of a fan of realistic fiction, thinks his mom is pretty cool when autographing and reading at her book signings.

    Alphabeasties And Other Amazing Types 

    Alumni Spotlight - Sharon Werner - AlphabeastiesA Publishers Weekly starred review reads: "No ordinary abecedarian, this typographical trip will wow design fans and suggest creative projects with letterforms. The book's introduction speaks affectionately of typefaces just like people, they look different and have different personalities...Innovations arrive several to a page, rewarding repeat visits and encouraging readers to muse on the power of type and all that letters and words can imply or insinuate." In its fourth printing, they also created a complementary activity book and flash cards.

    Bugs by the Numbers 

    Alumni Spotlight - Sharon Werner - Bugs by the NumbersA follow up book, Bugs by the Numbers, was released in April of this year. The award-winning authors deliver "an amazing array of insects: butterflies to termites, dragonflies to walking sticks. While the 'alphabeasties' were comprised of letters, these incredible insects are ingeniously engineered out of numerals. It’s an eye-catching and imaginative look at the insect world."

    Available at