Branding Chemistry

Wayzata firm finds the perfect recipe for marketing.
Bob Carlson’s design work.

Chemical elements, molecules and atoms might not be the first things that spring to mind when we think about marketing. But when you listen to Bob Carlson, founder and president of Wayzata-based agency Mpls Design Brand Lab, break down the particular fragments and particles that compose a solution for successful marketing in today’s world, the science comparison feels natural.

“If you look at the atom structure, it’s typically three rings, and those three rings for Mpls Design can be translated as define, design and deliver,” Carlson explains. “There’s this connectivity with marketing. There’s not just a web person anymore, there’s a [search engine optimization] person, or a Photoshop person. And when we’re all working together, there’s definitely a certain excitement that starts to build.”

That element of excitement is contagious the longer you’re around Carlson. Jim Kanters, a collaborator and brand strategist for Mpls Design, has worked with Carlson on various projects for more than 20 years, and is quick to sum up Carlson’s motivation for his work. “He simply loves doing what he does,” Kanters says. “Bob’s approach is always strategic, artistic, thoughtful and inspired.”

When you walk into the office of Mpls Design, adjacent to the beachfront strip of downtown Wayzata, there’s no cheesy elevator music tinkling in the background. Instead, once you open the door to Bob Carlson’s cozy and compact workspace, you are greeted by one of his black labs, Codi or Cheeto, who immediately sniffs your feet and expects a head rub.

The walls are decorated with designs crafted by Carlson and his team for various clients. There’s a 1910 French drafting table (now in use as a conference table), and large blackboard and whiteboard walls for brainstorming and design sessions. You can see stacks of Carlson’s sketches for logo prototypes, along with scattered brochures and printouts he’ll review with clients later that day. The office is welcoming and the work is transparent.

Carlson’s been in the zone for 25 years, since he started his company in 1991. But his zeal for marketing and graphic design goes way back. “I’ve known since high school,” Carlson says when asked how long he’s wanted to have his own business. After graduating from Columbia Heights High School, Carlson took courses at North Hennepin Community College to “put the final touches” on his design instincts. As an adult, he pursued various jobs for several years before taking a job at a company to “learn the ropes of design and how to run a business.”

Since the beginning, Carlson has focused on regional and local clients. He estimates that 90 percent of his clients are based in the Twin Cities, and he’s worked with a wide variety of Lake Minnetonka establishments. Lesa Fenwick, co-owner of Candlelight Floral & Gifts in Wayzata, explains the joy of working with someone who’s not only experienced and creative, but also a neighbor. “To build a relationship with a local person that we could literally walk next door to talk to is huge,” Fenwick says. “Bob has a real handle on what is ‘trendy’ yet will stand the test of time.”

This year marked an upgrade for Carlson’s headquarters, as he moved next door to his previous space, into what he describes as a “more laboratory environment.” Like a chemist who needs beakers and test tubes, Carlson feels Mpls Design will help his clients use all the tools of the modern marketing world.