rapt-studioThese days when someone tells you they are a designer, there’s really no telling what it is they actually do. There’s fashion design, web design, software design, game design, urban design, interior design, industrial design, graphic design, landscape design and a host of more abstract disciplines appended with the word ‘design’.

Design is a slippery word. It’s a synonym for ‘plan’. It’s a problem-solving methodology. It connotes creativity. And despite its ambiguity, its mastery is widely acknowledged as a triumph for almost any business model. See also, Apple.

When I first met Rapt Studio CEO David Galullo and company president, Cory Sistrunk, and they told me that their design firm was more of an “experience” firm, I had my doubts about the forthcoming conversation converging towards anything concrete. Something inside of me groaned and I feared the walls might collapse and the ground give way.

But that and later conversations actually involved much less mental wrestling than I’d anticipated. I didn’t have to hold the walls up or enforce a semblance of structure, because walls and concrete and structure are the basis of Rapt’s services.

The company began in San Francisco in mid-80’s as Richard Pollack Architecture, building interiors for commercial clients from financial and law offices to retail spaces. Galullo joined as design principle in 1999, in time to see the bursting of the dot-com bubble wreak havoc on the architectural business climate. Pollack Architecture lost some big contracts, let go of many of its employees, and diversified its client base. Within five years the firm had return to mid-90’s levels of revenue.

But Galullo wasn’t content to stop there. In 2011 he arranged the exit of the firm’s founder and namesake, and hired Sistrunk, who at the time was a creative director at Vivint, a home automation company and a Pollack Architecture client. Galullo became CEO and made Sistrunk design principle, promoting him in December of last year to president.

Galullo and Sistrunk are remarkably different. Galullo warm and graying, irreverent and self-effacing, Sistrunk decidedly more chalant, edgy, humming with focused intensity and ambition. It’s in their faces, in the sounds of their names, in their hairstyles. But it’s clear, talking with them, that they share a vision. And that this cohesion and the tension between their personal approaches is the engine driving Rapt.

Under the leadership of the Galullo/Sistrunk partnership, Rapt has made a dramatic shift in the services it offers to its clients. While it still designs a lot of physical spaces for blue chip clients, it has increasingly taken on more varied, holistic brand-design challenges.

When I went to their Union Square offices last week, we sat in a conference room off the company’s main work area. One wall was cork, another glass, another a window overlooking the tourist-retail nexus in the streets below. The fourth wall was a white-board. On it was scrawled the name of a well-known local startup along with dry-erase schemata of a floor-plan replete in electrical details, the geometry of company’s organizational structure, and a tentacular representation of its brand identity .

“Seams are the issue,” Galullo says, “If there’s a hole in your brand, your customers are going to find it.”

Rapt is making a business out of finding those holes, and filling them in. The way that Galullo and Sistrunk describe their discovery process for vetting potential clients, it sounds like a full-scale emotional audit, more penetrative than those conducted by either the IRS or the Church of Scientology.

“We want to tap into people’s belief structure about themselves,” says Sistrunk.

Galullo adds that a major identity breakdown occurs too often when companies scale, because “they forget why they do things a certain way, especially with branding choices that are disconnected from their core operation.”

When doing interior designs, Galullo developed his technique for delving headlong into a company, seeking out its core. He asks uncomfortable questions, demands total access, overcomes executives’ overwrought PR babble. Formerly, the goal of this process was to ultimately design a space that was aligned with a company’s identity. But the insights gained from this corporate psychotherapy, Galullo realized, had greater applications.

“No brand succeeds just based on a storefront, or a corporate office, or a user interface,” he says. At the end of the discovery process, Rapt often has a better idea of a company’s identity and values than most of the people who make up that company. What Rapt does next is reflect that identity back to the company, and then turn loose its staff of multidisciplinary designers to craft a brand around it.

“As companies grow, they build walls between themselves and their customers, around the different departments or pieces of their company. The IT department, the marketing department, these parts are siloed and those workers come to work every day just looking at their own particular slice of the company,” says Sistrunk.

And Rapt has learned a thing or two about the dynamics of growth first hand. Last year it hired 13 new employees, raising the total to 58, and this year’s budget projects a revenue increase of 32% from $10.75 million in 2013. Even so, Sistrunk and Galullo are adamant that they will resist the impulse to silo departments off for efficiency purposes – having multiple perspectives brought to bear on any problem greatly enhances the solutions, they say. Towards that purpose they have assembled a team of of designers from diverse disciplines, aiming to hire based on a flexible quality of mind rather than skill set.

The list of clients who’ve come in to lie on Rapt’s figurative chaise lounge is a Who’s Who of major American brands new and old, from GE to Google, Bank of America to Greylock Partners, Disney to Lucasfilm (back when there was daylight between those last two.) The firm has won several design publication awards in recent years, mostly for its large corporate office spaces. Galullo said they are equally interested in taking on smaller startup companies, at the early stages of brand development.

And Rapt is increasingly managing and projecting its own brand. It’s been holding events at its Castlevania-like LA headquarters in Culver City, partnering with pop-up shops, and taking on big flagship projects like a recent “collaborative community workplace” in Carlsbad, CA, a beachside community north of San Diego, where Rapt was given a blank slate by a developer to execute its vision for a high-end coastal commercial complex. This Thursday, they will host an art show and party at their third floor offices at 111 Maiden Lane.

The party is open to the public. Despite their third-floor office being mostly invisible from the street, Galullo asserts that their studios are always open to the public, they have free WiFi, and they want to provide space (namely a big office expansion completed last year) for the community at large to interact.

Amid the frothy proliferation of startups, here in San Francisco and beyond, Rapt has positioned itself to provide a raft of services to buoy a brand. By attacking the kernel of a business’ Dasein, and translating that into design across all platforms, Galullo, Sistrunk and company have staked their success on the idea that branding in the 21st century has overflowed the confines of traditional media and that design thinking can meet the new demands better than even the most sophisticated data analytics.

But they haven’t turned their backs on the third dimension. After all, “Every brand has a space attached to it, somewhere,” as Galullo says.

[image via Rapt Studio]