Branding outside the box on a budget: A new Greenville agency fills the void in the experiential design market

Photo provided.

By Stephane Trotter

Sports fans have enjoyed environmental design for years, as teams bathe their stadiums and coliseums in larger-than-life murals, mascots, and color to pump up the crowd. But what about smaller businesses that may not have millions to manufacture eye-popping 3D pageantry? Enter Emanate, one of Greenville’s newest design firms working in a niche known as environmental, or experiential graphic design.

“This area has so many real estate developers and growing businesses,” says Emanate founder and C.E.O. Bill Donohue. “Many invest most of their capital on architecture and construction, but forget the finished piece. They underestimate the ability they have to educate and inspire with their hallways, stairwells, and lobby. They’ve got a huge, beautiful building, but nothing left to tell their story.”

Storytelling and interpretation are Emanate’s sweet spot.

“As a visual artist and brand guy, our job is to interpret a lot of information, whittle it down to its core essence, and tie an emotional thread to it. What we’ve coined is the idea of story places, using the environment to expand your brand,” Donohue says. “It’s more than glass, stone, and wood. I want people to leave a space with a deeper understanding of the tenant, and feel something resonate after they’re gone.”

Anyone entering Greenville on U.S. 123 can’t help but notice the story of historic Plush Mills — the new home of Serendipity Labs. The outside walls of the turn-of-the-century red-brick building boldly feature the faces of original textile workers who produced plush velvet for Model A Fords. Donohue spent countless hours scouring historical photos, newspaper articles and crumbling blueprints to meld a montage of old artifacts and new branding.  Inside, the 50-year-old artist takes extreme pride in a digital mural lining a long passageway, which turns yet another page in the tale of the Mill.

“It’s 60 by 16 feet,” he says. I started with traditional paint on canvas, and then layered old drawings, photos. I even researched turn-of-the-century fonts.”

Fonts take Donohue back to the esteemed Ringling College of Art and Design, where he studied typology for four years as part of his design degree. He went into advertising in Greenville, serving as Erwin Penland’s first creative director and then starting Fuel in 1995.  He eventually sold his share, and went in-house with private holding company Duke Brands, where he spread the legacy of Eugenia Thomas Duke as smoothly as her famous mayonnaise, marking the company’s centennial celebration.

About a year ago, his entrepreneurial spirit whispered it was time to move on, but he wasn’t sure of the destination. While researching opportunities, his wife Becca, who works at Greenville-based printer TPM, kept coming home with news of clients who needed designers to create original art for their offices, while simultaneously marketing their brands.

“I wanted to get back into something with a construction and design component,” the one-time architecture student says. “Environmental design is primarily an offshoot of architecture with similar end-user focus and design-build processes. What we hopefully bring in addition is a level of influence and creativity from my marketing and branding background.”

Emanate opened in April, and using inspiration from EGD-heavy cities like New York, Chicago, and Las Vegas, has already completed more than a dozen projects for businesses large and small — from BMW and Holder Properties to Maven Construction and Marleylilly.  Earle Street Baptist Church recently unveiled a $4.5 million addition featuring three Emanate creations.

“We initially wanted a mission-statement wall, a donor wall, and a history wall, but had no idea how to do that,” says minister of administration Denise Plumbee. “Bill came up with three totally different projects, each with a different look, feel, and type of creativity.”

“The Upstate continues to expand and commercial development is influenced by major markets and outstanding local architectural talent,” Donohue explains. “But EGD, locally, is a fairly new practice. It’s accelerating faster as we get bigger projects like Camperdown and University Ridge. I just love visually influencing and inspiring people.”



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