$10 million
(2013, projected)

A self-described “child of the ’60s” Monica Little found, after graduating from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design in 1978, that there were no graphic design jobs outside advertising agencies and corporate offices. Neither appealed to her, as she wanted a job where hierarchies didn’t rule. “I’m a big believer in a classless society,” she declares. Rather, she wanted a workplace where colleagues would find “a joy to spend your days with each other.”

To achieve that goal, Little created her own business—a graphic design and branding firm whose clients today are, actually, pretty big. The list includes Target, Lowe’s, Wells Fargo, Microsoft and American Public Media. Little (the agency, where Monica Little remains board chair) has its headquarters in downtown Minneapolis’ International Centre II, and its offices look as though they could house a successful law firm or other type of “conventional” business. As Joe Cecere, Little’s president and chief creative officer, puts it, “design solves problems.” By that, Cecere means business problems.

For some clients, Little might create an attractive logo or beautiful, persuasive annual report. For others, the agency digs deeper into a client’s business to perform what Cecere calls “brand-building from the inside out.” It’s a common agency approach today, but it was an unusual one for a graphic design firm to pursue.

Monica Little developed her firm’s move from (relatively) simple graphic presentation to a deeper understanding of a client’s business when she’d ask questions about the client’s target market or audience that the client couldn’t answer. “So I would say, ‘Do you mind if we go out on a sales call? That way, we can learn how they do their selling and what tools they might need,’ ” she recalls. Through research like this, Little and her staff often uncovered customer information that even the client didn’t know.

The business problems that Little takes on do vary. One that the agency frequently tackles for its clients is employee engagement. Gallup recently released results of a poll about employee engagement in the workplace, which found that only 41 percent of employees “fully understand what their company stands for and what makes its brand different from the competition,” Cecere says. Businesses focus on the brand externally, “sometimes forgetting the importance of communicating the brand inside the walls of the company,” he notes.

At Target, for instance, Little helped create RED, a stylish magazine that serves as the company’s in-house newsletter. It reflects the Target look and brand in a fun, informative way that engages employees. When a company has highly engaged employees who understand what their purpose is and what their brand represents, “you have lower turnover, you have higher productivity and higher profitability,” Cecere says.

That approach to engagement takes place within Cecere’s company, too. With her company, Monica Little has sought to build a “classless society” after all, and her agency seeks to bring to the table as many staffers as possible, with their diverse backgrounds and experiences, for project work. “I think of this whole company as a group of designers,” Cecere says. “So it’s very valuable to bring people into decision-making.”

Among clients, brand-building (and what might be called brand rebuilding) often takes the form of a unified look and experience across all the channels through which customers engage a company. Little recently designed a new logo, print ads and a brand platform (which includes logo, key phrases, and a consistent look and tone across print and digital media) for American Public Media’s Marketplace program. The goal: make Marketplace a standalone brand that appeals to listeners who are seeking a fresh, lively approach to “hard-news” business and economic coverage.

For mattress maker Tempur Sealy International, which became a Little client two years ago, the agency began by redesigning the in-store displays and demo units for the company’s Posturepedic line. “Little has been pivotal in taking our in-store experience to the next level,” says Jamie Piper, Kentucky-based Sealy’s senior director of marketing and communications. The agency’s in-store work “really told the story of our new technologies—they were really critical in that process.” In fact, she adds, “We’ve seen our largest Posturepedic business in over five years.” The in-store experience “was really a key piece of that.” Sealy now has charged Little with performing similar work for Sealy’s other brands, including Optimum and Stearns & Foster.

In addition to the new clients, the agency itself has been undergoing internal changes. Monica Little leaves day-to-day operations to Cecere, who, with company principal Joanne Kuebler, has become a partner in the firm. “I realized that in order for [Cecere] to really take charge, I needed to back out,” she says. And in July, the branding agency Little founded as Little & Company itself was rebranded—as simply Little. The move, Cecere says, is intended to reflect the agency’s capabilities for “clean, impactful and relevant communications.” It’s all been part of Monica Little’s design.