Skip to main content
News & Events News & Events News & Events

News & Events

Increase Text Size
Decrease Text Size
 Change Text Size 

A brand is more than a product, says zone learning designer-in-residence

By Will Sloan

Joel Gregorio

Joel Gregorio, founder and creative director of Sovereign State, will be available for consultation, mentoring and advice to Ryerson’s zones. Photo by Clifton Li.

“If I’m opening up a restaurant,” said Joel Gregorio, “I’m focusing on the service, the food, and all of these elements. If your main differentiators are high-quality, good food, and good service, that’s what every restaurant is going to say. You have to look at what your differentiators are.”

Gregorio, zone learning’s inaugural designer-in-residence, finds that a crucial thing gets lost in the idea of branding: “People forget that it’s not just business design – it’s actually imbuing your place with a sense of differentiation and what makes it special, so that people understand what they’re engaging with.”

Joel Gregorio knows what he’s talking about. As founder and creative director of Sovereign State, a boutique studio that uses strategic thinking and design to help build brands, he has had experience with local and global businesses in everything from music and the arts to health, hospitality, education and science. He has branded projects for companies like Lockheed Martin, the Ontario Lottery Corporation, and Virgin Mobile, as well as art and community organizations like the Toronto Public Library, TVO, Artscape, and Soundstreams.

During 2016, he will also be available to Ryerson zone learning students for consultation, mentoring and advice. He plans to host talks and workshops on design strategy, showing Ryerson’s entrepreneurs how it takes more than just a quality product to launch a successful brand. “You have to have a really good experience around that product. And then on top of that, you have to have a really good story and emotional quotient around that product,” he said.

“When I have an emotional connection with a brand, it’s the difference between buying one shoe brand or another. It might be two identical shoes, but you put a swoosh on one and all of a sudden the value of it is exponential, because the story, what it stands for, all these are things are so much more important to your sense of value.”

What are some of the common misconceptions he sees from young entrepreneurs? “There’s a real hard line between the person creating the entity and the entity itself. The first step is actually to say: you’re building something over here that’s not you. You have to imbue it with its own integrity, sensibilities and aesthetics. When you actually start separating yourself from it, it becomes a lot clearer.”

Ryerson’s zone learning model offers students collaborative space to develop sustainable new business, civic and social ventures. Since the foundation of the DMZ in 2010, the model has grown to include 10 new zones (including fashion, transmedia, design and fabrication, and social ventures). For more information on zone learning, go to

To connect with Joel Gregario email


Other zone stories:

Zone incubator helps student startups launch

Collaboration is key to Design Fabrication Zone

The boys with the temporary tattoos

Tech projects find life outside the classroom

Right brain meets left at legal innovation zone