99U Salon: How Artists Maintain Their Voices When Working for Big Brands

99U Salon: How Artists Maintain Their Voices When Working for Big Brands

On a recent autumn evening at Ace Hotel New York, 99U hosted its first salon, an evening designed to elicit candid conversations about a meaty topic in the design world (over cocktails, of course). The question of the night was: How can artists maintain their unique perspective when working for big brands? An audience of creatives including designers, artists, photographers, animators, and entrepreneurs swapped stories about the struggle to balance their style with client projects. “Can you name a time you’ve compromised on a project?” someone in the crowd asked another. “Sure,” confessed a musician, “There is a Christian Rock album that has my work on it, but the name is a pseudonym.”

In a conversation moderated by 99U’s editor in chief Matt McCue, artists Laolu Senbanjo and Jon Burgerman shared their thoughts on the subject. Burgerman has drawn whimsical figures into everyday scenes for an Instagram-sponsored show at the Tate Modern and made elaborate doodle-filled walls for Apple stores around the globe. Meanwhile, Senbanjo’s line work electrifies Bulgari perfume bottles, Nike sneakers, and even Beyoncé and her dancers in the “Sorry” video from Lemonade. Both grapple with preserving their undiluted voice across projects like these.

99U Salon - Matt McCue, Jon Burgerman, and Laolu Senbanjo

McCue with Burgerman and Senbanjo

When asked what to do when brands try to take creative control after promising stylistic independence, Burgerman shrugged. “I say: ‘Why would you ask me to do something if you don’t want me to do my kind of thing?’” To Burgerman, giving up creative control is a slippery slope and not just because it’s important to do work that you’re proud of. “If you do something and you think it’s crappy, that’s the project people are going to love,” he said. “And they’ll ask for more of it. Then you’re in your personal hell.”

9U Salon - Jon Burgerman

“Why would you ask me to do something if you don’t want me to do my kind of thing?” said Burgerman

The night was as much about practical tips as defining values. Senbanjo, who in an earlier career practiced full-time as a human rights lawyer in Africa, dug into how he builds his contracts. His contracts are designed to match the way that he delivers work, using incremental payment clauses for each step of a project he completes – first draft, rounds of revisions, final submission – as opposed to one big final payday. The times when Senbanjo has been disappointed by a client, he acknowledged he didn’t clearly define the relationship. “I didn’t ask for creative control like I should have,” he said.

 

Senbanjo wore facepaint and a custom blazer featuring his signature ‘Afromysterics’ aesthetic

The British Burgerman and Nigerian Senbanjo hit it off onstage, and their compatibility didn’t stop at the arts. The pair were a stylish duo: Burgerman wore an electric yellow jacket made by Jeremy Scott for Adidas and Senbanjo sported a black and white jacket of his own design, and matching face paint inspired by his Yoruba heritage.

Burgerman and Senbanjo held court after their discussion, talking with the attendees. “I wish I had buttons for everyone,” Burgerman said when someone asked about the pink lapel pin on his breast pocket. “I made this today. Someone brought a button machine into my studio. Do you want a sticker?” He pulled a roll of googly eyes out of his pocket and debated where to guerrilla place them—the cheese and charcuterie board, someone’s nose, the Ace’s fire alarm. “Let’s not tamper with that,” he decided.

99U will explore more topics like this at upcoming salon events, and at our annual 99U Conference, taking place May 9-11, 2018 in New York City.

99U Salon - Liz Jackson with Jerron Herman

Inclusive Fashion + Design Collective’s Liz Jackson with Jerron Herman

99U Salon - Tina Roth Eisenberg, Kyle Baptista, Michelle Ishay-Cohen, and Jon Burgerman

Creative Mornings’ Tina Roth Eisenberg and Kyle Baptista with Michelle Ishay-Cohen and Burgerman

99U Salon

Guests take in the conversation at Ace Hotel New York’s Liberty Hall

99U Salon - Lula Saneh

African Economic Development Solutions’ Lula Saleh (right) and friend

99U Salon - Jon Burgerman and Laolu Senbanjo

Burgerman and Senbanjo’s signature aesthetics were reflected in their footwear, too

 

from 99U99U http://bit.ly/2gWnKI7

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AnalogFolk – England

AnalogFolk – England

They found the perfect spot in central London’s Shoreditch – “completely a blank canvas,” says Brock of the 10,000-foot interior – and tapped architect Dara Huang’s Design Haus Liberty to turn it into the airy, inviting, industrial-meets-farmhouse workspace that is AF’s headquarters today. “Dara was at the very beginning of her journey” says Brock. “And on top of that, her style is not conventional.” Which is, let’s just say, an understatement.

Design Haus Liberty’s assignment was, in the words of Dyke, “to avoid the cold, stark, futuristic feel of many other technology-based digital agencies and try to do something that was a bit more tangible, human, and soft.” That is just what Huang pulled off with the artful use of reclaimed “found” objects that both harken back to the predigital age and play on AF’s mission to use digital technology to make the analog world a better place.

Design Haus Liberty created a mezzanine, a minimalist black staircase that matched the interior’s existing black columns, and outfitted the facade with glazed glass to let in a flood of light. A strategically placed oriental rug with a giant leather trunk cum coffee table in the middle, flanked by tufted Chesterfield sofas, make for an instant living room on the first floor that signals relaxation. Vintage iron scaffolding that acts as a library sports a throwback AnalogFolk logo – a design that is found in every one of AF’s satellite offices – and conceals three integrated telephone booths for conference call use.


Within the stark white, futuristic boardroom, with a silver domed wall at one end and hidden-source uplighting on the other walls, sits a massive table made of French barn doors. Recycled glass bottles become, with the help of digital scripting applications, a dazzling, swooping sculptural installation above the reception desk that evokes a school of fish and is fittingly called Flying Nemo; it symbolizes the company’s ethos of synergy and collaboration. 

Huang’s background in sculpture is also evident in her lighting choices. One installation, above a small meeting area, is made of recycled jam jars, each hanging at a different level by a cord that is pinned to the ceiling and connects with the others in a radiating pattern, drawing attention to a usually unappreciated wall. “When designing AnalogFolk, our aim was to create thought-provoking designs in every section – like a collection of moments,” Huang told us. “These rooms were often themed, depending on their use. For example, we had a think-tank room where we used an old water tank and unrolled it into a table. We also had jam jars filled with iron mantra hands of thought and keys of knowledge. We wanted every space that people entered to be an unexpected experience that would make them curious and want to know more.”

AnalogFolk. 20 Rosebery Avenue. London EC1R 4SX, U.K.

from 99U99U http://bit.ly/2i9VJJE

Francesco Franchi: On the Luxury of Newspaper

Francesco Franchi: On the Luxury of Newspaper

There is a loud and strong cry that the newspaper industry is broken and that the form is outdated in this digital era. For designer Francesco Franchi, that negativity smelled like an opportunity.

That opportunity is for editors and creative directors to rethink the medium, and for design to be a central part of the strategy to show what a newspaper can be on its own printed terms, rather than moving the entire newspaper to some social media platform, like Snapchat.

“We need to create, not follow,” says Franchi, now the managing editor of la Repubblica newspaper in Rome, where he has set out to reenvision its structure. Franchi has begun by designing a new 40-page Sunday supplement called Robinson, which derives its name from Robinson Crusoe: a playful but ultimately serious allusion to the idea that culture has become an terrain that needs an expert to help navigate it.

Making use of tightly packed charts, sharply compartmentalized space, and smart, informative graphics, Franchi is the mapmaker detailing the landscape, and for him, Robinson’s journalists are the expert guides. 

Working in newspapers is a slight career turn for Franchi, who previously worked for eight years as the creative director of IL (Intelligence in Lifestyle) magazine. It was at IL that Franchi established his career: His editorial designs have won numerous awards, including the prestigious D&AD and SPD, and his spreads have been exhibited at the V&A Museum in London and the Cooper-Hewitt in New York. Creating functional, dense maps of facts and figures quickly became Franchi’s area of expertise, and these tightly woven infographics earned the Italian language magazine global acclaim within the design community.

Franchi proposes that it’s not just culture that needs to be inventively mapped, but all of the topics that a newspaper covers: The Robinson supplement is the first part of a carefully conceived strategy in redesign the way news is presented and consumed. We caught up with the professor, lecturer, and author of two books on editorial design to discover what his current strategy entails. 

Franchi photographed in Rome for 99U.

Your day-to-day experience at la Repubblica must be very different from that of IL, which is of course a monthly magazine.

Yes. The whole structure of IL was different. I was able to develop a studio inside the newsroom, IL studio. There we worked for different clients, like banks and fashion brands, developing magazines for them as well as producing our own.

Here it’s very different, a lot faster, because it’s a daily newspaper. We have a meeting every day at 11 a.m. where we discuss the newspaper of the day, but then we also try to plan for the day after. Then we have another meeting at 3 p.m. about the next edition. The working day usually ends at around 11:30 p.m. 

As managing editor, I’m doing less design now, less infographics. I’ll sketch ideas, but then pass them on to my team most of the time. And I’m working with different teams, with different newsrooms. At IL, we were 12 to 15 people in total. Now I’m working with a whole newspaper, and all the various sections of it, so the complexity and dynamics are different. 

The experience is unique because I have to think about every kind of topic – culture, news, books, music, politics, the economy. I’m not talking about design most of the time, as was the case at IL. I’m talking about all the different kinds of thing that you’d find in the newspaper. I’m not in a design studio really. Here it’s more…serious.

You’ve mentioned being hired to rethink structures, what exactly are you rethinking at la Repubblica? And what role does design play in your reconceptualization of what a newspaper can be?

Well, lets start with Robinson, the new cultural insert that I mentioned. I wanted to introduce a new flow with it, and create a new kind of flat plan inside the supplement, stemming from the ideas and approach that I took with IL. We decided first to introduce a lot of infographics into the supplement, and to merge different languages to make it approachable. The front of the supplement has a long flow of news stories in it, a bit similar to the kind of long-form writing you find now on the web.

With this new format, we use the kind of design and structuring elements you’d find in a magazine. For example, we might have a story cutting into one spread that continues in a later part of the supplement. The text is big because our readership is quite old. But with Robinson, we’re also trying to grab the interest of a new, younger readership; the design has to appeal to different demographics.

We’ve done this by nodding to old issues of la Repubblica – we’ve used early design details from when it was first established in 1976. We use these details to emphasize to the old readership that this is something that they’ve experienced before, but at the same time, maybe the way we’ve treated the elements will catch the eye of younger people.

The idea, in the end, is to embrace more of the young; that’s a large part of why I’ve been brought in. To catch the younger readership while still maintaining our established, older one. My target is the people who aren’t buying newspapers anymore.

How else are you using the physical format of the newspaper toward that end?

There is an age group that we’ve completely lost who won’t buy newspapers anymore. Or it’ll be hard to catch them. It’s the generation a bit younger than mine. But I think there is a generation that we can catch: the age below that one. I think we can catch them in part by changing the format of the newspaper, and realizing that we don’t need to replicate something that we have digitally in the form of a newspaper. Instead we need to think of the paper as something complementary.

It’s about keeping breaking news as digital, and then thinking about the paper as something more luxurious; something you can read on the weekend. We need to reconsider the actual format of the newspaper to do so: maybe use less pages, and then every day include some kind of well-designed supplement. I like the idea of different weeklies with different topics, one on each day of the week. We also need to think about the distribution channels.

Interesting. In what way?

If you think about the delivery start-up model, you’ll understand what I mean. Young people get things delivered to them all the time. Food with Deliveroo, laundry with Zipjet, on-demand cleaners through Book A Tiger. We need to think about how we as a newspaper can fit in with the on-demand economy. People aren’t going to go out and buy the newspaper. The newspaper has to go and find people.

There are a lot of ways we can do that. For example, this weekend, we did a festival in Bologna, in the center of Italy. La Repubblica organized it so that our readership and our journalists could meet. There was music, books, talks about different topics. It’s just one way that the newspaper can go into the city to find new readers.

You’re talking about community and building up networks, as opposed to finding some kind of format that can replace print. Around the advent of digital journalism there was of course this excitement around the idea that the iPad and apps were going to save newspapers and print magazines, an idea that quickly faded away. Now print media isn’t investing in tablet versions of their magazine. Broadly speaking, what many are borrowing from digital is the idea of developing networks, communities, and finding alternative models to bring in revenue based around events.

Yes, the tablet versions of magazines were a big failure. If you compared the number of people that downloaded an issue with the ones that actually started reading it, there was a huge gap. It’s not something that I think can’t work at all, but we saw that the system wasn’t working properly after lots of companies invested their money and resources into trying to develop the tablet versions without much response.

At the same time that was happening, we also noticed that there was a market exponentially growing, and that was the market for independent magazines. Young magazine makers found in the internet a new way of distributing. I’m thinking of the U.K.-based company Stack, for example, which sends subscribers a different independent magazine every month in the mail.

There is a market for the new, independent magazines. And as that market has grown, with it have come new shops and places where you can buy them. With this, we noticed a renewed interest in paper. I don’t believe in the tablet version of magazines, but I believe in the websites. There are some things that you can read on paper, and other things that are more useful to have on your iPhone.

It’s about recognizing how the two can live together, and the independent magazines have shown us the value that print can have as more of a luxury item.

A lot of the best newspaper supplements are paying a lot of attention to design and writing in the independent magazines you describe – the teams behind ZEITmagazin and the New York Times Magazine, for example, often cite independent titles as key inspiration.

Monocle has been a huge reference point because of what the company was able to create. While it’s niche in many ways, it was able to create something that people wanted to keep and use to show who they are. The magazine is something that you see people carrying in their pocket, and you’re like, “That’s a Monocle person.” Being seen with an issue of Monocle changes the way people think of you. Yes, the kind of magazine you read can be an accessory, defining you to others – this was definitely the case predigital, too. You might be a Dazed & Confused reader, or maybe you’re a bit more The New Yorker. What you have on your coffee table says a lot.

It’s how la Repubblica once was, in the beginning. If you had a rolled-up la Repubblica in your pocket, you were considered in a certain way. This is what we need to think about now. I remember the people at my university in the 80’s, with la Repubblica sticking out of their bags. I thought of them in a certain way.

The model that we’re thinking about, then, is how to work in a niche and assert the character of the newspaper. It’s about creating a very strong identity for the newspaper and its supplements, through its visuals but also its content. That’s where its power to sell will ultimately come from.

It’s about having the courage to say things in order to reach a niche. Sometimes we are scared to publish something, but it’s important to those things that we might be nervous about, to speak out and have an identity. From independent magazines, we’ve also realized that quality is key – that’s why people are open to spending up to $20 on a magazine. Independents concentrate on the quality of the illustrations, of the paper, of the design. We’re thinking about how to be niche and concentrate on quality, while also being mass market.

There’s a danger, though, of thinking about a newspaper as an accessory, as a marker of identity, if the look is only communicated by the design. While there are a huge range of independent titles that are beautifully designed, a lot of the beautifully designed ones you mention are coming from the design community as opposed to communities of writers, so in many cases, the quality of the writing isn’t as tight as the design.

There is no form outside of content. For every spread – everything you ever start when doing editorial design – you need a strong journalistic idea. You start from the content with speaking with editors, writers. This is very important. Throughout my career I’ve been very lucky because I’ve always been around interesting people in the newsroom. A designer in the newsroom has to be able to change the way the editor sees things while also learning from her, and while interpreting what she says from a design perspective.

You discuss the difference between representation and interpretation a lot in your book, Designing News. There’s a real love of infographic design within the design community, and we’re quite saturated with examples of it right now. What do you look for when judging information design? What are your criteria for a great infographic?

I try to judge an information graphic first by whether it is functional or not. Sometimes a work is beautiful, but difficult to read and understand. Sometimes it’s better to have something simple: have it less designed and more clear. Sometimes it needs to be immediate. That’s important. For example, when I’m designing an infographic I always ask myself whether it’s something that everyone will understand. Simplicity and immediacy: These are the things I most often think about.

Where do you stand on Edward Tufte’s 1983 term chartjunk – the notion that all visual elements in charts and graphs that are not necessary to comprehend the information actually distract the viewer? Can too much ornament and decoration be misleading?

It depends on your audience and your project. If you’re working on something related to marketing and advertising, you can have decoration and elements that are not properly related to the story or news content. When you’re working on a newspaper or a breaking news story, though, you have to stay close to the content.

Do you remember when you first became interested in infographics, diagrams, and editorial design?

When I was younger, I liked newspapers and magazines a lot. I made my first magazine when I was 10 or 11, a magazine about bicycles. After graduating from university, I worked in a design studio in Milan and infographic projects were sent my way, which I enjoyed. We did a few for Corriere della Sera, which is another newspaper in Italy.

Later you did your master’s dissertation on editorial and newspaper design, graduating in 2007.

The title was “Re Designer.” Re in Italian means “king.” The idea was that the designer can play an important role inside the newsroom. My idea hasn’t changed: It’s a very interesting moment for designers to be working in this field. A lot of things are happening. Editors are considering new strategies. Designers are acquiring new kinds of roles.

What advice would you give to young designers entering the newsroom?

We need to speak the same language as young people. It doesn’t mean moving the whole newspaper onto Snapchat. We need to create, not follow. It’s not the internet we’re designing for, after all; it’s a newspaper. It’s about the content. If you put the same content onto Instagram or Snapchat, it’s obviously not going to be the same. So it’s about working on the content, making it strong and engaging in a way that keeps the attention of young people. Bringing old ideas, structures, and journalists onto new channels is not the solution. It’s important that people entering at this particular moment understand older journalists and the history of the job. It’s through that that they’ll be able to think about designing content in a different way. We shouldn’t lose the idea of a journalist and what they can do. For example, I think about my parents: They found in journalists an idea that they could follow, almost in the same way that they followed one particular newspaper or magazine and could identify with it. We should work on the design so that it’s contemporary, but we also have to work on the content, on the quality and depth of the journalism, and designers have to recognize this. It’s important that a designer listens, reads, and learns from older, established journalists. There needs to be a strong relationship between the two sides of a newsroom – editorial designers and the editorial staff must inform and communicate with one another.

from 99U99U http://bit.ly/2y8f7Bh

After the Nightmare Project: Lessons Learned

After the Nightmare Project: Lessons Learned

We’ve all had at least one: a nightmare project that you wish you could walk away from.

Once you’ve abandoned the idea that it’ll end up in your portfolio, you just want to get that final approval, send off the invoice, and never think about it again. We asked a few seasoned design pros to think about it one more time. (Sorry guys.) Why? Because those projects are the ones that teach us the greatest lessons – the ones that lead to revamped creative briefs, new paragraphs in your proposals, and updated clauses in your contracts. Sometimes they even lead to entirely new approaches to shaping your portfolio, sizing up new clients, and deciding when to say “No.” 

Avoid “small” changes that create a ripple effect of additional work.

“Elefint was just a few months away from launching a new brand and a website for a nonprofit focused on end-of-life care when the client switched the project management role from a contractor to a newly hired staff member. Unfortunately, a lot of our efforts and insights were lost in the transition, and the client started asking for “small” changes that inevitably created a ripple effect – from logos to the website, animations to print collateral. Each request led to weeks in delays – waiting on feedback, explaining our rationale for the originally approved design, revisiting initial strategy. A project we thought would take 12 months ended up taking more than two years.

Knowing there had to be a more efficient way for us to work, I started experimenting with design sprints for our other nonprofit clients, to eliminate the inefficiencies that come with long feedback loops and broad scopes of work. Design sprints have allowed us to experiment with what’s possible within the context of building out complex digital projects and brands, and to work more iteratively and collaboratively with our clients, with timelines that are both practical and motivating. Working in shorter increments helps our team and clients stay focused, energized, inspired, and, most important, aligned throughout the lifeline of the project. We now integrate our “Design Sprint for Social Good” methods into the design process, and we’ve launched 10 complex digital projects in less than one year. As a small team, that’s a tremendous feat.”

— Gopika Prabhu, Founder + Creative Director, Elefint, San Francisco

Show a healthy skepticism toward new and experimental technology.

“As an interactive designer at the Newseum, I designed touch-screen experiences for museum exhibits that teach visitors about their First Amendment freedoms and how news is made. This was years ago, when smartphones were just taking off, tablets were just entering the retail market, and pinch-to-zoom was a new behavior. On the eve of this digital boom, our in-house multimedia team had a unique opportunity to create a gallery that highlighted digital media and its effects on how we receive and consume news. Our team controlled the content and developed the software, and an external partner promised to provide the hardware: the latest in multiscreen surfaces and projection technology.

We were creating bespoke designs for screens that didn’t yet exist, weren’t available for testing, and wouldn’t be out for months. But our tech partner couldn’t nail down the specs. They often reported changes to the monitors’ and projectors’ aspect ratios and resolutions, rendering our interactives and graphics unusable until we adapted our files. This sounds ridiculous now – because everything is flexible, adaptive, and responsive – but back then, this wasn’t an option.

We had to expect the unexpected. We limped through development and recreated (and recreated and recreated) the files—never knowing if they were right until we finally installed them onto the hardware in the gallery. I learned that with any new and experimental technology – whether it’s hardware, software, a new tool, pattern, or process – it’s okay to feel wary. Use that healthy skepticism to look beyond the current deliverable, to evaluate where the product might show up once it outlives its current platform. Making design into a flexible system expands its utility and its reach, which is especially important across products. Devices, interaction patterns, communication, and tech change faster than our understanding of them. And that’s okay.”

— Libby Bawcombe, Senior Visual Product Designer National Public Radio, Washington, D.C.

Clarify what exactly you are there to do.

“I was commissioned by an independent animation and advertising company to produce, or help produce, a very short film. It was supposed to be between two and three minutes long, and I had just three weeks to do it. I opted to be in-house rather than work at my own studio as, I thought it would make communication easier. On this front, I was wrong.

Initially, I had gone in for an interview where I was referred to as the freelance “talent.” (It was a little uncomfortable, and vague, to be referred to that way and not as the visual stylist or creative director or whatever my role was meant to be.) I started the next day, never having discussed the official job title: I was just given a loose concept (make the animation look like a Charley Harper painting) and no script. 

I was completely left to my own devices, with small deadlines at the end of each day. I should have taken the initiative and spent the first day figuring out storyboard, style guide, transitions, and color scheme, but I was too stressed and confused to do so. I had no idea that I was in charge of the entire direction of the project. It got a bit better in the weeks ahead as I navigated my way in the dark. 

Needless to say, I wasn’t proud of the final outcome, or of my performance as a freelancer. I should have been more vocal about needing clear signposts. In the end, I was credited as the illustrator, although I had ad-libbed the entire direction and narrative. The animation firm was fantastic but I think just as confused as I was about my role. I realize now that I shouldn’t have winged it, but clarified what I was there to do from the get-go. This is something that I now try to do with every new freelance commission.” 

— Jon Jones, Illustrator, Port Elizabeth, South Africa

When a brief is conceptual, seek client feedback early on.

“When the offer came in last June, I was all in. It was a commission for a governmental organization – a rather conceptual brief but with a generous budget. That’s a lethal combination, as one doesn’t want to disappoint and one definitely wants to please. What followed was a couple of rather stressful weeks and an ample dose of frustration. Both were completely avoidable in hindsight. 

The brief was to create a series of illustrations that clearly described the process of patenting in the science industry. I had to design images for a three-metertall, very narrow banner, which would be displayed at a conference. As I was dealing with American clients, most of my talks and feedback happened over Skype. This was the first part of the nightmare: Skype combined with a temperamental internet connection, conflicting time zones, and muffled accents is a tricky thing to navigate, and can add to unnecessary stress. I’ve learned to stick with emails.

The nightmare got worst. I should have pushed for image revisions at an earlier stage: The client decided to make small changes after I had everything in place and locked down in a very tight layout. That added massively to the workload. I formed a very close relationship and personal attachment to my color choices, too, but when the client at the very last minute decided we should go with murky, corporate colors instead of my usual palette, I said okay even though I didn’t agree. Lesson learned.

Through this experience, I realized that even if it’s a big client, it’s still just a bunch of humans trying to come up with a decent solution to the problem at hand. For the time that you’re working together, you are a member of the team and should act like one.”

— Martina Paukova, Illustrator, Berlin

Creative projects need creative people in the room.

“A sister agency had asked my team to work on a massive experiential project for a meteoric-hot tech and transportation brand in San Francisco. And since my chief creative and I had the requisite sleeve tattoos and hipster facial hair, we were to lead the creative elements of this multimillion-dollar campaign. But on the day of the kickoff meeting, I chose to ignore the first red flag: The client hadn’t invited a single member of their own creative team: just the head of procurement, a couple of mid-level producers, and an account lead with two months on the job.

For the next four hours, not one minute was spent talking about the idea, let alone the intent of the idea. It was all about rate cards, travel plans, and the office politics required to get things done. Of course, this made sense coming from a tech company hell-bent on maximizing valuation. But this laser focus on margin and production timelines meant that the creative had to fit into increasingly oppressive and consequential parameters. Which proved to be a disaster.

Everything we presented was judged on feasibility and budget, not creativity or effectiveness. When we proposed a visual identity system for the campaign, the people in the room didn’t feel qualified or empowered to give direction. As the kickoff date approached, we got farther and farther behind. Ultimately, the campaign was pulled. The work went “in-house,” which is where it always belonged.

Yes, this is a clichéd story of how procurement and creatives don’t mix. But there’s truth in the cliché. If budget decisions require a leader, then creative decisions do, too, If you don’t see another creative when you walk in the room, run in the other direction.”

— Max Lenderman, Founder + CEO, School, Boulder, Colorado

Money matters, but how much? 

“Since abandoning computer science to pursue commercial art as a living, I’ve struggled to balance the creativity of my dream job with work that’s comfortable, safe, and lucrative. The biggest frustrations and creative blocks that I crash into are the ones I could have avoided, if I’d just followed my internal compass. 

A few years back, a particular style of mine gained attention, and the commissions rolled in, at three or four times the fees I’d accepted a year earlier. I was happy to be getting the work, but something was off. I wanted to be doing work that was more colorful, fun, and whimsical than the things I was being hired for. I thought the money would keep me entertained, but I was wrong. Projects started becoming headaches for me: I’d put things off, I’d get stressed out, and I’d start to think I couldn’t complete the job. My clients were happy, but I was bored, and worried that I had “broken” my creativity and, in turn, my career.

The solution was simple: Put in the time to do what you really want, even if it requires a financial sacrifice. I started consciously turning down work that didn’t excite me, and spent any leftover time focusing on side projects that aligned with my creative goals. Soon, the paying work poured in again, and I noticed that my favorite clients usually discover me through my personal work, which we adapt for their commercial pieces. Now I know I have to constantly fine-tune my work to be sure it’s taking me where I want to go, rather than taking the easy path. Heck, I’ve already decided to throw job security to the wind by being a freelance illustrator – why start wearing a safety belt now?”

— Kirk Wallace, Illustrator, Boston

When outsourcing jobs, be crystal clear about what you’re requesting.

“Some years ago we were hired to design an exhibition. It was located in an old building (not your average white cube,) and we had commissioned a special orange carpet for the floor. It was going to be installed the morning of the show, right before the shelves and sculptures were brought in. We were working on a very tight schedule! 

When we arrived on the day of the opening, the carpet had been installed but the carpet installer had already left. What we found was the most sloppy, bubbly orange carpet that we had ever seen. When we called to ask for an explanation, the carpet installer told us that he thought the floor was going to be used for a one-night Queen’s day party instead of an exhibition. (Queen’s day is our national holiday, and orange is the national color.)

The exhibition content was about to arrive, so we had to think and act fast. We freestyled a new design by cutting up the orange floor into small graphic shapes that we combined with the original tiling. We barely made it by the time the shelves and sculptures were brought in, but it looked better.

The carpet installer had had no idea what the floor was actually going to be used for, and we should have briefed them better. In the end, though, we learned to surround ourselves with a network of creatives and suppliers that we really trust.”

— Jaron Korvinus, Cofounder of Studio Spass, Rotterdam

Red flags won’t simply go away.

“Soon after I founded my design studio, a California chocolate company asked me to create a logo for their growing business and storefront. Given my slim portfolio from a previous in-house design position, I was eager to collaborate with a food brand on the West Coast. But my overt optimism made me blind to a few red flags – the client’s small budget and their unwillingness to hand over the creative reins – which ultimately doomed the project.

I pride myself on being able to understand and translate obscure client feedback, but in one of the early reviews, the client asked for the logo to “express more devotion,” words that baffle me to this day. I designed countless concepts and made countless revisions because I was determined to make the client happy. I even asked the client to share examples of other “devoted” logos, which was no help at all. For the first time ever in my design career, I was at a complete loss, utterly defeated. What’s worse, my contract had failed to note a maximum number of revisions or the fact that the deposit was nonrefundable. I gave it my all, lost thousands in unbilled hours, and endured weeks of self-doubt. And my other work suffered for lack of attention. Eventually, we parted ways and the client had a family friend create the logo, so you can imagine the final result.

Fast-forward to today. I still pour my heart and soul into absolutely everything I create, but all of my proposals and lawyer-looked-over contracts help avoid failure or confusion. Now I show clients a few rough concepts early on (rather than perfecting dozens of options) and my contracts clearly note that each project includes two revisions, with additional rounds charged at an hourly rate. With these processes in place, I’m able to demand a fair wage for my talents and time.”

— Kelsy Stromski, Founder + Creative Director, Refinery 43, Massachusetts 

Have a strong understanding of the brand’s product story.

“A year after I completed MAX100 (a personal project illustrating the Nike AirMax 1 in 100 different ways), Nike asked me to use a similar approach to create 30 shoes for their Nike Air Reinvented campaign. Nike was a brand I had long admired and a bucket-list client, so I was excited and nervous. But I assumed the work would follow the same loose, stream-of-consciousness approach inspired by whatever mood hit me at the moment.

When I presented my first round of sketches, it became pretty clear that this was a very different animal. As you can imagine, a brand of Nike’s size had a lengthy and complicated approval process, which meant dozens of my ideas were rejected because they didn’t fit into the product’s brand story. In my personal work, I had generated three to five pieces a week, but this time I had completed only two illustrations after nearly a month. At that rate, I’d never complete the project on time.

I recognized that I had to abandon my early expectations and shift my way of thinking to become much more strategic: Each illustration had to tell the story of the product. Nike’s internal team was incredibly helpful in arming me with detailed background information, and the approval process started to accelerate. It was a grueling project, but by the end I could look at each piece and know that the work was better because of the focus on story and the feedback that helped shape the work.

Here’s what I learned: My success as an independent designer is built on a foundation of personal projects, which have created dozens of opportunities for client work. But once you get that opportunity, you have to be prepared to adjust your thinking. Work to maintain what makes you unique in the process, but find out how the client operates and what they respond to, then fold those ingredients into your process. Be prepared to let their direction and feedback make the work better.”

— Matt Stevens, Designer + Illustrator, Charlotte

Just because something worked for one brand doesn’t mean it will work for the next.

“I’m currently rebranding a local flower shop for a client with enviable taste. Our kickoff meeting went great, but I soon realized that I hadn’t asked the right questions. The owner said she loved a clean, abstract logo I’d created for a local coffee shop, but I eventually realized she liked the brand and feel of the coffee shop itself more than the minimal mark.

I shared mood boards, and then the first round of logos (with far too many options), and the response was kind but somewhat tepid. A month later, the client finally shared specific feedback, and I revised the logos she liked best, although she wasn’t thrilled with any of them. Another month went by before she told me, “We need to start over – here’s an example of what we really like.” The sample made perfect sense, but it felt derivative and cliché; I was dejected and took it personally.

After I thought about the process for a long time, my frustration slowly turned into empathy. It was my fault. I didn’t get to know their brand: The logos I’d shown were cold and impersonal – the exact opposite of a flower shop. I’d been lazy and arrogant, thinking, “I’ll just do what I did for the coffee shop, and they’ll hoist me on their shoulders in a victory parade.”

So here’s what I’ve learned: Do your research up front, understand who the client is, and communicate expectations clearly. And when you inevitably get frustrated, try to put yourself in your client’s shoes. That empathy can lead to something unexpected.”

— Matt Lehman, Designer + Illustrator, Nashville

Creative briefs demand details, details, details.

“Years ago, my previous agency landed a web project for an East Coast client that runs a popular cycling event. We’d pitched them on designing their logo as well, but they chose to go with a local agency. So I started the project a little bummed about the lost opportunity.

A few weeks in, the client asked for daily email updates on top of our weekly phone calls. Requests for features that were outside our scope quickly turned into demands and requirements. Unfortunately, our proposal lacked concrete details regarding features, functionality, and timelines, so it’s not surprising that the client’s expectations went way beyond our own. Eventually, the client got angry, asked for their deposit back, and said they wouldn’t be using the site, even though it was close to completion. I had to talk to my boss about it (not fun) as well as their lawyer (even worse). 

The first thing I learned? Don’t take on projects you’re not interested in. Once we’d missed the chance to do the work we specialize in (branding and identities), we should have passed; taking on creative work that doesn’t excite you rarely leads to a great client relationship or stellar results. Second, I promised myself I would make every proposal as clear as possible. Sometimes I feel like a hack, writing ultra-specific agreements that suggest I don’t trust our clients. But that’s not the case. A crystal-clear scope of work allows for open and honest conversations with clients – a project where no one yells, cries, or gets sued in the end.”

— Michael Benjamin, Creative Director, Anthem Branding, Boulder, Colorado

Don’t shortchange your design approach in the interest of time.

“A few months after I moved West to take a new position at a small studio in Boulder, Colorado, we lost a crucial account. We quickly realized that we needed a new identity and website to separate ourselves from previous leadership challenges and to reveal our new business model. To get it done quickly, we abandoned our typical design approach and skipped some key steps. I was tasked with the design deliverables, but I never had an opportunity to think holistically about the experience or collaborate with the internal team, since the leadership wanted to keep the brand reveal a secret. Instead, I went straight to the computer and wasted a lot of time, suffering in silence. Who was our audience? What was our message? What experience were we hoping to design? And where was everyone else?!

I took a step back, restarted the process, and insisted that two of the agency leads – a married couple – invest some time in the discovery and user experience. There were arguments every step of the way, secret talks about the direction, and clear disagreements about the new business model. In the end, the design came out okay, but the process highlighted misalignments on the leadership team, including the married couple themselves. Shortly after the design went live, the couple divorced and the studio went out of business. I wasn’t sure if I’d torn my new family apart or if the project was just another symptom of a difficult relationship.

The experience reminded me that the discovery and strategy process is essential prior to diving into any design deliverable, no matter how personal or painful it may. It ensures that we’re identifying pain points, solving the right problems, and capturing the full story that will lead to a more compelling design and, in the end, more customers.”

— Sumiko Carter,  Creative Director,  Gorilla Logic,  Boulder, Colorado

Chuck the calendar and embrace the stress.

“I’m a very chaotic guy. I procrastinate. I don’t ever check my calendar. Every deadline that seems a long way off quickly and suddenly becomes a very short deadline. I‘ve tried over and over again to organize myself but it’s never been very productive. One particular commission was especially frantic. It was a lettering piece, for which I had to draw 19 letters out of landscapes, people, machines, cities, cars, and other doodles. I completely forgot that I had to do it and then suddenly realized my oversight the night before the delivery date, when I got a reminder email from my agent. I had it in my calendar, but I never looked at my calendar.

I was busy with two shows in Düsseldorf, Germany, at the time and I had a few other commercial commissions on the go, so I stayed up all night sketching and drawing to make the deadline. Luckily, in the end, the client was incredibly happy with the results. And so was I. 

What I came to realize – through this experience and many others like it – is that I need stress to be motivated and succeed. The things that I’m most proud are the things I drew on the day of a deadline. So you could say, in a way, that all my illustrations are nightmare projects. I need the nightmare: It’s my vital source of energy.”

— Jonathan Calugi, Illustrator, Pistoia, Italy

The client is the client, not the designer.

“Every project has its own level of complexity and comes with different challenges, though the nightmare project will always be the one where the client tells us exactly what to do. It’s always detrimental if the client doesn’t give us creative license and doesn’t trust us to do our job. 

Our error with these scenarios has been to give up and follow along with the client’s opinion and direction. Over time, we’ve learned to be more convincing and not to allow the client to be the designer. In the end, we want to create graphic design that makes an impact, but if the client is the creative director, then it’s hard to make something incredible. It’s also, of course, very important to keep clients happy and satisfied, so in these situations it’s often a tough balancing act.

To deal with these nightmare projects, we try to be honest. Sometimes it’s about showing multiple options and saying, “We could have done this, but here’s what you asked for,” making it clear which idea we prefer. In the end, it’s the nightmares that encourage us to grow.”

— Marissa Gutierrez, Graphic Designer, Anagrama, Mexico City

from 99U99U http://bit.ly/2l2fdob

Rejane Dal Bello: Design to Give People a Voice

Rejane Dal Bello: Design to Give People a Voice

Rejane Dal Bello, who was born in Rio de Janeiro and now lives in London, has followed an unusual path to success. Accompanying her dad on his physician’s rounds, it seemed she might follow in his footsteps. Instead, she discovered a passion for art in Lynchburg, Virginia, where she was a foreign exchange student, and there was no  turning back. But like Milton Glaser, with whom the designer studied at New York’s Parsons after completing high school, she also has a passion for people, particularly those suffering from illness, disease, and poverty.

She ended up in the Dutch city of Rotterdam to study at what she considered the best university for combining design and social work, and because of her pro bono work for a children’s hospital in Peru, the design studio she worked at to fund her way through school put her work on their site to give them credibility with health-centered nonprofits. It worked. The design studio scored a major campaign on Alzheimer’s, a project Dal Bello considers her finest work to date and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Unlike most of us, who give back on the side, Dal Bello is making change an integral part of her work, whetheenlightening the Dutch about an often unseen disease or creating a children’s book for kids born with cleft palate: a welcome reminder that design can have an impact on people’s lives and that “good design” doesn’t always refer to the quality of a global ad campaign. But Dal Bello is also, at her core, an artist and a free spirit.

We caught up with the impassioned globe-trotting designer to talk about her travels, her arduous work process, her recent Earth Art series, and her most ambitious project to date, called Dr. Giraffe, which puts those many hours at her father’s side to good use.

You grew up in a family of scientists. Did you ever consider taking that path?

Doctors. My father is a pediatrician, my mother is a dentist, and my older brother became a doctor, and the other one became a dentist. I never went to museums growing up but did go to hospitals with my dad, so there was not much cultural upbringing in my family. My father pushed me to be a dentist but it did not work out. 

How did you realize you were meant to be a designer?

For me it was eye-opening when I did a high school exchange program in Lynchburg, Virginia. I had put myself into an art class there and did art every day, so I really developed. Before that, I could not say that I had talent because I had nothing to show. People just thought I made funny drawings. At the end of the school year the school had a big audition and I won best in show. That was my first awakening that I should be doing something with the arts. 

You’ve had such a global life. What made you leave Brazil again?

I finished university in 2000 and, after being really tech-focused in school, I decided I wanted to do graphic design. I didn’t have money to do a master’s, but I thought, Why not do a course with a master? So I went to New York to do a six-month continuing education class with Milton Glaser.

What was it like working with him?

We talked a lot, and had similar feelings about design. At that time people still did cigarette campaigns, and he would say that when we communicate something we have to take responsibility for it. I could relate. At my first job in Brazil they had to do a cigarette advertising campaign and I went to my boss and said, “Sorry. I don’t work on cigarettes or alcohol. I don’t believe I can sell it, even though it is my responsibility to.” Thank God my boss did not fire me. You have to have a point of view, which nowadays is normal, but back then it was not.

How did you end up in Rotterdam after that?

I did not feel that New York City was the right place for me and went back to Brazil and worked in the biggest studio in the country. My wish was to do a master’s where I could combine social work with graphic design, but Brazil did not have the means to support that field of study. I found what I was looking for in Holland, and learned it would be cheap to do a master’s. It was 1,500 euros per year – ridiculous! Also, my father’s father is an immigrant of Europe so I was able to get a passport. After six months in Holland, I got a job at Studio Dumbar, a place that, even though nobody spoke my language, they spoke my vision. We spoke to each other in our visual language. We understood each other. I stayed there for eight years.

The body of work you did there is extraordinary. Why do you think that is?

It’s quite funny you say that, because I struggled with a lot of the work I did there. Much of my work did not get used. Not the projects you’ve seen, of course; those got through. But there was one point at Studio Dumbar when it was hard to get anything approved. My work went a little bit too far; it was too pushy. I’m always the one who never does the same thing twice. It became too painful, because so much of myself went into the process. I started collecting everything, the sketchbooks, to remind myself that it wasn’t all in my head: I actually did this work.

Are there certain steps you take when you’re looking for branding solutions for a new client?

Let me just say that I hate the word branding. I like the word identity. Branding is such a big deal nowadays, commercializing. But I’m about personalizing, and I think that’s the problem I have with the design profession. Because an identity comes out of identifying what it is that makes you different and unique. Our profession is confused as to what our role is. A lot of students these days are feeling that visual identity and branding have become almost like a separate category for them, because they feel the need to always be the same.

My process is to see every client as a different entity. What I do first is understand the core of the project. Once you have the core, you need a satellite concept that will make it different from any other project. That helps you find the balance graphically. 

One of your projects at Studio Dumbar was your work for the for the organization Alzheimer Nederland, where you used disappearing or disintegrating type for phrases like “Not clear anymore” or “Not home anymore,” which you can barely make out, to convey the sense of losing one’s way, and in a sense one’s life. What went into that?

I remember that when the creative director told me about it I said, “I have to work on this.” I’d been doing pro bono work for around 14 years for a project in Peru, a children’s hospital. So Dumbar had put that work on their site’s portfolio page, to get across that they had people with design experience around diseases and hospitals.The process was great.

My first batch of sketches was about how to translate the disease, the core of the disease, because it is about communication. That’s the only way you can actually know if somebody has Alzheimer’s; it’s not a physical or visual disease, like AIDS or cancer. It doesn’t have an identifiable thing that shows itself. The person is lost. The person repeats things several times, saying or for getting things. It’s about losing yourself. So that’s why I ended up with my visual concept. Alzheimer’s is such a big problem that it needed a sensitive solution. For me visually, it was not just about making a design. It was about realizing that I had to communicate that this is something people die from. It was the project of my life.

It must have been hard to leave the Netherlands.

Overall, working at Studio Dumbar was positive, but after nine years I decided it was time to move on. It’s like your parents’ house: You love them but you have to leave. Then I got an offer to come to Wolff Olins in London. I wasn’t planning to take the job but thought about this as a challenge, a big agency in another city. I needed a fresh start.

But when I got to Wolff Olins I did not fit in; I wasn’t a good fit for their design. At Studio Dumbar I was not asked to be a creative director. Instead, I was just creating. At Wolff Olins, when you grow older you become more part of the business. You become more of a leader but you don’t do that much design anymore. I like working with others but I wanted to actually do the job myself. I realized this is not how I was going to grow, so I left after two years. I decided it was time for me to try having my own studio. I had always done my own social projects, and I wanted that again.

Tell me about the Dr. Giraffe children’s book series. The simple lines and shapes and limited palette of red, black, and white almost remind me of Dick Bruna’s work.

Thank you. The series is a social project I initiated that’s designed around health. I’m working with a doctor and a copywriter and we’re going to create a library of all the diseases. We’re starting with chickenpox and then cleft palate, which is a problem you’re born with, and then leukemia. Using the character Dr. Giraffe, we’re telling stories that parents can use to let their child learn about the progression of the disease a child has–the story of the illness in a metaphorical way. Like the Alzheimer’s project, it’s quite emotional, but it’s helping give a voice to parents, so they can talk about a disease and have a more lightweight way to tell the story.

What is an example?

My niece has a friend that’s going through leukemia, and I read the book to my niece so she could also understand what was happening with her friend. This book’s concept is that since it is a deadly disease there is a “Land of the Big” where the little giraffe wants to go, where she can grow. She travels there with her balloons, which are metaphors for the cells that become weak while she travels, and she has to do a landing in the Land of Chemo first to get stronger and wait to get better so she can continue on to the Land of the Big.

They’re hard stories to tell. With this one girl, we read it at least five times, because every time she wanted to know which stage she was at. When she first read it, she was not aware of this. But she wanted to read it again, so she could be comforted knowing that it’s going to stop, that it’s going to go away. I want to put these books out as a test, and everybody’s doing it as a pro bono. The idea is to have partnerships and investors to be able to offer this to any hospital or doctor.

You’ve also started dipping a toe into the world of fine art. How did your Earth Art project come to be?

I was going through a dark period after Wolff Olins, and I knew that I had to get out of it to survive. This project really expressed that, because I did not want to be in the present. I wanted to be somewhere else. I’d always had this obsession with Google Earth and I started collecting images from it and putting them in a folder. One night, I was looking at one of them, admiring it. And then something just came into my head – the rivers looked like strokes of paint and I could take this, because it looked like a stroke of paint, and make something else.

Then I had the idea that the images I looked at resembled the expression of an artist from a specific period of art history. One looks like Mondrian, and another one is Pollock: Pollock paints from a river in Nigeria! It looked like it was literally a Pollock painting. I wanted to make a new world – to paint images of Earth in an abstract form. It was an artistic way of showing how I saw the world and how I want my world to be: much more artistic, open, and emotional.

Do you think of London as your home at this point?

I hope I don’t have to be in one place to do design. When everything’s the same, I think it’s so sad. I’m not saying no, because I don’t know what’s going to happen. But I cannot say I’ve found the place. I don’t think I ever will.

from 99U99U http://bit.ly/2l2eUK3

Big Spaceship: The Indie Agency That Grew Up With the Internet

Big Spaceship: The Indie Agency That Grew Up With the Internet

From its humble beginnings in Brooklyn’s Dumbo in 2000, when that part of New York City was a desolate, off-the-grid stomping ground of artists and artisans, to the 115-person agency that has been the focus of two Harvard Business Review case studies and was knighted digital partner by JetBlue in June, Big Spaceship is still doing what it does best: paving new paths for how creative agencies define themselves, what they do, and how they work.

Calling itself a “modern partner to ambitious brands,” the agency has dropped the word digital from its list of attributes in a move aimed at putting the limiting and, in its opinion, now obsolete definition of digital agency behind it. (If the whole world is digitized, the thinking goes, why would you call yourself digital anymore?)

Big Spaceship, whose name seems more relevant than ever, is focused on what it can do for brands – and how culture and behavior affect their ability to do this – rather than which vertical they inhabit. In this vein, they divide their services into the three unique offerings: systems, stories, and communities. Big Spaceship is clearly doing something right. In addition to landing JetBlue, the 17-year-old company recently became Hasbro Games’ agency of record (note: not just “digital” agency of record), redesigned the Boston Ballet’s digital identity, created an app for BMW drivers that connects them with company engineers, and made a three-part film series in White Sands National Monument to showcase the photographic prowess of Samsung’s new phone.

99U Contributing Editor Dave Benton sat down with founder and CEO Michael Lebowitz, the man most responsible for Big Spaceship’s flight patterns, to find out how the agency manages to win clients David vs. Goliath–style from competitors many times its size, why the company’s culture is such a fundamental driver of its success, and how the company’s ethos plays out in everyday working life.  

How have you seen Dumbo change over the course of 17 years?

In the first four or five months, we were in a 100-square-foot bedroom in my partner’s apartment in Brooklyn. Very soon after that we found our first office space and it was wildly cheap. Early on there were tumbleweeds blowing by! Our first building was pretty rough and tumble, and now there are extremely fancy and expensive condos nearby. There was a period of time where there weren’t even any services in the area and we had to walk up into Brooklyn Heights to get anything to eat. There was a great artistic community here – furniture makers and artisans and the like – and there was a vibrance to it even though it was quiet.

Eventually we got an actual market, which was a big step, and now that it has turned into a digital agency hub; part of me loves it and part of me regrets ever saying anything about Dumbo. It’s always a double-edged sword. Dumbo is such a neighborhood unto itself; you experience it the same way you would with the gentrification of a residential neighborhood. We’ve maintained a certain internal culture and are just as we used to be. The main difference is that our friends and clients are happy to spend time with us here.

How did you come to design?

It goes far back, in a strange way, to the Macintosh 512 I had when I was a young kid. I got one early on at my house, and there was no turning back from there. It was black and white and had a tiny screen, but it was incredible. We then got an early modem and had CompuServe, and I figured out how to do file downloads for the software to create my own bulletin board. I was probably 12 years old, and people would sign on and we would chat and trade files, so I guess I was into the internet before the internet, in a weird way. This was around 1984 or 1985. Design-wise, I was using Mac Paint and would create covers for my schoolwork, but I was never a good designer. I might have actually been the world’s worst designer.

My first real commercial work wasn’t until 1996. I had a friend who worked at a record label, and he introduced me to an internship out of a small web design company in Massachusetts. I swallowed my pride and moved back in with my mom in order to take it. Three of the guys who owned and worked at the studio lived in the house, and I would turn up in the morning all enthusiastic, and they’d wander down in their bathrobes with cigarettes and coffee! Their niche was music, so I worked on the Aerosmith website and a few other things, and that’s where I really began to cut my teeth and taught myself Flash. After a while of doing that, I moved back to New York and got my first full-time gig out of the print division at the back of the Village Voice.

It was incredibly quaint to get a digital job at a printed newspaper. It was the Wild West in web design at that time. There were barely any books, and when I started out you would see something online and just try to reverse engineer it. There was this great sharing community, but there really weren’t any classes or curriculum. You could be a designer just by having enough jobs and Photoshop to do it.

Thanks to the Harvard Business Review’s write-up on Big Spaceship, you’ve had a lasting effect on how digital agencies have structured their teams. How is your structure special, and how does it help your team?

There was a moment in 2007 when we were still seated in the office by discipline. I heard somebody say, “That’s not us; that’s the producers.” It horrified me! I felt like we were a band of misfits that all worked together, so the very next day I reseated everyone by the project they were working on so everyone sat cross-functionally, oriented toward the goal of the work rather than the skill sets that they aligned with. We never looked back.

At that time, all of our projects were of a very similar size and shape. We had fixed teams with a fixed number of people of different disciplines and they had names and numbers – that’s what Harvard wrote the case study about, and whether that structure would allow us to grow and scale. We can scale it, but when you are dealing with many different accounts and sizes of projects, as digital matured more and became the center of things, that’s when things got more interesting. We needed to make our organization more elastic and make sure we could slide people where we needed. But keeping the cross-functional accountability for great work always stayed the same.

The downside of cross-functional teams is that you don’t have all the designers sitting together and learning from each other. It is important that you develop every channel for communication that you can. We have Slack channels for each discipline. We focus on creating the connectivity that you don’t have from sitting together. We became much more efficient with this structure, and the team system was driven to make it like there were several small agencies within a small agency. One of the most important parts of this is that problems within teams surface far more quickly, so they can be resolved sooner. It keeps everything more transparent.

What does it take to create a great organization for the future?

The one thing you have real control over is values. It’s about your day-to-day job satisfaction. Our core values are to “take care of each other,” “collaborate inside and out,” “speak up – no silent disagreement,” and “produce amazing work.” It sounds pretty simple, although it took a lot of tweaking over time to get it down to that. I’ve recently been thinking of adding one around inclusivity and the value of diversity of perspective. One of the reasons we say “speak up” is that I have a lot of experience in what we do, but I don’t have the perspective of someone who has a 23-year-old’s interface with the culture right now, and neither of those is more valuable than the other.

An intern’s view is as valuable as mine, just in a completely different way. And I’m talking about the broadest sense of diversity, where it’s about bringing your whole self to work. I don’t want someone to just be a role; I want them to be a person. How can we embrace that as fully as possible and bring in every new facet we can bring in?

How are you adapting your agency to the post–“digital agency” world?

We should be thinking about people, and that people are at the center of it. Everything is being transformed by the biggest economic revolution of our lifetime, and it needs more nuance. Digital was enough of a differentiator for a while, as it could still be seen as separate from other things, but now it can’t. It could be used to optimize a company’s supply chain or for a social post. So digital is no longer a useful word. I understand that people are calling themselves digital agencies because that’s what clients are searching for, but I prefer to put our philosophy first and call ourselves a “modern partner,” as we were born into the digital world and understand it. The term digital agency means different things to everyone. We are in a position to be fortunate enough to say we are “a modern partner to ambitious brands.” We want to say something about our ambition because we are now in a position where we believe we can deliver on it.

How do you stay on top of what’s happening in the world around us, and when do you pull this knowledge in for your clients?

We hire curious people with a broad range of skill sets at the company now, and we always give people a voice. We tend to hire people who are good at connecting dots that might not otherwise be connected. My superpower is connecting the real superheroes. I also try hard not to dive too deeply into the industry trade publications, as I don’t think you find inspiration there. We will look at other agencies’ work to admire it, but I think it’s dangerous to get your inspiration from an echo chamber. If it’s being talked about in a publication, it’s probably a bit late anyway. Look at what the kids are doing: That’s being aware but not overcommitting. VR is an example; I tell my clients to be aware but the time is not right to go there yet.

How do you maintain perspective when you’ve done the same thing for so long?

Having lived in Dumbo for 17 years, I don’t think about it as one job. We have a slide we show on our agency credentials presentation plotting us in internet history. It’s essentially a timeline of logos. I love being able to say we are only a year younger than Wi-Fi being standardized, and only a year older than iTunes, the iPod, and Wikipedia. So it’s not one company when you predate so many things and have seen them all happen. We saw the iPod emerge and thought that would change everything. Then we saw the iPhone emerge and that did change everything. It’s a pretty soft transition, as you can’t watch yourself grow. It doesn’t feel the same: It feels like we are one set of values and ethos but we’ve been a dozen companies over that time. 

You are one of the last original digital companies that has not been purchased. Why maintain independence?

I have been portrayed in the press as rabidly independent, and that’s not really true. I do get overtures almost weekly, but the problem historically was that I would have these conversations and think that they just didn’t get me and would try to assimilate our agency into their culture. If someone came to me and said they really got us and would want to structure us in a way that doesn’t change us but made us better, I’d be open to that. So I’m just incredibly picky. When I see something that’s amazing, that will be the next chapter. I love this place, and I have an obligation to all these people, as they came in for something really specific. You don’t do something that is going to change it negatively lightly. I consider myself personally responsible for the culture of the place. I need to make sure we are doing everything we can to tend the cultural garden.    

from 99U99U http://bit.ly/2gf6XQ2

Print Ain’t Dead!

Print Ain’t Dead!

Whether standing in line for checkout at a supermarket, sitting in a local coffee shop, or browsing in a modern bookstore, it’s not unusual to see magazines with $15, $20, even $25 price tags. Deluxe paper, niche topics, beautiful design; at a time when there are plenty of articles about the decline of newsprint sales, where on earth did these elegant creations come from?

They’re known to the world as independent magazines, as if this emphasizes their maverick attractions. There are the lifestyle giants that fall into this category, like Kinfolk, the magazine about slow-living that’s cultivated a huge audience of alternative aspirationalists, and Monocle, the high-end bible for business entrepreneurs and jetsetters. You might know Cherry Bomb, a magazine founded by two restaurateurs in Brooklyn that features interviews with women chefs, or Gather Journal, the digest for the organic food movement that comes complete with rustic art direction. (We’ll even give our own Ninety Nine U magazine a plug here.) Designers inevitably love these lovingly-designed magazines: they collect them, they read them, they study them. Some even make them.

Soda Books, Berlin

The idea that print is dead has been prevalent for over a decade, digital warriors saying print is dead and buried whilst print devotees proclaiming with reverence that its fighting back. Digital vs. Print: the two pitted against in a bloody battle to the death. Which will win? The presence of the defiant, glorious spines of Cherry BombGather, and more, along with their vibrant online community of followers tells a whole different story though, as does a recent report showing that the number of magazines in the U.S has stayed consistent since 2008, varying from around 7,100 to 7,300 over the years.

The truth it, there’s no real battle. Print is in a co-dependent, productive relationship with digital, and the function, meaning, and use of a magazine is simply evolving as times and habits change. It’s no surprise that the Internet does fast, cheap disposable content and vital, instant news much better than print does, which is why newspapers have had to adapt: its true a certain kind of print is dying, but digital media has created a space for more interesting, thoughtful, and innovatively-designed printed material.

The central change is a liberating one. Print is no longer the business model: print is the heart, the core expression, of an idea. And it’s this shift that has allowed graphic design to flourish. The idea given visual presence; the idea as an object.

***

The turn of the century is always a moment given to apocalyptic predictions. For print in the 2000s, several things began happening all at once to create the kind of landscape where people could easily—and with style—self-publish.

Large publishers became distracted and obsessed by the developing power of digital—there were countless conferences about how the iPad would change publishing, and titles like Wired and the Guardian poured huge amounts of cash into digital projects. Meanwhile technology gave way to better versions of InDesign and desktop equipment steadily democratized, making it a lot more accessible for people to experiment creatively with page layout in their own homes, in coffee shops, in libraries, wherever they were.

Images courtesy of Newspaper Club.

In 2009, a small, idealistic Glasgow-based printing company, The Newspaper Club, helped shift the landscape even more. Inspired by the original power and presence of the newspaper, the small company would allow all types of clients—from students and photographers to large tech companies—to self-publish by uploading their designs online. In the same year, Kickstarter partially solved problems of funding. Print self-publishing flourished because, some might say ironically, of the Internet.

For graphic designers with passion for editorial, the change in technology was a revelation. At mainstream magazines things like the quality of paper often gets cut in order to keep costs down and a lot of design decisions are driven by marketing and profit requirements— a cover’s design often determined to be what spurs mass market sales. When creating their own magazines, people could do something different, outside of market place constraints. And because of low print runs, they were able to experiment. They could do more with die cuts, they could select higher quality paper if they wanted to.  

This freedom and potential was especially revealed to others when they saw the success of a small group of film enthusiasts in 2005 in the UK. While sipping beers in London pubs after work at their jobs for commercial publishers, the group dreamed up the idea of a different, cooler kind of film magazine from the uninspiring commercial glossies around them, one that would reflect the independent cinema they loved. They called it Little White Lies, which is now a film buff’s favorite. 

Images courtesy of Little White Lies.

“Film magazines at the time were dominated by clouds of cover lines. We felt like these were a cheap marketing knee-jerk response that most magazines on the shelf were blindly perpetuating, and didn’t seem to be questioning,” says the founding art director of the title, Paul Willoughby. Today, he works with the Little White Lies founding editor Danny Miller at their Human After All design agency; after they first published Little White Lies and it gained attention, they then went on to publish a magazine for Google and started up another magazine, this time about subcultures, called Huck.

“With Little White Lies, we aimed to make a magazine with a very pure visual approach, eschewing the design conventions that were steering magazine culture towards a homogenous mass.”

Illustration was their prime differentiator; a signature strength, and one ripe for a renaissance in editorial design since it had died away during the arrival of Photoshop compositions. Presenting illustrated portraits on each cover with little or no cover lines, and illustrating the magazine’s interior in its entirety, Little White Lies catered for intelligent, curious readers, and their appetite not just for intelligent film writing but for fresh perspectives on design. On the other side of the globe in San Franscisco in 2003, a similar tactic had been taken by best-selling author Dave Eggers for his literary magazine The Believer: each cover of the magazine beautifully illustrated by notorious comic artist Charles Burns.

Both magazines were probably aware of each other online, drawing confidence from the other, as several blogs had sprung up showcasing the work of innovative editorial designers. One such blog is magCulture, founded by self-proclaimed magazine enthusiast Jeremy Leslie, a graphic designer who has art directed numerous titles including Time Out and the very design conscious 1980s style bible Blitz. The blog loves print, but celebrates it using the Internet, seeing it not as a threat but a way of transmitting forward thinking enthusiasm.

Images courtesy of The Believer.

“The networking of the Internet allows people who are making magazines in different countries to realize what other people are doing, to get inspired and see how they can do it,” says Leslie. “People say there’s now an independent magazine renaissance, but really, there have always been people making independent magazines. In the 60s, you had the alternative press, there was the avant-garde in the 70s, fashion mags in the 90s. The difference is today magazine makers can see one another around the globe.” A few lightening rod shops then stock these publications—Do You Read Me!? in Berlin, PRINtEXT in Indianapolis for example—and in London, to help distribute these magazines, a delivery service called Stack established in 2009 to sends subscribers a different indie every month.

mono.kultur, the interview magazine taking on one person at a time was established in 2005 in Berlin; in London, the first issue of Monocle, for the stylish world-traveller, in 2007; Fantastic Man, the ground-breaking men’s style tome, appeared in Amsterdam in 2008; Apartamento, for those with eccentric interior design tastes, in the same year from Barcelona; for stylish women carrying great books as well as solid purses, The Gentlewoman, from London in 2010; and then Kinfolk, for the aspirational creative, from Portland in 2011.

With each new magazine, a design and style emerged to react to and energize its reader: design directly expressing the identity of the person carrying it.

***

I contributed to the magCulture blog for two years between 2015 – 2017, and during that time, I’d receive around three or four new magazines each week. New titles crop up all time, some good, some great, some bad, and some wonderfully peculiar. When tracing the origins of these titles, it often is apparent that the idea for an independent magazine first appears online: people develop their opinions and voices writing blogs and sharing ideas on social media, they connect with like-minded individuals, and the next step from there is to create something permanent.  To give visual shape to beliefs, opinions, and preferences through graphic design. An identity. There’s something defining about making a magazine: This is who we are. This is what we look like.

The ones I find the most exciting are by those who feel underrepresented in the mainstream; makers create their own space through self-publishing, an act of legitimization where design subverts the media norm. From New York, there’s Banana magazine about Asian-American creatives with a mission to obliterate stereotypes: its design is a lively, energetic assortment of stimulating cross-cultural references. From London, there’s Niijournal, a fashion magazine exploring issues of diversity in the British fashion community, showcasing shoots only by and with people of color; its title pages are the color of various hues of black and brown. There’s the fiery and fantastic Krass Journal from Adelaide in Australia; a third wave feminist title about queer theory and gender politics. Its active design breaks away from feminine stereotype; its typography jarring and loud as if demanding for people to pay attention.

In 2013, Riposte appeared in London, an alternative to mainstream women’s magazines fronted by a design curator Danielle Pender and creative director, Shaz Madani. Its name is a blatant proclamation that they are a riposte to mundane mainstream content shackling women with unattainable beauty standards. Instead, Riposte features strong, intelligent role-models with plenty to say. With a brave, all-type cover featuring the names of the women interviewed in the pages, the first issue visually expressed its aim: This magazine is about more than the way women look. This is about who they are. Their minds, their words. Their energy.

Images courtesy of Riposte Magazine.

“The typographic cover was a way of stripping away the over styling and false glamour, to try and shift the focus back on to the women, their achievements and what they have to say,” says Madani. The design decision defied the conventional wisdom that all-type covers are newsstand disasters, and that year, the cover secured Riposte a nomination for the Design Museum’s Design of the Year Award in the UK, and it won them gold at the European Design Awards too.

“Now that we are a bit more established with our own voice, we’ve started to introduce photographic covers as we as the type ones,” adds Madani. “With this we aim to change the way women are perceived. As an indie publisher we can push and challenge what more traditional titles are not able or willing to do. On our last cover, we featured black activist and cancer survivor Ericka Hart with her post-double-mastectomy, post-reconstruction breasts gracing our cover.” 

Design can perfectly express what magazine makers most believe in.

That’s not only for individuals creating initially self-funded, passion driven projects alongside their day jobs. Online media platforms and companies have embraced the creative potential of a magazine as a way of articulating core values. The traditional media enlivens parts of their business that other solutions can’t reach. Airbnb, Google, and Net-a-Porter, and other Internet regulars have made them. A magazine is a character: it can purely represent the voice style, tone, and look – the innate personality – of its makers.

The Vice magazine model especially articulates why print publications can be central to a brand: the publication that started the empire still exists, it anchors the world wide media giant, it defines and maintains their irreverent voice, even though money comes from partnerships, events, and TV channels. The media giants have also taken heed of independents and their flair for design as enlivening the meaning of a magazine: memorably in 2015 for example, The New York Times Magazine brought in Matt Willey as art director, who has his roots in the independent magazine community where he launched men’s mag Port and guide for the modern adventurer, Avaunt.

It’s safe to say that the idea that “print is dead” is dead. Print was never really going to go away in the first place, it’s simply evolving. If there ever was a threat to the future of magazines, graphic design saved the day; freed by the internet to not have to bother with certain kinds of content, designers can concentrate on new ways of producing and presenting the page and the image. They can create publications that complement the Internet, that emerge from it, and that feed back into it. In a new world magazines mean something different to what they once did, but they are as necessary as ever, as lovely objects, statements of intent, emblems of defiance, and personal and collective manifestos.

from 99U99U http://bit.ly/2yVK8oh