Bionic Hands and Transparent Salaries: 5 (Well-Educated) Predictions on the Future of Creative Work

Bionic Hands and Transparent Salaries: 5 (Well-Educated) Predictions on the Future of Creative Work

Fact: Creative careers are changing across the board, from the platforms we design on, to the age-old standards of working for one company for life, to focusing on a single speciality for 40 years. But don’t be worried. 99U recently guest-hosted an AIGA/NY conversation with Big Spaceship CEO Mike Lebowitz and illustrator Ping Zhu to dig into the pressing questions, like what skills need to be sharpened (and perhaps blended) to tackle the opportunities of tomorrow?

In a lively conversation on the future of work, Zhu and Lebowitz shared their projections (and some pure guesses) on bringing more transparency to work rates, educating giant companies on what exactly creative agencies do, and where designers will fit in amid new technologies like VR and robots. (Spoiler alert: Zhu says illustrators shouldn’t get bionic hands just yet.)

Read on to get a peek into the future. 

Commit to unexpected collaborations with unlikely partners.

There’s a false notion that creatives specialize in one corner, and analysts are isolated in another. But Big Spaceship is experimenting with prioritizing their collaboration. “We’re pairing up our analysts with writers and taking data to a place where it has a much more pervasive interface, which is the written word,” says Lebowitz. “All our clients can read something and not all of them can get a good scan off a dashboard.” The result is numbers turning into ideas that all stakeholders can more easily understand and act upon.

Don’t get bionic hands (yet).

We’re all scared the robots are coming for our jobs. (Even the lawyers are in danger.) But Zhu remains calm. “My skill set is called illustration, but it’s really about the way that I think,” she says. As long as you carve out your own personal style and approach, you’ve got something that not even robots can replicate, giving you something defensible that you can count on even as technology keeps on disrupting the status quo.

As jobs evolve, you need to educate your clients on what the additional workload requires.

Lebowitz says there can be a disconnect between what a client thinks you do, and what you actually do. Clients, out of ignorance or lack of curiosity, can therefore make requests that are simply untenable. “A prospective client will say, ‘We want to meet the people who will be working on this,’” says Lebowitz. “Well, we’re an agency; we don’t have people on the bench. There isn’t a team for you to meet until you give us work.” Providing the client with a clear understanding of what the work entails, ensures that you do—and get paid for—all you’re contracted to complete.   

Freelancers, talk about your darn salaries. 

We all have some reticence about talking about money with our peers. But that lack of transparency is hurting freelancers, says Zhu. Creatives are guessing what rates they should charge their clients based on very little data other than asking their inner circle. (Zhu often gets her data from five trusted friends.) But since we don’t have a crystal ball for what others are charging, Zhu suggests we start talking about it more freely among ourselves. And she walked the talk for the pool of designers in the room. An illustration for The New York Times Op-Ed? $300. For a set of digital stickers for Google? $2,000. It’s a start.  

Embrace the power to say no.

Early in your career you have the greatest power in the world. The power to walk away. Not many people can do that later on—there are obligations, kids, employees. It’s time to flip the narrative that young designers are at the mercy of the companies they want to work for. “You’re interviewing for an entry level job and you’re terrified. But you can say, ‘I don’t give a damn’ if you don’t like them,” says Lebowitz. “Really, you’re interviewing them.” So even when you’re just beginning and think you’ve got nothing yet, remember you’ve got a certain kind of freedom and that’s worth something.

from 99U99U

Taking a Day Job Doesn’t Have to Crush Your Soul

Taking a Day Job Doesn’t Have to Crush Your Soul

When it comes to talking about creative careers, no one likes to use the C-word: Compromise. Being the best, courting success, and living a personal fairytale are the narratives most commonly spun about what a flourishing professional life is all about. But what about creative people who have plum gigs that still don’t all their bills? What if you count the New York Times as a client, but put in two days a week at a café? What if you’re jetting off to Hong Kong, Osaka, and Tokyo for group shows, but come home to illustrating other people’s books? What if the work you really enjoy fills up your evenings and weekends, but you can count the hoots you give about the daily grind on one finger? We reckon that can constitute a fulfilling working life, too.

Since graduating in 2012, Illustrator Grace Helmer has done it all; internships, part-time jobs, working in a biscuit factory. “Yeah, I worked at a place called Biscuiteers. I iced biscuits all day. It was fun, but you weren’t meant to talk there. They’d always be like, ‘Less talking, more icing.’ They’d get really strict. I worked in a gallery where I’d get bored out of my mind. But you could just stand there thinking about ideas for projects, and then feel all fired up to make work when you got home.”

Grace-helmer, illustrator, illustration

Magma print and Wakayama Up Hill by Grace Helmer.

Now, Helmer splits her time between freelance illustration and artworking for publisher Octopus Books—her official title is design assistant—and, for the moment at least, it’s exactly where she wants to be. “Sometimes you make comparisons,” says Helmer, “and feel you’re not really a proper freelancer if you have a job on the side. But I haven’t wanted to leave because it’s nice to have that security.”

Thomas Slater agrees. “I’ve realized that there are benefits to having another job that makes life a bit easier, even though you’re in a situation that feels like it’s not exactly what you want to do.” Slater has worked in a café on and off for the past few years, picking up shifts when illustration work is quiet, or freelancing full-time when the commissions come flooding in. Like Helmer, he’s accustomed to having multiple, simultaneous jobs.

“When I came out of university, straight away I got a full-time job landscaping. I did that for about a year, trying to do as much illustration work as I could in the evenings and weekends. Then I bumped that job down to three or four days. Then I thought, ‘You know what? I’ve saved up a bit of cash and I’m really done with this; I’m just going to freelance.’

“I did that for a year. Then there was a point when I realized I should get some work to support it because I wasn’t really busy enough. It came at a time when I wanted to get more into cycling, and I didn’t have any cycling friends, so I took a job at a Rapha café.”

The social aspect of his day job keeps it interesting for Slater, who spends the rest of his time working from home with his housemate, illustrator Kyle Platts. Even though he refers to it as a “low-skilled job” that can feel like a compromise. “But it’s a happy compromise,” he says.

thomas-slater, hammer-series, manual-for-speed, illustrator

Hammer Series by Thomas Slater for Manual for Speed.

Young, budding illustrators might be surprised to learn that a career in the industry takes so long to establish, but Helmer was well prepared for this reality while still at college. As she graduated, her tutor Luke Best, a successful illustrator in his own right, told her it would take 10 years before she was established enough to make a living from her work and take on the kinds of commissions she wanted.

“I always felt like I’d just have to chip away at it, and not expect to get big stuff straight away, or necessarily know what I even wanted to do. I graduated and still had no idea how to do anything, and had to learn everything while trying to get work. It does take time.”

“I was definitely prepared to grind it out for a few years before I was able to fully support myself,” says  illustrator Jesse Fillingham, who graduated from Art Center College of Design in Pasadena in 2010 and has been slowly building his personal practice ever since. “I had a professor specifically state that it can take illustrators years to establish themselves. It’s been about seven-and-a-half years since I graduated and my goals as an illustrator and artist have shifted considerably over that time.”

jesse-fillingham, cosmic-contemplation, illustration, illustrator

Cosmic Contemplation by Jesse Fillingham.

Currently, Fillingham works three days a week as an artist’s assistant, and the other two, plus evenings and weekends, are dedicated to his own work. He’s still keen to be a full-time illustrator in the future, but admits his work doesn’t have the commercial viability to make that happen fast. “The types of jobs I’m interested in doing are so narrow,” he says. “My current setup definitely suits me at this stage of my career.”

There are drawbacks to dividing the week between two jobs, of course. Slater believes the comfort of regular income has caused him to rest on his laurels and not push himself hard enough to take on more clients; Fillingham has turned down work because his day job encroaches on deadlines; and Helmer admits the work can sometimes be less than stimulating. But for the most part, the pros outweigh the cons.

“It’s helped me loads with things like copyright,” says Helmer, “and making me raise my day-rate and think about jobs differently. If I’m just doing a job for money, it has to pay more than what I’d be paid per day at Octopus. It also gives me the security to do more personal work. I don’t feel I have to fill every day with commercial work and always have to make a certain amount of money each week.”

Sticker-Albumm, Women-of-Gaza, Bobby Breiðholt, illustrator, graphic-designer

Sticker Albumm and Women of Gaza by Bobby Breiðholt.

All of these working arrangements entail a degree of compromise, but they might seem luxurious to advertising designer Bobby Breiðholt. A graphic design graduate from the Icelandic Academy of the Arts, Breiðholt works full-time at ENNEMM, an agency in Reykjavik, making work for breweries, insurance companies, and one of Iceland’s largest gas producers. In spite of the wealth of ad agencies in Reykjavik,  Breiðholt says the market simply isn’t big enough to accommodate freelance illustrators. So his evenings and weekends are spent making album covers, posters, and zines for his friends’ bands and exhibitions, or developing his line of photo books—all outside regular office hours. Even though personal creative work occupies less of his time than his day job, “That’s what I need to be doing,” he says.

“If I wasn’t freelancing and doing what I consider more creative work, I’d just go crazy.”

For Breiðholt and many of his peers, a full-time salaried job is a necessity, as the idea of making good money from freelance illustration or design is still just out of reach. “I would definitely do it if the market was bigger and you could get better paid,” he says. “It’s just expensive to live in Reykjavik and the rent is really high. You need that day job money to survive.”

But money worries are universal among illustrators. “A friend of mine met a kid at a comics fair who said he was getting into illustration because of the money,” says Slater. “He just had to explain to this kid that he was mad—nobody’s ever become an illustrator for the money.”

from 99U99U

What Pisses You Off? Bonnie Siegler Talks Effective Protest Signs

What Pisses You Off? Bonnie Siegler Talks Effective Protest Signs

Bonnie Siegler, founder of Eight and a Half, has spent most of her career parsing the history of brands like This American Life, SNL, and StoryCorps and reshaping them for the future. Now, she’s turned her acumen toward another design evolution project: protest signs.

Recently, Siegler held court at the Brooklyn Public Library (where she’s designed the logo and identity), to launch her book Signs of Resistance: A Visual History of Protest in America. Toting a book (that was not the one she was promoting) called Visionary Women, Siegler marched up and down the rows, greeting guests.

“Do you want to tell Bonnie what you said at the March?” a mom asked her daughter as she introduced her to Siegler.

“Hey hey! Ho ho! Donald Trump has got to go,” replied her three-year-old.

“That’s great,” said Siegler. “How many people marched this year?” she asked the crowd. A majority of the hands went up.

Signs of Resistance covers expressions of American anger, from Suffrage to Civil Rights to the AIDS Crisis. What makes Americans take to the streets? And how do they design the posters? Siegler knows how graphics operate in politics—she’s designed on behalf of both Obama campaigns, Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign, plus local races from Alabama to Nevada.

She recently spoke with 99U about how anger becomes art, protest design rules, and just how many letters add up to a good sign.

A lot of these posters have a short text message and one graphic. Is that a recurring theme in all of these protests?

In the successful, memorable ones, it definitely is. In “Fuck the Draft” it’s one picture and 4, 7, 12 [total] letters. It’s almost like you Instagram it in your brain. You can remember the whole thing: the guy burning his draft card. One simple image, a few words, shock value because the word “fuck” wasn’t used that much: a simple rejection of authority. It wouldn’t work if you went on to explain why the war was a bad idea. It is a recurring theme.

Fuck-the-draft, protest, sign, Bonnie-Siegler

Excerpted from Signs of Resistance by Bonnie Siegler (Artisan Books). Copyright © 2018. Photograph used by permission from Kiyoshi Kuroyima (1943-2000), The Dirty Linen Corp., publisher, Fuck the Draft, 1968.

Where else is that idea of one image with a few letters used?

Benjamin Franklin. He owned the newspaper and he experimented all the time. His “Join, or die”—people will say “Oh I’ve seen that before,” even though it’s from 1754. It’s one clear, powerful image of a snake being cut into pieces and a few words.

Signs-of-Resistance, Bonnie-Siegler, join-or-die

Excerpted from Signs of Resistance by Bonnie Siegler (Artisan Books). Copyright © 2018. Photograph used by permission from the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

It really feels like the Suffragettes didn’t get that memo.

Totally. Those women put hundreds of words on their posters. Their signs weren’t always so verbose. But, they had a lot to say. They were pissed, understandably. 

Signs-of-Resistance, Bonnie-Siegler, Suffragette, protest, sign

Excerpted from Signs of Resistance by Bonnie Siegler (Artisan Books). Copyright © 2018. Photograph used by permission from the Library of Congress, Manuscript Division.

When did graphic design as a discipline become a conscious part of the messaging of social movements?

Graphic design is relatively new. There have always been designers, usually designing typography. Graphic design developed as a real profession in the 30s, 40s, and 50s. I think it was during the Vietnam War that people were like, “Wait, I do this for clients…I can also do this to get my message out.” And people started to understand the power that they had.

What do you think is the DNA that makes a powerful message?

It’s the motivation behind it. Nobody did these because they were hired to do them. People felt an urgency. They had to do this. They had to make their voice heard, to express their anger and frustration. When an artist or a designer has to create as an outlet for their frustration, the result is powerful. That is very different than someone saying, “I have this widget to sell. Can you make me a great ad for that widget?”

A lot of the post-1960s design seem to use an ‘Oh wait a second’ moment.

Something happens when you look at a poster and it takes you a second to realize what it is. A good example is “Vote or Trump”. It doesn’t have any image, just the crossing out of the ‘F’, so it’s not “Vote For Trump”. You feel proud of yourself for getting it. You’re rewarded for figuring it out and it involves the viewer in uncovering the message, which is satisfying: When you see something and you get it, you feel good about yourself. That interaction between you and the designer is an amazing thing.

Vote-for-trump, protest, sign, Bonnie-Siegler, SIgns-of-resistance

Excerpted from Signs of Resistance by Bonnie Siegler (Artisan Books). Copyright © 2018. Photograph used by permission from Mike Matthews.

There are quite a few examples of text or images being used over and over.

I’m fascinated by these American icons that get reused and reused and reused: Rosie the Riveter and Uncle Sam. Because they are so popular and recognizable they provide a shorthand for protest images. So you already have a context of like ‘patriotism’ or ‘being a feminist’. And they use the power of the original image, but bend it to their will. So, if someone wants to say that Sarah Palin is a feminist, how do you do it? You just stick her head on someone who’s already associated with feminism [like Rosie]. Icons of American history are so enduring that they’re used over and over in propaganda on all sides.

Is there one design that sticks with you most powerfully?

“Am I not a man and a brother?” is the one of the most moving images I’ve ever seen. That stays with me at night. It shows a man imploring someone for his dignity and it was made into an abolitionist talisman, people wore them around their neck. Then, during the sanitation strike 180 years later, it became “I am a man”. That sign is it for me. The power was the multiplicity. The sign is singular and together, it’s the race. The multiplicity is chilling.

Signs-of-Resistance, Bonnie-Siegler, I-am-a-man, protest, sign

Excerpted from Signs of Resistance by Bonnie Siegler (Artisan Books). Copyright © 2018. Photograph used by permission from Bob Adelman.

When did your interest in design for social movements start?

In the 90s, we had [Bill] Clinton. So, we were pretty happy most of the time. The Bush administration really got me going. I started working on Air America Radio, a left-leaning radio station in the early 2000s. It was the Left’s answer to right-wing radio, and the first hosts were Rachel Maddow, Al Franken, Marc Maron, and Janeane Garofalo. We did branding, marketing, and advertising for them. And we really felt like we could change the course of the election. It didn’t work: Bush won. So, when time came for Obama to run, I was all in. I did everything I could.

Do you have advice for any non-graphic designers who might have a march coming up?

The march signs made by people who weren’t professional designers are some of my favorite. Think about the thing that pisses you off the most. Everybody has something. That’s what made the Women’s March so powerful: Each person was representing the things that pissed them off the most, the thing that they most wanted to change. That’s where I would start: Why are you marching?

These images point to the darkest moments in American history, but did it also spark any sense of camaraderie or comfort to see so much resistance?

Looking at these images, I go from rage, to optimism, to frustration, to anger, to hope. It just sends you all in circles. But, all of these movements shaped our country. We’ve been through these difficult times and survived and if we all get involved we can survive this one too. These marches make me feel more patriotic than I’ve ever felt in my whole life.


from 99U99U

Photographer Lydia Garnett on Life as a Condiment Waitress

Photographer Lydia Garnett on Life as a Condiment Waitress

“The Worst Job I Ever” had is a new monthly column about the terrible early jobs some of our favorite creative people once held. These are their stories, as told to Liv Siddall, former editor of Rough Trade magazine, who produces Redundancy Radio, a podcast about getting fired.

Lydia Garnett is a London-based photographer and the co-founder of Accent Magazine (along with Lucy Nurnberg), which celebrates people who live lives outside the ordinary. After launching online, Accent broke into print in 2015 as a super-glossy independent publication. You’d never have guessed it, but before Garnett found her niche photographing subcultures and gathering some of the weirdest and most wonderful people together in printed form, her fledgling career began in an icy shipping container in the middle of the UK. Packing bags of pet food. Alone.

“I was 14 years old when I began working for my parents’ neighbors’ pet food-packing enterprise. At that time, my life (on the weekends) was mostly spent hanging out around the Clocktower in Leicester (if you know, you know) with other grunge/emo/punkyish kids. I quickly learnt that getting a Saturday job in the Midlands was a matter of who you know, not what you know, so I started working for parents’ friends who needed their shifts covered.

“As far as I know I was the only pet food-packer—other than an elderly woman who ran the business with her husband. Every Saturday morning my job was to fill little plastic bags with dried treats for dogs, birds, and squirrels. At the end of their garden, there were lots of of shipping containers full of old tractors, lorries, and rusty mechanical farm things, and I would bag up pet food in one of those. It was usually very, very cold. I’d wear five coats, gloves, and tie a hot water bottle around my waist. I had a thermos of tea and a tiny, crackly radio.

“Since no one else was around, I’d usually spend my shifts getting lost in my teen thoughts, humming mindlessly, texting occasionally, and before I knew it I’d packed 300 bags of pet food! There didn’t seem to be a huge demand for small bags of pet food, so most of the time I’d be finished after two hours of work, three if I could stretch it out. I was paid £3 an hour ($4.25 U.S.), so I would leave with a cool total of £6, sometimes £9 ($8.50 and $12.75 U.S., respectively). Sometimes I’d immediately spend my earnings on some fresh hen’s eggs for my mum, and as soon as I got home we’d have a fry-up together.

“After that job I became a condiment hostess, walking around with a variety of mayonnaises at a pub known locally as the Badger’s Bum.”

“I remember being very nervous at my first proper interview for the role of condiment hostess. Following that, my teenage employment included stint as a PE kit printer (pressing initials on to the back of football shirts in a garden shed) and a retail assistant in an orthopedic shoe shop where I’d touch, by hand, the slightly sweaty sock tights after customers were done trying on their shoes. 

“I’m still navigating the world of work, freelancing, and trying to balance getting paid and feeling good about what I do. My advice for readers would be that when you’re trying on a shoe in a shop and you’re utilizing one of the small, tight socks, be kind to the retail assistant because you never know when you might see them next. Oh, and always take your sweaty sock with you when you go, rather than leaving it in the shop for someone else to dispose of.”

Photos by Lydia Garnett

Photo by Lydia Garnett

Photo by Lydia Garnett

from 99U99U

Jon Burgerman on Every Designer’s Nightmare: The Client Wants Everything Redone at the Last Minute

Jon Burgerman on Every Designer’s Nightmare: The Client Wants Everything Redone at the Last Minute

The delight and whimsy of Jon Burgerman’s illustrations can be spotted everywhere from an Instagram-sponsored show at the Tate Modern, to the walls of Apple stores, to a children’s book called Rhyme Crime. Burgerman will be hosting a breakout session at the 10th Annual 99U Conference taking place May 9-11 in New York City. Since our 2018 conference is all about overcoming creative challenges, we asked Burgerman to reflect on a pressure cooker moment and share how he navigated it.

“My brain was sipping a beer, lying on the sofa, cooling down with a self-congratulatory glow. The publishers had signed off on final version of my book How to Eat Pizza. That little switch in my head that said ‘picture book for April’ had turned off.

Then, I received news that one of publishers wasn’t happy. The book needed to be completely revised. And done in time for an important book fair in two weeks.

Wait, hadn’t they read any of the previous drafts?

It’s not my fault!

It was a real shock. It would be awful to turn up at the book fair with a story with no ending! I had to rewrite half a picture book in two weeks.

There was no time to be annoyed. Normally, everything is slow and delayed in publishing; no one expects you to deliver the pages when you say you will. But, here was a solid, no excuses, if-you-miss-it-you-might-as-well-not-go-to-the-book-fair deadline.

I was of two minds as I tackled the challenge. One was: This is stupid. I should just put my foot down. Everyone had access to the drafts, they should have voiced their concerns earlier. But then, I thought: What the hell do I actually know? I should listen to people who actually work in publishing. I’m lucky they’re even allowing me to make a book.

Jon-Burgerman, Rhyme-Crime, Book, Illustration, doodle

How to Eat Pizza won’t be released in the U.S. until next year, but Burgerman’s latest book Rhyme Crime is on the shelves now.

Rather than fight the issue—which would have been futile—I tried to understand where the publishers were coming from. They wanted the book to be more ‘Burgerman-y’. I didn’t really know what that meant, but I was probably the best person to resolve it.

There’s no magic spell. I just worked really hard. I swallowed my pride, opened up my sketchbook, my computer and my brain and went about it.

I learned that even when a book is “finished,” that doesn’t mean it’s finished. Always keep good documentation of your drafts. Organize everything clearly, so if you need to look up old notes or artwork you can find them quickly.

Trying to understand the root of the problem is key to tackling it. Often, we only acknowledge the changes themselves and not the thoughts that prompted them. Once you can frame the issue for yourself, then it’s much easier to solve it.

And lastly, keep an open mind. In the end, everyone wants to make the best thing possible. Sure, publishers want that ‘thing’ to sell—and you know what— so do I.”


See Jon Burgerman along with more creative leaders, entrepreneurs, and artists, at the 10th Annual 99U Conference.

from 99U99U

Make it Cuter—and More Branding Lessons From the Weird and Wonderful World of Japanese Mascot Design

Make it Cuter—and More Branding Lessons From the Weird and Wonderful World of Japanese Mascot Design

While there’s no official category for “Most Beloved Mascot” at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games, that doesn’t mean the entire country of Japan won’t be rooting for its favorite characters as whole-heartedly as they’ll be cheering on the competing athletes. That’s how significant yuru-chara, a distinct kind of mascot design, is in Japanese culture. Furry, funny, and extremely cute, yuru-chara may be designed to make you laugh, but creating them is serious business; the design, production, and licensing of mascots generates the country billions of yen in revenue each year.

In Japan, there are mascots for almost everything. There are mascots for cities, villages, rivers, and businesses, including a real estate agency fronted by Madori Taro (“Floor Plan Boy”), which has a blueprint of an apartment as a face. The fire department has a mascot that teaches children about fire safety on YouTube. There are mascots warning against obscure diseases, even prisons use them to help boost morale. One particularly unlikely mascot is Kan-chan, a mascot for an enema manufacturer. It’s a combination of an enema and a penguin.

Kan-chan, mascot, yuru-chara, Mondo-Mascots

Kan-chan mascot. Photo by Chris Carlier for his blog Mondo Mascots.

Before the upcoming Olympic mascots are revealed at the end of this month, we’re taking this moment to understand the creative process behind yuru-chara, and what the Japanese business of character design might teach us about building better brand experiences—even when no furry suits are involved.

A mascot can be as important for a business as its logo, if not more. And the design and selection of a character is an intense process. Often, yuru-chara are designed by amateurs who answer open calls for entries, and usually respond with very literal representations of what they stand for, be it local produce, wildlife, a myth, architecture, or geography. A pre-existing mascot for one company might also become the official mascot for an institution. Take Hello Kitty, designed by Yuko Shimizu in 1974 to advertise Sanrio plastic sandals, the beloved cat became the official mascot of Japan’s Ministry of Tourism in 2007 and can now be found everywhere from humble keychains and notebooks to wedding chapels to airlines.

The most prominent and popular yuru-chara are the regional mascots, called gotōchi-kyara (loyal characters). Part of what makes all yuru-chara so loveable is that they’re intentionally clumsy, a little silly, and slightly awkward. They can make you feel protective, as if by supporting them you’re rooting for the underdog. And before you know it, you’re involved in their oddly complex lives.

Now Tokyo 2020 is organizing a vote by local school children to select the upcoming Olympic mascot from a shortlist of adorable candidates that all fulfill the Japanese aesthetic of Kawaii (cuteness). One is modelled after the infamous Lucky Cat and enjoys napping in the sun; its eyes energetically sparkle with the colors of the Olympic rings. Watch the promotional video and you’ll see just how fleshed out the characters are, each with intricate back stories, personality traits, and symbols decorating their furry hides.

Whichever character is chosen will likely become the beating heart of the Tokyo Olympic brand—unlike the London 2012 mascot fiasco, where a pair of clumsy surveillance camera robots quickly became a global laughing stock.

Whether it’s for an enema company or the world’s biggest sporting event, “The costumes are a useful strategy for a brand’s image,” says Kazuya Kitora, a designer at a successful mascot costume company called SunMoldCo in Minoo, Osaka Prefecture, which was founded in 1999. Once a mascot has been selected by a company or a town, an illustrated version will be brought to a factory like SunMold for production.

SunMold makes mascots for both corporations and local governments, and has created hundreds of suits of every size, color, and character type (from robot, to food, to “flower tree”). First, Kitora transforms the 2D illustrations provided to him by clients into large fabric suits by re-sketching a design using 3D modelling tools, and then forming bodies from EPS, urethane, and bore fabric. Most recently, he’s created Chihaya Him, an “intellectual princess” representing Uji City of the Kyoto Prefecture; a giant blue cat for the an indoor tennis center (with a bright yellow tennis ball for a tail); and Yoshida’s Puddingly Chan, a character with a bowl of noodles for a head representing the popular Yoshida Udon shop. You can browse the fantastical list of characters on the company’s blog, each post complete with a video of the costume in action to emphasize the practical flexibility of the suits.

“The biggest challenge is turning the initial illustration into something that allows for the actors to be mobile,” says Kitora, indicating the heavy, large heads and small, stubby feet that gives most of the costumes their extreme cuteness, but also make them so difficult to actually walk around and dance in.

In addition to a drawing, when a client asks SunMold to create a costume, they also provide the designer with a list of specific character traits. A mascot is the friendly, public face for a company, embodying the personality of what it represents. If it’s well designed and original, explains Kitora, it creates more than just brand awareness—it inspires real, lasting loyalty.

Kumamoto, yuru-chara, mascot, japan

The Kumamoto bear, photo courtesy Japan Times

Kumamoto, the internationally recognized symbol of Kumamoto Prefecture is a perfect example of this; the concept here comes directly from the name (kuma means “bear”). Between 2012-13, the iconic mascot generated 123.2 billion yen, far more than the average yuru-chara. After a series of devastating earthquakes struck Kumamoto in 2016, the local government relaxed the licensing rules around the image and likeness so that any business could use it freely in order to raise money for the Kumamoto Relief Fund. Unlike other disaster relief campaigns without a mascot as a rallying point, the beloved Kumamoto bear evokes positive and sympathetic public feeling: a character creates an emotional response, and in this case, one that resulted in donations.

“After all,” says Kitora, “a mascot is the character of a company, place, or institution.”

While sports lovers may be looking forward to 2020, mascot fanatics have a very different date marked on their calendars. There are two important annual events for the designers, producers, and lovers of yuru-chara: the Yuruchara Grand Prix, where Mascot of the Year is selected by an ardent public (in 2015, there were 50.57 million total internet votes), and the World Character Summit, which has more than 300 mascots in attendance. Here, they wander around, pose for pictures, clamber on stage, stand silently and a little mysteriously next to judges. And dance, their main form of expression.

The-World-Character-Summit, yuru-chara, mascots, japan

The World Character Summit in Hanyu. Photo by Chris Carlier, for his blog Mondo Mascots.

Chris Carlier is a British comic artist and educator living in Tokyo who has been fascinated with the world of yuru-chara ever since he moved there. To document his discoveries, he set up Mondo Mascots, a popular blog and Twitter account recounting trips to events like the World Character Summit, with additional bits of mascot news and trivia. During Carlier’s adventures in the brightly colored universe of yuru-chara, he also documents his own attempts to design mascots. Despite several entries into competitions, he’s yet to break through. It’s a lot trickier than it looks. The characters must have a fundamental wobbly cuteness, but also somehow a soul, an elusive inner being.

Recently, Carlier has become fascinated with one of the more sinister looking yuru-chara, Tsukihashi Wataru, the mascot of Kyoto’s Arashiyama district which “looks like Edvard Munch’s ‘The Scream’ if the man and the bridge switched places.” He’s also extremely fond of the “unofficial mascots for towns and cities, where a local eccentric takes it upon him or herself to design a mascot for their town, and walks around town in the costume.”

The process of documenting the annual champions and tracking down some of the stranger yuru-chara has made Carlier appreciate what works best when it comes to mascot-making. “Simple, colorful, symmetrical designs tend to work best,” he says. “And don’t shy away from silly, absurd ideas—those grab the most attention. I haven’t yet mastered the simple design myself, but I’ve been adopting the silly concepts in my comics. I’ve just made one called Spaboon, about the exploits of a pharmaceutical mascot who is a cross between a spoon and a baboon.”

Mascots, mascot, yuru-chara, Mondo-Mascots

Various mascots photographed by Chris Carlier for his blog Mondo Mascots.

Carlier isn’t the only Brit to have been inspired by the hoards of cuddly, quirky mascots emerging from the collective imagination of companies, governments, and institutions all across Japan. Graphic designers and animators Edward and John Harrison, two twins behind the London digital design studio What What, have a deep-felt appreciation for Japanese mascots, so-much-so that they’ve published two books about them, Idle Idol: The Japanese Mascot and Fuzz and Fur: Japan’s Costumed Characters.

“I believe that mascots have a halo effect, so if someone loves the mascot, then they will also have some affection for the brand that created it,” says John. “Take Domo-kun, the furry, brown, saw-toothed character is the mascot of broadcaster NHK in Japan. Outside of Japan, people may know of him but not understand the connection he has with NHK. The character can exist as a stand-alone, but can also act as a bridge or gateway to the brand it represents.”

Researching and spending time immersed in Japan’s culture of character design—from yuru-chara to 3D models and anime—has greatly informed the Harrison brother’s own practice, especially when it comes to both branding and character animation. “Japan has a long tradition of skilled illustrators, and they appreciate the mastery it takes to create an illustration that’s simple, instantly recognizable, and appealing,” says John.

“Personally, I’m more likely to design a logo than a mascot, but they serve a very similar purpose and the knowledge or skills in both are transferable.”

His brother Ed agrees. “I think having the exposure to Japanese mascots has helped me to appreciate great character design. In the West I often see poorly designed mascots who have little connection to the brand and lack a compelling story.”

For the twins, the back stories and abstract psychological depth of yuru-chara, as well as the simplicity of the designs, is a large part of what makes them so compelling. Design a winning mascot, one that captures the combination of sweetness and inexplicable super power, and you give people a gateway to the heart of whatever it represents. While a yuru-chara might be a little helpless and bumbling, that only makes it—and whatever it stands for—all the more loveable.

from 99U99U

The High-design, Highly Unregulated Vitamin Market is Booming—How Responsible are Designers for Pushing Fake Pills?

The High-design, Highly Unregulated Vitamin Market is Booming—How Responsible are Designers for Pushing Fake Pills?

“These are basically candy; they’re almost entirely sugar.” My sister is rummaging through my kitchen looking for snacks and comes across the bright, attractive packaging of a newly-launched vitamin brand with an impossibly whimsical name. It doesn’t take a leading authority to see behind the Instagram-ready fonts and minimalist containers, and recognize that these “health” supplements are just just half a step above Sour Patch Kids.

The supplement industry is a booming $30 billion-a-year market, and by 2045 it’s expected to balloon to a whopping $247 billion. It’s only natural that entrepreneurs would want a piece of the pie, even if they lack the necessary dietary or medical training to weigh in on the value of their product. Sure, they may consult nutritional experts, sometimes even doctors, but they don’t actually have to; vitamins and supplements do not require FDA approval to go to market. Sour Patch Kids could be repackaged and sold as a vitality-boosting supernutrient (they could even use that word I just made up) and no one is going to get fined or lose their medical license over it. 

So what about the people behind the packaging, the designers tasked with making a flawed product look polished and enticing or, in the worst case, legitimate? What moral obligation do they have to vet a product before giving it their full professional treatment, and just how much vetting is reasonable to ask, both of the designer, and of us, the consumer? 

Franny Howard* is a packaging designer with a decade of experience on similar projects. “It would definitely give me pause,” she said, in reference to being asked to promote a vitamin or supplement she felt was flawed. “It’s accepted in the industry that a designer is free to decline work on tobacco, and sometimes even alcohol and spirits.” But, she admits, she once took on an assignment, despite her misgivings, out of necessity.

“I needed the job so I had to say yes at the time. But I’m not really proud of it.” It’s no secret that freelance designers often need work and can’t be picky. The ethical line can get just as hazy for those who work in-house or at an agency, and are unable to cherry pick assignments. A product like tobacco is, in Howard’s words, a “known hazard,” but a vitamin supplement is often seen as less black-and-white. “It’s probably not doing any harm, but it might not do any good, either. I’d say it’s up to the designer to make that personal call and think it through.”

abacus, inline, vitamin, packaging, design, ethics

Abacus caption

Designer Ryder Ripps is known for provocative, and more than occasionally controversial work that blurs the lines between art, new media, and subtle critique of hyper-consumerist culture. In 2016, he took his trademark digi-apocalyptic aesthetic to the health business, creating the branding around Soylent, a line of nutritional products ranging from supplement shakes to snack bars. He was so energized by the project he later moved to Alabama and launched his own supplement, Abacus Energy Pills, which offer “nearly double the active ingredients of Red Bull and 5 Hour Energy at about 1/5th the price.” Given Ripps’ past experience with tongue-in-cheek social statements, this might look like trolling. The pills, however, are now available on Amazon, making them, in essence, an accepted supplement.

“I think the ethics of design comes down to: is it ethical to make a product that adds nothing to the visual landscape of the world?”

Ripps continued, “Every new thing brought into the world should excite people. I find generic labels pretty unethical as they impose a depressing worldview.” He asserts that there’s little difference between branding vitamin supplements and revamping the public image of a clothing company. Consider all the branding that goes into socially acceptable pharmaceuticals, from Zoloft to Propecia. “Drugs have always been the height of branding, perhaps its deepest and most sensei state.”

olly, vitamin, packaging, design, ethics

Olly caption

One of the vitamin brands that initially drew my attention is OLLY. Launched a few years ago, OLLY is the brainchild of entrepreneur Eric Ryan (who also launched Method) and his partner Brad Harrington (formerly of Shaklee, a nutrition supplement distributor). Together, they set out to “reinvent the look, taste, and feel of boring supplements and brighten up the drab vitamin aisle,” according to their PR rep. By using words like Calm, Sleep, Energy, and Bones, rather than “confusing letters and numbers,” OLLY set out to make vitamins “easier than ever.” While I was unaware that vitamins were ever hard, I did notice these were significantly sweeter—another case of candy masquerading as a cure-all?

Ryan said his “Product Team always evaluates coated vs. uncoated gummy options during the product development process with the goal being to deliver the best product experience. The most common reason to use the sugar coating is to help mask the taste of bitter vitamins or active ingredients like caffeine. Since the sugar is the first thing to hit your tongue’s taste buds, it turns on your sweet receptors before the bitter ones are activated, so that the overall perception is a sweet flavor.” He indicated that the total amount of sugar in each serving of OLLY gummies is 2-3 grams on average, even in the sugar-coated gummies, so its total contribution to the recommended daily sugar limit is fairly small, even when compared to a glass of store-bought juice (which may add up to at least 10-20 grams).

Unfortunately, the pill beneath that sugar coating may be even more bitter than its cheery packaging design would indicate. When asked about the scientific research and development that went into the nutritional makeup of OLLY’s line of supplements, Ryan said, “We firmly believe that the role of creatives is to lead consumers rather than to follow, so we were careful to use research in a way that validated our beliefs but didn’t take away from the ability to be visionary.” What kind of crack team of advocates for cherry-picking studies that validate a favorable hypothesis, you ask?

“OLLY’s products are formulated by an in-house team of credentialed health and nutrition experts, including a naturopathic physician, nutritionist, and pharmacist who, together, have decades of experience researching and developing dietary supplements,” said Ryan. “They use published science to select the ingredients and dose levels of those ingredients required to deliver the intended health benefit.” And while OLLY’s pills may promise “Endless Energy” or claim to be the “Perfect Women’s Multi Vitamin,” and its design may reinforce that optimism and establish a sense of trust, there are no laws to protect consumers from companies selling pretty little sugar pills, just a warning statement to consumers that any claims of health and wellness “have not been regulated by the FDA.” Buyer beware.

elysium, vitamin, packaging, design, ethics

Elysium caption

Another sleekly packaged supplement making the rounds on social media is Basis by Elysium Health, which promises to significantly increase the body’s natural production of NAD+, the so-called “youth enzyme.” Founded in 2014 by biologist Leonard Guarente, Head of the Paul F. Glenn Center for Biology of Aging Research at MITwho has thoroughly studied aging and chronic disease and how natural products can improve health and quality of life, it’s one of the few brands that seems thoroughly, medically vetted. Some have called it the Aesop of the supplement world, not only because of its appeal to the same health-conscious, affluent demographic, but because of its highly recognizable, science-chic  packaging, which often turns up on Instagram and Facebook.

Design helps communicate our message and mission in a way that highlights that it’s different from anything else in the market, and we continue to refine how we do that every day,” said Elysium Health CEO Eric Marcotulli . “A pillar of our brand is making important and often complex scientific topics and research accessible to consumers.”

Visually, our reliance on white and clean, straightforward type helps distill and simplify technical science concepts into useful and more easily understood content,” Elysium Health’s COO Andrew Lin told us, pointing to the brand’s standalone editorial publication, Endpoints, which “covers advancements in science and health with the goal of making science accessible to the public.” It’s obvious that Elysium’s creators obsess about their branding as much as they do about the product itself, which has been a huge part of their success. 

The boom in highly-packaged vitamins isn’t going anywhere, and neither is the controversy. In fact, the “hipster cosmetics boom” backlash is already underway, suggesting that we’re going to see more and more of these debates.

We’re definitely seeing a rise in supplements. Consumers are becoming aware that everything has a ‘fix,’ and are more knowledgeable of the impact of each ingredient that they ingest,” says Yarden Horwitz of Google’s Trends Team, citing the extraordinary rise in heavily branded skincare and wellness items. Interestingly, in studying food trends, she’s noticed a move towards products containing “supplement-esque products” ranging from the mundane (turmeric) to the exotic (ashwagandha, a rejuvenative herb beloved by yogis). “Interestingly, brands that promote these types of powders aren’t necessarily focusing on the packaging of the product, but mainly showing the recipes or beautiful scenery that tells the right story of health and adventure and ‘living your best life.’” Is it too soon to predict that this trend may soon bleed into the vitamin world, creating a backlash against hyper-branded products and a return to more earnest design?

“My hypothesis is that consumers are still in the early educational phase, and the searches are a bit more generic at this stage” she said, suggesting that we’re only just waking up to the wide world of wellness and that, in the future, great packaging might have to keep pace with more significant health concerns. But, for now, when you see a smartly packaged supplement pop up in your Instagram feed, it’s still worth doing your homework. Even if the ingredients are set in Helvetica, sometimes a supplement is really just nothing more than a well-conceptualized dose of snake oil, even if it looks great in a #shelfie.

*Name has been changed for anonymity

from 99U99U