November 20, 2012
"It’s okay to be imperfect, to embrace Williamsburg."

So says Melody Roberts, senior director, experience design innovation at McDonald’s, in this Fast Company piece, 3 Big Insights From Today’s Top Design Thinkers. Her insight is actually right on, that one extra-large size no longer fits all, but mainly I love this funny way of putting it, as if Williamsburg hipsters are actually representative of a genuine counter-culture. Here’s the thing: it’s more than likely that in midwest-headquartered McDonald’s, they really are. That’s not to meant to sound snobby—god knows, I’m the furthest thing from any kind of hipster you’re ever likely to find. What’s useful is that this neatly helps to explain the real challenge for Roberts and designers in such ginormous companies, especially those looking to tap into the slippery “yoof” market. Given that company leaders are inevitably far removed from any kind of actual “edge,” how far do designers push things? How can they be careful not to clutch desperately at the tail of an ever-elusive cultural animal that is forever changing its shape—and thus always appear one step behind? How can they not terrify their own internal audience with fuzzy tales of an amorphous society that is too unformed to have any true sense of its own identity? The answer: don’t even try. Grab onto the safe side of grit, instead. And thus: hello, Williamsburg.

January 17, 2012

Love this, the story of the evolution of the PBS logo, as told by its designer, Herb Lubalin. 

[Video via Creative Review and Under Consideration.]

October 28, 2011
7 Things Michael Bierut Loves About Design

Pentagram partner, Michael Bierut closed the first day of Design at Scale, and did so with mastery and aplomb. He laid out the cliches of what designers supposedly like… and then neatly shot down each one, with a series of things he actually loves. Hugely entertaining and, as with all the best presentations, also educational. Here’s a brief recap of things Bierut truly loves about design:

1. Incredibly Short [Design] Briefs
When Robert Stern became the head of Yale School of Architecture, there was panic in the halls that a new reign of fusty neoclassicism dawned. Instead, when commissioning Bierut to work on a new identity for the school, Stern simply said “I just want to surprise people.” The result: an identity which never uses the same typeface twice. The only consistency, said Bierut, is “lack of consistency.” Bold, memorable, clever.

2. Briefs that are Filled with Paradox and Internal Contradiction
Bierut trotted out some of the classic contradictory desires clients can express when trying to commission a design. They want old and new; male and female; consistent and ever-changing; timeless and surprising. “A lot of designers hear this and roll their eyes,” he said. But he gets to thinking about a way to hit both ideas. He showed work for Saks Fifth Avenue, most recently designed by Bierut’s former boss, Massimo Vignelli and which he updated to include a world of vigorous modern abstraction that also nods to the heritage of the department store. (Read Logo A-Go-Go, a NYT story from 2007 with details of the project.)

3. Working on Things I Don’t Know Anything About
Bierut told the story of working on the Harley-Davidson museum, confessing that he himself is not much of a hardcore biker, having never actually sat on a motorbike before. But rather than let this be a cause for dismay, he instead got to play the role of reluctant spouse to his partner, Jim Bieber. In the process, the museum became a destination for more than just those obsessed with every nut and bolt of the Harley machine. An important nuance here: you might not know anything about a subject, but you have to have passion for discovery. Not knowing and not caring is a recipe for disaster.

4. Working with Impossible Restrictions
This is a common theme from designers, who often recoil in horror at the nightmare of an open brief calling on them to do whatever they like. Bierut talked of the challenge of putting a sign on Renzo Piano’s building for the New York Times. Times Square isn’t known for its subtlety, while the occupants of the NYT building wanted the fancy exterior of their fancy building to speak for itself. Bierut helped devise a cunning plan to hack up the Times’ logo into 923 pieces and then mount said pieces onto the rods already covering the building. Cunning and ingenious.

5. The Very First Idea
Another great story, of the challenge when Citibank merged with Travelers back in 1998. On the very first meeting of the first day they worked on the project, Bierut doodled the “T” of the word “Travelers” as an umbrella handle. Now, he said, you see pretty much that exact idea everywhere. “99% of the word was done on the first morning.” He also good-humoredly acknowledged that partner Paula Scher insists she did the fateful doodle.

6. When the Very First Idea Gets Thrown Away
Bierut told of his desperate attempts to get the Museum of Art and Design to see sense and buy into a logo he’d developed which involved the lettering “A+D.” Despite his valiant efforts, they weren’t buying it, and the eventual solution, a typeface that recalls the architecture of the original building while providing a legible alphabet to write in, was clearly superior. Stop digging, said Bierut. Accept you’re not always right.

7. Being Told Exactly What To Do
Another project that caused heartache and teeth gnashing was the New World Symphony in Miami, Florida. Asked to create a logo for the Frank Gehry building, Bierut came up with a series of solutions that the client absolutely hated. Having presented one idea, he recalled, “they were supposed to see it and ask ‘how can we thank you?’ Instead the question was ‘is this supposed to make us feel nauseous?” In the end, the company founder Michael Tilson Thomas sent a series of his own scrawled ideas. Usually a cue for designers to feel uppity and upset that a client is trading on their toes, Bierut welcomed the input, and used it to come up with the final (gorgeous) solution. See a video of the process here.

[Image c/o DMI.]

August 3, 2011

It’s actually a shame that the script for Gulp, touted excitedly as “The World’s Largest Stop Motion Animation” is a bit lame, because the tale of the film’s creation is quite magical. Shot on a Nokia N8 camera (well, three of them, actually) this video tells that story, with lovely moments from Merlin, more usually creative director on Aardman’s Wallace and Gromit films, and Jamie Wardley, the film’s charmingly eccentric “principal sand artist.” 

(Full story at Fast Company.)

June 22, 2011

Good NPR story by Rob Gifford as part of the station’s series on how China is looking to transform its reputation from maker of cheap knock-offs to creator of solid, homegrown brands. In particular, Gifford looks at the challenges of supporting or nurturing innovation, and the thorny topic of intellectual property. Not many answers here, but some thought-provoking questions.

May 23, 2011
"There’s a point at which new product development can destroy more value than it creates. Innovation for the sake of revenue just degrades the equity that the core brand has built up… In the end, customers like you and me max out on “new and improved,” and we just stop buying."

— Graham Button looks at product overload in Over-Branding Kills Profits and Scares Off Consumers. Too many brands, he argues, have gone down the road of coming up with new products for the sake of it rather than in the name of solving a problem or serving a need. It’s certainly easy to come up with examples of nonsensical line extensions that have little logical place in the world. However, as Button outlines, penny pinching executives have an even more convincing reason for thinking about how many products to unleash on the world: scarcity might actually help a company’s bottom line. “Recently, when Procter and Gamble cut its Head and Shoulders product line from 25 to 16, profits rose 10%,” he writes. “Similarly, when General Motors shrunk its brands from eight to four last year, dealers reported a 16% increase in sales.” An interesting take on a big problem.

May 11, 2011
Earlier this year, British digital artist Daniel Brown was commissioned by Mulberry to create Love Blossoms, an interactive artwork that visitors could send as a Valentine’s Day card. This still is taken from an offshoot of the project, Random Seed Generator. It’s hugely simple—simply click on a seed to replace it with a new variant—and yet totally satisfying and quite addictive. The attention to detail is gorgeous: the seed textures are based on textiles Brown used in last year’s Decode exhibition at the Victoria & Albert museum.
Mulberry also interviewed Brown for the project. I love his take on the future ubiquity of interactive art—and its impact on brands:

Modern high-tech production methods combined with rapid prototyping mean that we are nearing the point where every product that we purchase—whether it be a garment, a piece of furniture or a mobile phone—will be literally made to order. We can then start thinking about how we can make every item unique to the owner. In that space, it will be vital for brands to be able to accommodate their consumers’ tastes while still having a recognisable aesthetic identity.

Earlier this year, British digital artist Daniel Brown was commissioned by Mulberry to create Love Blossoms, an interactive artwork that visitors could send as a Valentine’s Day card. This still is taken from an offshoot of the project, Random Seed Generator. It’s hugely simple—simply click on a seed to replace it with a new variant—and yet totally satisfying and quite addictive. The attention to detail is gorgeous: the seed textures are based on textiles Brown used in last year’s Decode exhibition at the Victoria & Albert museum.

Mulberry also interviewed Brown for the project. I love his take on the future ubiquity of interactive art—and its impact on brands:

Modern high-tech production methods combined with rapid prototyping mean that we are nearing the point where every product that we purchase—whether it be a garment, a piece of furniture or a mobile phone—will be literally made to order. We can then start thinking about how we can make every item unique to the owner. In that space, it will be vital for brands to be able to accommodate their consumers’ tastes while still having a recognisable aesthetic identity.

April 18, 2011
How do you get 10 agencies, 4 digital partners, and 3 branding studios to sing the same tune, while helping run a $35 billion company with 1,755 stores?

At a recent AIGA/NY event held at the New School, creative director of the Creative Vision Group at Target, Tim Murray outlined some of his tips for managing the daunting task detailed above. In this article in Fast Company, he also detailed his five top tips for managing complexity and collaboration:

1. Be Transparent

2. Play Nice

3. Be Open

4. Stretch the Work

5. Talk Talk Talk

April 13, 2011

A simply lovely video in which Pentagram partner Michael Bierut discusses the process of creating a logo for the New World Symphony, the orchestral academy that recently moved into a new, Frank Gehry-designed campus in Miami.