Since 2017, the word Fyre has become synonymous with both massive cockups and schadenfreude: an event built on nothing but a bevvy of influencers, hot models, empty promises, wire fraud, and ultimately, a flaccid cheese slice that acted as the poster-meal of the entire failure. As the digital world looked on aghast, we all had a good old chuckle at the chumps who shelled out for it. Some even suggested that anyone who spent thousands of dollars on an event headlined by Blink 182 deserved to be shafted.
However, as two documentaries released earlier this year (Fyre Fraud on Hulu, and Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened, on Netflix) made clear, aside from our Twitter snarkiness there was also a human cost. The most disconcerting were Bahamian locals who went unpaid for their work on the event. And to a lesser extent, perhaps, there was also the team of employees and freelancers who were hired to work on the project.
A man many found sympathy with after his appearance on the Hulu doc was Oren Aks, a designer who, at the time, worked for Jerry Media, the agency spinoff of the meme account, Fuckjerry. He was brought in to work on designs for social media (which, as was proved, was pretty much the entire basis of the festival) and ended up working on so, so much more. Aks, who has worked across print design, editorial, and digital before joining Fuckjerry, has recently returned to his native L.A. after a stint trying out working remotely across Europe and in Tel Aviv. We spoke to him about that pretty terrible flame logo, working for a new kind of “luxury,” how the Fyre fiasco has made him rethink who he works with and how he works.
Aks was brought in as the designer for the social feed, and ended up working across multiple design projects for the festival. “I quickly criticized the [advertising agency] Matte Projects’ website— it looked like something for a Sandals resort,” he says. Aks would be given “photo dumps” to use in campaigns, “but they’d constantly change models, change island,” he says. “I’d make requests like, ‘Next time you need to go down and bring more nature photos. We’re getting too many models and butt shots and no content of the island.’”
The designer was soon tasked with art directing across the various creative teams involved, and “curating the voice” the festival used to respond to anyone and everyone getting in touch along the way to find out just what the hell was going on. “I was even using my personal phone just to text people since people were getting mad because they’d had no answers,” he says. “It went to community management; influencer management; media buying… I learned media buying on YouTube!”
The Fyre logo—that very Tinder-like flame, was already in place from the Fyre app. “It’s the worst,” says Aks. “If you overlay it on the Tinder logo it’s the same flame, or some iteration of the same shape. I hated it.” Another hangover from the app designs that Aks worked with was the dark blue-and-orange color palette.
The initial brief was “really broad,” says Aks. “It was never written out. It was more a meeting about what they planned to do and all the stepping points to selling the festival; things like the treasure hunt that they eventually dropped. In the meeting we just talked about things like ‘Look, this is Pablo Escobar’s island! Models! Private jets!’ To me it was like, ‘Wow, I’m gonna be part of something pretty lavish.’ I don’t know much about any of these things, so I was already intrigued about what it was, who was behind it. With Ja Rule involved, I assumed it had some kind of legitness.”
That assumption, of course, was pretty far off the mark. Aks found himself in a position where says he was “the only one who understood design” across both the Jerry Media and Fyre teams.
“They were sabotaging themselves constantly,” he claims. “Even on a small scale it would be a weekly decision about, say, on Instagram it was a collaged post so we’d post like four or five rows of a dozen square tiles on someone’s feed. People got mad that we’d post that many, then [the team] would be like, ‘We need to delete that whole section and re-upload it.’ It was supposed to be annoying on purpose. But that whole row was taken down and re-uploaded, I swear, a dozen times. So my role was designer, but also corralling people.”
“Some people took away that I was good looking; some people took away that I was the only one who basically spoke the truth or owned up to the truth.”
It goes without saying that for anyone involved in the project, Fyre has had some pretty shitty repercussions. The flipside, though, is huge visibility. There’s no doubt Aks’ name has been out there a helluva lot more now, and the designer isn’t shy about admitting that it’s opened a lot of doors. He adds that in early days after the Fyre went down in flames, he struggled to “clarify my association with Fuckjerry… It was a huge learning curve, but at meetings I didn’t bother trying to explain, or say, ‘Here’s a disclaimer of what went wrong.’ I avoided it a lot, but the work I was getting was coming through the contacts who understood. Right now it’s about clarifying the story and being more public about it.”
Of course, part of that visibility came from the documentaries that have been the default water-cooler chat for months now. “It was interesting what people took away [from the Hulu doc],” says Aks. “Some people took away that I was good looking; some people took away that I was the only one who basically spoke the truth or owned up to the truth. It’s funny what people took way from this major scam. They just paused and were like, “I gotta Google him!”
While we can’t suggest that anyone ultimately knew what was going on in terms of Fyre co-founder Billy McFarland’s fraudulent activities, designers across any project have a certain level of responsibility (and surely, curiosity) when it comes to exploring the workings of their clients and projects. “I didn’t see the paperwork; I didn’t see the wire fraud, I didn’t know what was going on,” says Aks. As a designer though, especially one working on a festival that, at its most basic, had nothing at all except the design work and a social media campaign—aren’t you in some way responsible for the fallout?
I had to reinvent the idea of luxury in 2017 on a post-to-post basis.
“The design is very much like a product on the shelf—that’s often all you see of a company, so you can’t expect a designer who put a soap bar [packaging design] on a shelf to know what the ingredients inside are,” he says. “It’s kind of one of those things. You expect everyone to do due diligence, but people can’t be expected to know everyone’s job, they just have an overview of a project or a product.”
I put it to him that surely at some point during the Fyre process there must have been a point where he realized the gravity of the future-disaster, and might have stepped away. Aks even describes the work environment at Fuckjerry as “toxic,” and found himself basically living at the office at times. But, he says, “I couldn’t afford to go. I was living beyond my means in Manhattan.” The other reason he didn’t just leave was “being in the thick of it. I was thinking, ‘Should I quit because I think they’re wrong?’ I didn’t see this far into the future, I didn’t know this would be the result of what I was working on. There’s no case study like this where everyone’s crashed and burned.”
It’s not hard to see that the situation he found himself in was a far cry from straightforward. From what Aks tells us, the entire project was something of a nightmare. In addition to the aforementioned lack of design brief, design team, or support, it sounds as though all decisions were based on both naive self-belief and strange whims.
For the poster design, for instance, Aks was given just seven hours to create the entire thing from scratch. The aesthetic was “heavily influenced by Kanye” [who was rumored to be headlining Fyre], he says, in terms of the typography and pastel shades. “The typography is Futura, very tracked out,” he says. “One of the funny things about the poster and typeface [made by the Fyre team] was that the tracking was off—they didn’t even try, and that was the most elementary thing.”
“The Fyre logo is the worst. If you overlay it on the Tinder logo it’s the same flame, or some iteration of the same shape. I hated it.”
The look and feel of the festival, its ticket prices, and its much-mocked marketing fibs, hints that Fyre had a very specific audience in mind: millennials with disposable incomes, and judging from the lineup, people perhaps more interested in “experiences” and good music. “It isn’t necessarily about privilege: these people are more like “hypebeasts”— they’ll find the money to make hype happen,” says Aks. “They’ll buy a $300 fanny pack that says Supreme and rock it at all these events.” In terms of how that impacted his design work, Aks says he was “definitely thinking about rich people, not necessarily millennials, but just people who bought into the millennial concept.
“I’m being realistic that it isn’t for someone who’s a bullseye millennial. I’m 28 and I lived in Manhattan in Chinatown on Canal Street. I do my $7 coffee bullshit, eat avocado toast, I have a design job—that’s a bullseye millennial. But I can’t afford a quarter-million dollar yacht package [as offered at Fyre], so that’s more for older-generation people who maybe want to bring their own yacht. I had to cater to a different generation of rich—not just the type of people who show up in a limousine and smoke cigars on the beach. It’s the people who want to fly in from Manhattan and wear their Supreme fannypack. I had to reinvent the idea of luxury in 2017 on a post-to-post basis, even with the captions I’d post underneath something. The word the CMO loved was “elevated.” It wasn’t about millennials and avocado toast: it was a mixture of different generations with different ideas of what a millennial is, if they can afford to.”
While Aks hasn’t exactly been burned by the experience, he’s definitely been charred. He says the whole fiasco has “definitely changed [his] business and design thinking to look at everything under a microscope.” His main takeaway is the idea of “weaponizing design,” underscoring the notion of designers as powerful agents that wield a lot of influence through the work they do.
Going forward, Aks says he’s learned to do more than just his due diligence. “I have to double- and triple-check my clients and what they’re up to, and make sure I’m triple-reassured that it is what it’s going to be, in terms of what my involvement is. I want to make sure that if I’m looking at [projects] that are a little outside the box, that no one will get arrested.” That means “working with established brands for the most part, or people with established sources of money—not just empty promises.”
So far, it seems that power is something he’s not actively gotten around to using. “We [designers] are usually quiet people and chug along because [designing] gives us so much joy, but you can get caught unexpectedly in the whirlwind of someone else’s actions—you don’t realize the effect of some cool usage of Futura,” he says. “We don’t talk about the power we have. We often joke about how design won’t change the world, or your poster won’t save the world–we’re very self-aware as a community about not being egotistical. But there is power in what we do, and we can use that positively. You can apply the power of design to something good.”