In anticipation of the 2016 AIGA Design Conference less than one month away (October 17-19 in Las Vegas; register by October 6), we’re getting an early dose of the kind of the design inspiration attendees can expect by hosting six conversations with 12 AIGA Design Conference speakers we just couldn’t wait any longer to meet.
While it’s true that a logo doesn’t make a brand, you’d be hard pressed to think of a single major company without a strong identifying mark. And while a logo hardly tells the whole story, sounding off on new ones or on updates of old ones is now what dominates the design conversation, often at the expense of intelligent, critical discourse. See: Twitter. To us, that means it’s high time we had a refresher on just what that whole story is again.
Who better to speak with than two women who work squarely between the worlds of design and big brands? Debbie Millman, who, in addition to being a designer, educator, author, and host of the podcast Design Matters, has spent the last 33 years at Sterling Brands, working with so many major companies that listing them all would read like a Fortune 500 who’s who. At Work-Order, co-founder Keira Alexandra has focused on design and brand strategy for an equally impressive client roster that includes Apple, Comedy Central, and the New York Times. We spoke with them about logo fatigue, forming intimate relationships with big corporations, and what happens when you become your own client.
Keira Alexandra: The first time I had myself as a client, in a monetary responsibility way, is with [art and music festival] Day for Night. It makes it super real. Along with my partner here in New York and our partners in Houston, we went into something really ambitious, putting together a festival on a massive scale in a really short amount of time.
Debbie Millman: What made you decide to do this?
Alexandra: We thought, “We’ve got this, we know how to do it. We do it all day for clients.” But in doing so you take short cuts. You don’t have time to breathe and put together the formal things you do for a client, like a tool kit or a style guide. And then you can no longer delegate because it’s all in your brain, not formalized on a piece of paper. While charming, the informality of it becomes exactly what you tell your clients not to do. The good news is it hasn’t thwarted us yet. We actually just announced our Day for Night line up. That’s been pretty exciting.
The thrilling thing about being your own client is that you’re watching every step of the way. Often with a regular client there’s a hand-off process; it’s more like an adoption rather than raising your own baby. You just hope and trust that they’re going to do a good job.
Millman: I find it’s a lot easier to do those things for others. I’ve never been able to do anything for myself. Visually, I can do it for Burger King and Hershey, or for Mariska Hargitay and the Joyful Heart Foundation, but I can’t do it for me. I don’t know why. I was hoping to have a really good witty, pithy response, but I don’t know. I think I’m too lazy.
Alexandra: It’s that self-discipline thing. You think about your client and your strategy. You formulate a story and create a visual language for them. You can’t look in the mirror and do that for yourself. But I think there’s something good about having someone else close to you to check your reflection. To take the example to the extreme—not to make design this self-important—but imagine being a heart surgeon and then performing your own open heart surgery. Physically, you can’t.
Millman: Yes, and I have no fear of telling a big client the truth. In fact, the bigger the company, the more brazen I become, because I don’t have to worry about hurting anybody’s feelings. They’re beholden to their shareholders. I think that that’s also part of the inherent problem of doing work for yourself: I need somebody to tell me the truth. I always say, the way we know things is three ways: we know the things that we know, we know the things that we don’t know, but we don’t know the things that we don’t know. That’s what designers have to be able to tell their clients, what they don’t know that they don’t know.
The best clients are the clients that are willing to hear the truth. They’re willing to be courageous about change. They need designers that are willing to be able to give them that truth in the most professional way possible, with as much integrity and dignity as possible.
Paula Scher says this really well. Big clients aren’t paying you the big bucks to do great designs. They expect that they’re going to get that, it’s table stakes. They’re paying you the big bucks to deal with all the politics and to be able to navigate through that. There are still politics at a smaller company, but it’s a lot easier to navigate than at a big company.
Alexandra: When you’re working with a big company you have some point of contact, and you hope that point of contact has the right information and the right brief to set you up for success. When you have that the relationship the company suddenly gets smaller; it’s a very intimate relationship. If they understand what you’re doing, then they know which path to explore. It’s funny, I’m realizing that now that I’ve crossed the threshold into “older designer” very firmly, I can speak authoritatively about these things and not in the abstract anymore.
Millman: It’s true. I have a lot of advice for younger designers navigating big client relationships. First, without a doubt, make sure you have a contract and a kill fee. If it doesn’t work out, you still get paid for your time. Second, make sure you have creative brief. If the client doesn’t give you a creative brief, then you need to write one to give to them to approve. One day of working under a creative brief will save you a month in creative time. Included in that creative brief needs to be the criteria for success. Be careful of the vocabulary that you use. That’s where I think asking the right questions is really, really, really important. Look at every aspect of the creative brief. Make sure that what they mean by revolutionary you understand as revolutionary. Because revolutionary to you might mean David Carson, and to them that’s something they don’t even understand. Or going from light blue to dark blue—that could be the revolutionary idea.
Alexandra: Yes, ask the right questions. Get to know what it is they’re looking for: who they are, what they want, and what their aim is. Don’t be shy. Don’t just assume, “Now I’ve got to go solve this problem.” Be curious about what it is that they need. I’m still doing that.
Millman: And even if you’re too nervous to ask the questions that you have, you have to do it anyway. You have to. If you’re too nervous, put it in an email. If you that think the questions you’re asking make it seem like you don’t know what you’re doing or that they might infer from those questions that you’re not on top of the project, you will fail. If you’re not sure what the deliverable is until, you to need get clarity, or chances are you won’t do well with the project. That’s some of the advice. I have 80 other things I could say.
On the dangers of criticizing a logo too early
Millman: I think there’s something really interesting happening, and I haven’t really gotten my head around it yet. I’ve been thinking about it a lot and I want to try to understand it better. We’re used to seeing logos for products and brands and movies and TV shows and everything else, right? Now what’s happened, only in the last couple of years, it started with the AIDS ribbon, we’re starting to see movements and values being communicated through ad hoc logos or ad hoc hash tags, like Black Lives Matter. Whenever there’s a horrific global event now people put some type of filter or screen on their Facebook or Instagram picture. I think that’s a way for people to identify with what they believe in. That’s essentially all a label was originally: a mark of quality and of consistency.
Logos have become so ingrained in the way we have come to, for lack of a better word, curate our of lives. Years ago, I remember my father decided he was no longer wearing branded polo shirts. No more Ralph Lauren for him. Rather than go out and buy new shirts, he put an American flag pin over the logos. I said, “Dad, come on!” It was unbelievable. He didn’t think of it in that way, but that’s really all it is. Flags were originally designated spots on battlefields.
Alexandra: I love that anecdote because it’s interesting to think abut the brand or the logo as becoming so personal. I feel like our responsibility at events like the AIGA Design Conference is to talk about the state of affairs. What’s logo fatigue and what does it mean? Are we taking things out of context? I hope to disengage the conversation and put myself on the spot. I have to make these things, too, so how can we help each other and help the world actually enjoy this, and not get into these kinds of pissing matches. Come on guys. Let’s just let things evolve sometimes.
Millman: That’s exactly right. Humans metabolize everything really quickly. The things that we find startling initially are things that we come, over time, to understand better and to accept. You can see this with food. We can eat a lot at Thanksgiving, right. Then after we’re done eating we think we’re never going to eat again. Four hours later we’re digging through the refrigerator. We do that with logos, too. We see something and there’s the shock of the new. It disrupts our existing patterns of recognition. We find ourselves angry about it. Then, a year later we’re talking about how much we love it. And if it changes again four or five years later, the same people who were outraged suddenly grow so fond of it that they’re willing to call out whoever did it as some charlatan.
To quote Paula again—because, you know, she’s Paula—when the whole Tropicana debacle came out, I had done the original pack that was then changed. But then, after everything that happened, Tropicana went back to the design. When I told Paula I was expecting her to say, “Congratulations, your pack won!” But Paula said, “This is terrible for designers. Now everybody’s going to be afraid of making radical change. Because once that design goes back to what it was, we’re stuck in the past.” And she is absolutely right.
Alexandra: Logos have gone the way of liking photos on Instagram. You make that decision in half a second. Nothing breaths, nothing lives, nothing develops. It’s what our culture has asked of us, to comment, and in a very short time frame. There’s no, and I’m going to sound incredibly old-fashioned here, but there’s no digestion period anymore. In fact, I feel like it’s just something to talk about. It’s like we’re just dying for material. I want to form my opinion.
Millman: We live in a 140 character culture. What do we expect? But what I think is interesting is that usually people over 40 think about what’s happening right now means that this current generation is doomed. And they never are.