You’ve said that the goal of Speak Up, your original design blog, was to bring the design community online. Seven years on, how has the Internet changed design?
What’s funny is that when I launched Speak Up, and it had this big colour layout and all that stuff, people commented on how much it looked like a print design. And then when I showed someone the latest book we did, they said, “It’s funny how much it looks like a website.” The two formats bleed into each other pretty seamlessly nowadays. I think layouts in print today tend to be more information-heavy because people are used to scanning for bits and pieces here and there like they do online.
On your For Print Only blog, you highlight the best new print projects “to celebrate the reality that print is not dead,” as you put it. Putting aside whether print is dying or not, do you think that would be such a bad thing? How would it change the nature of design and content?
I think you’d lose a lot of canvases for expression, whether it’s posters, brochures, books – all those things have a certain presence in the living world that a website doesn’t have. It’s really hard to replicate the experience of just touching something – the pacing of a book – there’s a lot to be lost there. It’s crazy how fast things are moving. Ten years ago, if you didn’t publish a really slick, colourful annual report as a Fortune 500 company, you’d be behind the curb. Now you’d seem like you were wasting resources.
How would you describe the client–designer relationship on a given project?
You’d like to think that you come up with all the great ideas, but it’s about having conversations with a client and making sure you’re listening to them. From there, it’s hard not to arrive at a solution that makes sense. Then we retreat to our notebooks and computers, and that’s where the magic happens. How that magic happens, I have no idea. But it seems to work out, and then it’s a series of back and forth until we arrive at something that everyone is comfortable with.
You’ve become quite an established writer, authoring magazine articles, several books and, of course, multiple blogs. How has your writing career affected your design work?
It plays a huge role in the way we design and the way we present our work. Everything we do is backed up by 12 pages of rationale. This is where we try to deconstruct the magic I was talking about, to put those impulses into words. The funny thing is that in Spanish I’m not a very good writer. I can barely come up with a few sentences that would work in a magazine. But in English, somehow I’ve become a better writer, and it’s all through writing pretty much every day online and trying to put my process into words.
There seems to be a fine line between accompanying a new logo release with an intelligent explanation for the change, and loading it with marketing spin. Pepsi, for instance, was skewered for its 27-page PDF linking its new logo to the history of Western civilization. You spend a lot of time on your Brand New blog analyzing and critiquing but also explaining logos. Why do companies seem to have such a hard time with this part?
It’s usually PR people that are writing the press releases and you need to have some real intimacy with the brand to communicate its core values. For the most part, companies are just looking for a couple of sound bites for newspapers to quote. Then you have companies like Pepsi who seem to be trying a little too hard. They could have said, “We wanted to make our logo look like a laugh,” and called it a day. If they asked a designer, “Could you provide five talking points about the logo?” that would probably be more helpful.
If you were a generation or two older, and didn’t have the Internet and blogging and Web design to propel your career, what do you think you’d be doing?
To be honest, I have no idea. Everything we do evolves from the Internet. Even if we do print work, for people in other places, we have meetings on WebX and use Premiere, and so the Web enables not only what we do but how we do it. We’d probably just be doing business cards and letterheads and that’s it.
The New York Times recently noted that big companies such as Kraft and Wal-Mart are coming out with new, colourful logos to soften their image. How would you describe the current design aesthetic?
In terms of corporate identity, the Times really nailed it. We’ve seen more and more companies switching to lower case, going with rounder letters, happy, lively colours – no more of that hardcore blue. I think it’s just a matter of corporations not wanting to appear so overbearing. But online everyone’s doing their own thing. For a while, everything started to look like the Obama website, with lots of lines and pretty gradients and things like that. But in the last ten years there’s been so much exploration online. You see some trends, but it’s hard to see a clear aesthetic. It’s constantly evolving.
What are some of the best and worst corporate designs of the past few months?
Some of the best? That’s hard. One of the worst is the logo for Bing, Microsoft’s new search engine. It’s really poorly done. You can like it or not, but it’s just poor practice. I mean, if you’re building a chair, you want to make sure that it holds up…
How does that happen? You’re Microsoft, you have tons of money, you go to the best firm. You assume that these designers know what they’re doing. How do they end up with something like that?
I have no idea. It’s a matter of whether it’s done in house or whether they hired someone. There are probably so many layers of approval and so many people to keep happy. A long time ago, I did some work for Coca-Cola, and you’d show up for a meeting and there would be three different managers and VPs. They’d all they, “That needs to be bigger, that needs to be browner, that needs to be less brown,” or whatever it is, and you have to listen to all of them. And the next thing you know, you have something that looks like Bing.
Hmm…I’m trying to think positive here. I think the London 2012 Olympics logo is really, really great. Some people hate it, but it’s really good. They just don’t get it.
Since it’s one of our fortes, can you comment on the airline industry in terms of brand design? Have you noticed any trends?
Actually, one of the best redesigns lately was the one for Delta [by Lippincott Mercer]. It just simplifies everything, looks really sharp and really contemporary. The Mexicana redesign [by Design:Success] was interesting too. For the most part, airlines seem to understand that simple is better, and that’s nice to see.
Any final words of wisdom for companies that might be looking for a design shake-up?
Listen to the advice of your graphic designer in the same way that you’d listen to the advice of your car mechanic or plumber or doctor. There are simple things that sometimes need to be fixed, in the same way that your car may need an oil change or your tuning might be off. Those are things you don’t debate. You just fix them. Graphic designers often work on the metaphorical or subjective level, but a lot of times it’s a matter of “You know what? This is not working, and here’s why.”
Anything to watch out for from less scrupulous graphic designers than yourself?
If someone sends you a PDF that tries to tie your logo to the history of humanity: RUN!