For the last three years UnderConsideration—the team of Armin Vit and Bryony Gomez-Palacio—has organized the Brand New Conference, where designers talk about identity, graphic design, and most importantly, storytelling. In this interview with GraphicDesign.com, Armin Vit shared his thoughts about this year’s conference as well as the design practicality of purple. If you haven’t heard Vit speak before, check out his opening remarks here. I’ll wait.
What made you want to start a conference series about brands?
We saw an opportunity to extend the focus of our blog Brand New. The main reason that the blog is so popular is because of its single-mindedness in covering only redesigns or new designs of corporate or brand identity work. So you know exactly what you are going to get every day you log-on. We went on a limb and thought that a conference with an equally focused topic would be welcome. There is no other conference like it in the US, and I don’t mean that as in we are the best conference ever put together, but we actually fill a void. We saw it as both a business opportunity and as growth opportunity personally, to challenge us to do something risky and but mostly something highly enjoyable.
If you had to characterize an overall theme for the conference—aside from the idea of the brand—what would you say that theme was? Is it different than in the previous two years?
This year there were a couple of common threads among the speakers. The first was a general sentiment of confidence in what we do as brand and identity designers and that we should be proud of what we bring to the table and stop feeling like second-class citizens in the business world. Simon Manchipp summed it up nicely by saying that we need to move from being a “cost” to an “asset” to clients, and Howard Belk commented that clients are hungry for ideas and that’s where we can step it.
Another thread, most convincingly put by Massimo Vignelli, was that it’s our responsibility to bring beauty to the designed world, to rid of vulgarity. This could be construed as a mere aesthetic argument but the point is that we can make things better. Every year there are different threads: last year, it was branding as storytelling—something that Miles Newlyn poked at by saying that stories have an end, so why would you want your brand to end through storytelling?—and the first year … the first year, I don’t remember there being an overarching theme; just a good showing of work and thinking.
Who surprised you most with their talk this year?
Massimo. I had visited his studio the Wednesday prior to the conference so that we could talk about the format of his presentation and what we wanted to talk about. He was mostly serious and very much “on brand” about the points he wanted to cover. For a moment I thought it was going to be a little too academic. But the moment he pressed click on the first slide it was like opening the gate for a race horse; he just went at it with charisma, determination, humor, conviction, and passion. Not that I doubted that he had any of those qualities in him, but it was fabulous to see him work the crowd.
What did you first think about brands before you started in design—and how has that idea changed over time?
It’s not something I thought about at all. Before I started in design, the idea of brand didn’t even exist; at least not as we know it now. Brand is all about allegiance to something: from a specific product to an overall persona one wants to portray. Most people do this unaware; where they show allegiance to certain things without really knowing why or how; certain products, services, and lifestyle choices just attract them more. Now we know that it’s all about believing in brands and in living a branded lifestyle. So I think branding is just the realization and commercialization of those behaviors and the triggering of those behaviors more knowingly.
You’re both on-stage and behind the scenes during these conferences—are there any funny stories that you could share?
This is the first year where three of our speakers showed up only 15 minutes prior to their starting time. That freaked us out. Other than that, there really is no glamour, sexiness, or sitcom-esque situations to running a conference. It’s all about keeping your cool and finding the time to pee.
Would you consider Speak Up as the catalyst for the Brand New Conference? What was it about SpeakUp that brought in such a large community of designers?
Yes, Speak Up was definitely the catalyst. At some point during the heyday of Speak Up we considered a multi-day conference. We were young, in our twenties and got scared about the logistics; plus, looking back, we wouldn’t have been doing anything that the AIGA National conference or other design conferences weren’t already doing. What Speak Up had, which is what we would have liked to capture in a conference setting was the unbridled debate, the sense that anyone could say anything, and that people could sit on the sidelines and watch or get in the ring and duke it out. That feisty spirit has remained in us, and that’s what has kept us doing this for three years running.
You’ve spoken for the TED Conference, which has a series of design
talks. What can the Brand New Conference bring to the table that TED
Just for the record: I spoke at TEDxAtlanta, not the big one with all the geniuses and people with lots of money. It goes back to the first question: We are talking about very specific industries and specializations within graphic design, which are the crafting of logos, identities, and brands. The great part of it is that when designers work on those kind of projects they are giving visual manifestation to the companies, products, and services that make the world go round and the ones we interact with day to day, whether small or large, local or global, so it becomes a very interesting conference where we are talking about economics, culture, politics, sports, entertainment, and more within this otherwise confined subject matter. It’s not for everyone, which is why we don’t enjoy the broad appeal or recognition of something like TED, but we serve our audience and we serve it with gusto.
Aaron James Draplin talked about color theory, and the much-tweeted quote was, “Nothing says I don’t get it like purple”. I know that there are a lot of designers who would disagree with that. What did you think about it?
I actually love purple. Two of the three identities we’ve designed for the conference have used purple quite generously. It pairs great with other colors, it’s richer than blue, less intimidating than black, and looks great on the web. I’ll agree with Draplin that it’s a very hard color to get right on print. But that’s why there are PMS colors.
Under Consideration’s Speak Up! was really the first blog that I read that talked about the moral obligation of being a designer, and to see that echoed in the conference struck me as significant. Can you talk about what the moral obligation of being a designer is for you?
I’m not one to get on a soapbox about the morality of design. To me, it’s about being a good person; doing right by your clients, vendors, and coworkers; and doing the very best design you can do. Whether it’s for a Fortune 100 corporation or a one-person non-profit organization that saves puppies kicked by mean bastards they all deserve the same treatment and attention. There is this whole bandwagon about design for social good… I’m not on it. It’s about people for social good; as designers we have no more or no less responsibility to do good—as each of us see fit—than lawyers, doctors, or architects.
Interested readers can view full video of the conference here.
Logo courtesy Bryony Gomez-Palacia & Armin Vit