You have a background as a drummer and musician. How has this affected your approach to graphic design and branding? I started my first metal band when I was thirteen, and my most recent one when I was 36. You pick up the basics pretty quickly.
You have to have total dedication to an idea and back it up with hard work, knowing full well that just because you are doing something doesn’t mean anyone has to care. You have to be brutally honest with yourself about what you’re doing and how it’s being received. Because if you’ve driven 500 pounds of gear—which is not going to get on the stage by itself—in a van from the other side of the country, you’d better have something to say. Likewise, brands have to leave it all on the field, and there’s no easy way to get that done. You have to put in the work.
You also have to give generously to your audience. The minute you tip the balance and take more than you give, you lose them. They can smell bullshit a mile away. The same is true for brands, but the struggle is far greater for them because of the sheer amount of opposing forces within a big company, systems that mean well but are protecting things that oppose the core mission.
How does a band connect to its audience? How is this similar to or different from the relationship between today’s brands and their audiences? In music, there’s what’s called a resonant frequency—it’s when a tone or a wavelength matches the room or environment so perfectly that it amplifies the sound. It gets way louder. If you make something you love, and you wake up excited to do it, and you live it so much that you become it—the idea itself—people will be drawn to it. They will come to you. And together, it acts like a feedback loop, and it all amplifies, like when a performer feeds off the audience’s energy. But it has to be something real. And it has to be done right—execution is the ultimate secret weapon. If you speak the right language, then it will hit that resonant frequency.
Your Chicago-based design studio, Someoddpilot, started as an indie record label. When and why did you decide to focus on design? Someoddpilot Records was hatched at the dawn of the digital era. Everything was up for grabs—how songs were composed and structured, cutting and pasting with computers, not having a front man or vocals, building songs in a studio. We put out intelligent dance music and postrock, but it was like punk in that we flipped all the rules. This needed an aesthetic to match, and as an art student, I was excited to build out that world visually.
We designed and shot for the bands and the label—then for the venues we played, the stores which we supplied, the labels we knew and then the editorials, like Pitchfork, that reviewed our records. Our design studio was inspired by art design group Hipgnosis, which created hundreds of the world’s most famous album covers, from The Dark Side of the Moon to Houses of the Holy. When we branded Pitchfork and designed and built its first real website, we were off to the races. Every brand wants what connects to the kids, and art and music that are not afraid to take chances will always do that.
The marriage of art and business was appealing—alone, they can inspire people; together, they can move mountains. Our work for brands comes from that, and our most recent project for Patagonia actually does move mountains. We branded, designed and built a digital platform that connects thousands of nonprofits to tens of millions of Patagonia loyalists around the world with one mission: to save the planet. My friend John Goodwin, who I met years ago when the bands we were each drumming for played at the same club, works at Patagonia and drove the whole project. They wanted to make this. It’s not marketing. It’s real. Brands have to do something real—that’s what I meant about giving generously to your audience. When you do that, the payoff is tremendous, because whether it’s Patagonia or a bedroom record label, you know its heart is in it all the way.
You studied conceptual photography at university, and you’ve taken images for Someoddpilot’s commercial projects. What have you learned about which images work best for branding systems today? The first is that you have to leave space for viewers to enter the picture and add their own ideas, emotions and experiences into the puzzle—the idea that the picture is complete with their inclusion. They have to think or feel their way into it, and then the picture becomes fascinating. The second thing is major: Is it iconic? Will I ever forget this image, even if I only see it once? That’s powerful! Then, what does this image actually say? As opposed to what do I hope it says? Brutal honesty with yourself. Again, you have to speak the right language.
What excites you about design right now? Design is so different in its practice than when I started working in the ’90s—at least how I saw it. I was a photographer first and actually used to make fun of designers because it felt so anemic. I would think, “Where’s the emotion in white space?” Images are inherently more powerful because they can leverage emotion. Today, though, I’m stoked that design is recognized as user experience. Experience is emotional, so now, the question at the forefront of design is: How will this make you feel? For example, how does the iPhone make you feel when you use it?
Emotion rules the day. There was a time when that wasn’t as common. That’s incredibly exciting.
Do you encourage designers to be able to do a bit of everything, or do you think designers should specialize in one thing? Designers are storytellers, and the more tools they have, the better they can do the job. I think being an image maker is critical; our world leads with images, whether it’s photography, digital and hand illustration, or 3-D. But I wouldn’t stop there. The basic principles that underpin typography, logo design, and video and motion design are the same. Let nothing hold you back. Do it all! Everything in service of the work.
What’s one thing you wish you knew when you were first starting out? At my first job, my boss looked at me and asked, “Why don’t you respect the account staff as much as the creatives?” I was 24. I quit a few months later to start Someoddpilot. I didn’t understand how important business was to the business. The funny thing about this question is that I was told this—I just couldn’t hear it. I wanted to shoot and design all day. You don’t get to have one without the other, and business and art both have fascinating challenges and are super creative, personal and fun.
I like helping people. I want to help translate what they stand for. Bring it alive. Build that world. Because I believe in what they do, and I want to be a part of that. That’s business.