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How did you first become interested in the field of design? Like a lot of kids, I was really into skateboarding and snowboarding growing up. I remember being really enamored by the graphics on the boards—the design was the deciding factor for whether I bought a skateboard or not. I’d rummage through snowboard magazines, loving the energy of the layouts and typography in the ads. At 14, when I was just beginning my studies in jazz piano, I came across Herbie Hancock’s record Thrust. I vividly remember being inspired by the music and the album artwork—this was my ah-ha moment. From that point on, I was dead set on studying both design and jazz composition in college, and then eventually pursuing those artistic disciplines as a career.

Where do you find inspiration? The Bauhaus has a massive influence on me personally and the work we do at DIA. This excerpt from Walter Gropius’s book The New Architecture and the Bauhaus serves as a foundation for our studio’s approach and creative process:

“Because we live in the 20th century, the student architect or designer should be offered no refuge in the past but should be equipped for the modern world in its various aspects, artistic, technical, social, economic, spiritual, so that he may function in society not as a decorator but as a vital participant.”

By thinking this way forces our work to be extremely rational and concept driven, versus decorative and stylistic. What I find most inspiring is how work from the Bauhaus has gracefully stood the test of time. One perfect example is the Barcelona Pavilion, created by Ludwig Mies Van der Rohe in 1929! Arguably a continuation of the Bauhaus, the work of Josef Muller Brockmann, Emil Ruder, Armin Hofmann, Max Bill, continues to serve as a great source of inspiration in the work we create at DIA, too.

Otherwise, I find it’s hard to “search” for inspiration; it more or less finds you. Anytime I’m surrounded by people with an entirely different worldview or in a place of immense natural beauty, I’m jolted with new energy and inspiration both creatively and in life. I think the key to becoming inspired or enlightened is when I’m way out of my comfort zone and realize how, as an individual, I’m unimportant in comparison to humanity and the universe. This realization really forces me to be humble and grateful for what I have, and it allows me to put every bit of what I have into creative endeavors.

How does playing jazz piano fuel your design work? To be able to play jazz well, you must master proper technique on your specific instrument, build an extremely deep understanding of music theory and keep up with the pulse of what is happening in the wide range of music genres. Jazz to me isn’t really a genre but more or less the ability to improvise and communicate tastefully through music. A great jazz group is essentially having a conversation with each other using their instruments with the goal of telling an emotional story to the listener. I think what Wayne Shorter has been doing with his current band is the ultimate example of this.

To me, graphic design is no different than jazz, but it’s visual rather than musical. A great graphic designer has to master their technique before they can begin to improvise. Just like a jazz composer, a designer thoughtfully blends typographic, photographic or illustration “genres” to communicate a conceptual message and hopefully have it resonate emotionally. In music performance, the ensemble takes a group of people using various instruments working together to create one beautiful piece. At our studio, we operate like a music ensemble does, creating the best work possible through an almost utopian democratic collaborative process. If we could reproduce what Wayne has achieved with his current band but through design, that would be pretty awesome!

Your studio DIA dreamed up the identity for UN Women’s HeForShe campaign featuring Emma Watson. Please explain your process and thinking behind the design. Generally we approach our branding projects as a large graphic system working together cohesively, but in this case, creating a simple but striking mark that communicates shared masculine and feminine sensibilities was the most important piece. More of a global movement than a brand, HeForShe needed a mark that transcends all language barriers and embodies the idea of gender equality in a bold, graphic way.

The United Nations is a complex and massive organization. They needed something simple and easy to execute across their worldwide entities without our supervision. At that scale, a complex graphic system would have been impossible to implement successfully and it just didn’t make sense strategically. The ultimate goal was to empower the public with a symbol to express their solidarity with the HeForShe movement. Anyone could post the mark to Instagram, Facebook, draw it on a sign, or print it on a T-shirt. To witness the level of participation from people all over the globe across social media was pretty amazing.

Conceptually, the symbol is simple. We combined the astrological signs of mars (male) and venus (female) and merged them into one mark, clipping the circles off to combine the arrow with the plus sign. Deliberately separated into two parts, the male arrow sits behind a section of the female plus sign to show uplift and support. The color assignment—magenta for men and black for women—turns the tables on gender stereotypes and extends into how photography is used as well. We chose an austere grotesk typeface, Maison Neue by Milieu Grotesque, to convey a real seriousness and sense of urgency in all the campaign communications.

Are you working on any personal projects? Internal projects are a constant at DIA—they keep us on our toes. Currently, we’re developing an extensive poster series on “the meaning of DIA” comprised of weird phrases created from the DIA acronym, plus a supporting illustration. For example, “Dudes In Actions,” “Ducks Infiltrating Airplanes” and “Delaware Is Awkward.” We’re also working on several typefaces for commercial release. Eventually we’ll launch a section on DIA’s site to showcase these projects and sell products we develop.

What design trends most interest you and why? A new wave of studios out of Europe seem to be taking the classic Bauhaus and Swiss foundations to a new level. I’m astounded by the design, typography and type design work of Zak Group, Kasper-Florio, Marcel Hausler, NeoNeo, Baenziger-Hug, Gavillet & Rust, Laurenz Brunner, Hubert-Fischer, Radim Pesko and so many others. They’re going to have a massive influence on graphic design and typography moving forward.

Graphic design is getting close to being over the excitement of digital tools and is reverting back to its modernist roots, and expanding on those fundamentals. For the most part, crazy flash mini-sites and weird techy typography are things of the past. I think there are few things still lingering such as code-driven or generative work, but I feel if they don’t have a practical application or can’t be justified conceptually, they are no different than an art nouveau flourish.

Do you have any advice or insights you can pass on to others in the creative industry? My current point of view is definitely shaped by years of experience working as a freelancer. I’ve contributed to more than 50 design studios, production companies and advertising agencies experiencing a range of situations from horrifying to glorious.

Over time I’ve found that I learn the most when I’m out of my comfort zone. Do everything wholeheartedly because it might be the last time you get that opportunity. Work hard and be nice to people.
Mitch Paone is the creative director and founder of the New York–based brand consultancy DIA. Beyond his commercial career, Paone is an adjunct professor at the School of Visual Arts, the pianist and bandleader of the jazz-fusion group Non-Static and an exhibiting fine artist.
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