Nestled between a Mexican café festooned with bright lettering announcing daily specials and a hair and nail salon punctuated with Halloween cats and witches, ITAL/C is a clean, white pause in the landscape. A blank canvas of a storefront in Venice-adjacent Mar Vista, California.
Cofounders/creative directors Matt Titone and Ron Thompson have found a niche in such canvases. For clients ranging from Google to the quaint sandwich joint down the street, Titone and Thompson bring a careful eye and elegant solutions to their projects. For headwear brand Flexfit, the team designed a catalog detailing the 2018 line. “We’ve done the same kind of catalog every year,” says Flexfit’s marketing director Peter Choi. “We approached ITAL/C and said that we wanted to do something different this year. I got excited when they not only listened, but also pushed back. They pushed us into an uncomfortable range. We ended up discovering different and new things about our company. We’re representing ourselves in a new light.”
Thompson’s path to design was circuitous. He started in the College of Architecture and Urban Studies at Virginia Tech and then attended Old Dominion University, where he majored in urban design and geography. “I was interested in how cities work and things like how a street can be improved with sidewalks and trees,” he says. “But after working at an engineering/mapping firm, I realized I was more into the graphical nature of displaying data than the inner workings of a city.” Titone had attended Savannah College of Art and Design before landing at ad agencies TBWA\Chiat\Day and Saatchi & Saatchi Los Angeles (LA), among others, and also freelancing along the way. It was at Saatchi & Saatchi LA that the two met. Thompson was freelancing at the end of 2008 and took a full-time position at the agency in early 2009. Titone was freelancing there at the same time. The goal was to build out a Saatchi design team.
Thompson remembers, “I was hesitant to go full-time. Advertising is not necessarily my cup of tea. It’s intrusive. Nobody seeks out an ad. Instead, they’re drawn to the design of a book or a wine bottle. Those are things that someone actually wants in their life.” Titone adds, “Design is such a small part of advertising. Advertising is generally about the big idea and how to sell it. Now we can really focus on design with our clients. Advertising is just not as fun for us, which is why we started ITAL/C.” They set up shop in 2012.
Titone and Thompson have kept ITAL/C small, by design. They are at the core, and they bring in freelancers, photographers, illustrators and writers, as needed. Thompson explains, “If we say we want to have 20 people, we have to make a certain amount of money. We like being flexible, and we like taking on pro bono work. Right now, we’re able to take on jobs we want and turn down work we feel is not a good fit.” Stepping inside the storefront—they lock the door so shoppers don’t wander in to browse the wares that don’t exist—their sleek space is as compact as a railroad car, with three rooms in a row. In the first, a long table holds a bank of desktops, where Titone, Thompson and freelancers work. The white walls are covered in light-hued wooden frames holding a variety of images: a lineup of vintage surfboards, logo tests, stills from shoots. Next, a living room–style space is cozy and tasteful, with chairs, a couch, and a coffee table brimming with books, magazines and gadgets. Along a sideboard, a sheet of portraiture, beautifully illustrated by Titone, is pinned to the wall. The third space is kitschy and fun—a tiki torch, masks—a place to have drinks, perhaps. A back door leads out to a small parking lot.
ITAL/C’s boutique size has afforded Titone and Thompson the time and space to operate a personal project, Indoek. Through this surf culture brand, they produce their own art, in the form of beautiful, meticulously designed books, community publications, and whatever strikes them as interesting and fun, such as a motion graphics video about surfer Owen Wright, “The Anatomy of Owen,” that is at once gorgeous and powerful. In it, the dimensions of Wright, who happens to possess a far larger physique than most surfers, are laid out in a motion-graphics-slash-coffee-table-book schematic. Titone says, “We worked on every aspect of it ourselves: we did the research on athlete stats; wrote the script; shot and clipped hundreds of photos of Owen; and designed, animated and edited the video. It was a true labor of love, but it paid off big time in getting us more studio work down the road. It really put us on the map and became a project we are still known for.”
For a studio with no new business personnel, that’s the side benefit of Indoek—it’s an ingenious way of attracting clients while also fueling Titone’s and Thompson’s own passions. “We use Indoek to make the types of projects we want produced, and it ends up working for us in the longer term because people will see the Indoek work and want to work with us,” Titone says. “The Owen Wright project was a perfect example of this. It garnered a ton of publicity in the first year of the studio—it sort of went ‘viral,’ although I hate that word, and in turn brought us a lot of clients who wanted to hire us for motion design. Indoek has become a self-promotion vehicle for the studio.”
For both their commercial and personal work, their sense of spare elegance pervades. It’s not that everything looks the same, as with some studios that have a signature look; each project or piece has its own personality, but never wanders off into gilding-the-lily land. “We’ve always had our own style,” Titone says. “But previous jobs have definitely trained us to be versatile. You are what you eat, so when forming the studio and putting together our website, we were very deliberate about what projects to show and what specific style we wanted to be known for. We really love classic, clean, smart—but fun—design, like the work of Charles and Ray Eames or other midcentury modern designers. Their work was very clean and sophisticated, but there was also a sense of playfulness throughout. I would say Eames is our biggest inspiration overall as a studio.”
Tapping into their artful selves for Reebok, the two created a magazine-style catalog in 2015—a hybrid between editorial and advertising, called Reebok Rally. Hiring multiple photographers and writers for the project, ITAL/C produced a piece that evokes real-life challenges women athletes and weekend warriors face, showcasing Reebok wear while illuminating an active life. “We actually moved into the storefront space the same week we got Reebok Rally. That was the biggest project we’ve had as a studio from both a production standpoint and the budget,” Titone says. “It was huge for us to get that project because it showed that we were capable of directly handling a large-scale project for a big brand like Reebok without going through an ad agency. We were very fortunate to have worked with the head of marketing at Reebok, who was previously at Saatchi, so she knew how we worked and trusted us with the job.” Avelina Daum, now senior manager, brand creative marketing at Samsung, recalls, “We wanted femininity without being too flowery. ITAL/C is very easy to work with. They’re great listeners, and they can implement their vision while staying on brand. They were such fresh air to work with.”
Before the 2016 presidential election, Google asked ITAL/C to generate stickers that would appeal to college students and younger millennials in the “I Voted” style. Lots of them—at least 500 different lighthearted, humorous sayings and designs, using #Iregistered. Then, as election day approached, the team designed a new set, #Ivoted, and released animated illustrations to share on platforms like Instagram and Facebook and through Gboard, Google’s keyboard for mobile devices.
One of ITAL/C’s first projects combined Toyota and NASA. When the Endeavour space shuttle was moved from Florida to its new home at the Los Angeles–based California Science Center in 2012, a Toyota Tundra was the vehicle used to haul the massive shuttle from Los Angeles International Airport to the museum, a fifteen-mile trek for which trees had to be cut down in order to fit the behemoth space traveler. ITAL/C teamed up with Saatchi & Saatchi LA and branded the mission, creating illustrations and designing a site for the campaign, called Tundra Endeavour. Illustrated schematics and dramatic photography first counted down the haul, and then documented it. The project mirrors a museum installation in its thought and execution. Titone says, “We love doing projects like this, that are not only for a big brand, but also have a tie to Los Angeles. As East Coast transplants who now call Los Angeles home, it’s really cool to work on projects that make us feel more part of this ever-evolving community.”
Thompson recalls the beginnings of ITAL/C—specifically, choosing its name. “We wanted something short and easy to remember. Italic and italicizing are in the vernacular of the field we’re in. Plus, if a word is italicized in a paragraph, it stands out in an elegant way instead of shouting at you.” Just like the studio itself. ca