Armin Vit has a little grid in his mind
Today’s guest is Armin Vit, co-founder of UnderConsideration, a graphic design firm, and editor and writer for Brand New, the leading site for reviews of corporate and brand identity design work. Born and raised in Mexico City, Armin—along with his wife and partner, Bryony Gomez-Palacio—have created multiple other design blogs, co-authored books, and organized events like the annual Brand New Conference. I was excited to talk to Armin about design trends, blogging, and the pros and cons of being a professional critic.
I asked Armin how he selects which work to review on Brand New, and he said he has a “little grid” in his mind. The more people are likely to be familiar with the client, the more likely he is to write about the work. If the client is small and unknown, the work has to be groundbreaking. Much of the work he sees is “fine”—but work that’s just fine is actually less interesting than work that’s terrible.
I meet other designers [that] will joke that they are always wondering … what I might say. They’re always thinking about, ‘Oh shit, I hope this doesn’t make it on Brand New. Or if it does, I hope it goes fine.’ It just increases that level of stress … but in a positive way, in that I have to make sure that what I’m saying is valuable to as many people as possible and doesn’t put anyone down just for the sake of it.
Armin and I went on to talk about a design trend he’s seen lately: a stampede of wordmarks featuring geometric sans fonts, like Airbnb and Google, and the backlash against them, epitomized by the Chobani logotype.
Next, we discussed how design and branding can make a positive impact on the world, along with Armin’s experience as a Mexican-American immigrant and how it influences his thinking as a designer—especially given some of the Trump administration’s rhetoric and policies toward immigrants and Mexico in particular.
I asked Armin for an example of some work he’s seen that’s making a positive impact, and he mentioned IBM’s “Be Equal” campaign, which repurposes a bee designed for IBM by Paul Rand, highlighting an equals sign in its stripes.
To close out, I asked for Armin’s book recommendations (he likes Branding: In Five and a Half Steps, by Michael Johnson) and his advice for young designers and people in the branding industry: “Look at a lot of brand design … It’s really about building your palate for identity design, how colors work, how typefaces work. It’s not about copying anything, but taking bits of pieces from different places, and how you will apply that to your own lens, to your clients, or to your work. It’s consuming a lot of identity design and letting it simmer in your subconscious.” But honestly, he says, that’s not just a pitch for Brand New.
To learn more about Armin, visit UnderConsideration, from which you can find Brand New as well as design work by Armin and Bryony, books they’ve written, like Flaunt, and events like the Brand New Conference.
Below, you’ll find the full transcript of the episode (may contain typos and/or transcription errors).
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ARMIN VIT EPISODE TRANSCRIPT
ROB MEYERSON: Armin Vit, thank you so much for joining me on the podcast.
ARVIN VIT: Thank you for having me, Rob.
R: Prior to Brand New, which, I think it’s fair to say, is now the leading corporate and brand identity design blog. You ran a blog called Speak Up starting in about 2003, and I’ve heard you refer to that as basically the first design blog out there. What prompted you to create Speak Up? If you could give us the fast version of the story, what got you from Speak Up in 2003 to Brand New, today?
A: The story starts when I first joined a blog called Typographica. That was the first design blog that I ever encountered. I became an author on that site after having been a commentator (and enjoying the back-and-forth of someone posting something), and then having the ability to comment along with a community of others.
I became an author, then I became familiar with the Movable Type platform, which, back then, Movable Type was the default choice for a blogging platform. I had dabbled in doing websites here and there prior to that. Seeing how the template thing worked and how easy it was to set it up, I thought I could do this but for graphic designers. Typographica was very specific to type designers and typographers. I figured this could be helpful for the graphic design industry, so I set it up.
One important thing to know is that prior to launching Speak Up, nobody had any idea who I was. There was no reason for anyone to know who Armin Vit was.
R: Sure. I guess some people start blogs because they’re famous, so they have an instant following. This was the opposite.
A: Yeah. I promise that that’s the first and last time I’ll refer to myself in the third person. I started it and I started emailing people who I wanted them to read what I was writing. Whether it was Steve Heller, Michael Bierut, other designers that I enjoy the work of the time, I wanted them to know about it.
At first, there was not a lot of traction. Little by little, just emailing one person at a time saying, here’s a blog that I started. Come check it out. That started to gather some traction. We started to get some additional authors that thought this is fun. I can do it, too. This was 2003. By 2004–2005, it has cemented itself as the best blog to talk about graphic design.
R: That’s pretty quick. Like you said, it’s not that you knew these designers that you admired and you were emailing. It’s just that they were famous or at least well-known within the design community. You took (what sounds like) a pretty bold move of saying you’ve never heard of me, but I wanted to share something I wrote.
A: Exactly. I think people just enjoy the openness of it. What I tried to do was provide an alternative to magazines and books. At the time, there were a lot of essays about graphic design. Nowadays, no one writes essays about graphic designs, but back then, it was almost a sport where a lot of people did it.
Myself and the other authors really enjoyed doing it without the constraints of an editor. Even though I was the editor, I didn’t have the experience to say, no, you can’t say this or expand on that. I’ll be just like, hey, I’m riled up by what you wrote; let’s post it. I think that attitude, that lack of experience (in a way), and also that overconfidence that you have as a young person where like, oh, I’m right. I think that really attracted a lot of people.
The next 2–3 years just became really fun. People started to know who I was. That wasn’t important. I didn’t want to be known. It was just interesting that from there, from Speak Up, I started to become friendly or acquainted with the designers that I respected. I got my first speaking gig in a panel. From there, that just gave me more confidence that I needed at the time, I think, because I already have too much and not necessarily earned at the time.
R: It sounded like from something I read or an interview you did that it indirectly led to you actually getting a job at Pentagram under Michael Bierut. Is that fair to say?
A: Yeah, that is very true. Michael started commenting on Speak Up. Then he, Bill Drenttel, Rick Poynor, and Jessica Helfand launched Design Observer, which was a really great blog run by powerhouse writers and thinkers. We always had the exchanges by emailing in the back-end about, hey, did you read this? What do you think of that?
When the time was right, I had already moved to New York. Speak Up started when I was in Chicago. When I moved to New York, two of his senior designers left at the same time on good terms and everything. He emailed me and said, I like the way that you think about graphic design. You seem to be a decent graphic designer. Would you like to come work for me? I think he brought me in for an interview to see my portfolio. I guess it was something that he had to do. I think he was sold on me working there just based on my writing on Speak Up, which is kind of weird and fun.
R: It’s interesting. I mean, it says a lot about him. I suppose that he appreciated how you think about design. Maybe that was almost more important or as important as looking at your actual work. I suppose he saw your work through the interview process, but at the time that he asked you to come for the interview, he probably hadn’t seen much of it. He just knew how you critiqued other designs, that you were fluent in the language of design. I suppose through those emails and through the posts that you had written had a pretty good feel for who you were as a designer.
A: Yup, that is absolutely correct and very flattering, too.
R: I guess the one piece in there that I didn’t get that I’m just curious about is why is it not Speak Up still now in 2020? Did Speak Up evolve into Brand New or did you, for some reason, have to drop Speak Up and then start Brand New separately?
A: Brand New started in 2006 and we called it a spinoff of Speak Up because that’s what it was. What happened was that in 2004, I think that’s when the UPS, Paul Rand logo was redesigned by FutureBrand. It was a big deal. It was the first time that designers could go somewhere other than a bar and then the logo. That somewhere happened to be Speak Up. That was one of our key posts in the history of UnderConsideration.
After that, we started posting a few other large redesigns here and there. A lot of the comments on those posts were like, oh, I hate it. Oh, I love it. The comments were not extremely thoughtful or like mini essays, which is what people expected on Speak Up. A lot of people were like, oh, this discussion about logos that don’t belong on Speak Up.
R: They weren’t as meaty.
A: Exactly. They didn’t have the same gravitas as the other posts. We’re like, okay, fine. I’ll start another blog just for this and we’ll see what happens.
R: Got it. Speak Up eventually doesn’t exist anymore, I assume.
A: Yeah. In 2009, it coincided with the rise of Twitter and Facebook, especially Twitter, where all of a sudden everyone had a platform to share their comments. It happened very gradually where people, instead of leaving comments on Speak Up, they would reference the post on their Twitter comment and then make the comment on Twitter.
All of a sudden those discussions started to be moved on Twitter. There wasn’t that back and forth. It was just that people have a platform that they could use with their name attached to it. They just started posting there. As I mentioned, a lot of the comments were mini essays, like 500 word comments. All of a sudden, people are starting to get used to 140 characters. The patience for reading a thread of comments on Speak Up was just not there.
R: I want to talk a lot about how you do what you do now. I know you’re a designer as well, but for a second, let’s focus on the critique of design. Obviously, at this point, given the popularity of Brand New, you’re receiving tips and you’re seeing just tons of work every day. You can’t review all of it. How do you decide? Is there a process? Is it more just your opinion on how to decide what to review and what to ignore?
A: I think it goes back to the UPS post and seeing how something so big, something so well-known attracted so many comments because so many people knew what UPS was. That gave everyone a little bit of an insider knowledge of how to have an opinion about the logo.
One of the main things that I’ve always maintained is that whatever client we’re reviewing, product, service, or company, it has to be somewhat sizable. They can’t all be UPS. They can’t all be Walmart or Starbucks, but it can’t be just a local hardware store that we design or a local restaurant. It has to be something that as many people as possible can find something that they relate to.
Especially when it’s a bad logo, it’s much more enjoyable to see a […] from a large company product or service than something small. Our […] is either understanding or acknowledging what makes good online content, what people will take time off to read and react to, and that has been, by most standards, things that people recognize.
I sort of have a little grid, I guess, in my mind. If it’s big and juicy, it doesn’t matter if it’s great design or bad design, I’m going to put it up. There are a lot of really fine designs that come my way, that looks good, that makes sense, that is appropriate for the client. But if the client is small or regional, that is the least popular kind of content because it doesn’t incite many reactions.
R: Ironically, there’s less to say about it than if it was horrible, right?
A: Exactly. And if it’s a tiny client, the work has to be amazing. It has to be unique. It has to be experimental in some way. It has to just blow people’s minds. There’s a few things here and there.
I think of it over the years, I know which posts are going to do well. Sometimes I put things that I know are only going to get 10–15 comments. It’s worth pointing out because it’s from a well-known design firm. It does fit on that fine range and not that big client, but it’s still part of reporting the news, what’s happening in the identity design world.
R: Right. When you sit down to review a piece of work, do you have any kind of process that you go through? Now that you’ve written so many reviews and critiques over the years, I’m just curious, what have you learned about how design works and especially how brand identity design should be critiqued?
A: I made a formula for myself a little bit where I have first to introduce who the client is just for my sake and for the reader’s sake, just so that we’re clear on what we’re talking about. Then, I’ll just talk about the logo, which is the starting point. That’s how most identity projects start—with a logo. That’s what I talk about first. That gives me a lot of things to talk about.
How I interpret what I just explained about the client, how does that reflect on the logo? From there, I talk about the colors, the typography. Those are the ingredients that make up the identity. Then, I talk about how those ingredients are put together in the applications. Then, they just give them like a quick wrap-up statement of, overall yay or nay, and a little bit of why. I always try to give a summary that attempts to encapsulate why it’s good for this client or why this solution applies well at this point in time. It’s rarely just like, oh, overall, it sucks and good luck.
R: It’s interesting because I noticed that you really have to blend, like you said, you’re partly reporting the news. You’re partly just saying this is new and I want to make sure everyone has seen it, and you’re sort of explaining what it is. You’re also dissecting it as a designer. With your own experience, you can talk about this is the typeface they’re using or maybe even this is why they made this choice versus that choice. Then, there’s that last layer of opinion of just good or bad opinion, like they made this choice and they should have made this other choice or something like that. You’re really blending all three of those. Is that fair to say? I don’t know if you think about it that way at all.
A: Yeah, that is like the lasagna of my post. If you don’t have an opinion, if you’re just explaining, if you’re just describing something, it becomes boring. I’ve always been extremely clear about my opinion. It’s based on my biases. It’s based on my understanding. It’s based on my likes and dislikes. I think people appreciate that. There’s someone behind it. It’s not just a machine spitting out a description of what you’re looking at.
It’s a little bit of trying to blend that experience that I have as a designer. I had the opportunity to work with Michael Bierut at Pentagram, so I know how large clients work. I’ve seen that. I used to work at a really tiny design firm in Chicago, so I know how small design clients work. On our own, we work with medium-sized clients. All of that helps me make informed opinions and I can relate.
It’s funny because sometimes I’ll say something in the review like, oh, I bet the client didn’t want to do this or that, even though that was never mentioned in a press release or anything. Then, the designer, by email, will tell me, how did you know that’s what happened?
We sort of know how these things go. It’s not because I’m that smart or anything. It’s just the experience, really enjoying what I do, and hearing stories from other designers. I love going to conferences and hearing how designers worked on a project. All of those things sort of inform. They allow me to make an informed opinion that hopefully is also entertaining at the same time. You can have an opinion and make it boring as hell. At the same time, I also have to keep it lively enough to keep people interested in coming day in and day out to see what’s happening. You know, what will Armin say this time? That’s the last time I’ll refer to myself in third person.
R: I have a feeling you’re going to say that again. I’m curious, though. Something that all critics face and criticism in general has always faced is this feedback loop issue. As you and as Brand New become more influential, you obviously must be aware that if you’re writing a great review about work that was done by some unknown designer, that’s probably great for that designer. It could be a huge boost to their career, get them a lot of exposure. At the same time, if you write a really negative review, it could upset a client. It could maybe even have financial consequences for some big consultancy if that client gets so upset that they take their business elsewhere.
I don’t mean to stress you out, but do you ever worry about having too much influence? Do you just feel that comes with the territory? Who cares? You have the right to say whatever you think? What do you think about it?
A: I worry a lot about it. What’s interesting, going back to Speak Up where no one knew who I was, my opinions didn’t really matter. It didn’t matter what some young designer from Mexico that no one had heard of had to say about the UPS logo. But then, that evolved into what you just mentioned, a blog with a good reputation that both designers and clients alike read and respect, which is absolutely flattering and amazing. It blows my parents’ minds away because I was a terrible high school student. There was no indication that I was going to amount to anything in my life based on my high school grades, how I behave, anything.
It’s pretty insane to me to think that what I have to say can have that influence and I know it has. I have a little bit of an ego, but it’s not driven by that. The opposite applies in that it does really make me think hard about what I say, especially now with how big it’s gotten, anything mean, not mean because I don’t want to say anything mean. Any negative criticism that I make can have a negative effect on someone’s business. I’m not going to specify who, what, or for whom, but I have emails that after a review, they did have a negative effect on something.
After that, I’ve been really cautious about what I say and how I say it. That happens less often than whenever I’ll write about the designer work that no one has seen, and then they start to get popular. That makes everything worthwhile. All the trouble, all the hard work that goes into it, being able to elevate someone’s work, not because it’s someone that I admire prior to writing about.
R: It’s not someone you know, necessarily.
A: Yeah. It’s just someone whose work all of a sudden it’s like, wow, this is amazing. As many people as possible should know about this. I think that’s when that popularity is really beneficial. I think it translates into the Brand New conference that we’ve been running for 10 years where we have people like Michael Bierut, Paula Scher, and people from […], but at the same time, we’ve had designers that no one has heard about. They become popular and then they become regular speakers after speaking in the Brand New conference.
R: That feels good.
A: Yeah, it is nice. It’s not to pat myself on the back—me and my partner, Bryony. We’re the ones that pick the speakers. We don’t do it to get credit for it. We just do it because it’s such a nice thing to be able to do for someone else. I guess it goes back to the fact that someone gave us a chance being unknown at some point. It’s a nice way of paying it forward.
R: The other part of the feedback loop that I’m sure you’re aware of is some designers may be thinking about what is Armin going to write, or what comments are going to be on the Brand New blog when this goes live? I think we both agree that they probably should be more concerned with, is this the right thing for my client, or even just what is my client going to say? Do you worry about that at all? Have you ever heard about anything? Do designers talk about that kind of effect that a site like Brand New can have?
A: Yeah, a lot, especially whenever I do speaking engagements. I know that with AGIA chapters or other conferences, I meet other designers. A lot of them will joke that they are always wondering. They’re always concerned about what I might say. They’re always thinking about, oh shit, I hope this doesn’t make it all Brand New. Or if it does, I hope it goes fine.
I think it’s flattering and it’s nice. I think what it does is now, it gives me the right kind of confidence in that what I’m saying has an impact on how people are thinking about graphic design or identity design. It just increases that level of stress in a way but in a positive way that I have to make sure that what I’m saying is valuable to as many people as possible and doesn’t put down anyone just for the sake of it. I’ve even had designers saying, my client specifically said don’t let Armin blast this on Brand New.
R: Wow. The feedback loop goes even further than I imagined. I guess it also puts pressure on you to stay really educated on design trends and just design in general, which I’m sure you would want to do anyway. It does kind of give you that added pressure because I’m sure you want to make sure that while you are expressing your opinion by definition as a critic, you don’t want to just be your personal taste that’s influencing what you write about. Is that true?
I guess I’ll post it as a question. Is there a distinction between what you think is good and what you like? Or, what you think is poor design and just what you don’t like, just what’s not appealing to you? Or, is that just too blurry of a line?
A: No, I think it’s true. For me, it’s impossible to not know what’s going on because that’s basically what I do every single day. My job is to let other people know what’s going on. I serve as a filter. As you mentioned, like what do I choose to post or not? For every project that I post, there are 10 that I didn’t. I’m still looking at all those other nine that I didn’t post. I’m looking at the project description and looking at the images. I’m always, by default, aware of what’s going on.
I’m also reacting. I’m reading the comments that other people are living on what I write. That helps also frame my thoughts like, hey, so someone disagrees with me and they explain why. That gives me a different point of view for the next time that I encounter something similar.
There’s a lot of elements of play that help me not be completely biased and not be completely single-minded about how I write things. There are certain things like if someone uses Helvetica, I’m going to go berserk because I hate Helvetica. I will say it’s bad because it’s Helvetica.
R: Yeah, very polarizing.
A: Yeah. Then, I’ll say, like, okay, I hate Helvetica but there’s this other aspect to it that is good. A lot of that is formed by allowing other things to influence me, whether it’s other comments, other projects, or other things being posted on other platforms whether it’s BP&O or The Brand Identity.
R: Do you feel like your role as a critic has influenced your role as a designer, the client work that you do at UnderConsideration? Has it influenced in any other way than just you’re hyper aware of what’s going on in the design world, and you’re looking at maybe even more beautiful design work than you would where you’re not running the blog?
A: Yeah. Especially because I’m always thinking, if I posted this on Brand New, what would you comment? I think what it has done, it has made us be more considerate of execution because that’s what I focus a lot on, like how things are executed.
Even if my concepts are not great or if my ideas are not the most clever, the execution is going to be inscrutable. That’s my goal. I’ve always been pretty good about craft, but I think when that’s my main point of focus on my critiques, then I better deliver myself.
Again, just like the exposure to different styles, to seeing how people use different typefaces, and color combinations, all of that, maybe subconsciously, plays a role in my own decisions.
R: The word ‘trends’ is kind of a double-edged sword. I don’t know if designers even like to talk about trends. Is there anything that you’re noticing in the work that you’ve reviewed over the long arc of your career as a critic? Are there trends that you’re seeing or things that you would maybe even project out into the future? Changes in aesthetics or conceptual changes that designers seem to be making more consistently?
A: I would say the most evident trend that I have seen was the rise of the geometric sans serif for wordmarks, no matter who, what, or what was the audience. There was a very specific project which was Airbnb that kicked that off. Then, Google had that same approach. From there, it just exploded.
That was 2014 and 2015. That just became the de facto, default visual language for a lot of designers, a lot of clients. I think they saw how effective it was for those two clients that they wanted to replicate it. As well as it being a functional decision like, yes, that kind of typeface typography works so much better online at small sizes. It makes sense. At the same time, it created this really intense avalanche of sameness that became really tiring by four or five years later. Even nowadays, whenever you see a Geometric Sans, it’s like, oh, no, please, not again.
I think the reaction to that has been happening in the past one or two years. I would say that it was Chobani, the Greek yogurt brand, that introduced that bubbly brand, it’s serif. We’re like, oh, so now we can do this and people would love it. All right, fine. Let’s go in that direction.
R: Yeah, it seems like there’s been a lot more script in the past five years. I wonder if that’s part of it as well as there has been a resurgence of script typeface?
A: Yeah, a little bit. I think there’s a resurgence both in script and funky typography, just uncategorizable typography. I think it’s a very direct reaction to the geometric sans, like, all right, we’ve had it. Designers think we’ve had it, clients realizing that they need something else to distinguish them from the competition. It’s really nice to see some more emotional, evocative, metaphorical (if you will) typography that isn’t as straightforward. Those logos might get changed in the next five years, but for now they serve us a really nice antidote to everything we’ve been seeing.
R: I’m going to date myself a little bit here, but it kind of reminds me of grunge music as a reaction to new wave music from the 80s. Nobody would call Chobani a grunge font, but I do think that the Geometric Sans reminds me of that super clean, 80s, synthesized sound, and now we have this backlash where people just want to color outside the lines a little bit and do things that are a little funkier.
Let’s talk about the recent big, big news from Brand New that you guys changed to a subscription model. You’re charging $20 a year or $2 a month. It’s not super expensive but it’s certainly a big shift in business model. It seems like that was prompted partly by the pandemic and the fact that you had to postpone your annual conference, which I know was a big way that you made Brand New profitable. What else factored into that decision to switch from free to the subscription model?
A: First, there was the decision around the survival of UnderConsideration and our family. We needed to find a way to make money and we were not able to to make money, as you mentioned, through the Brand New conference and First Round, which is another series of events that we started in 2018. There was that element of saying, all right, we need to make money and we have Brand New as a vehicle that could allow us to change it into a subscription model that would bring that money in. We asked ourselves a lot, is it the right thing to do? Why now? The answer was there, but I think we saw the value that we were providing.
With so many people reference Brand New, so many designers use it to showcase studies to their clients, so many clients use it as a way to kickstart their own process with other designers. Some clients even find designers through Brand New. We’re providing something of value that has been consistently delivered for the past 14 years. That gave us a lot of confidence to say it’s okay. We had to give ourselves permission to earn money from something that we’ve been putting a lot of work, a lot of hours for the past 14 years. That played a big role in realizing we’re providing something that people rely on. If Brand New went away, most designers will continue their careers just fine. For a lot of people, it does add a lot in their day-to-day work.
R: Let’s get into the weeds just for a second here on the subscription, if you don’t mind sharing. I’m just curious. Last I saw, I think you’ve sent out some email updates and some blog posts on this. You are at about 7500 subscribers. I don’t know if you want to share the latest numbers here. We’re at the end of October, pretty much. How is it going? What reactions are you getting from people?
A: I’m happy to share. I think we’ve been so open about the whole thing, it’s nice to continue that. We’re at 10,750.
R: That’s great.
A: Yeah. I think that was our initial goal—to reach 10,000 subscribers—and I think we had it by the end of the year. We’ve reached that in mid-October, which has been great. There was a big jump from 7500–10,000. It was really quick. It was way faster than we expected.
R: Word is spreading, I guess.
A: Yeah. After we posted that update, we went from 0–7500 without saying anything. Not because we didn’t want to, but we were just trying to see. That was in a span of a month. It went fast. We didn’t know what was going to happen. When we reached 7500, we’re like, oh we should let people know because someone might subscribe but they don’t know how many other people have subscribed. They’re thinking, it’s just me.
R: It’s important because it affects the community. It affects who’s commenting. If you’re enjoying it, you want to know that there’s a lot of other great designers that are going to be looking at these reviews and commenting on them.
A: Yeah. I think after we posted that, people were like, oh, okay. Everybody is doing it, we might as well do it. The reaction has been really positive. There’s still a few tweets here and there. They’re like, oh, I can’t believe you have to pay now for Brand New. Or, this is one way to close down the industry and not allow other people to go in.
Yeah, there’s truth to that. One thing that we’re doing is that we’re providing free access to anyone that emails us and says like, look, I cannot afford it. $20 might seem like nothing to pay, but for some people right now, it’s impossible. You let us know. You don’t even have to explain yourself. You let me know that you want free access. I’ll give it to you.
R: I know at one point, you were looking into ways to let people do what like The New York Times does where you can read a few articles and then you hit a paywall. Was that just technically difficult to do or are you still looking into trying to do that?
A: We tried a few different approaches and it’s just technically impossible. It’s technically inelegant. With all browsers now having the ability to go incognito, you can bypass any security measures that you put in place. Even The New York Times, if you go incognito, you can read one article at a time, one incognito window at a time.
R: That’s a good tip—how to trick The New York Times.
A: If they can’t figure it out, I can’t figure it out, much less on our limited budget. Yes, we’ve abandoned that. I think what we’re going to try to do is figure out a way that articles can be more easily shared one at a time. Somehow, if you want to share an article with your client, instead of hitting print, then you’ll save it as a PDF, and it will be a nicely formatted PDF that you can share. That could be one way of doing it.
We still have an option where we manually give people one day access. People have to request one day access, which I think is awkward. We might make that the full thing that people can just do on their own.
R: Any other changes in the future? You’ve just made this big change, but I’m sure you’re always thinking about different things or improvements you could be making to Brand New. Any plans for new content or new types of content on the site?
A: Yeah, we’re starting to think about it and figuring out how we can bring in a few different voices beyond just me? Fourteen years of reading my writing, I think it’s fun for other people, but it’d be nice to somehow bring in other people. What I found is that whenever other writers were writing reviews on design work, they were late and it was not formatted right. Finding other types of articles that could come in into Brand New, that’s one option. We would have had the ability for people to create their own favorite archive. If you see something like, you can’t favorite a project and then you’ll be able to access all your favorite projects.
R: That’s cool. You started the podcast recently. That’s obviously a big new endeavor from a content standpoint. Can you talk a little bit about The Follow-up?
A: When we first posted—I think it was in June—we realized how horrible the situation was in the world with a pandemic. We were not able to get clients. We were like, hey, this is how badly we’re doing. We’re sad. We’re still doing Brand New and we hope everyone out there is fine. It was a very heartfelt post, just putting our situation out there for other people to relate. A lot of people did.
A lot of people said, if you had a podcast, I would subscribe to that. I think that would be one way of generating income. The Follow-up started as a standalone subscription thing before being rolled into the subscription of Brand New.
We didn’t get a lot of traction. We ran it for two months and it was $5 a month or $50 a year. Much more expensive than Brand New. People are like, yeah, we don’t really need to pay that much for a podcast. It was fine. It was perfect to get it rolling, learn how to do a podcast, and learn how to be a host. By the way, you’re doing a fabulous job.
What was really important about the podcast being valuable is that it had to be related to Brand New, it had to be repeatable on a weekly basis. Now, it was bi-weekly because we realized how much work it was. That’s when we thought we should follow-up on recent projects and talk more in-depth about each project. We’re like, should we invite clients? Yeah, maybe. We were like yes, let’s invite them. We sort of expected all of them to say no.
The first one said yes, the second one wasn’t available. Then all of the rest, the clients have said yes. It’s so amazing to talk to people on the client side. Usually, it’s either the creative director or the brand manager. Sometimes it is the owner. It’s just fascinating to talk to other people that they’re the ones on the receiving end of all of our work. A lot of designers out there just don’t know how their potential clients react to design.
It’s been great to be able to have those conversations between designers and their direct clients and how those relationships form, how much they feed off of each other, especially when there’s an in-house design team. It’s been really fun to do. Bryony does some of them. I do most of them. We get to have really great conversations with people, especially nowadays, that doesn’t have the novelty.
R: Just to be clear, it’s now available to Brand New subscribers with that $2 a month or $20 a year subscription, or is there another way to access it?
A: No. Once you subscribe to Brand New, it becomes part of your subscription. At some point we’re like, people already paid $50 a year. All those people, we gave them three years of Brand New so that they didn’t feel cheated.
R: That’s great. I want to pivot here a little bit in our remaining few minutes and it’s a bit of a switch of topic here, but it’s a little bit of a theme for the podcast this season.
If we could just get philosophical for a moment, given your role as a designer and a critic of design, do you have a point of view on whether or how design and branding can make a positive impact on the world?
A: I do have a very specific point of view. I don’t know if it’s very noble or not, but I think it’s very important to understand that identity design will not save the world. Our job, what we do, there is nothing in it that will directly save the world.
R: Yeah. That’s a good baseline setting and kind of ego-busting for everyone in the industry.
A: Where we can make a difference is who we make that work for. We’re making that work for people, for companies, for organizations, for products, and services that can make a difference in the world; a positive difference in the world. We empower those clients to be their best—to communicate clearly, to do it engagingly, to do it in a way that is memorable, that sticks in people’s minds. When we see our industry to be in service of other people who are making a difference in the world, I think that can be really empowering.
It’s important to choose who you work for. I’m not saying all your work has to be for nonprofits, for NGOs, or for people saving the world. You can do work for profit, for companies, as long as it’s not… I don’t want to name companies.
R: Right. You’re just advising people to have their own values and ideals in mind, and not just doing the work to do the work. Some people, I suppose, are in a position where they can’t afford to turn work down; that’s one thing.
I like what you’re saying, that the power of designers, consultants, and agencies, a lot of it is in simply selecting which clients to work for and which ones to kind of let pass. If you just feel like, well, I don’t really like what they’re doing or I don’t agree with what they stand for, then you have the power to just not help them and let them go on their way.
A: Having that sense at the end of the night that you helped someone be their best version of themselves. By someone I don’t mean a person, but an entity to communicate in the best way possible. I think that’s a really valuable job. It’s just not going to save the world.
R: Getting a little more specific. You’re a Mexican-American living in a red state in Indiana where, as I mentioned to you, I went to school. The last four years, we’ve seen some pretty ugly rhetoric and policies directed at immigrants, directed directly at Mexico, in particular. Of course, this is most notably coming from the top, coming from the president and his Republican Party. Along with everything else going on in 2020, the protests for racial justice, the pandemic, the election, has any of this influenced or changed you professionally? Your world view? How do you think about what we were just talking about, the role of designers and consultants?
A: I would say it makes me value my position a lot more and be grateful for what I’ve been able to achieve. Luckily in my case, I’m here legally. I’m a citizen now. It’s a reminder that I can make a difference.
Designers, I’m not saying they are not saving the world. I’m much less saving the world, critiquing other countries. Just contributing to society, voting, being nice to people, I think that’s the main thing. In the end, it’s just like being nice. It’s so easy to be hurtful.
If we tie back to Brand New, I think my early reviews both on Speak Up and Brand New were more mean, just for the sake of being mean or being catty or making people laugh. Nowadays, like, oh, like that doesn’t really help anyone. Especially nowadays when so many people are alone in their apartment or house working without that support from their peers at the office. Like, oh, yeah, our work is getting blasted on Brand New in the comments, but it’s okay, let’s hug it out.
I think being conscious of that is really important. For me, it’s just a matter of keeping working hard, which is, I think, the mentality of most immigrants. We come here because we feel that our hard work will pay off. A lot of people have to do it illegally. They know that that work ethic will yield better results for them and their family, even if they’re risking some of it. It’s just trying to be mindful that me and my wife are lucky to be here, to do something that we enjoy, and just try to pay it forward in different nice ways.
R: Well, I love that you’re doing that. I like that sentiment of just trying to err on the side of being kind. I think that’s some advice that the country could use right now. I hope that this continues to be a country where a lot of people look at it and think, if I just work hard, I can make it there. Yeah, I hope that American dream sustains in some way, shape, or form.
Is there a specific brand or just anything in the branding or design world that you’ve seen that you want to share with people, you think it’s making a positive impact, or you just want people to check it out and support it?
A: We had a post this week from IBM, where they have an inside initiative called Be Equal. What’s great about the logo that they came up with, they didn’t even have to come up with, they just found, is the bee from the IBM Paul Rand version that shows a bee instead of a letter B.
R: The bumblebee? Yeah.
A: The bumblebee, and inside that bumblebee there’s an equal sign. Bee equal, is right there. It’s a diverse and inclusive initiative inside IBM that they made public. It’s a wonderful design solution and it’s really inclusive.
We talk a lot about brands being inclusive, but how do they really make that happen? I think this is a perfect example of a really large company doing it right and being very thoughtful with the rewards, the design choices, how they put it out, how they put it out in the world, and for their employees. I think that’s a really good case for other people to, even not follow but to check out and see how we did it.
R: That sounds great. I’ll get an image of that up on the notes for this episode. Any book recommendations? I know, by the way, that you’ve written quite a few fonts recently and a few others. I’ll put links to those. Outside of those, any recommendations for something relevant to branding and design that you think people should pick up?
A: I would say the last book that I really enjoyed about branding is the one from Michael Johnson of Johnson Banks in the UK.
R: Is it, Branding: In Five and a Half Steps?
A: Yeah. I thought that was a really nice book that really illustrates—literally and metaphorically—the identity design process. What’s great is it comes from someone who has a great track record, who’s very eloquent in branding. I thought it was a really nice book that covered a lot. It’s neither actionable nor is it advice; it’s very real. It’s written in a way that identity designers talk and how they relate to the world. I thought that he did a really nice job.
R: Cool. I’ve been aware of that book for a while but I haven’t checked it out yet. I’ll be sure to do that and we’ll add it to the list of book recommendations from podcast guests if anybody wants to check that out.
Last question, given your successful career both as a designer and a critic, any advice for designers or anybody else getting into the branding world or trying to just grow their career?
A: One of the things I understand about myself is that I’m not the most talented designer. I really enjoy looking at graphic design. If you were a chef, you can’t just cook without trying other people’s food. You can’t cook without exploring other cuisines. My advice is just to look at a lot of brand design, which is not a pitch.
R: It’s just a happy coincidence.
A: I hadn’t thought of it from that angle. It’s really about building your palate for identity design, how colors work, how typefaces work. It’s not about copying anything, but taking bits of pieces from different places, and how you will apply that to your own lens, to your clients, or to your work. It’s consuming a lot of identity design and letting it simmer in your subconscious—I keep using cooking metaphors—and then eventually, you’ll come up with a perfect dish.
R: It must be getting close to dinner in Bloomington. I want to echo what you just said and I would even expand it to non-designers—people that are just working in the branding world where they’re surrounded by design. I’ll just speak for myself. I don’t do any design work, I’m not a designer, but I’ve loved being able to work next to great designers and immerse myself in identity design through Brand New but also through my day-to-day work. I think and hope that through that, I’ve developed some real perspective and educated opinion on what works and what doesn’t, what’s “good” and what’s not. That is really useful. Even though I still can’t open Illustrator and actually create anything for anybody.
Great advice and great conversation. Thanks for sticking around a little bit longer than we planned on. I just couldn’t let you go so quickly because I was really enjoying everything you have to say. Armin Vit, thanks for being on the show.
A: Thank you so much, Rob. This was fun indeed.