Viceland is Vice’s first TV channel (though it has previously made documentaries for MTV2) and follows the company’s huge success with news reporting and long form documentaries online. Spike Jonze is the channel’s creative director, and shows launched so far include Gaycation – a documentary in which Juno actor Ellen Page and her best friend Ian visit LGBT communities around the world – and F*ck, That’s Delicious, which follows the culinary adventures of rapper Action Bronson.
Speaking to Vice, Jonze says the group didn’t do any market research or focus groups before launching the channel. “We just made things that we are interested in, that we think are funny, and that we care about. We also thought of people with a strong point of view who we admired and wanted to support, like Ellen Page,” he says.
He also described Viceland as “less of a TV channel and more of a laboratory” adding: “I think we’ll create the shows that we know how to make, but we should always be experimenting and trying to figure out what else we’re doing and what else we want to do. I feel like a lot of our shows are an extension of what we already do in terms of immersive docs. But I’m also excited for us as a company to start growing and creating and learning new formats.”
Vice has announced plans for roughly half the channel’s advertising to be native ads within a year. These will be longer than traditional 30 second spots and made specifically for Viceland by a new in-house team, Vice Labs. Examples created so far include one for MailChimp, in which a Vice employee interviews a local business owner and MailChimp user in Brooklyn.
New York branding agency Gretel was asked to create the channel’s visual identity and has developed a surprisingly minimal aesthetic. The core elements are a black-and-white colour palette and one of the world’s most ubiquitous typefaces, Helvetica Bold.
Gretel says it was asked to create an identity that could express the tone and personality of each of Vice’s shows without overshadowing the content. Shows will fall into one of three categories: ‘smart and curious’, ‘light and fun’, and ‘deep and dangerous’.
“The Viceland brand is equal parts exhibition catalogue and street flyer; Craigslist and couture; generic and refined. It is simultaneously the elevated ‘high’ and vernacular ‘low’,” says the agency. “A translation of the VICE sensibility, it’s blunt and raw. An exposed structure, a functional language free of decoration, artifice and veneer.”
On posters and print ads, type is arranged in a number of ways alongside stills to create a playful and flexible visual language. Gretel says the branding will be used to promote cultural events, emerging artists and local goods and services to viewers, as well as signposting Viceland’s content.
On-air, simple typographic animations are used for idents and bumpers. “The entire brand is built on two core moves: hard cuts and linear slides. These can be used alone or compounded to create blinks, reveals, ripples, stretches and waves. The irony of such a low-tech, analog approach is that it can easily adapt to virtually any contemporary platform with the most fundamental tools,” says Gretel.
The choice of Helvetica Bold will likely prove difficult to get past for many graphic designers – it’s an obvious way of representing ‘generic’. But the more important question is whether that typeface effectively communicates what the channel is trying to say. Gretel says its simplicity helps the brand “natively translate across different media, platforms and expressions without diluting” and, speaking to CR, creative director Ryan Moore says the agency explored several options before choosing Helvetica.
“Even after we hit on this idea of an “unadorned” brand, there was quite a bit of exploration, discussion and sketching around the nuances of Unstyled vs Generic vs Default,” he says. “Univers, Akzidenz, Trade Gothic, even Arial was up on the wall at some point. I think what tipped it in Helvetica’s favour was the sense of modernism. It felt pure, contemporary and the more we worked with it the more it just seemed to fit.
“But yes, along the way we tried several faces, treatments and styles,” adds Moore. “There was an early direction built with a slew of vernacular typefaces, one anchored around a really beautiful typeface engineered specifically for optical film subtitles, and we even had one direction just called ‘Kinko’s’ which was much busier and messier in the language of amateur design. It was a sort of homage to the word processor as design tool.”
The black-and-white design also reflects Vice’s branding online: its editorial website is equally unfussy, with the emphasis on content that ranges from more lighthearted ‘immersive’ journalism (often recounting writer’s experience of tripping on unusual highs such as hallucinogenic frogs or Japanese hornet cocktails), to hard-hitting investigate reports and opinion pieces.
With its famously provocative content and young audience, Vice could have gone one of two ways with Viceland’s identity: play it safe, and let the content speak for itself, or create a look with a tone of voice as strong as its shows. MTV opted for the latter approach in its redesign, creating a GIF and meme-inspired identity aimed at a teen audience, but this proved divisive and wouldn’t sit well with Viceland’s more serious content (or, perhaps, its older viewers). Creating a trend-led identity also carries the risk of launching something that will quickly date – MTV has conceded it will have to update visual assets on a regular basis as tastes change – and a statement in Viceland’s brand guidelines (shown on Gretel’s website) states explicitly: “We don’t chase trends.”
“It was a very open brief. No visual direction and no discussion of brand pillars or core ethos or anything like that,” says Moore. “The Vice sensibility naturally informed all the content, which was the thing I still remember from that first meeting. They shared a really epic montage of all the material they were developing, and that made a big impact on us. It was arresting, beautiful, funny, provocative, very Vice. We knew it would be a mistake to step on that material or develop design that would draw too much attention to itself.”
“Internally we did develop directions at both ends of the spectrum and some in the middle but the first thing we shared with VICE was pretty spare, minimal. Or so we thought… Spike and Eddy actually pushed us to pull back even further, so we shifted gears a bit and began to hone in on what became the identity,” they add.
The end result is a pared back look that, in its simplicity, actually feels quite bold. There are no animated, swirling, deconstructed or 3D versions of its logo, no fancy idents or visual effects, no gradients and colour coding to signal different content. There’s an irreverence to the stripped back, generic nature of the design which reflects Vice’s tone of voice and, by focusing on a few simple elements, Gretel has created a flexible system that can be easily adapted to suit whatever bonkers show concept Viceland thinks up next. As one of the world’s biggest media brands, Viceland needs little introduction among its target audience – and for those who aren’t familiar with its content, the provocative show titles, programme synopses and photography in ads are bound to create some intrigue.
“I don’t think [the identity] was intentionally reactionary, but Vice was born out of a punk-rock sensibility and I think it’s fair to say some of that irreverent spirit persists, you feel it across all their channels and it’s a big part of why they’re so successful,” says Moore. “Creatively that opened up a lot of doors for us in the design and messaging and even format. The phone number [Gretel created teasers for the channel, with a phone number which people could call to hear pre-recorded voicemails] is a great example of that. Spike loved it from the minute he saw it and it became a big part of the launch. In fact, the first 12 hours of their air were Viceland employees screening voicemails left at that number.”