The ID crowd gets a brand new conference

In taking their identity design blog onto the stage, Brand New gave the platform over to the designers. But would the commentary prove as fiery?

November 5 could turn out to be memorable for more than just the attempted destruction of the Houses of Parliament: this year it was the date of the inaugural Brand New conference. In case you don’t know, Brand New is the site set up by Armin Vit and Bryony Gomez-Palacio that crits, discusses and occasionally destroys re-brands and identity changes.

The site that began as an off-shoot of Under Consideration now has 1,000% more traffic since its 2006 launch, and might receive a million hits when it discusses a big and controversial rebrand like Gap. Numbers like this show that far from being a niche and specialist area, branding has a huge, interested and critical audience.

It’s one thing to pen anonymous vitriol in an online environment, but how would the ethos of Brand New transfer over into a one-day conference? Would bloggers still vent their spleen? Would hash-tag wielding tweeters permeate cyberspace with carefully chosen characters? Well, yes and no.

Conference regulars know that ticket sales are usually driven by established names threatening to reveal all, and Michael Bierut, Paula Scher and Erik Spiekermann duly delivered. If one were to measure the day in terms of quotes re-tweeted, then these three would be easy winners. In the morning, fed easy balls by ex-employee Armin Vit, team Bierut and Scher thumped one-liners out of the park as they unveiled some of the thinking that drives their work: “Designing and selling a brand to client is like convincing them to wear clothes that they didn’t buy themselves,” said Scher. “Pentagram does a lot of things that a business consultant would tell us to stop doing,” said Bierut. So comfortable did they seem, when one audience member told them, “you guys are awesome” Bierut duly replied, “That’s not a question”. No self-esteem issues on Fifth Avenue, that’s for sure.

The other speakers in the morning, myself, Michael Lejeune, creative director of Metro (Los Angeles’ Transport Authority) and Christian Helms from Austin-based Decoder Ring Design Concern stuck closer to the ‘show, tell, Q&A’ formula.

I have no idea how my bit went, but Lejeune’s detailed analysis of his eight year revamp of the LA Metro proved to be a nice mono-client foil to the multi-client case studies elsewhere. Helms’ merrily retro portfolio was delivered in a laconic Texan twang, gave useful insight into avoiding bad puns when designing for sausage restaurants and supplied handy tips on naming beers (anyone for a can of Fury Hatchet? Or Angry Badger?) He even out-sound-bited his elders when asked how he felt about working on projects for reduced fees: “It’s like getting somebody laid, on a handjob budget.” Er, quite.

After lunch the eloquence and visual pyrotechnics of Studio Dumbar’s Tom Dorresteijn reminded us that whilst Dumbar himself may be long gone, the studio’s ability to produce astonishing work remains. On seeing their stunning ‘created world’ for the University of Twente, you marvelled at how they had managed to get such paradoxical work through. “Don’t go for the brains, always go for the heart” were Dorresteijn’s parting words. Absolutely.

The inevitable post-lunch slump came as Lippincott’s Connie Birdsall tried bravely to persuade us that process slides were still the answer, but merely hammered home the point that some US-based corporate design is hopelessly dependent on impenetrable jargon, and creatively leaves a lot to be desired. (Oh, and afternoon speakers should at least try to attend the morning session to pick up cues.)

The second interview session followed, with Jordan Crane and Karl Heiselman from Wolff Olins New York. This had been billed as the site’s readers’ chance to ask all the really difficult questions (their recent NYC and 2012 projects have been endlessly discussed in Brand New’s comment strings). For some reason, it didn’t quite live up to the hype, perhaps because Crane and Heiselman seemed like, well, nice guys. Heiselman’s delivery cannily diffused any potential anger with straightforward answers and honest appraisal of how they treat their people – “People come to work already motivated. Our job is to not unmotivate them.” It’s hard to argue with that.

Anyone who has met Erik Spiekermann will know that his English is superb and his knowledge of Anglo-Saxon profanities extensive. Here’s just a smattering of sound-bites. Over a slide of their manifesto: “This separates the assholes from the lesser assholes.” On free-pitching: “We don’t do free pitches ’cause clients don’t know what the fuck they want.” On creating fonts: “Designing a typeface is like writing a pop song. Others are going to sing it.

Naked in the shower or on the toilet, not in tune.” On branding in general: “They want us to design a brand so they can sell their shit for more money.”
Given that he sits slightly to one side of the identity business and has a clearly typographic view of how it should be done (“Brand is just a typeface, it’s all you fucking need”) he probably didn’t feel he had to really present a ‘pitch’. He even stressed the point that identity can be dull – “to the young and hopeful, be prepared to do some un-fun stuff,” he proclaimed, zipping through a tedious project for Bosch. But as he lovingly described schemes for the City Theatre in Utrecht and Tcho chocolate, you knew that he didn’t really mean it. Did he?

As we staggered away to the after-party, we toasted what had seemed a pretty good day. Vit and Gomez-Palacio hadn’t offered a ‘round-up’ perspective at the end, possibly just happy to get through it and graze the thousands of tweets and admiring blog reviews. As for me, I left with the distinct feeling that the Europeans had been outnumbered, but had shown the way forward with the most unusual speeches, and the most dramatic and cutting edge work. The Americans seemed more content with the ‘tell’ than the ‘show’, perhaps.

Whether an analogue conference will ever replicate the cut and thrust of a blog comment string is debatable, but this seemed a pretty useful start. And all agreed (especially as we began to discuss next year’s speakers) that this felt like the first of many, not a one-off. Here’s to next year.

Michael Johnson is creative director of johnson banks and editor of the Thought for the Week design blog. The Brand New conference took place on November 5 at New York’s School of Visual Arts Theatre. More details available at underconsideration.com/brandnewconference. A selection of pay-per-download videos of the presentations will also be available from the website soon.

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