Jeff Kleinsmith on the New Wave of Music Design

In the last three decades we’ve witnessed the demise of cassette tapes, the rise and fall of CDs, and the near end and now re-emergence of LPs. And through it all, Jeff Kleinsmith, creative director at Sub Pop Records, has pivoted at each turn, adapting and changing with the times.

He started at the Seattle-based record label when bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam ruled the airwaves. Not only was the music transitioning from hair bands to grunge, but the way music was played and packaged was changing dramatically, and it still is. Here, we talk to Kleinsmith about how his job has shifted and transitioned over the years, and what it’s like to work with musicians on their albums.

You’ve said that working in rock n’roll is a dream job some days and some days it’s the same as any other in-house gig. Tell me a little about that.

Well it’s funny. I do talks and I teach students, and I always get asked if this is my dream job. It is a dream job. I still feel that way after 23 years, frankly! But, I have to laugh at the notion that all we do is design album covers and go to rock shows. We’re doing a ton of behind the scenes stuff like creating very specific digital marketing tools or designing shrink wrap stickers, or editing catalog pages for a distributor. I think that’s not what these students are thinking of when they ask about the music industry. They’re thinking of Nirvana or Father John Misty covers or something. But that’s actually a pretty small part of our day-to-day job—creating the cover that is. Look, we deal with meetings, and last-minute crap, and clients not liking our mockups, just like anyone else. It’s the same stuff you would complain about if you were in a corporate job. Read the rest of the interview here.

 

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Developing Successful Identities for a Mr. & Mrs.

If you’re an identity designer, the most critical function in the beginning of the project is research—getting to know your client’s brand inside and out, as well as the competition, and some of that involves what Sharon Werner, principal of Werner Design Werks in Minneapolis, Minn., calls “feet on the ground.” This is especially true when working on a start-up brand, like Mr. Mak’s Ginbao, a new wellness drink that is based on a traditional Chinese recipe made from natural ingredients.

Werner and her team spent the day in New York’s Chinatown with the Mak family, even enjoying a traditional Chinese lunch prepared by Mrs. Mak. “We walked the streets of New York and looked at brands they liked and disliked in the same category,” Werner explains. “When it’s a startup we want the identity and the brand to feel true to who they are, and the only way to do that is through an intensive immersion and getting to know them. We want to understand who they are compared to their competitors; what they’ll offer that others don’t; what their personal beliefs are and how those will translate to their business and product.”

A challenge with developing brand identities for start ups is determining what will work past the first year, which is sometimes hard for clients to envision. “We’re building for a future, which means we’re asking the ‘what if’ questions—What if you add more flavors? What if you add 100 employees? What if you sell the company?” she says. “We want to build an identity that can grow with them and is fluid enough to adapt if the ‘what if’ becomes ‘What do we do now?’”

Combining traditional aesthetics with modern design elements, helped differentiate Mr. Mak’s Ginbao. The packaging utilized colors associated with the flavors, while the corporate identity was limited to neon red and porcelain blue. The letterpress printed business cards come in a glassine envelope which also houses a nice surprise for recipients—a recipe card and fortune. These small touches, tie the identity back to the brand story.

Taking a critical look at the competition and how your brand measures up, is key in the identity design. Werner and her team go to the store see the competition live on the shelf, in the environment. They look at how the retail lighting might affect packaging and how the height of the product will look sitting next to others. “We are avid and intuitive consumers— we trust our intuition. We look outside the categories to see where to go next, keeping in mind that it still has to communicate what the product is,” she notes. “With Mrs. Meyer’s, we asked how we could we make it look like a hard-working, effective cleaning product, but different than its competitors. We borrowed from the utilitarian, hard-working, hardware vernacular and then softened it with color and line drawings.”

Werner developed the Mrs. Meyer’s brand story 18 years ago, and it has stood the test of time. The brand story revolves around the founder’s mother, Thelma Meyer, a homemaker from Granger, Iowa. The no-nonsense design reflects her personality and informs consumers of the natural ingredients in the cleaner. “With Mrs. Meyer’s we were involved for many years, hands on,” Werner says. “We helped them hire their first internal designer, then we later briefed their new ad agency on the brand. When they were purchased by SC Johnson, we conducted a full retrospective briefing of the Mrs. Meyer’s brand language and elements. We outlined what was brand right and not brand right and the reasoning behind that. Always bouncing decisions against ‘What would Thelma do?’”

The ultimate goal when creating an identity design for a company, is to make sure all the brand assets will be managed by the client after the project is complete. This usually entails creating a style guide to ensure the identity is properly applied in every application including packaging, advertising, website, social media, and beyond. “Our goal is to create a brand and brand assets that basically eliminates the need for Werner Design Werks. We develop a brand language that can evolve and grow and still be ‘brand right,’” Werner explains.

This post originally ran on the PixArt blog here.

 

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Michael Ian Kaye: How Design & Advertising Inform Eachother

You may be wondering what the hell this title means. It’s obvious that design and advertising comingle, but often the nuances go unnoticed. Michael Ian Kaye is here to say there are obvious distinctions between the art and craft of graphic design and the fast-paced world of advertising.

He should know. He leads the design team at Mother Design, the official design arm of Mother New York, a branding and communications agency with clients like Target, Nasty Gal, New York Fashion Week, and Sundance Film Festival.

Here, Kaye talks to us about how design and advertising are different, how ads can be misleading, and how social media levels the playing field for all.

What, to you, are the main differences between design and advertising?

I think it’s the desired outcome, frankly. I do feel like advertising is created with a sense of trying to make an immediate change. A quickness. A reason. Put this ad out in the world and create this action.

Design is a bit of a slower burn. Create this artifact that becomes the representation over a longer period of time. I think the intent—though it gets blurry in the middle—is a bit different. Both in terms of what the objective of the pieces out in the world are, and in the process to getting to those pieces. Read the rest of the interview here.