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How Vice Crushed One Agency’s Dreams–Then Inspired Its Best Work

The boutique agency Gretel did the branding for Viceland — a design that isn’t so much a culmination of Gretel’s work, as a repudiation of it.

The boutique agency Gretel has been the force behind some of the best TV channel branding of the last few years: Netflix, IFC, and Viceland, which might be the best of them. The Viceland work, which is somehow both generic and hard-edged, suits a brand that happily airs true-life series ranging from Black Market: Dispatches in which Michael Williams—Omar from The Wire—embeds with poachers and prostitutes; to F*ck That’s Delicious with the roly-poly rapper Action Bronson, a food-porn show featuring dookie chains and foie gras.

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But the branding isn’t so much a culmination of Gretel’s work as a repudiation of it. The catalyst for change was none other than the director Spike Jonze, Viceland’s founding creative director. “We’re going through our previous work, and Spike was politely smiling, nodding. And then he says, “Yeah. The opposite of that,'” recalled Ryan Moore, Gretel’s creative director on the project, while speaking at a recent event for AIGA New York. The story of what led up to that correction then flowed from that awkward meeting is an object lesson in taking a gut punch then getting up to do better.

In 2015, Vice contracted to take over one of the A&E’s declining network stations, H2, and relaunch it as Viceland. The shows, of course, came first. But it quickly became apparent that all the sprawling aesthetic choices for show posters and teaser trailers needed to be aligned. The point was underscored when one of the top executives sent around an email, suggesting a logo like that of MTV from the 1980s that could be filled in with colorful content. The terror of a network executive spitballing branding ideas snapped the Vice team into gear, and they sent out an RFP.

The brief itself had a crazy-making informality. Vice didn’t give any materials defining what the brand was about—it just sent the agencies a reel of show snippets. “We figured that the agency was either going to get us, or they wouldn’t,” says Matt Schoen, Vice’s executive design director.

After four weeks of work, Gretel came ready to pitch. Clocking in at an hour, the pitch session revolved around “pushing the content forward.” Vice, they figured, was a feed of content and a navigator through the world with a specific point of view. In that way, the problem wasn’t so different from the one solved by the Walker Art Museum’s superb way-finding system, designed in 2006, which consists of different ribbons of content that can be recombined depending on the context. Designer Dylan Mulvaney eventually came up with “the line”—a vertical stroke that defines a stream of images and information that would scroll across the screen like a ticker. It would be the frame for a timeline that never stopped. “All of the companies who pitched us had impressive work,” said Schoen. “Out of all of them, we thought Gretel had it.” Schoen’s team thought: We have to show this to Eddy and Spike. (Eddy being Eddy Moretti, Vice’s chief creative officer.)

Three weeks passed. And then, ominously, the creative lead whom they’d been pitching left the company. They figured that the project, which had seemed like a sure thing, was on the edge of dying. “It was one of the most clear-headed, forward-thing, cleverest presentations we’d ever done,” says Greg Hahn, Gretel’s executive creative director on the problem. “In the room, it was all handshakes and big compliments. We felt great when we left.” The idea that it would all be left was devastating, though baffling. What had happened? Finally, word came back. Spike hated it. But eventually, the Vice team convinced him that they’d found the right agency. So they asked Gretel if they’d be willing to try again.

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Pitching is a money-losing prospect for agencies: They sic their best talent on it, and the “pitch” ends up being 75% of the way to a finished solution with 0% of the money. For a relatively small agency such as Gretel, pitches can be death. So the company declined to pitch again and instead offered to redevelop the work if it could be hired for the job. Vice agreed, on the condition that Gretel come in for what amounted to a job interview with Jonze and Moretti. It was a weird, awkward meeting. Jonze, for all the clarity of his vision, can be hard to pin down. Unsure about how well the meeting was going, Hahn and Moore walked him through a montage of Gretel’s greatest hits—the work for Netflix and IFC, among other things. All of the work betrayed a polish and professionalism that should have drawn a client in. They communicated boldness without any hard edges.

It all made Jonze blanch, according to Hahn and Moore. Jonze finished by telling them both to do the opposite of everything they’d just showed. Finally, thought Hahn, here was a direction they could pursue. “It was liberating to be told, ‘Do something like you’ve never done before,'” he says.

From Jonze’s fuzzy logic, Gretel was able to extract a few other directives. The first was to try and forget what they knew as designers. The second was to start again, thinking about different feelings they wanted to evoke. They went back to collecting hundreds of images, bucketed into mood boards. Eventually, they came up with three distinct ideas. The first was perhaps the most extreme take on “un-design.” The idea was to simply bring a film’s subtitles above the fold, to make them do double-duty as a brand identity. The design itself was based on GT Cinetype, a font developed for subtitles. But the concern was whether that would work on mobile.

The second approach was borrowed from the world of DIY fliers of the sort you find stapled onto telephone poles. And not concert fliers, but the fliers advertising paint jobs or used lawnmowers. The idea was that the entire system would use only effects that you could get from using a copy machine at Kinko’s—that the only tool the creator had was that, and a word processor. But the concern was that such a loosey-goosey system would devolve into a mess when it was handed off to future designers. “This one gave me night sweats,” says Hahn. “you could see how this could totally disintegrate, quickly.” The other worry, says Schoen, was that the work wouldn’t have the gravitas needed for heavier shows such as Black Market, which tackles human trafficking. It could feel too gimmicky. Still, one detail jumped out at Jonze: a panel with Viceland typed out and a phone number beneath it, a hotline like one of those tear-away tabs on a for-sale sign. It was exactly the opposite of today’s marketing, filled with hashtags and URLs. It was analog and personal—what Jonze was trying to create.

The third and final design was about being generic. It was inspired by a scene from the 1980s punk touchstone Repo Man. “I always love that idea of familiar products with products with no branding, Just say what it is: peaches, corn flakes, beer,” says Hahn. So they started building. How would the label designer for generic peaches do it? That’s the approach that won.

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Mulvaney, the designer behind the first, ill-fated pitch, eventually hit upon a grid in which the letters could expand and repeat—a rigid, almost dumb system in which the patterning was the only personality. The hope was to create something that wasn’t designed, but wasn’t default either–the system could be given life even by designers who couldn’t animate. “It felt like your stoned friend was behind your TV screen typing on their keyboard,” says Schoen. “It could create a consistent impression without being formulaic.” Moreover, it could play both high and low: From arty programming about Art Basel to advertisements for interns.

When the system finally launched, the hotline idea–the nod to tear-away for-sale fliers–was eventually resurrected. It became a touchstone, accompanying every ad campaign for Viceland. And it resulted in what may be the design teams most beloved piece of commentary ever: A long voicemail from an old lady who called to say, “It’s the most ugly channel that I’ve ever seen in my life, you jackasses! I hope that channel falls apart next week. Nobody likes it! You jackasses.” The voicemail was promptly turned into a network ad. But maybe the highest compliment to the designers is that they still get people asking about what typeface they used. Maybe you’ve heard of it? It’s Helvetica Bold.

About the author

Cliff is director of product innovation at Fast Company, founding editor of Co.Design, and former design editor at both Fast Company and Wired.

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