Brand New School
Step Magazine by Sean Adams
I spend a large part of my life in the entertainment world… mostly watching television. All kidding aside, working in Los Angeles is like working in a salt-mining town; eventually, you’re going to end up working in the salt mines. In 2000 Jonathan Notaro founded Brand New School in L.A. And was soon joined by Jens Gehlhaar and a team willing to work until dawn. They quickly became a major force in the screen-based design world and opened another office in new york. Now, picture yourself watching Battlestar Galactica. The screen fades to black and a commercial begins. If that commercial makes you stop and think, “that’s pretty great,”it probably is a brand new school creation. Their work spans from broadcast and online to exhibition spaces. The common thread amidst a list of blue-chip projects is a lightness, and a playful attitude that looks deceivingly effortless.
SA: Jonathan, let me start with you. How did Brand New School begin?
JN: I was working as an art director at Fuel/Razorfish in 2000. During that time I was fortunate enough to have the confidence of the owner to touch lots of different projects. In February of that year my father passed away suddenly of his first and last heart attack at age 52. As you can imagine, this hit me hard and forced me to evaluate all aspects of my life. My father had been put in a similar position, losing his father to a single heart attack at age 58. I concluded it was time to break the trend and create a working lifestyle on my own terms, in hopes it wouldn’t take a similar toll on my life. I called on old friends and met new ones along the way. They’ve all had a hand in the successes of Brand New School, most notably Jens.
SA: Jens, both you and Jonathan went to CalArts in the graphic design program, not the film and video department. Looking back, was that the right route? How did that program and a graphic design education form your process and work differently than a film and video education?
JG: Well, the film and video department at CalArts is not very commercial, so I don’t think it would help you much in becoming a commercial director. In general, graphic designers have a very good chance to get into advertising—your education prepares you well for mass communication and branding. Directing commercials is then maybe more about advertising than it is about filmmaking. At the end of the day, however, we’ve only come to where we are because we’ve done it for six, seven years. We’ve all gone to the Brand New Film School during that time.
SA: What a happy coincidence that School is part of the name. I look at portfolios, or reels from new directors, and I see so many motion pieces that are frenetic, dark and use loud techno music. The work you create at Brand New School is—and this is a high compliment—softer. It’s seductive and unexpected. Where does that come from?
JN: Darkness—it’s simply not in my nature. Reality is plenty dark, and techno sucks. I’d prefer to make someone smile. That is not to say that we lack emotion or avoid it; we seem to like to tell playful stories, straying away from the pretensions often associated with “serious design.”
JG: I think it is because we do see it as advertising, and the whole idea of making people buy crap they don’t need only becomes tolerable when it is funny or witty. If it takes itself too seriously, it becomes forced and pathetic. At the same time, we jump at every chance to make something darker or more dramatic when it comes to music videos or network packages.
SA: There’s also a sense of playfulness in all of the work. It never sinks under its own importance and has a touch of humor. How important is humor to you in your work? You do realize that the design world won’t take you seriously until you do something in the nude, or deeply dark and disturbing? I’m being facetious, of course.
JN: Sean, as a matter of fact, I’m trying something very dark right now that also involves some nudity, so we’ll see how that goes.
SA: Darkness and nudity does work better than fluorescent lights and nudity.
JN: Good point. Once upon a time, humor was unique in graphic design, and it solidified the Brand New School voice way back when. Those types of scripts and opportunities tend to trickle in even since we’ve made the transition from designers to directors. I’ve never cared that much about the design world; it’s notoriously late with the love and wears too much black for my tastes.
JG: To me, it seems like the design world won’t take you seriously unless you live in New York. The playfulness comes from being in Los Angeles and close to the entertainment industry. Content is king, and design doesn’t matter in this town. Stories do.
SA: I don’t remember the exact statistic, but a huge proportion of design businesses fail within the first year. What’s been your secret to longevity?
JN: There are many factors, I think, but perhaps this one weighs heaviest in my mind: We’ve developed quite a bit over the years as individuals and as a company. There’s been talk about Brand New School actually being a school, which I can’t completely disagree with. This has a lot to do with our success. So the theme is really a continuing education and a place that allows for it while earning a living as well. For me, that is quite a timely perk.
SA: Your work has such a powerful and personal voice. How do you manage that with a team of creatives? What were the forces that helped shape that voice?
JG: The four directors at Brand New School, who essentially run all jobs, have been together for five or more years. We share a lot of the same excitement and interest in the same things: a fluid wittiness and a strong sense of art direction. On top of that, the kinds of scripts we get from agencies have the same attitude we have. And the kinds of freelancers we attract share the same energy and ideas.
JN: Jens, you just made that question your bitch.
SA: I love the IMF [International Music Feed network] identity project. I know you designed the identity and typeface, as well as the CG and motion. How often do you overlap into identity or print?
JN: I think synergies between broadcast, print and web is a trend that agencies are starting to explore more often. The question then becomes, who do you go to first to create the vocabulary? Usually print follows television, but I think the web will drive everything in the future. For some damn reason, we underestimate the demands of the print on every single project that overlaps with the web and/or television. Regardless, this strategy can be either impressively unified, or tedious and boring.
JG: We’ve done a bunch of freebie magazine contributions over the years and have designed print components for identity projects such as Fuel TV or IMF. Now it’s started happening more often that we are asked to design elements for print advertising that complements and is driven by television ads. We’ve done print jobs for Jeep, Vodafone and Target.
SA: Talk to me about your relationship with your clients. Most of your work involves intense collaboration, both internally and with clients who are often also creative. Do you throw chairs across the room to get your way? Cry? Beg?
JN: The greatest creative relationships between Brand New School and agencies tend to be based on trust. Once that is established, everyone wins. The irony and frustration peaks when we are called upon as professionals and treated like amateurs. This is where things tend to go sour. For those instances where there is a lack of trust, we have great armor called producers. They provide sound, creative diplomacy by deflecting the bullshit grenades and telling us when to retreat. For myself, maturity has come with age, and there are fewer holes in the walls from flying chairs to prove it … sorry, Andy. These days there are empty boxes of tissue.
JG: We’ve had a few ugly experiences where we felt abused by clients. It comes down to respect. As designers, we are very open to the process of feedback and revision—we are not the prototypical asshole directors. But when our clients don’t acknowledge this and simply ask us to change something without telling us what the underlying problem is, we get mad. We might be able to offer a better solution. When we’re treated like a production service, we pull out.
SA: What do you think the most successful collaborative project you’ve done has been, and why?
JN: Without a doubt, Brand New School has been my greatest project. My wife and daughter have been my most successful collaboration. I know that’s kind of dodging the question, but I’m trying to look at the whole thing through a wider lens.
SA: No, that answers it nicely. Jens?
JG: The best experiences were with the better network clients, such as MTV, Fuel TV and IMF. They don’t have to answer to anyone else, which leads to a more unexpected and uncontrolled output. We also have mutual respect with those clients. There is an acknowledgement that one cannot force innovation by writing a brief or listening to focus groups. Most of the time, we were only asked to “make something cool,” and that’s the best brief ever. It also led to some of our best work.
With our agency clients, the situation is different. While we enjoy being given creative freedom, it only benefits the project if there is respect and openness from the client. Most of the time, however, there is too much money and risk involved for that to happen. So the best situation in advertising is to have a great script that everybody loves, that is approved, and then to make it into a kick-ass ad.
SA: Jens, one of our favorite typefaces is Alfa Sans—that you designed. Letterform and type design takes a specific mind-set that I imagine is very different from a fluid medium like motion. Do you still design typefaces? Is there any connection between the thinking and process in motion and type design?
JG: Funny you should ask. I just released my first family in more than 10 years. It’s called Capricorn, and it’s available through Die Gestalten Verlag. So yes, I am still doing it, and I have a lot of unfinished ideas sitting around waiting to get done. Most of them have come out of Brand New School projects, such as Brand New Sans, originally designed for the IMF project. For me, there is always a connection between all creative efforts. The overall emotional tone provided by formal or narrative references connects to the structure and the logic of putting it all together, which connects to the craft of actually making it. At the same time, there are the obvious differences that I enjoy: Type design is very solitary, and filmmaking is a huge team effort. I enjoy switching between these extremes.
SA: You stole one of our favorite interns years ago. He’s always said how fantastic working with you was. I know he worked long hours, which motion work tends to need. Do either of you have personal lives? If so, what do you do outside of work?
JN: Who was this intern? It’s been a long last couple of years for me, as we’ve been pretty short-staffed in New York. However, I wouldn’t have changed it for the world. The personal life is kicking; I’m happily married, and with the birth of my daughter—first child—in November, life could not be better. There’s a tendency for creatives to worry that marriage and children will impede your creative life, but I’ve found that’s not the case with me. What it does is force me to work smarter and manage my time more efficiently, while giving myself perspective. I’m reminded daily there are some things far more important than my company or my work.
JG: It’s all a matter of delegating. Sometimes it’s bothersome, if Jon and I spend so much time caring about whether all creatives on our team are used effectively and appropriately, then we are left with too little time to work on the actual project. Too often, our job is leading a team rather than making stuff by ourselves. At the same time, we do work with great designers, filmmakers and animators, and they can do a lot of things better than we can. If I am comfortable delegating to them, and they are stoked that they get that responsibility, then I get to go home, which is great.
SA: Jonathan, soon after starting Brand New School, you were in a serious car accident. How did that change your outlook on life, work and love?
JN: I think the car accident, coupled with my dad’s death, were some serious character-builders for what was to come. After my close flirt with death, I found myself working more than ever and determined not to fail and disappoint those around me. It wasn’t until I looked up and married that I allowed for anything to come between my work and myself. Is that a personal enough response for you?
SA: Absolutely. Thanks for being so candid. On another note, for the past two years AIGA has been shining a brighter light on diversity in the design profession. I’m hoping that we can also expand this into creative diversity as well—that is, by being “platform-blind,” working across media and defining ourselves by how we think, not by what medium we work in. Your office has a strong sense of diversity in terms of ethnicity, gender and cultural identity. Is that a purposeful approach in management?
JN: A lot of the humor at Brand New School comes from this cultural variety. I don’t know that we’ve ever purposefully managed that aspect of the environment, but we used to joke that we were lacking a Cantonese hermaphrodite and an albino Aborigine on the roster.
JG: We’ve always had a lot of foreign-born creatives working for us … including me. It’s just a reality in Los Angeles, especially at Otis and Art Center, both schools with a massive percentage of foreign students.
SA: If I had just graduated—as opposed to the reality that it was in 1901—and came to you with a portfolio, what would you be looking for? Would I need all motion design?
JG: What I love to see is solid, smart and sexy graphic design with a focus on illustration and image-making. Sometimes, that’s enough if it is really strong work. When it comes to motion, I’d prefer to see experiments in filmmaking that show an ability to tell a story, rather than crappy animations.
JN: I agree with Jens. I also love to see great writing and visualizations of that writing. So little of what we do today has to do with graphic design. For this reason, concept artists and illustrators are becoming quite the hot commodity at Brand New School.
SA: What’s the project you’re enjoying the most right now?
JN: I’m really enjoying developing and directing this car commercial for Mitsubishi right now that involves flying fish and naked people. That’s always good fun in my mind.
JG: The last half-year has been amazing for me: I finished that typeface, Capricorn, we went to Seoul to design an exhibition of our work, and we directed a piece for Microsoft. That piece involved a rig with five high-definition cameras on a boat in the San Francisco Bay. I love that mix of things in this job.
SA: Rumor has it you’re moving closer to being filmmakers. What’s with that? When I see you at Sundance with your first film will you ignore me?
JN: Agreed, pencil us in for a hot toddy in 2012.
JG: We won’t ignore you, Sean. We think you’re more handsome than Robert Redford.
SA: You just moved to the top of the Christmas list. And thanks; I’ll let him know.