Mitch Paone, DIA Studio

DIA is a Brooklyn-based creative studio specializing in kinetic identity systems, graphic design, and typography. The core team are Mitch Paone, Meg Donohoe, and Deanna Sperrazza. With clients ranging from Nike and Samsung to the u.n., DIA’s work has reached international fame through its unique mixture of traditional and kinetic typography. Martin Lorenz spoke with Mitch Paone, the founder and creative director of DIA. 

Before we dive into the subject of variable typography, could you share a little bit about your background? What did you do before founding DIA with Meg Donohoe?

I studied Graphic Design and Jazz Performance at the Loyola University of New Orleans until 2005, which is probably a better school for music than for design. After leaving the university, I almost immediately started freelancing in the field of motion graphics. I went to Los Angeles and worked for a large list of motion design companies, among them Logan, Brand New School, and Psyop. Until 2009, I was working mainly in film titles, commercial directing, animation, and motion design, but then I made a transition toward advertisement. I had to figure out what the heck I wanted to do, and this is when I met Meg, who is my wife and business partner now. We met freelancing at a motion graphics company in New York. While working at this company, we saw that there was a huge range of work that could be done in the field of motion graphics, which made us found DIA. In the beginning, DIA really was a motion graphics company. We were working mostly for advertising agencies doing commercials from 2009 up until 2013 when we had another transition towards a more traditional design practice. 

How many people work at DIA?

We are four at the moment: Meg, me, Daniel (Wenzel), and Deanna (Sperrazza) who has been with us for almost four years now. Sometimes we have interns, but not too often. Daniel is an exception. He was very persistent. (Laughs) Joking aside, he was a good fit and we had project inflow. We thought he could be really helpful with the incoming projects and we could teach him a couple of things too. We usually do not bring in additional designers. Most of the design work is handled by Deanna and myself. Meg operates the business and provides really helpful feedback and direction from a non-designers perspective. DIA has been bigger, but three or four as a core team is where we want to keep things. We do not see any reason to expand at the moment.

What is your work process like? 

The way we work is very share-oriented. Everybody works on every project. I usually initiate creative direction, but this does not mean that I am the only one who can propose ideas. We have a very iterative way of working. We try to do as much stuff as possible in a very short period of time by just throwing it out there and seeing what sticks. Then, we usually discuss the directions and decide which one feels worth developing further. Everything feels very open. In a specific realm, Daniel is much better at coding than I am, so I handle more of the animation side of things and he handles more of the scripting stuff. Deanna is really good at front-end development and digital design applications, so if we have a concept, we essentially parcel it out to where each other’s strengths lie. I also usually oversee the consistency of all deliverables, and that the typesetting is done well. I am probably the most hardcore of us three at typesetting stuff. Usually, everything is cool except the typesetting. (Laughs)

The collaborative approach seems to make it difficult to outsource work.

Yes, and that is kind of interesting. When we were a motion graphics company, we were used to outsourcing a lot of work. We were always bringing in animators or illustrators to do a specific task, but I think from a creative development standpoint, the core creativity has to happen internally. It can be really confusing to bring someone in for creative exploration. We can only outsource work when we know exactly what we need, but then, outsourcing is also a way to handle larger projects. While we have animators, type designers, and developers that are able to help out, we have to know exactly what their task will be, otherwise it is going to be a waste of time, effort, and money. 

You mentioned your background in Jazz. How does your knowledge about music influence your work as a designer? 

Music is probably the most important influence for me. It is difficult to explain this to designers who are not composers, but the way our creative process is set up models what I do when I compose. While a traditional designer is mostly concerned with the final output, a musician focuses on the process. He works on the vocabulary of the underlying craft. The mastery of that vocabulary allows him to have a conversation, using an instrument. Music provides me with a specific structure, like chord progressions, rhythm, tempo, groove, or beat, which I use as my foundation before I decide how I want to work on harmonic structures and instrumentation. If I have a specific looping chord progression that serves as an underlying system, I can be very creative on top of that. That is exactly how we work when we do kinetic typography or motion design. It all goes back to rhythmic looping, pretty much like a chord progression. Music and design are the same to me. One works with sound and the other, with visuals. 

Would you say that there are two phases in your creative process when developing variable design? A phase in which you define or create the tools and a phase in which you play with the tools?

Yes, and this is where things get really interesting! Miles Davis is a good example. He experimented with new technologies to create a wider range of expression. Playing with new instruments made him create totally new sounds. The same is happening right now in graphic design with generative design tools. There is an urge to adjust existing tools once we hit a barrier. We modify existing design programs or create new ones (with processing or openFrameworks) to do a specific task we were not able to do before. Our background in visual effects has a huge influence on the work we do today. It is a luxury to have knowledge in 3d, visual effects, tracking, and compositing, which were traditionally only used for film. No one really thought about what would happen if we used these tools for graphic design. We always ask ourselves how we can use them in a way they were not intended to be used. Bringing together our knowledge from design and film has generated a lot of the work we did recently. Combining these two worlds gave us results we did not expect. They motivated us to keep on asking ourselves what else we can do.

Kinetic typography has been around for quite a while in cinema and television. It is only in graphic design that it feels like it just arrived. Do you think that this feeling is just a matter of perception or is there really something new happening here? If so, what is it? 

I agree that it is a micro-awakening. Kinetic typography has been here before. Take the work by Saul Bass for example. The work he did back in the 1960s is essentially the same as the work we do now. The difference lies in the fact that the output of his work was specific to the content. Design for film has a specific aesthetic. It is completely unrelated to classic editorial design or branding. 

Another difference is the linear storytelling of kinetic typography for film. You have to watch the whole sequence to understand the story, while in graphic design, we are trying to generate an immediate impression. This is an interesting problem, and where we have done a lot of experiments by asking ourselves how we could take the classic view on design and merge it with the knowledge we have in animation. With the “A-Trak”1 project, we were pushed to explore these limits. The pressure of the deadline forced us to work fast and with high energy; resulting in the discovery of animating things with no beginning or end. You can render any second of the animation, and it would work as a poster. The design system is built intrinsically into the animation – and this clicked for us at the time. To me, it was a new thing. It was just about connecting the dots. It had been existing, but it never really came together. A book designer would never have thought about this. Similarly, a motion designer would not have thought about designing a book. They are really opposing poles in the design spectrum, but they are coming together now.

In your animated type specimens for Ludovic Balland’s typeface, next, you made it look variable even though it actually is not. Where do you see the future for variable fonts?

As much as we do embrace new things, I am very critical about variable fonts. This new technology will only become interesting when it gives us new ways of expression. I think we achieved some interesting solutions by playing with the typeface by Ludovic. Animating the different weights of the typeface allowed us to create gradients and patterns, giving us new possibilities for design systems. 

Variable fonts can be made responsive too. You can make it respond to different behaviours, make it interactive, animate it and, of course, select any weight you like, which is interesting. However, from a practical standpoint, variable fonts are not really exciting to me. One strong typeface and maybe a few extra weights are still enough for most of the design projects. I do not think that this will change anytime soon. Variable fonts are not going to replace a well-drawn small family.

That said, I do think variable fonts are interesting for type designers, as they can be used to build a family really fast. The process of designing a typeface speeds up. In designing typefaces myself, I can generate a large family just by interpolating the steps in between the extremes. This is really helpful. It also helps me to select the right weights. That is actually quite important and interesting. 

Many designers were introduced to your work through your typographic experiments, which appear to be in augmented reality. On my end, what amazed me the most was the high quality on all the different levels. The typography and animation are exciting, and they are intrinsically integrated in spaces where we have not seen animated, three-dimensional typography before. Looking at these experiments, it feels like we are getting a glimpse of the future. 

(Laughs) Those experiments were actually kind of funny. A lot of them are just prototypes, made with visual effects and not true augmented reality. Only the stuff we do with Zach Lieberman3 are in true augmented reality. I guess there were moments when I asked myself: could this be viable or not? (Laughs) These experiments kind of freaked me out because they could be the future of how market contents are going to dominate our public spaces. There is no way that the visualisation will be tasteful typography. They will be ads. This freaked me out a little bit, but you cannot stop where things are going – it will happen. In the future, phones will likely have augmented reality integrated into their software and it will no longer be necessary for us to download an app for it anymore. However, until augmented reality is integrated in our devices, these experiments are not going to be used for anything else than just fun projects. 

I am also relatively critical about the level of interaction people care about. I noticed this in our design projects. There is always an interactive experience that people get excited about, but all in all, people like passive experiences and already get excited about seeing something moving. If it requires too much work, then the engagement tends to develop not much further. Like flash websites back in the day. People were like, “yeah, I do not have the patience for this”. There is a nice middle-ground that could possibly happen. I think this is why our augmented reality experiments worked. You get enough of that passive experience. Kinetic type animations applied to space, even without real augmented reality, could be extremely powerful and visually captivating, but I still think that we are in a realm of technical barriers to be able to pull this off. Even if we could do that in true augmented reality, we would not be able to get the perfect composited and tracked animation we are getting now because the result would be a little bit janky and weird.

From a learning standpoint I find these experiments extremely interesting. To be able to deal with text in an environmental context, that really has no format and no boundaries, is a problem that designers never really had to deal with before. Our typographic history is influenced by specific formats. The Swiss have a huge body of visual research done about how to design a poster, but all the posters have the exact same format. In the United States, we do not have fixed formats. We always have to think about flexibility in our work because it is never going to be applied to only one format. Augmented reality is going to be a whole new ball game, having no formats at all. For example: how do you deal with exhibition content? Do you use the walls as formats? Or not? What do you do? How do you make the text more interesting on the walls? You have new opportunities. There are new questions coming up, which I find fascinating from a research standpoint. Let’s see where it goes. 

Is this what the augmented reality experiment “Bauhaus” was about?

Yes, this is exactly what this was for. A practical, straightforward solution for exhibition typography. I think that of all the experiments we did, this might have been one of the most important ones. I could see an institution funding applications for that. It would actually save them money, and be more sustainable than printing vinyls over and over again.

Another application I see are exhibition spaces. You could literally just exhibit the work. The explanatory texts could be hidden in augmented reality. You could completely focus on the work and generate a design narrative. That could be an interesting investment for a museum. 

It is still special that DIA combines so many different skills. Do you think that your skillset will become the standard skillset of graphic design?

I think it has to. Motion design is a very close discipline to graphic design and should be a part of the curriculum of any designer moving forward. It should not even be an elective subject for designers. It should be obligatory. As long as designers do not have at least a basic understanding of these relatively similar disciplines, then their output is going to stay the same. It is going to come from a traditional typographic understanding. 

A lot of design firms produce very similar work. We have an internal joke where we switch the studios names and body of work. It just looks the same, even though it might be really great work. This is because students are not exposed to crafts other than their own in design schools. 

If I could start a school, I would teach a wide range of disciplines. It is not about teaching them everything, but just enough to give you the ability to work with people who are better than you at those things. If you have no understanding about these things, it is difficult to collaborate with someone. You would give someone a logo and say, “animate that” without understanding that the concept of motion has ever been there to begin with. It will just look like it gets wiped on and off.

If a designer is not able to search for solutions outside of his core discipline, their solutions will always be typical. Anything can be a solution to a communication problem. For us, music can be a solution and visual effects can be a solution too. You are not able to think of these options if you have not exposed to these disciplines yourself. The most interesting work comes from the most unrelated connections. I do not understand how designers can reference other designers’ work. There is so much other sh*t out there. You do not need to have a look at this other branding project. Do not do it. We do not do this in our office. We look at anything that is not in our core profession as inspiration. It makes things more interesting. 

I agree, but it is easier said than done. You need to be open for the new and the old, within and outside of your discipline. If it goes further than just changing your perspective and approach to the design problem, students can become overwhelmed by the challenges that come with coding or animation, apart from the other core skills a designer should have. 

Yes, it is a tricky thing. I went back to school to study frameworks with Zach (Lieberman). I cannot write frameworks at all. I knew I needed it because I cannot code in a creative sense, but the process of that work changed the game for me and how I operate existing software that I know. I understand now that I do not actually need to be able to code, but I need to be able to put my brain into their brain in that moment and then apply that thinking into what I do. This is different to “everyone needs to know everything”. No! I think you need to know enough of what this specialist does, because it alters your approach. It also provides you with a lot of empathy for the specialist. 

The fact that I went into the dark hole of learning type design gave me an incredible amount of respect for type designers. Selecting the right font could be the end goal. You do not need to mess with it because the type designer already had spent 8 years working on it. It is perfect. You do not have to be a master in everything, but you have to invest in the collaborative effort and the dialogue, then the outcome becomes much better.

It is tricky. You have to hand over trust, but you have to know what is for you and what is not. I know that coding is not for me. You need patience and I like to have immediate results. I like the idea that I can think like someone who codes and pilot some non-traditional solutions, but that is it. There is also something humbling in going into this painful situation, knowing that you will suck at this and that this is not for you, but I think that this is very important, because if you do not do this, you remain in this very controlled box of your limits. This is something I would totally recommend. Just give it a shot, even if you know that this is not for you. An inquisitive mentality is super important. 

Can you tell me a bit more about how trying to learn to code changed your mindset or how to approach or use your existing software? 

It was huge when I learned how generative systems behave. That was when I really learned how to connect the dots. I mean I always knew how similar music and design were, especially in animation. It is always rhythm and motion. When I saw that everything can be broken down to formulas, I thought, “oh sh*t!”. Everything, I mean down to the animation behaviour, becomes trigonometry. Everything becomes developable in a way. 

Once I started to think that this could be identity design, it was like, “Holy sh*t!”. It blew my mind. If you look at sheet music, it is just a looping system of coordinated elements. It really is just a formula. When you look into bio-mechanical structures and break them down, you have identifiers for everything. Every single thing that is here, that we see, gets kind of crazy and scientific, but it opens up the ball game. Someone’s dance moves, if you simplify that into loopable behavior, can become a visible identifier. So, that is a concept that could potentially be explored for a design piece. Everything is just a bunch of code. It really is just a formula. Then, it really reiterates a generative process. It is not about automating stuff. It is about getting rid of a lot of stuff that you would not want to do by hand and allowing you to be more curatorial about the outcome. Let’s try this at 10, or -10 and see what happens. Like a musician testing out. Tweaking the instrument. It was there, but I never really thought about it. An amplifier is nothing else than a bunch of code. Adobe Illustrator is really just the front end of code. It opened up a lot of windows for me. 

On top of this, you can really stretch the limits of where your inspiration comes from. A running horse, for example, the Eadweard Muybridge reference, becomes a very viable research interest for a designer now. The font as a variable, the sound as a variable, the motion as a variable, the color as a variable, all the traditional design assets as variables – even behavior could be the thing that locks it all down together or creates the visual form overall. A lot of our research revolves around the idea that behavior can be the core concept for large corporate identity programs. If you have an animation, all the printed deliverables are the last on the list. Take a millisecond of that animation and you have a poster. Done. 

Thanks so much, Mitch! 

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