The Brand Identity

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DIA, a design studio co-founded by Mitch Paone and Meg Donohoe, has revolutionised motion in branding through its innovative use of kinetic movement for clients such as Squarespace and Nike. We caught up with Mitch to find out more about their work, new website and recent relocation to Switzerland.

The Brand Identity: Hi Mitch, how’s it going?

Mitch Paone: Doing very well, thanks. Happy to chat about the evolution of DIA over the last few years, a lot of interesting things have happened. Including finally launching a website!

TBI: We last had a chat like this all the way back in August 2017. What’s been happening at DIA since then?

MP: As far as work goes, the Squarespace rebrand was certainly a highlight to mention. We also worked with Apple on two major projects, but sadly can’t share due to NDAs. Most recently, we wrapped up a large scale experiential project with Adidas for their London Flagship store and an experimental project with Instagram exploring typographic tools within their app. Definitely an interesting variety of work keeping us busy.

The last 12 months have been full of academic projects too, which we feel is an important evolution for us. I was invited by ECAL to be the first resident at the Swiss artist residency at La Becque in exchange for a course and a handful of workshops in Visual Communication dept. We ran our studio from a beautiful contemporary residence right on the shore of Lake Geneva – Lac Leman for the locals. ECAL was an amazing experience. Being around the talented staff and students really keeps you sharp.

As for the biggest piece of news, I was offered an amazing opportunity at HEAD – Genève to convert DIA’s creative process into a more organised academic platform. I’m in charge of two classes, one focused on visual identities whom I share with Thuy-An Hoang from NEO-NEO and the other is an experimental class called Motion Concepts where the curriculum is a direct reflection of our studio’s design process. I’ll also be teaching in the Master of Media Design with a specific focus around developing new tools for graphic design.

Lastly, both Meg and I were accepted into AGI (Alliance Graphique Internationale), which was a very pleasant surprise and a great way to kick off 2020.

“We wanted something editorial but with a DIA twist.”

TBI: Congrats on that, and the launch of the new site, it looks great. You mentioned to us on Instagram that it’s been ‘yearrrrs in the making’. What was the process like making it, and how did you know when it was done?

MP: So happy the site is done! It was actually designed and developed over a year ago but it took us a year to unarchive and prep all the work. The process of the site was really easy actually. We worked with the incredible St. Gallen-based design studio Bänziger Hug. We wanted something editorial but with a DIA twist. Our brief was… 1. use the Rand typeface by François Rappo 2. Do something unexpected. The rest was carte blanche. Their first proposal was perfect so we went straight into development. We always say if you’re going to hire a master let them do their work. And BH certainly delivered! 

TBI: What is it about Rand that made it an essential part of the brief?

MP: First and foremost we really like the typeface. It seems like a pretty straightforward neo-grotesk but it is quite unusual at a closer glance. The high x-height and subtle details in the base of the lowercase give it a personality that was an aesthetic reflection of us as a studio. In Rand, like all of François Rappo’s work, the craftsmanship of the typeface is of extremely high quality. It can handle with perfect precision in any typographic situation from tiny captions to more expressive headlines. Additionally, now that we are based in both the US and Switzerland, the concept of Rand made perfect sense. Rand, designed by a Swiss designer being inspired by modernist work from the US. So in a way, it represents this Swiss-American connection that we’ve developed with our studio.  

TBI: Was the idea of bringing in Bänziger Hug to offer a fresh perspective on how to present your work?

MP: We felt like we were too close to our work and would be too critical of anything we would try to do ourselves. We really admire how BH can translate this hard-core editorial typographic approach into the web and felt it would complement our work well. Our brief was very open, basically do what you do best. Sure enough, it was a home run in the first presentation. Side note, it was a real pleasure working with them too.

“For us, motion is central to how we design.”

TBI: How do you find the balance between teaching and running the studio?

MP: I’m still figuring this out, but it’s been pretty easy so far. My teaching commitments are only two days a week. Also, being in Europe helps a lot. The majority of our clients are based in the States so their day starts when I’m wrapping up class. Those days can be a bit rough and long but all and all its been pretty seamless. 

Workshop weeks can be a bit painful. For example, at ECAL, the days are from 8:30-5 pm every day. My first workshop there happened at the same time 2 larger Nike projects kicked off back in NY. I was basically working around the clock the whole week on top of being really jetlagged. This is not recommended! However, the motivation and energy of the students really make it worth it. I find workshop weeks to be some of the most rewarding experiences regardless of how exhausting they can be.

My teaching obligations demand a lot of time and a different focus from me personally, however, connecting with students provides a massive jolt of inspiration and energy that I pour right back into the studio. Also, most importantly, I’m just one component of the whole DIA picture. Without Meg, my partner, splitting time with teaching wouldn’t be possible with our demanding workflow. She’s leading projects creatively as well as guiding the business direction of the studio. Also, Deanna Sperrazza and Daniel Wenzel work with me side by side producing the majority of the studio’s work. We have a great team!

TBI: Has the relocation changed the way you work?

MP: The process of our studio is pretty much the same with the relocation. We’ve been operating in a relatively decentralised way for about four years now with our core team and collaborators working over Slack more than spending time in our studio. Even with our Dumbo office, there were no fixed hours and no mandatory daily attendance. Our studio spaces have always been a ‘use if needed’ mentality. And since there is no consistency with the workflow of a design studio why should we feel the need to maintain a traditional 9-6 Monday-Friday workweek. As long as design and schedule expectations are met on we don’t care how, where and when work is being done. Luckily this flexibility and trust had been long established with our team before the Swiss move.

One very positive side effect of the move is the time zone change. The majority of the work is still coming from New York and the West Coast. So we now have an entire distraction-free morning to work before emails start to pour in around 2 pm our time, which is making us a lot more productive. 

“Everyone in the studio approaches design work the exact same way a musician would compose and develop a track.”

TBI: You’ve become somewhat of the industry leader for the kinetic approach that’s evident in all of your recent projects. What triggered your interest in this way of thinking and working?

MP: I think it’s simply being aware of how fast the communication platforms have changed around us. I use the movie Minority Report as a point of reference in my lectures because it really seems we’re heading that way in regards to how humans will interact with visual communication. It’s been very important for us in the studio to speculate on how fundamental design principles will work in these completely new formats. Additionally, since the majority of our work is screen enabled we felt that we needed to develop a way of working that provided the best visual impact in that format. Not just simply taking static design and trying to make it move. For us, motion is central to how we design. 

Additionally, my background in music theory and composition has a major impact on how we think about movement theoretically. Everyone in the studio approaches design work the exact same way a musician would compose and develop a track. We break our (moving) design down into time signatures, rhythmic patterns and progressions then begin to expand and iterate on them. This way the movement is baked directly into the design rather than trying to take a static composition and make it move. Overall, there should be a bit of a musical feel to most of our work if you pay close attention to it. Everything is very choreographed. 

TBI: Can you give us an insight into how you begin these projects?

MP: We have always taken a position, especially in branding work, that all aesthetic decisions (font, colour, elements…) need to have some conceptual justification. The same exact thing goes for motion. With enough research, you can define a motion behaviour that is relevant to the content of the design work. In the Squarespace project, we used the rhythmic cadence of how we say ‘Square’ ‘Space’. The primary animations in that project bounce back and forth from a flat camera to isometric space. If you say Squarespace, Squarespace… on repeat synced up to our animations, you feel the rhythmic connection between the sound and the movement. ‘Square’ signifies the 2D point and ‘Space’ signifies the 3D point, which is seen in the moments of the isometric camera angles. In our design research, movement and sound become just as important references as visual form. We are able to connect with the audience on a deeper level if our influences are more well-rounded. This kind of research broadens our perspective – we’re not only thinking about design, but we are gaining a richer understanding of the content and people we are working with.

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