“There’s no rulebook, only what you dream up.” We explore the futuristic, tech-focused world of FAY
Based in Brooklyn, FAY are a graphic design and creative technology studio creating future-forward brands and bold interactive experiences. Their practice sits within an exciting space in the design world, meeting at the intersection of elevated design and emerging technology to create new ways for people to experience and interact with brands. In our conversation, Founder Aron Fay dives into the studio’s day-to-day practice and the curiosities and questions that spur the team on. From sound-responsive identity systems to generative tools for designers, he gives us a fascinating insight into some of the wonderful projects they’ve worked on and where they are heading.
PT Hi Aron, how are you?
AF I'm quite well, thank you! A lot of things have been happening at FAY, so I’m excited to be chatting!
It’s hard to believe, but we’re coming up on five years since starting the studio, and it’s been rewarding to look back to see how FAY has evolved. We’ve definitely honed our focus since we last chatted with you back in 2019, and are now operating as both a graphic design and creative technology studio with a focus on creating future-forward brands and interactive tools and experiences.
PT How is the FAY team structured at the moment?
AF We’re a team of super dedicated and focused individuals with a wide range of backgrounds, interests and specialities. I’m adamant that good work doesn’t come from putting as many designers as you can in a room and hoping for the best – it comes from one, sometimes a few, highly intelligent, skilled, creative individuals, each with a unique point of view. Because of that, I take a lot of pride in maintaining a tight-knit team at FAY, which has allowed us to work very closely with our clients and collaborators in a focused manner. We all care deeply about the quality of work we produce – and I’ll go to the ends of the earth and back to maintain that as our top priority.
The primary makeup of team FAY (as of May 2023) consists of several incredible graphic designers and creative technologists. I feel so fortunate to have a chance to work with such an amazing group. I’m a big believer in partnering with talented specialists in their respective disciplines, and because of that we often bring in outside collaborators on projects depending on specific project needs. In the past, that’s been everything from strategists who specialise in certain areas, naming experts, developers, 3D artists, outside musicians, technical specialists, and so on. At FAY, we find that working with both our core team and outside collaborators can breathe a lot of new energy into our projects.
We make a clear point to differentiate between today and tomorrow.
PT What would you say is the unifying thread between you all?
AF There are a few things, but at the highest level, we are all very curious individuals with an interest in the future. I’m personally interested in many ideas relating to futurism and I care deeply about asking larger questions around the future of how we as humans communicate.
When I set out to start FAY, one of my main goals was to investigate and bring into question how we communicate, and how we can evolve and hopefully better the way we communicate with one another.
Much of our work is focused on developing robust and flexible brand identity systems for clients. I’m sure you’ve heard the term ‘world building’ used a lot when trying to frame how designers think about this type of work. For us it begs the question, is the client’s world we’re building one embedded within the world we’re currently inhabiting? Or can we free ourselves from that notion for a minute and imagine how we’d like both their branded world and our physical world to exist, and build towards that? That may sound idealistic, but we’re all realists and we don’t particularly think the way the world is today is the best expression of itself. So when we work with clients on projects – brand identity, creative technology, whatever it may be – we make a clear point to differentiate between today and tomorrow, and really push our clients to think about longer-term goals and how we can use the work we do to help create a bridge from the current to the future.
When it comes to how we think about studio culture, I’d say we’re all incredibly hardworking, detail-oriented, and passionate about what we do – we hope this comes through in the work! It’s safe to say that most of us also have some interest in music and ‘counterculture,’ and I think that makes its way into our day-to-day in a multitude of ways. In our studio, we have CDJs and turntables set up so we can have friends over after hours to play music and socialise. We care deeply about the work, but also about making sure our other interests have an opportunity to show up.
PT How has FAY changed in recent years? Did COVID impact the practice at all?
AF Prior to starting FAY, I was an Associate Partner at Pentagram working for Michael Bierut. When I left to start FAY, we were primarily doing much of the same types of work I did at Pentagram – a lot of brand identity, publication and book design, websites, etc.
We continue to specialise in these fields, but we’re also doing a lot in the world of creative technology and investigating how we can merge the two different disciplines. When I started FAY, I wanted to bring my interest in emerging technology more into the fold.
For my college thesis, I had been researching how to integrate different digitally native technologies into traditional print design in order to investigate how we could ‘move print into the digital age.’ That project ultimately manifested in a screen-printed touch-sensitive poster that triggered a series of video projections and sounds simply by interacting with the printed poster. From that point on, I saw the potential for integrating disparate disciplines together and knew I wanted to explore that further.
Fast forward 12 years to today, and we’ve been working with clients on developing custom generative tools and software to help improve their workflows and communications efforts.
During COVID, we had a few projects get put on hold, and like everyone else, the future didn’t seem super clear at the beginning of the pandemic. We quickly pivoted though – the beauty of having a small team is that we can be nimble and react quickly, so we were able to tune an efficient remote working style in short order. All in all, we feel very fortunate.
It’s a simple idea: 1+1=3.
PT Can you tell us why you find it interesting to combine both design and technology? And how do you go about doing it?
AF It’s a simple idea: 1+1=3.
The combination of pairing design with creative technology allows FAY to create more possibilities that are richer and layered, and if we want, can provide an element of surprise.
I think about this intersection in two ways – creative technology informing design and design informing creative technology. It depends on what we’re trying to achieve.
In general, we’re really interested in this idea of cross-pollination and seeing what happens when we combine different sensory elements together. Imagine any of the five senses, let’s say, for example, sight and smell. Now imagine you’re on a Zoom call – the cool and innovative thing about video calls is that we can now see and hear people, rather than just hear people over the phone. Now take that logic a step further and imagine what happens if we can smell the flowers behind the person you’re Zooming with from halfway across the world. Or what if instead of just seeing a static stop sign while you’re driving, the sign could provide you with visual and haptic feedback if it senses you’re not stopping. The point being, we’re super interested in creating more layered ways of communicating and how we can build additional sensory experiences into our day-to-day to make the ways we communicate more meaningful.
PT When you’ve built custom generative tools and software for clients, how do you convince clients they will benefit their business?
AF We simply show past tools we’ve developed and discuss how it’s greatly benefitted other clients. I can’t tell you how happy and visibly excited our clients get when we show them the possibilities and what these tools are capable of – more often than not we hear “oh, woah, we can do all of that ourselves? I had no idea something like this was possible!” The benefits of these tools are super easy to see once you explain what they enable you to do – saving our clients time and money becomes really clear. By equipping clients with these tools, it has allowed our clients to create assets on demand and on-brand in-house, for designers and nondesigners alike.
These tools are capable of producing a vast range of outcomes both static and dynamic. In the visual realm, they can be created to generate static or dynamic brand assets (including generative identities), as a layout tool, as an image-making tool, and more. If you can think it and put a ruleset behind it, we can achieve it. There's another layer too which is that the tools can be used standalone (e.g. on your web browser or as a software programme), but they can also interface with other external inputs and outputs (think: sensor inputs or digital billboards outputs).
If you can think it and put a ruleset behind it, we can achieve it.
PT Can you give us an overview of Lobe? What was it like to create a generative design tool for them?
AF Absolutely. Lobe are near and dear to our hearts, as our work with them combined many of our interests as a studio. I have always had a deep interest in collecting, playing, and drawing inspiration from music, so being able to work on the first immersive spatial sound studio in North America using 4DSOUND technology was truly an honour. It was the perfect combination of design, technology, music, and an amazing client team that really made this project special.
To give some background, Lobe is a spatial sound studio located in Vancouver, CA that features a collection of ceiling and below-floor speakers that are housed under vibroacoustic floor panels to provide a multi-sensory environment for sound meditation, wellness events, and deep listening experiences. Using their ground-breaking new technologies, sound can be programmed, placed, and even animated to move around the room creating an immersive 360° sound experience. FAY was asked to create a brand identity system for Lobe. Through this work, we quickly realised that the idea of movement would be incredibly important to capture within the brand work. So in order to accomplish that, we developed a custom generative tool that allowed us to create an identity that was constantly evolving, much like the sound in space. The tool wasn’t any sort of initial requirement for the project, the idea for it evolved out of the brand work we were asked to develop.
So as it happened, we went up to Vancouver, to visit the studio and meet with the two co-founders Kate De Lorme and Edo Van Breeman, both of whom are highly accomplished composers/musicians/sound designers. During our meetings, we spent a lot of time really trying to drill down and better define what their space is, how the sound system actually works, and what the untapped possibilities for this new technology (other than listening to music) were. Coming out of those conversations, it was super clear to us that the 4D SOUND system was the star of the show, and that we needed to design a visual identity system that would translate seamlessly across their wide range of event programming.
So we came up with some different ideas and shared them with the clients. One of the ideas was centred around our understanding of how the system actually sent sound around the room in different ways. The idea was simple – what if we could showcase how the sound technology worked, by coming up with a system that allowed each of the letters in the name Lobe to independently move and animate in the same way sound moves in their space? Through further conversation and an understanding of the technology, we came up with an idea that pushed this even further – what if we were able to control how the logo moved in real-time, based on the sound currently being played in the space?
The client loved the idea, and we built a piece of software for them that can do that and can also generate animated or static logo assets at the touch of a few preset buttons. This app was a way to implement what otherwise would have been a complex idea, that would have taken a lot of time for a designer to implement and continually iterate on, and make it something a small sound studio was able to implement without any outside design help.
PT What was the catalyst behind Grid App? What were the main challenges and what are your plans for it in the future?
AF Grid App started as an exploration into rapidly prototyping grid-based compositions in a randomised fashion to create results we may not have achieved manually.
The idea was to create a tool that both designers and novices could easily use by uploading vector-based image files to the web-based app – then seamlessly move, scale, crop, rotate and colour uploaded art as they choose. The app allows for grid units to be adjusted individually or together simultaneously, using the app’s local and global modes. And as I mentioned, the key feature of the app is its randomised functions – allowing the user to transform all variables simultaneously, generating beautiful and unexpected results.
We also developed the Grid App to interface with a vast range of external inputs and outputs. For example, a user might sync the app with a music source, where the music’s pitch can be used to control different parameters within the app. Or a user might use the scent of different objects to control visual compositions—the possibilities are endless. Real-time visuals can also be interfaced with displays such as an LED matrix, or used as an input source in conjunction with other tech. To date, the Grid App has been used to generate client visuals, translate sound into image, VJ events in real-time and produce artworks with input from different sensor technologies.
Grid App is part of our ongoing LAB initiative, where FAY experiments and conducts R&D with new emerging technologies with the hopes of advancing and bettering the ways in which we communicate in the future.
Grid App is not currently available to the public – and we don’t have any immediate-term plans of releasing it at this point as we’re currently prioritising custom builds for clients.
When a client hires us for a project, we’re going to deliver on the project 120%. Anyone who has worked in design knows that isn’t an easy thing to do.
PT Outside of client work, how much time do you dedicate to exploring emerging technologies and interaction design?
AF As designers, when a client hires us for a project, it’s with the understanding we’re going to deliver on the project 120%. Anyone who has worked in design knows that this isn’t an easy thing to do, unless you figured out some magic formula.
Our LAB initiative allows us the freedom to research, explore and experiment in both creative technology and design. Over the last few years, we’ve done everything from designing variable typefaces that can shapeshift based on proximity sensor data, to an interactive pose-tracking installation incorporating 3D modelling and spatial sound, to a poetry-to-image tool that uses text to modify images in various ways based on the text’s content.
It’s an opportunity to get at some of the bigger questions I alluded to earlier that we’re interested in, and also a way for us to test out new ideas without the pressure of delivering on a super polished result.
PT Are there any blogs, books or resources that you would recommend to learn more about the intersection between design and technology?
AF There have been some interesting books published by Christoph Grünberger that give an overview of some data-focused projects, and grid systems that I personally find interesting and have an overlap between the two disciplines.
I spend a lot of time researching and learning about specific new technologies, and then finding ways to apply them to the design work we do and vice-versa, as opposed to seeking out examples of projects that integrate both design and technology. My advice is to learn as much as you can about the types of technologies you find interesting (there’s a lot you can find on YouTube, or that’s shared from people using whatever tool or technology it is you are interested in, or white papers) – it will start to lead you down paths you didn’t expect. That’s part of the beauty for me about merging the two. There’s no rulebook, only what you dream up.
We’re going to see some weird stuff once AI systems start to be able to ‘learn’ on their own.
PT How do you think design and technology will change as AI becomes more and more prominent?
AF If you trace the emergence of AI, you’ll notice that it’s taken some time to get to where we are now. Over the last few years, things have really accelerated, technology and algorithms have gotten incredibly advanced and we’ve been inching closer to there being useful applications that the general public can use without needing to know how to code or do the complex math that’s involved to build the algorithms we see in use today. We’ve been using AI-based tools for a while now and we think they will continue to open up a lot of possibilities across the world of design and technology.
With the advancement of these new technologies comes the questions of ethics, ownership, and whether this technology is actually benefiting or harming us in the long term. That aside, in the case of design, I think it will allow designers to spend less time pushing pixels, and open up visual possibilities that might not have otherwise been easily accessed. I think of it in a way like the Grid App tool we developed – yes, we can manually create grid-based layouts using Creative Suite, but if we can generate 1,000 versions in two minutes with a generative tool as opposed to one version manually in the same time, is that better? I think the question comes down to intentionality and what you’re trying to achieve.
In the long term though, many of the machine learning tools we’re seeing in use today for image generation are only as smart as the data they’ve been fed. So, until these systems can start to ‘learn’ on their own, we’re going to be limited to the data we input to these systems. In the case of design, that means until we feed it new ideas or visual possibilities, it’s not going to know those ideas or possibilities exist. Because of this, I think we may start to see trend lines emerge as these tools continue to get used.
I will say that I think we’re going to see some weird stuff happen though once AI systems start to be able to ‘learn’ on their own.
PT Are there any industries or companies that you haven’t worked with yet that you would like to?
AF Definitely. We’d love to start getting more into the world of retail and fashion (branding, campaigns, interactive installations) and music companies and artists (branding, bespoke creative technologies, interactive installations, album sleeves, music videos, etc). We also want to continue working with folks who are doing innovative work and exciting things in the world of technology and the sciences. We love working on different types of projects, so the more diverse the mix is, the happier we are!
PT When adding to your team, what qualities do you typically look out for?
AF Intelligent. Proactive. Responsible. Highly creative. Super detail oriented. Systems thinker. Team player. Level-headed and easy to communicate with. And interested in the future. We’re super selective about who we work with (not in a snobby way), this is our chosen family and we choose to only work with people who are inspired and are inspiring.
PT What can we expect from FAY in the next five years?
AF Let’s just say that we have a lot of exciting things planned and currently in the works. Follow along on the ride :)