1 2 x 1 2: Twelve Interviews. A Dozen Answers.
This month, I checked in on my friend, Andy Gray, Managing Director at VSA Partners, New York. Andy and I met serendipitously while I was between jobs. What should have been a quick tour of VSA’s 7th Avenue office before dinner with my friend Travis Barteaux, turned out to be an amazing 2-hour conversation with Andy (and a job offer several weeks later). Even though I didn’t take the job, Andy and I have remained close and I consider him a confidant and career counselor of sorts.
1) It’s February. If you had to rebrand Valentine’s Day, what would it look like?
AG: From a branding perspective, the classic red heart is about as good as it gets. But from a marketing perspective, I might shake things up. Red needs a timeout—it’s jumped the shark. I’d propose a palette of unexpected colors that align with a range of romantic feeling: from giddy raspberry, and cautious-courtship salmon, to going-out-on-limb metallic gold, sigh-things-are-on ice blue, let’s-get-dirty maroon, and finally something like better-luck-next time black. Then a few years from now we can artfully re-introduce the heritage brand—rich and vivid red—which, through its absence, will have regained its power to shock, surprise and seduce.
2) Sticking with chance encounters and romantic rendezvous, you hosted an exhibit this month. How was g(love)? Is this the first time you’ve used the studio as a gallery space?
AG: G(love) warmed my heart. Stephen Antonson—our friend and collaborator—did a genius job, and everyone in the office pitched in. It was the first time we’d opened the office to such a large group (around 200 people), but our space is a natural gallery, and I think people genuinely enjoyed themselves.
3) How important are extracurricular activities/events like g(love) for studios/agencies/creative offices?
AG: This was important to us on many levels. We wanted to stretch our muscles in a new way and do something nice for our friends. It was also a milestone…I arrived at VSA NY in the fall of 2008, just as the economy was imploding. Since then we’ve evolved as a team in terms of what we do and how we do it—it was great to take a moment and take in how far we’ve come. We’ll absolutely do more of it.
4) You seem to gravitate towards nontraditional design projects/clients. Tell me about the interiors book you were recently a part of. Your home was featured in it too, right? What was that like?
AG: We try to balance big systematic engagements with smaller projects that can be all about an idea, or an exercise in form/pure design. A small or non-traditional project is like a trip to a museum: a diversion that allows us to see something new. The book came about when Lili Diallo asked to photograph my farmhouse upstate. This led to a friendship, and then to our designing her book, Details: A Stylist’s Secrets to Creating Inspired Interiors. Both the house and the book were labors of love!
5) In the last few years your team has done beautiful branding work for Cole Haan including packaging, advertising and interactive. What’s this been like? Tell me more about the campaign.
AG: In Cole Haan we found a partner who let us loose on an amazing range of projects. We helped launch their sub brand Cole, Rood & Haan, helped hone their brand strategy, conceive of and execute two catalog and ad campaigns, design a microsite and evolve their brand identity. In all of these cases we had limited budgets so we had to be resourceful, and I think the results are better for it. What seemed like a risk at the time definitely paid off.
6) You mentioned your team spent a lot of time researching Cole Haan’s legacy and heritage. They were acquired by Nike in the late 80s, weren’t they? When companies like Cole Haan find themselves essentially “under new management,” how do you balance brand equity and incoming design influences?
AG: I think we’re always trying to find an organization’s authentic core. Cole Haan was ready to tap more explicitly into their heritage by launching Cole, Rood & Haan. We helped them do it in a way that was also modern—we looked back to look forward. Nike immediately “got” what we were doing, which put us in the position of being able to extend that into advertising for the whole brand. In general, “new management” can leave you feeling like you’re serving multiple masters, but in this case, we were in good hands.
7) I know quite a number of Chicago designers who’ve recently moved to NYC or plan to do so soon. If a designer is considering making the big move to the Big Apple, what are the top 5 things they should consider/know before taking the leap?
- It’s more expensive than you think. The difference in the price and quality of apartments alone is enough to scare most people away. But if you can get over that hump, you can get over anything.
- NYC is a difficult place to navigate without a tour guide because it’s so vast. You really need a support group of friends or officemates who can help orient you.
- The subway is awesome, and the city is surprisingly bike-friendly.
- About an hour north of NYC the suburbs just fall away and you’re in the Catskills. I was floored by how close and how beautiful it is. Easily accessible by car, train or bus and loaded with interesting things to do like the DIA:Beacon museum and Storm King sculpture park.
- Long Island and the Jersey Shore (despite what you’ve been led to believe by MTV) both have glorious beaches. And there’s a whole cult of people who surf in Brooklyn before work.
8) What was the transition like for you coming to run VSA’s New York office after your time with Ogilvy & Mather? How would you characterize the differences between the two offices?
AG: Ogilvy’s a massive machine with 1500 people in New York alone. I just did my best to do my part to keep the machine running. At VSA I wear many more hats, and my team does too. Because we’re small we’re able to play to each person’s strengths, rather than fill roles with people who are to some degree interchangeable. In this sense, it’s closer in spirit to my time at Wieden + Kennedy or Doyle Partners, where the particular talents and personalities color the offering in a more pronounced way.
9) How do you stay competitive/relevant in a city that’s so saturated with design? Where do you go for inspiration?
AG: In New York, inspiration is always right around the corner, whether in a gallery, museum, store or on the street. But I also love to get out—whether upstate, across the country or halfway around the world. There’s something about being out of my usual surroundings that always gives me a fresh perspective. My team also does a great and generous job of sharing the things that inspire them. Ultimately, I think it’s the balance of all three that works for me.
10) So throughout all your traveling, what’s your favorite city for design and why?
AG: I’m crazy about Portland. I don’t know if it’s the connection to the great outdoors, the nine months of rain, the low cost of living or just something in the water, but it’s home to a cultural scene that is at once smart, funny, passionate and fearless. Portland’s doing something right.
11) What do you know now that you wish you knew entering the design world for the first time? What advice do you have for young designers entering the agency space?
AG: As a young designer, I took everything very intensely and very personally. If I felt like I wasn’t making enough progress in my career, I’d get super anxious. I wish I understood then that it was not all about me, and that progress is measured in years not months. Also, as a younger designer I was more likely to get lost in the details. The time I spent in advertising helped me get the hang of the big picture and understand the importance of simplicity and clarity. My advice would be: always choose experience over paycheck. And don’t get good at things you don’t want to do.
12) In a word, what’s it all about?