In Conversation with Armin Vit of UnderConsideration
Armin Vit and his partner and co-founder of UnderConsideration Bryony Gomez-Palacio bring people together. For decades now, they’ve created multiple channels of communication and community that continue to shape our industry, be it through the comments section on Brand New to the vulnerability of showing diamond-in-the-rough work at First Round.
In celebration of our studio’s participation in First Round Chicago on Friday, September 13, we wanted to sit down with Armin himself.
Extending our conversations about curiosity and process (which began with The Curiosity Issue of Unread), we got a chance to pick Armin’s brain about the origin of First Round, his perspective as an individual at the helm of a platform of prominence in the design community, and the journey he took to get to where he is today.
One Design: At first, how did your platform from the seriouSeries to conferences to Brand New and Art of the Menu come to be?
Armin Vit: Oh, the answer to that could be long-winded. So, we started our first blog, Speak Up, back in 2003. There were blogs in general, but not design blogs. No one was doing it; There was no coolness about it. There was no playbook for it—we just started it. And then, no one knew who I was. There was no reason for anyone to know who I was.
But I just started emailing people that I respected and admired. I emailed Steve Heller, Michael Bierut, Paula Scher, saying that I had started this blog and that they should check it out.
Next thing you know, they're checking it out. And in the next year and a half, Speak Up just became the online place where you could talk about design in a way that you couldn't before.
But that informed a lot of the way we operated, which was keeping something that was open, that was not tied to general conventions of previous efforts of publishing, like magazines where you wrote a letter to the editor and maybe it got published and maybe someone will read it. Here, we published something, and it was instant comments, which now seems like such an ordinary part of life—but at the time, it was groundbreaking.
It broke down barriers—if you just have an opinion, and it's a good one or an interesting one, we'll publish it, and there will be an audience for it, and that will generate its own set of discussions.
That helped inform what we did from then on. At some point, we launched the seriouSeries. I think 100 people might remember it now. The first one was literally in our house in a small apartment in Chicago with Rick Valicenti. Like 15 people came. Michael Bierut, who I had interactions by email with said, ‘I'm going to Chicago for business for work—would it be okay if I come to your seriouSeries event with Rick Valicenti?’ I was like, ‘Yes! Do!’
It's real people just being designers and enjoying what you do. We had scaled up into the Brand New Conference, which is for 1,000 people but is still just me and Bryony running the show, who's my partner and wife. There's no big team. There's no HR department in UnderConsideration. There's no committee selecting the speakers. So, that same approach that we took for 10 people in our apartment in Chicago, we applied to 1,000 people in a venue in Chicago or Los Angeles or New York.
We've always done things that we think we would enjoy as graphic designers first off, like what do we think is missing? Which speakers would we like to see? What doesn't exist? Is there a better way to do awards? It's always about just trying to explore our own interests, hopefully, in a way that generates us revenue because this is what we do. We don't do client work. And in a way that satisfies the community in a way that it hasn't been done before.
That's the long answer. ‘Hey. We have no idea what we're doing, we're just going to do it because it seems doable and it could be fun.’
This is our profession. This is how we make our living, which is bizarre.
One: You mentioned that you give folks a stage, a platform to voice their opinion. And then you said, ‘as long as it's a good opinion.’ Can you talk a bit about the potential responsibility you have when it comes to bringing the right opinions—the right perspectives—to the table? How do you navigate that? That's a high level of responsibility.
Armin: Just to clarify what I mean by ‘good opinion,’ I don’t mean that it's something that we have to agree on—that we both either have that political beliefs align or that our opinion about Helvetica aligns. Whatever it is, it's about having a strong opinion about it in a way that makes sense, a way that people can articulate it, so that they can convey their opinions to other people.
And it's not about changing other people's minds—it's just about exposing people to other points of view. We just try to look for people that do good work, that seem nice on Twitter and Instagram. Nowadays, it's a little bit easier in the sense that you follow people on Instagram, on Twitter, on Facebook, and you get a sense for what they like, how they react, how they comment on things. And that really informs you how they are as people or what their opinions might be like.
It just comes down to following your instinct into who might be good. And so far, it's all been good. Every now and then, someone might say something that you go like, ‘Wait, did he or she just say that?’ You're like, ‘Eh, okay.’ Some people might complain, but nothing controversial after this one, so hopefully we'll stay on the path.
One: There's a bit of frustration around the culture of design criticism itself and the current state of the profession as a self-reflective field. Many folks feel like the visual design world is missing that critical discourse that you find in other fields like architecture. Do you have a point of view on that or a perspective?
Armin: When we had Speak Up, I think I was a strong believer in that design needed that sort of criticism, and it wasn't just me. It was a lot of people. This is early 2000s, late 90s when the profession was changing in particular with the computer and the internet. There was a lot of design discourse in magazines like Print, Emigre, Communication Arts, and then Design Observer really took it to a higher level that we never did because we were just not as experienced writers and didn't have the collective professional experience.
At that time, those conversations really shaped a lot of where we are right now. But where we are right now—design has finally arrived. Back then, we're talking about, ‘Oh, design needs a seat at the table. Nobody understands design. Nobody cares about our logos.’ And now, it’s more like, ‘Holy shit! Everybody cares about what we do.’
Every publication posts about logo changes. Jimmy Kimmel does Man on the Street segments, asking people about logos. I think maybe five or 10 years down the line, as the profession changes again, I think we might need more criticism pretty soon. But right now, I think we're cruising. There're a lot of designers out there doing really good work.
Here, right now, I don't miss design criticism, and I don't think many people do. I think it literally might be a hand full of people that are like, ‘Where's my design criticism from late 1990s?’ Designers that I know, conversations that you see online—no one is missing that. Maybe it is missing. Maybe we could be doing better. But right now, for the most part, we are all doing pretty okay, I think.
One: What people really enjoy about posts on Brand New—at least from my perspective—is your personal critique. You always present the studio's case for the work, and then you just get into a very formal review. It's an unabashed, honest, and fair take—and you really dive in to the technical details.
But then there's the comment feed—which is what most comment feeds are. Sometimes it's catty, sometimes it's silly, sometimes it's really, really sharp criticism.
There's this idea that when you’re featured on it's such a big momentous moment. When Saint Kate was featured, we all buckled our seat belts and said, ‘All right. Here comes the gauntlet of criticism.’ Someone mentioned to me that we more or less ‘made it through unscathed, but there were a few comments that were negative.’ And I was like, ‘Man, those were great critiques from the comment field. They're right on point.’
How do you feel about that general tenor of the commentary that happens after something that’s typically a very thoughtful dissection on your part?
Armin: Every now and then on Twitter, someone will post, ‘The worst people in the design world are in the comments section of Brand New.’ Or like, ‘Those people have no business giving their opinions about logos.’
I find it pretty hypocritical because if I have a beer with a designer friend, I'll be like, ‘Hey, did you see that thing that whoever did?’ And he'll be like, ‘Yeah, that was awesome,’ or, ‘Yeah, that was shit.’ That's the conversation. You don't go into a 500 word fucking essay about what's good or bad.
It's a reflection of how designers react from the gut about design. It's perfectly fair because that's how we operate.
When you're having a conversation with a client, and the client shoots back an idea, you have to be able to respond right away about why something would or wouldn't work. You don't have time to form a proper reply about it. It's quick. It's instinctual. It's triggered by things you've seen, that you know that work. So, even when someone says, ‘This logo is shit,’ Yeah! If the general feeling is that this logo is shit or it's awesome or—whatever it is, positive or negative—I think those are as valuable as more thorough, thoughtful reviews.
I love the comments, even if, sometimes, they are weird and ridiculous and abrasive. Recently, we posted some of our own projects on Brand New. And shit! I tremble. Right before I publish, I'm like, ‘Holy shit. What am I doing?’ There's no reason for me to put myself out there, knowing what the audience is like. But at the same time, I think it's good. It allows you to feel what others feel, which is the emotions range from fear to loathing to—well, every now and then, there's a feeling of elation. But those are rare.
One: Do you read all the comments?
Armin: I would say I read 75% of the comments—maybe 65% is more accurate. Only in the first few hours after I post, just to make sure that no one is losing their shit or that I didn't have a mistake or something. And then, I'll just check in here and there.
Every time that I'm writing something, I'm like, ‘Oh, my God. Are people going to disagree with me and make me feel bad about my opinion?’ So, there's a lot of feelings involved in Brand New. I think the problem is that a lot of people don't realize how sensitive other people can be about their work.
One: Now, you mentioned that you aren't really doing client work. Do you consider all that you do under the UnderConsideration brand to be for yourself as a client or for the community that you've created?
Armin: That's a good question. I think it's both. We're doing things that benefit others, and we see those people as our audience, as our customers. We thought we did better with clients, but it turns out we do better with customers.
But at the same time, all the design that we do around it is completely and utterly selfish—so in that we're doing the way we want to do it. There's no one telling us, ‘Eh, no. I don't know about that typeface. I don't know about that color,’ which can be scary because there's no one putting the brakes on either a bad idea or a good idea. We're just going for it, which is really satisfying, especially after years of doing client work.
It's really so nice to be like, ‘Hey, I'm going to choose this font because I fucking feel like it. I saw it the other day, I bought it and I want to use it.’
It's very different to design for a client who then has to communicate to their audience. Here, our direct audience is designers. That creates its own criteria and levels of what's good, bad, and acceptable that's pretty interesting.
One: How long did it take you to make the switch from doing even a balance of client-based work to going all-in on what you do now?
Armin: It took the amount of time of the 2008 recession. We had started our business back in 2007, and we were doing 80% client work and 20% of our stuff. Then, the recession happened, and then we moved to Austin. For the next nine years that we were in Austin, I would say 90% was our projects and then 10% client work. We were starting to succeed with Brand New Conference and now in the last two years, as we moved to Bloomington, we've been able to grow to a 70/30 balance—70% our work, 30% client work.
One: Can you talk a little bit about how First Round came about?
Armin: We had an idea to do a book about First Round presentations maybe five or six years ago.
I was asking around to designers like, ‘Hey, would you give us a First Round presentation to print in a book and break down your PDF?’
And they were like, ‘No. Never going to happen.’
We were like, ‘Okay. That's interesting. Can you think of anyone that would?’
And they're like, ‘No. No one's going to give you this.’
So we just benched the idea.
And then, last year, we had to put in an event, where for other reasons, that event didn't happen. We had to do a down payment on the venue. We needed to fill it with people that we know, that we think, hopefully, will come to buy a ticket within the next three months. So we thought, ‘What if we asked people to just show their First Round to the few hundred people in the room, and that's it? Nothing permanent.’ The event was in New York. So, we were like, ‘Let's ask all of our friends who will have a really hard time saying no to us.’
And 12 out of 12 people said, ‘Yes.’
We set the ticket really, low compared to the Brand New Conference or AIGA Conference or How Conference, and all the speakers were local. We didn't have to worry about hotels or anything like that or travel. And next thing you know, we sold out a 600-seat venue for an event that was rushed—that we didn't know if it was going to work or not.
People were ecstatic. What's great about it is that you get all the early things that happen in a First Round presentation—all the bad ideas, all the bad mockups, all the half-cooked things. You just feel that vulnerability as you're presenting it, like, ‘Eh, this was not such a good idea in hindsight’ or whatever.
It exposed a lot of the process, and it reinforced all of the fears that people have—that we don't really know exactly what we're doing. That's a feeling that all the people presenting feel. Almost everyone says, ‘Well, you know. This is what we're showing them. This is what our mind works. This is how, what in our mind, works in a presentation format.’
It gives the validation that, what you think you're doing wrong, you're actually doing right.
One: Is there anything new on the horizon for UnderConsideration, in general or specific projects that you guys have under your umbrella?
Armin: We're trying to double down on First Round. So, we're just like, ‘How can we make this a little bit more, if not accessible, just do more of them so that more people can go?’ We can see if we can start pushing out some of the nuggets of information that come out from the presentations, and maybe share one slide here and there on Instagram with a little bit of explanation—things like that.
For now, as long as the economy stays positive, we have Brand New Conference venues set up for at least the next two years.
But we don't have anything new planned. Every now and then, we have weird ideas. At some point, we're like, ‘Let's open a candy shop.’ Why? ‘Because it seems like it might be fun.’ But then, we're crunching the numbers, and it doesn’t make sense. But we're open to anything. If an idea comes to our mind, we'll explore it and seems what comes out.
One: We do ask everyone in this series the same question at the end of our chat. What would you say keeps you curious?
Armin: The enjoyment that comes from trying things—whether I'm trying a typeface for a project or whether we're trying a speaker for the conference—that unknown of what the outcome of that may be, that's what keeps us going and curious about learning new things, meeting new people. Just not knowing.
First Round is sold out this Friday, but make sure to keep your eyes peeled for the next time one rolls into town, and dig into all things UnderConsideration in the meantime.
Still wanting more? Dive into another chat with some of our other industry heros, Jim Coudal of Field Notes, Andy Cruz of House Industries, and Antonio García of Dadwell.