Launched this week, Viceland is a new TV channel from the no-holds-barred people at Vice. Led by Spike Jonze, the channel is a “collection of personal perspectives” with shows revolving around personalities like Action Bronson, Ellen Paige, Eddie Huang, and Michael K. Williams (aka Omar from The Wire), all providing unfiltered takes on “music, food, technology, sexuality, fashion, film, and all the other things that make up life.” Viceland will be operated on TV by A+E Networks and all episodes will be available in full on their website. The identity and on-air package have been designed by New York, NY-based Gretel.
Check Gretel’s project page as there are some videos that, due to rights management, are not allowed for embed here, and there are also a number of animated GIFs there that I didn’t include in this post.
The VICELAND brand is equal parts exhibition catalog and street flyer; Craigslist and couture; generic and refined. It is simultaneously the elevated ‘high’ and vernacular ‘low.’ A translation of the VICE sensibility, it’s blunt and raw. An exposed structure, a functional language free of decoration, artifice and veneer. The brand is an objective frame for the network’s content. Unstyled, unslick, unadorned.
The above image might be the most depressing mood board in the history of graphic design but also, not surprisingly, it might be one of the coolest. Un-design has been going for decades, whether it’s on purpose or by circumstance, and, at its best, as we’ll see below, it can be a piercingly good form of design, even when trying to appear as not trying too hard.
This might actually sound like praise on the use of Helvetica and if you’ve spent any number of years on Brand New or have hung out with me, you know that that doesn’t happen. This is a first.
The basic ingredients combine in different proportions to modulate the VICELAND expressions. Content falls under one of three types: smart and curious, light and fun, or deep and dangerous.
(Not to be too picky, but wouldn’t a truly un-designed color palette denounce C, M, and Y in full favor of K alone?)
The identity revolves around three things: Helvetica in a single weight, typeset black on white (or image). The logo breaks the rule by being a bolder weight of Helvetica but, still, we get the point. Of all the stuff you will see below, the logo is actually the least interesting part and, after I fully bought into the idea of a minimal approach I was slightly disappointed that the logo broke form.
Spike Jonze (VICE Creative Director) and Eddy Moretti (VICE Chief Creative Officer) tasked us with creating a transparent and empathetic brand. A voice and design that could punctuate, counterpoint, inform, and whenever possible, step back. A range of emotion and the impact of the images had to pass through the brand undiluted.
Because the programming is developed, produced and promoted almost entirely under one roof, everything is naturally steeped in the VICE sensibility. Therefore, the branding didn’t need to impose a visual or tonal super-structure to unify disparate voices. The challenge was to craft a brand that could express its own voice through the content.
Unlike other forms of Ugly Design where the point seems to be to shock your visual sense, the work by Gretel is actually remarkably well designed. There is a simple but clearly coordinated structure behind the layouts, there is order and rhythm to the apparently “bland” typographic treatments, and there is a clear sense of tension between small and large typography and the pairing with imagery. Despite trying to un-design this to hell, they have actually managed to design it closer to heaven.
The way VICELAND behaves in motion is an extension of the default aesthetic. It’s ASCII, text-edit, HTML 1. No effects, no techniques - the animation is deliberately basic and throws the focus back to the content. The entire brand is built on two core moves: hard cuts and linear slides.
These can be used alone or compounded to create blinks, reveals, ripples, stretches and waves. The irony of such a low-tech, analog approach is that it can easily adapt to virtually any contemporary platform with the most fundamental tools.
Unlike other work from Gretel, the animation behaviors here are almost dumb. Animated GIFs broadcast on TV. But, again, there is an unavoidable sense of mastery at work here that takes this to a higher level of execution, visual excitement, and engagement through quick cuts and hyperactive typography. I had a chance to see a video of the full on-air package that is currently being cleared for rights that will leave you wanting to see more. Hopefully it will be online soon.
The choice of Helvetica is one that makes sense for Vice. It’s a perfect match for their kind of bad-boy, au-naturel brand of journalism and ethos. While it’s not explicitly mentioned by Gretel I am sure part of the decision behind using Helvetica was due to its neutrality and ubiquity but — guess what? — there is so much baggage behind Helvetica and so many associations that it becomes as big and meaningful a brand statement as using 13 red and white stripes in a logo for U.S. Soccer. The use of Helvetica here is not meaningless or transparent, it pairs perfectly well with Vice perhaps to a scary degree. Both us designers and, I guarantee, much of Viceland’s audience know that this identity isn’t un-designed by circumstance but by purpose; we all know what Helvetica is trying to do to us and we all acknowledge that it’s meant to represent an I-don’t-care attitude that speaks exactly the language we expect from Vice. As much as this was meant to pass as un-designed, it “suffers” from good design and very clear graphic associations to the types of shows Viceland will be airing so, to me, it isn’t that this is cool because it’s un-designed and hip, it’s cool because it’s very much on brand and is expertly executed — even if that’s what Gretel and Viceland were trying to avoid.