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AIGA/NY Smart Models: Athletics

Matt Owens, Jason Gnewikow and James Ellis represented the seven-person collective of Athletics. Contrary to the bohemian utopia imagined when mentioning the words creative and collective, Athletics is adamant on professionalism, process, and a clear outlining of what needs to be done, when and how, as opposed to a joyride of unorganized creativity.

Perhaps one of the biggest mysteries is how they are organized, which they explained as each of them being an independent LLC, so that each of them would be liable and responsible for their own finances and projects. Unlike the other famous collective, Pentagram, Athletics does not bring in the money into a giant pool that is then divided evenly nor from which they can all take money out of. Instead each project is headed by a partner and decides how that money is allocated, which sometimes includes working with another partner. So how does this differ from just being independent designers and collaborating when needed? The idea is that by working under the same umbrella, Athletics comes to represent a multidisciplinary studio that can tackle every aspect for any given client, from print, to interactive, to motion, to directing. Also, when a partner does a project independently it gets embedded into the collective portfolio, strengthening their capabilities.

Athletics Graph

Athletics Graph

Athletics prepared some clever graphics to illustrate their model and philosophy — you can see all of them here — above are two that speak to the collective model contrasted to the typical design firm. Instead of a top-down structure, Athletics is horizontal, and since they are the ones ideating and producing the work — or being “do’ers” as they call it — every task falls on their hands, from administrative, to production, to being happy.

Athletics Graph

They were also able to illustrate, and acknowledge, the more organic process of graphic design. Most design firms, specially branding firms, like to have stoic, flawless diagrams explaining their process but, as we all know, design feels more like a pretzel than an Excel spreadsheet.

Sundance Focus Videos

The presentation then veered into a few case studies, like the video shorts for the Sundance Channel, which was one of the earlier Athletics projects, with everyone involved and some of the footage was even shot at their office — which happens to be a refurbished boxing gym that “smelled of dudes”. They went through other projects, and what was interesting was to hear how organically everything came into the office through one person and they would just divvy up accordingly.

One of the interesting aspects from this talk, and something that came through in the panel discussion via Matt Owens, was his journey to this point, and how that played a role in defining the dynamic of the collective. For a long time he used to run a design firm that eventually grew too much, and as Matt put it, “at a certain scale the company started telling me what to do (to meet overhead costs and keep people busy), and I couldn’t tell the company what to do.” This is an issues that seems to plague many designers when their firms grow and are not happy to be mired in management duties and lacking hands-on work. So Athletics is a way to keep himself in control of the creative process, and everybody on the team seems to be of the same disposition.

Athletics Graph

And, for them, in the end it’s all about these four things: Being successful, excited, happy and creative with the work they do. Not a bad business model.

Maintained through our ADV @ UnderConsideration Program
PUBLISHED ON May.22.2008 BY Armin
Pesky’s comment is:

Personally I'm in favor of the joyride of unorganized creativity - at first. How else can we see how fast this Ferrari goes?

On May.22.2008 at 03:06 PM
Josh’s comment is:

I'd say the delineations that they make between partners is what we're growing to be as well.

They are probably more exacting than we are at this stage, but i see very similar responsibilities. Individual work builds collaborative wealth.

I'm all for eschewing "traditional" design models. This build an agency thing is as old as the term "graphic artist".

Cheers to Athletics and others who move forward in this direction.

On May.24.2008 at 07:14 PM