Easy riders

In the final part of his series of American profiles, Michael Johnson peers into the world of graphics consultancy VSA where most of the staff arrive at work on Harley-Davidson motorbikes. Michael Johnson is design director of Johnson Banks.

Killing time in Chicago consists mainly of arching your head up in the air, admiring the buildings and playing spot the architect as you wander around the streets. Then you turn around one more corner and at the end of the block there’s an enormous building which towers upwards into the mist and has the words Chicago Board of Trade chiselled out of it in huge letters. It looks every inch the great American institution.

You’d imagine that the chap responsible for taking the CBOT’s message to the world would be a slice of corporate America, your double-breasted Hugo Boss grey suit, your polished brogues, your endless stream of bully bullshit.

Well, no. The man umbilically linked to this client of seven years rides a Harley-Davidson, wears cowboy boots, has long brown hair and a goatee and drawls like he’s John Wayne’s cousin. I’m talking about Dana Arnett, who, with the help of his fellow partners Curt Schreiber, Robert Vogele, James Koval and Ken Schmidt, has created the envy of many of the world’s graphic designers: a firm with an endless list of juicy clients, with decent budgets, who seem able and happy to keep re-inventing themselves every year with unnerving ease, while producing some of the world’s most interesting graphic design.

It’s only two years since VSA walked away with a D&AD silver for one of its annual reports for the CBOT, and its work has appeared with monotonous regularity in the competition over the last few years. This may prompt a few shouts of “foul” from the home teams who would like to keep D&AD British only, but the truth is the American work is just that much better at the moment. And VSA is one of the firms which is consistently proving this.

As we sat in one of Chicago’s groovier coffee bars, Arnett revealed some of his thoughts about the state of play in American design. “I think there are certain flash points during the course of history where you start to see a certain attitude emerge. What I see in America now is more getting back to the message again – we had some romance with decor and digital techniques and three million new typefaces and now we’re starting to see that curve flatten out a bit.”

But it is the work for two special clients that has really left VSA’s mark on the world’s design scene. The aforementioned CBOT seems to be one of those good old-fashioned dream clients to work with. “We were sort of winging it every year – before we came along no-one had really got to express the identity of that kind of business. The futures trading business has got all the appropriate emotional qualities that can express themselves beautifully in words and scale and colour and that was our excuse – we would say ‘you’re the world’s leading futures and options exchange and you’re telling us in meeting after meeting that the real vitality of the institution happens on that trading floor. You just have to show that.'” And in a series of books that almost single-handedly changed the way the world views an annual report, VSA every year presented a new and exciting take on what could be seen as a dry and dull industry.

The work has made waves around the world, in the way that the report designed for Time Warner by Frankfurt Gips Balkind at the beginning of the Nineties changed the way we think about reports.

He feels there is corporate fear behind many people’s work. “I think people get fooled by the definitions they create. They say an annual report has to look a certain way and suddenly there’s such a pervasiveness – almost like a domino theory that everybody’s doing it in a certain way. If you find a client you can break new ground with, and that client is visible and not afraid of taking the risk, suddenly you’re in the right place at the right time and you can create something that no-one else is doing.”

The other long-standing client with which VSA has created some astounding work is Harley-Davidson. By exploring what it means to be a Harley owner, the firm seems to gone far deeper into “Harley-ness” and created a vernacular for the firm. Given that many of the designers arrive to work on the bikes, it makes them the perfect designers to “live” the brand. “We’re close to the Davidson family,” admits Arnett. “We work with their two great grandsons, we work with the grandson Willie who designs all the bikes, and we all ride in to work. But you know what’s true to Harley is you gotta honour the bike, the heritage, the mystique itself.”

Interestingly, Arnett seems less enthused by the current wave of graphic designers; he has more admiration for both British and American advertising rather than design. But one person he is happy to idolise is Tibor Kalman. “M&Co (Kalman’s firm in the Eighties) was like a great movie that didn’t need any special effects. You just sat there and the credits rolled and you were still sitting in your seat thinking about it and you probably didn’t remember anything beyond the whole experience. Everything was so integrated and so powerful and so focused and so beautifully handled. It felt genuine. I think very few designers are able to capture that. They’re somewhat mesmerised by technique and style.”

While the work that VSA is doing is certainly making waves, it isn’t by using especially trendy elements or particular photographers. “I think most of us in the office are in love with those old great classic typefaces and great photography that doesn’t need a lot of special effects. We definitely have an appreciation for things or people or elements that are pure or classical. It’s like rock and roll; some people like the Rolling Stones have a formula for making classic rock and roll which works every time, but Brian Eno will use the technology and come at it from a completely different direction,” says Arnett. VSA certainly has the Rolling Stones approach down pat, the question for Arnett is whether it can become more experimental while staying ahead of the avant-garde.

One of the problems for a designer like Arnett, whose work has become internationally recognised, is keeping up the quality. “It scares me,” he admits. “Whenever you’re categorised in a certain way it forces you to keep reinventing yourself. In design, in any art form, either you’ve got to be just incredibly innovative like a Philippe Starck or a Paul Rand, or like us you have to just keep re-inventing. There’s no guarantee we’re not going to be stale in a year – you just have to stay on top of it. You have to immerse yourself in film and music and popular culture. But I’m not especially afraid that we’re going to lose it. I guess it’s because I understand how hard it is to create something new every day when we walk in.”

By structuring the office in a certain way, where there are notional teams which feed across each other, it means that there is a huge amount of democracy in the office. “We’re not a top-heavy firm. People are engaged to participate the day they walk in the door. One of our guys who arrived right out of college is now a partner. That kind of ability to grow the company that way is really a tried and tested philosophy for us,” says Arnett.

Another office habit is to stick work in progress on the walls and have a long hard look at it. When you arrive in the building, you walk down a long passage which seems to have at least two or three current projects displayed, as though there’s about to be a crit. So much for doing the work the night before the meeting so as not to show your creative director; at VSA everything is stuck up and dissected, page by page. All the warts get out in time for the presentation.

And then, when the meeting arrives, don’t imagine that Arnett presents with a pile of black polyboard. Before his team get to any pictures they have a meeting which is just about a piece of paper on which they type their thoughts on the project. “There’s not just real factual strategic things there,” says Arnett. “There’s humour, there’s emotion, there’s discussion – we’re opening ourselves up to talking about the idea. It’s not about ‘here’s the idea, take it or leave it’, it’s about engaging with them.”

And then the pièce de résistance is the presentation itself. “We take a piece of butcher’s block paper, a big roll of paper and all our layouts get stuck down on it. And everyone in the meeting gets a big black magic marker, we roll out the paper, present it and then the discussion starts. People feel like they’re really part of an experiment, and I think that if they have some kind of authorship or involvement, they’re willing to be closer to something that’s unexpected.”

So there you go. If you want to start getting radical work through, chuck the polyboard away, roll up your work and let your client scribble all over it. It may just work…

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