Michael Braley Has Opinions
Introduction by Jessica Zimmer Interview by Jim Zimmer
Back in the late 90s when I was at the beginning of my studies at Columbia College, I happened upon a book in the library’s graphic design section that caught my attention. It had a weird title: I Am Almost Always Hungry and I wondered if maybe it had been accidentally shelved in the wrong department. But when I pulled the book from the stacks and opened it (from the back first, a habit I have) it felt like I’d fallen deeply off some kind of precipice into a completely new way of understanding the visual world. It would not be an understatement to say I Am Almost Always Hungry shaped the direction of my academic studies and future profession.
When Jim and I merged households early on in our relationship, we discovered we both owned copies of the book. I thought that was auspicious and soon the two copies lived happily ever after in our joint collection. It was divine intervention when some years later, having entered a few projects in an AIGA competition, we learned Michael Braley was one of the judges. We didn’t recognize the name initially, but while chatting with him at the event he revealed he had chosen one of our entries for the winning ‘Judges Choice.’ But that wasn’t even the best part. It came up in conversation that he had worked at Cahan & Associates (the design firm that put out I Am Almost Always Hungry) while the book was being created. He had multiple pieces of work published in it, his name appearing on pages throughout.
I lost my mind a little bit. It’s the only real fangirl moment of my life.
Michael has become a dear friend since that fortuitous evening–he lives about an hour away. How strange it is when forces beyond our understanding bring together three souls from San Francisco and Chicago and land them in of all places, Kentucky.
It’s with great respect we share with you condensed excerpts from a recent phone interview Jim had with Michael on September 21, 2018.
Jim Zimmer: I had the whole [Zimmer-Design] team send over questions to me and I waded through and kind of pulled out some of my favorites. Some of them are design related and some of them aren’t. Some of them are just weird. So I’ll start with some of the more serious stuff and then we can kind of bounce around from there.
Can you give us an idea of what your process looks like? Is there a specific set of steps that you go through or is everything organic? If you’re starting a project like, let’s say a logo design, how does that look?
Michael Braley: Well, a logo is probably the simplest since it’s just me basically and sometimes Kate [my business partner.] So for an identity, it’s pretty straightforward. I mean, it’s kind of like it was in school where you sketched some ideas, take three, four, five, six, build them out a little bit, go back, take the top three maybe, and then present those top three that are built out a lot more. Show some applications, say a color palette, typography, usage, any other promotional material that they might need or marketing material and how that looks. Say something that’s not even been on the list, like if it’s for print, a brochure design, you know, how does that identity fit into the look and feel of that event? But it’s pretty simple. I mean those are the best projects, for me because I can do them pretty quickly.
But, I’m not sure exactly how to describe the process that just happens in your head and you sketch it on paper and sometimes you have it in, you know, two or three sketches and sometimes it takes three or four days of sketching.
You can have all these great ideas on how you want to disrupt everything, but if your final product looks like shit then no one’s gonna care.
JZ: To that point, do you ever share work with anybody before you present to a client or is it primarily just you?
MB: So the way Braley Design works, just as a breakdown of types of clients, about 70 percent are direct-to-client. And then I’m also hired by other companies–design firms, advertising agencies–to be the pinch hitter to come in at the last minute and show some new ideas of something that they might be struggling with. And so I would definitely share them with the bounce back and forth and have internal reviews with those ad or design agencies. But if it’s just for myself, I don’t show anybody except the client and Kate. But I think it gets tough, you know, when there are too many hands before it goes to the client and I know that the client will usually show somebody on their side anyway, so I’ll just wait until that happens and make whatever revisions or corrections or stand up for the one that I really, really think that they should go with and explain why.
JZ: Has that process where you don’t share work with anybody else, has that changed over your career? Like in the beginning, did you reach out to people for feedback more often? Obviously in an agency setting there’s gonna be crits and stuff like that. But–
MB: I sound like a jerk, but, no. (Laughs) A long time ago when I worked for about eight years at a company called Cahan & Associates in San Francisco, there were about five of us that were there at the same time and we would sit in like, bus style desks, you know, one, two, three, four, five rows. And we were still, even then, pretty secretive of what we were doing because, three people might be on a job and whoever got the job got to finish it out. So, you didn’t want to have too much sharing of information even though you could sort of see what people were doing on their screen and with printouts on their desks. But it was competitive and I still feel, I’m still just as competitive, I’m just doing it by myself.
JZ: What are your biggest design pet peeves? Since you said you hate brainstorming, what other stuff do you hate?
MB: (Laughs) This is so great.
Well recently, the whole idea of design can foster disruption and everyone wants to do disruptive design, whether it’s within an industry or with general social justice or whatever you want. And I’m thinking, well yeah, you can have all these great ideas on how you want to disrupt everything, but if your final product looks like shit then no one’s gonna care because it’ll look like all the other crap that’s in the environment. So I really have an issue with people jumping right ahead into the cause. And they might have a great slogan or a great campaign, but then the design is terrible.
JZ: Yeah, I was just looking at the STA [Society of Typographic Arts] stuff and Carlos Segura had, I don’t know if that was a personal project or client project, but the bus stop signs and posters and stuff, I don’t remember all of the words because there were a lot of words, but it was impactful because it was clean and simple. It was black type on a white page. It was all these things about [people] finding commonality with each other, and I thought that was really strong work because it was a social message, but it wasn’t poorly done. It was Carlos, so it was well done.
MB: There are some things that are really messy and they’re pretty cool and they look great and that’s fine and I might not like it, but at least I know that it’s effective. But I feel like everything that’s being coined as ‘disruptive’ that’s not in that case–it’s just ugly.
JZ: Yeah. This is a good segue question. So, we’re talking about things that we hate and it’s normal for people like us to get cynical and be negative about a lot of things in the industry. I don’t see that reflected in your work, but I’m sure that you go through the same thing that all of us do. So, how do you balance the cynical nature of being a graphic designer with keeping levity and curiosity and happiness coming out in your work?
MB: Well, I mean I still love doing what I do. And I think that might be rare for a lot people in their profession, maybe not.
But you know, clients make changes. It’s part of the business. I’m not a fine artist, you know that’s part of the business. They changed it to graphic design, but it used to be called commercial art. And it is commercial–you send an estimate, you get paid and you have to work with the client. So, I’m more willing to make minor changes to things than I used to be when I was 28 or something. I just realized like, okay, it is okay to make this change. Just do it and then move onto the next project. But also my job is really to do consistently, you know, A [level] work and to keep that level even during those client meetings at A level work.
JZ: So do you find that you have to sometimes when suggestions or requests for bad changes are made, do you find that you have to push back against those?
MB: I do their bad changes and I show them how bad it looks and I actually make them extra bad.
JZ: So your advice is, if somebody asks for something bad, make it extra bad.
MB: That’s not my advice, that’s just what I do. (JZ laughs.) I’m not going to spend too much time on their idea if I know that automatically it’s not going to work and it’s gonna look like crap. So I just show them, because that’s what they ask for. I mean, you can’t just say no, I’m not going to do it because then what will they do? They’ll just either fire you or find someone else in your department to do it and mock it up.
I do their bad changes and I show them how bad it looks and I actually make them extra bad.
So another thing is I really don’t look at a lot of current work either. I mean I notice the trends but I don’t follow them or pay much attention to what a lot of other firms are doing except Zimmer-Design (laughs) and maybe five others. Because you can get caught up in that and then that might influence your current work. And I don’t want to do that, I just want it to be what I think, you know? Sort of like a hermit.
JZ: Well, that’s clear in your work. I don’t see anything that’s trendy ever in what you’re doing. It’s always has a classic, timeless feel to it. Like it could’ve been done in the 60s or it could’ve been done yesterday.
JZ: So I see you winning awards a lot lately. And I know you have like 17 posters in Graphisright now.
MB: No, just 13.
JZ: (Laughs) Do you feel like you’re in a particularly productive period right now?
MB: Well the poster projects are usually all self-initiated. So it’s either for a lecture workshop that I’ve been invited to do, or I just find [the competitions] online. In school I always wanted to do posters because that was like the cool thing to do back in the day and I never really had an opportunity to do it until the past 15 years. And then I had some downtime last year and I just did as many as I could and finding them online and national competitions that I’d known about before but just didn’t have the time to do them.
Then as far as getting work now, I reach out mainly to old contacts on the east and west coasts and just check in with them to see if they need pinch hitting kind of work. But other than that, things just come in randomly by word of mouth or just, I don’t even know sometimes how people find me. But that’s what I asked them if I don’t know who they are.
I don’t work nine to five. I work when I have the ideas–weekends, it something comes up, I’ll just do it. And then Monday I might not do anything. It’s definitely not the life of luxury or anything like that. But I do feel more relaxed in what I do now.
JZ: So where do you find inspiration [outside of the design community]?
MB: My kids. They do artwork–painting, drawing–my son knows how to use Illustrator, sometimes even more than I do. I find inspiration from them.
That’s why I like the teaching aspect [of what I do.] I do about two or three workshops a year at universities for two days and I love it because I think sometimes I learn more from the students than they learn from me sometimes. So that’s how I keep up, I guess, is being involved in design education, in working with the students, who are the next, Next Generation.
JZ: If there were a, a type of music that described you best, what would that be?
MB: I’m pretty open to all types of music except I’m not as big into hip hop. R.E.M., the whole oeuvre, if you will. What I like about the band is that they constantly changed their sound. They did it because they got bored of what they were doing and they wanted to try something new. And I thought that was really courageous in the music business. It wasn’t the label’s idea to have them change what they were doing.
JZ: My last question is if you were able to pick an era in history that you could live in, when would that be?
MB: Probably I’d like to be 20 years old in 1930 in the Netherlands even though that’d be kind of dangerous. So that when I was 40 or 50, in Switzerland [after having escaped the war] because I love Dutch graphic design from 1920 to 1940 and then I love International style from the early 50s to 70s.
JZ: Right on, man. Thank you for taking the time to chat. Tell Kate I said ‘hi.’
MB: I will. Thanks.
Illustration by Carol Fabricatore from I Am Almost Always Hungry.