Emily Oberman on humour and humanity in design

By Emily Gosling

Emily Oberman became a Pentagram partner in 2012, bringing with her a heavily typographic and copy-led approach that added a more campaign-focused string to the typically more graphics-heavy New York office of the firm. Razor sharp and full of energy, her work is playful yet thoughtful, always built up from, sometimes hidden, layers for the viewer to delight in unearthing.

As per her studies at Cooper Union, Oberman simultaneously approaches things with the eye of a graphic designer and through the lens of a filmmaker. Her skills in marrying wit, moving image and messaging were honed during her six years at Tibor Kalman’s firm M&Co., working with clients including Benetton’s magazine Colors and post-punk band Talking Heads. “Everything was about being smart and funny,” she says. “The idea that you could say something important in a silly way was something Tibor was very keen on. Everyone who worked there was funny, smart and interested in the big idea, and sometimes the Trojan horse way into the big idea was with humour.”

The studio’s attitude also chimed with what she’d grown up with at home, with her graphic designer father and painter and illustrator mother radiating “a joie de vivre and a desire to have everything be funny and smart”. Here, Oberman tells us more about what makes witty work, the “sweet spot” between smart and funny and working with David Byrne.

Colors magazine issue 62 from Autumn 2004. Editorial design and creative direction
by No. 17.

Creative Review: ‘Wit’ is a word you frequently use when discussing what makes great design. What does it mean to you, and how is it different to humour?
EO: To me, wit is not necessarily funny – it’s about an ‘aha!’ moment. It has a charm or humanity behind it. Wit is my way of talking about humanity, and a way of seeing that a there’s a person behind the idea you’re looking at, even if it’s for a large corporation. I guess humour relates to humanity. That doesn’t necessarily mean humour is in everything we do. We do a lot of work for Saturday Night Live and, in that work, the brand shouldn’t be funny, the show should be funny. But the brand should be flexible enough to accommodate the humour that exists in the show.

CR: Can you tell me a bit more about the role of wit in the work you’ve done for them over the years?
EO: All the logos we’ve worked on b for SNL over the years have that small bit of wit in them for you to notice. For the first logo we did, we realised that Don Pardon, who used to do the announcement saying “It’s Saturday Night Live!”, said it like it was one word, so we used this beautiful, elegant typography in Engravers Gothic, but with no word-spacing. That allowed it to have that late night blues, cool jazz feel with a bit of wit. We did that work at No. 17 [the agency Oberman founded with Bonnie Siegler in 1993, which ran for around 17 years]. When we revised the logo we kept that idea going, each word gets gradually bigger as he gets louder saying “Saturday Night Live!” That was the wit, understanding the cadence of the show.

For the show’s 40th anniversary logo, we wanted to celebrate the late night boogie-woogie city thing. Don had just passed away so we didn’t feel the need to replicate his voice, so it’s about flashing lights and the verticality of the city. You can break up the logo and put it back together and it still feels like the brand, just like the show itself breaks up and the cast changes and is put back together. That’s the wit in it, without it being ‘hilarious’.

Saturday Night Live brand identity for NBC created while Emily Oberman was at studio No. 17 in 1994
A new brand identity and series of motion graphics were also created by Pentagram for the 40th Season of SNL in 2014

EO: The Talking Heads video for (Nothing But) Flowers seems exemplary of the way you use wit, type and moving image together. What was that like to work on?
At that time there weren’t that many music videos with type on them. [M&Co] had a history of collaborating with David Byrne, and when (Nothing But) Flowers came along Tibor was talking with David, and came out of his office and said, “who knows anything about filmmaking?” I shot my hand up faster than anybody. It was great working on it; Tibor and I made all these print-outs of the lyrics, then we broke down and storyboarded all the phrases from the song and sat for hours and hours together thinking about maybe acting stuff out, or the right thing to do.

The technology was so hilarious back then, there was a moment when we had this idea where [Byrne] says “highways and cars”, and I wanted the type of “highways” and “cars” to move across screen at different rates. It took the animator 12 hours to do something that takes five minutes or less now in After Effects.

It was very collaborative and fun with me, Tibor and Maira [Kalman] – he trusted her more than anyone in the world, she was always there with her great ideas. There’s a part in the video where the type is on David Byrne’s face, he says “I was a billboard” so the idea was to actually make him a billboard. We took photographs of his face, dragged type to the shape of it, then animated the letters to the speed of the song and projected it onto his face and re-filmed it.

While we were working on that, it was about stuff that made either me or Tibor or Maira or David chuckle, or feel we understood that part of the story based on what we were doing with the design. To me, it’s that combination of humour and humanity which is my sweet spot.

Above: Talking Heads (Nothing But) Flowers music video, 1988.Creative direction and motion graphics by M&Co.

CR: How did your upbringing shape that sort of approach?
EO: I grew up on things like the Marx Brothers and Mad Magazine. My parents were very funny and witty and I loved things like Monty Python and Fawlty Towers. I was like 10 years-old when I first saw Monty Python; my father discovered it on PBS one night and basically described it to me and my mother the next morning at breakfast, then I had to wait a week and see this insane thing. To my parents’ credit, they let a 10-year-old watch this crazy show with naked ladies and whatever because they thought it was brilliant, so all those little winks and jokes, that’s the part of who I am.

We always do a tremendous amount of research on my team, we love heritage and what’s behind how something looks. When we were doing the Tonight Show logo we looked at every logo in its history and noticed they all had a little crescent moon. But really, Jimmy Fallon is bigger than a crescent: he’s open and warm like a full moon, so we came to the idea of a logo as a circle with type, and also a spotlight, then started to have fun and riff on it. When we presented the ideas one of the things we showed was a spot-lit moon on a T-shirt and showed it glowing in the dark.

Identity for the Tonight Show

That made Jimmy laugh so much, and he said “Oh man, I have to have that T-shirt!” And that’s what made him fall in love with the logo – it was that extra bit of wit, not necessarily in the logo itself – although it is charming – it was the things you could do with it. I read that around the time you started No.17 your apartment was specially designed so you could watch TV in the bedroom and the living room…

These friends of mine were interested in using my apartment as they were training to be interior designers. I said “I watch a lot of TV, and I’m also relatively vain”. So they cut a hole in the wall and mounted the TV inside a box: the back of the box was a mirror and other side was TV, and you could rotate it so it was either in the living room or the bedroom. It was friggin’ genius and made me laugh and happy every time I used that thing. That’s what I want all the time, that’s the dream, I just love finding little bits of wit and charm everywhere.

Spread from the debut issue of Colors, July 1991. Editorial design and creative direction by M&Co

CR: When you’re hiring, what do you look for in people that hints they’re likely to share those sort of sensibilities?
EO: There’s a very particular sort of personality I like for my team, and I also have to say there’s different kinds of humour – there’s smart humour, dumb humour, there’s witty and dry. I like it across the board but there is a certain sweet spot when something is smart and not just funny.

I will be more enamoured of a designer if they have a level of intelligence, smarts and thoughtfulness in the language of the work they show, as well as the design. I can spot humour in the writing and tone of voice. We do a lot of writing and strategic work on my team, and the kind of people that come to us like that twist. I also love skill and precision and good typography, but it’s a certain kind of skewed way of looking at the world that I love. I refer to my team often as ‘the island of misfit toys’.

Above: Cover design and spreads for Saturday Night Live: The Book, an image-filled visual history of the US sketch comedy show, designed by Pentagram, 2015

CR: Finally, can you tell me more about your work branding Snoop Dogg’s marijuana-related product line? Did you get high on your own supply?
EO: Ha, no! I mean, once, twice maybe. The idea of Snoop Dogg choosing Pentagram was fantastic. They wanted branding that wasn’t just a hempy thing, but something like Beats or Apple. They know this is the next big industry – this is Bacardi after prohibition – and they want your grandma to feel OK buying a package, as well as it being cool enough for the kid in college to buy. That was the goal. It was really fun to do, because it was a brand for a smart guy with a cool personality who also likes humour and quirkiness and sparkly things. We got to say “It would be great to have stickers that were things Snoop would say on them”, so he wrote a bunch of stuff that said things like ‘smoke weed everyday’, and we asked Snoop to write some instructions and he came up with ‘grind it, roll it, light it’ and so on

It’s not just about wit – it’s about wit, it’s about brains, and it’s about joy.

Above: Oberman’s team at Pentagram created the brand identity and packaging design for Leafs by Snoop (2015) and the Pounds range of smoking accessories (2017), both for Stampede Management.

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