In this inspirational documentary, Bonnie Siegler, founder of respected design firms No. 17 and Eight and a Half, reflects on her career and explains the skill set that makes a breakout designer successful.
(upbeat music) - [Bonnie] When I was really young, the things that I was obsessed with, like hotel amenities, made me look at the world differently. I think it was the idea of something so simple, that represented so much. That the color palette could have so much influence, or the typography, these details.
I just loved that, it tickled my brain. In the olden days, things were on TV once. So if there was an opening sequence for TV show I loved, I just had to be there at that exact moment, and watch the whole thing through and just like soak it up and hold onto it in my head. I didn't know it was graphic design at the time, but this is where I had to go. (upbeat music) I think good design is almost impossible to define, because breaking the rules, like the way things should be, often makes the best design.
But, it shouldn't be that the first thing you notice is the design. Like, nobody should really be aware of the design, but just have it do its job. And then, if it does it well, and compels people, or makes them smile, or engages them, or makes them feel something, then it's done a good job. (bouncy techno music) I found out that there was thing called graphic design somehow, and then I got a job out of college, at a very small design studio.
Where I quickly realized that I loved TV too much, and lucky for me MTV had just been founded. I graduated in 1985 and MTV was founded in 81. So I just called MTV and said, I want to work for you. - I want my MTV. (heavy drum music) - [Announcer] MTV Music Television! Video music 24 hours a day. (tire squeals) In stereo. ♫ I love rock and roll ♫ - [Bonnie] Before MTV, really all the graphic design was done by the people who knew how to use the machines. So, MTV was radical in that it hired designers, and it wasn't about being an engineer, it was about being a designer and bringing that to TV.
(heavy drum music) I think knowing about all aspects of design is crucial. And then you can learn from all aspects of design. A book is not that dissimilar from motion. I mean, in motion, you are completely in control of the order with which someone sees something. So I do love that. And in a book, someone could flip around. But ideally, the book is designed to have a beginning, a middle and an end, and there's an arc to it, just like with a motion piece. So, I don't think it depends on the media that it ends up in in any way.
I think it's all graphic design. It's all about problem solving. It's all about communication. So whether it's on TV, or in a book, or on a website, I think it's the same skill set, which is the ability to come up with good ideas and execute them. (fast music) While I was at VH1, my future partner and I were doing freelance at night. So we both had full-time jobs, and then worked all night doing freelance, and then we just decided it was time.
So when we were 30, we started Number 17. (upbeat music) A lot of people we knew from MTV Networks went on to other networks, so it just happened really naturally. We worked with ad agencies on commercials. And we started working for Saturday Night Live and Lorne Michaels, which we did for 20-some-odd years.
Doing opening sequences, working on parody commercials. (light music) I think, looking back, we had no idea how naive we were about owning a business and starting a business. It was more like, hey, let's put on a show in the barn. Like, let's just do this thing. We never thought like, about the risks or anything. I mean we were very fortunate that it worked out. But I know people have a lot of concern and worry about starting a studio, when is the right time. We didn't even debate it, we just did it.
We started in my apartment. My bedroom was our conference room. (laugh) It was very funny. (light piano music) The business of graphic design is oddly something that is never taught in school. And it's hugely important. I mean, we're not fine artists doing work for ourselves and our own pleasure, so it's energizing I think to go down that path. I love contracts. I do, I love the whole thing.
I enjoy reading contracts. I know it sounds ridiculous, but I do. In 2004, this company was created called Air America Radio, sort of sponsored by this one guy, who had all this money. It was an election year, and we were such kindred spirits with everyone who worked there, and it was just like a dream job and we wanted to do it, and they accepted our proposal. And everything seemed great, until the time when he refused to sign our contract. And he actually got quite belligerent and said we were having a hissy fit, by asking him to sign the contract.
And that we were being such girls. So, we said we wouldn't deliver the mechanicals unless he signed. And about a month later, after we had our contract signed, it turned out that this man was actually lying. And he didn't have the funding for Air America. And about six months later, when everything went through the courts, we got paid in full, because we had a contract. And the other vendors, who I guess didn't have hissy fits, didn't get paid because they didn't insist on it.
So, his intimidation tactic clearly worked with a lot of people, but as I said, the most valuable lesson is if someone doesn't want to sign a contract, it's like a Bat Signal saying, something's wrong. (laugh) And so, in the end, it worked out, except that we lost the election. (upbeat music) Each individual has to pave their own path. And their personality will determine how they work, how they sell something, how they present, how they communicate.
(upbeat music) After 18 and a half years, a big design firm asked us to join their firm. It was a good idea for my partner, it wasn't, I have been my own boss for 18 and a half years, and I wanted to keep creating my, you know designing my life. So she went with this bigger design firm, and I stayed independent, and just changed the name from Number 17 to 8 1/2.
And that's how it started, I mean. It was just one day I was Number 17, and the next day I was 8 1/2. (laugh) (techno music) All design adds value. Even just designing a logo, you're adding huge communications and value and identifying what the nature of the company is.
(fast techno music) We would never present a logo as part of a bigger presentation that we didn't want them to choose, because they'll choose that one. So we just present as many good ideas as we have. And that first meeting with the logo ideas is often the most important one. You get to know them, you get to know what they respond to. Talking beforehand is very helpful, and it sets you on your way, but seeing them respond to actual work changes everything.
The evolution is sort of the most exciting part. It's not just a logo, it's how the logo lives in the world. So, the best thing is when you can really control the whole brand. Brooklyn Public Library came to us to redesign their identity. Books are not what they used to be, and it's really about access. Access to information of all different kinds. And what I wanted to show you was the presentation, and the logos that they didn't choose, as well as the identity that they did choose.
This first one was called A Tree Grows In Brooklyn. Our idea was that every borough would have a tree that was native to that neighborhood. So we would always do a different silhouette and identify the branch below it. The next one that we presented was called Find Your Way, and we essentially based the whole thing on a rose compass. So we thought that a rose compass sort of showed you, you can go in any direction you want, just find your direction. And we always put it on a horizon line in the collateral stuff we designed.
This one is called Where the Wild Things Are, in which, we hid an owl in the logo. And essentially we were thinking any time you saw that, you knew it was related to Brooklyn Public Library. The one that they ended up going with was this one. This is the postal abbreviation for Brooklyn. But it was also kind of like a shorthand for how am I going to get this done? Where can I go to do this? Where can I learn this information? (snap) I'm going to go to the library.
And it felt like text language. Like, how can I write this faster? How can I say it fast? Again, appealing to young people who could hang out in the library and get a lot of stuff done. But then the press came in. (laugh) And it said, Brooklyn Public Library's New Logo Misspells Brooklyn. It was crazy how adamant people were that we had misspelled it. "This just makes me mad. "A place to cultivate language and learning, "and by extension grammar and spelling, "has lost all integrity." Completely missing the reasons why we did it like that.
And then there was even an article which put I spelled Brooklyn wrong, as though I slipped it by the library people. They loved the logo, it's still the logo. It's so strong and powerful on everything that they produce, we're really, really proud of it. This was definitely a case of there's no such thing as bad publicity. Because people who probably hadn't been to the library in a long time were all of the sudden talking about the library. What's going on there? Why are they doing something like that? (upbeat music) So that worked out great, and it is not spelled wrong.
I love how complex our roles are. We not only have to, you know, find good clients who we see the world in similar ways, but then work with them, understand them, sell something to them. So it's just another version of graphic design, to be able to communicate and convince someone to go down a certain path. (upbeat acoustic music) One of the things that having my own company has allowed me to do is move outside of the city.
I now have my studio on my property, so I get to be with my kids, really, when they cum home from school. And I feel really lucky that I got to design my own situation to suit my specific needs. I'm just so happy here. (laugh) (bouncy techno music) Somehow it came to be that Prince was going to write music for VH1 promos, and I was creative director, so, he sent the music to me, which he made.
He sang VH1 and all sorts of things. And he sent it, along with a card, that says play this and call me. And then he signed it. And I played it, and of course, I thought it was amazing. And I called him, and we had a nice conversation. And then I completely forgot about this, until he passed away. And I went digging through my files and found it, and it made me cry. It's just, I couldn't believe it. (upbeat techno music) Work shouldn't be a chore, especially if you're a designer.
We get to visit whole worlds, and live there for a short period of time. So if you're in a job where you're not inspired, where you're not exposed to things that inspire you, I would say run. (laugh) Don't stay there. Find the company that you think is totally awesome, your fantasy, dream job, and call them up, and tell them that. And then work there. (upbeat music) Being in touch with what you want is the most important thing.