2 Minutes With … Dylan Mulvaney, Head of Design at Gretel
Dylan Mulvaney is head of design at Gretel. His expertise lies in translating core values, strategy and voice into striking visual executions for clients such as Vice, Netflix, Knoll and MoMA. His work has been honored by the D&AD, the Art Directors Club, the Type Directors Club,and Fast Company. He regularly guest lectures and critiques at ArtCenter, the School of Visual Arts, Pratt and the Savannah College of Art and Design.
We spent two minutes with Dylan to learn more about his background, his creative inspirations, and recent work he's admired.
Dylan, tell us...
Where you grew up, and where you live now.
I grew up in Coggon, Iowa. It is a town of about 700 people in the heart of the Midwest, near the Mississippi River. Now I live in Brooklyn, New York. There are probably more people living on my block than in the town where I grew up.
How you first realized you were creative.
There was no "aha" moment for me because everyone is creative in their personal life and work. Seemingly simple tasks like forming a sentence or choosing your clothes are creative acts. Think about the infinite variety and expressive potential in those everyday examples. Creativity is a universal human quality, so I do not use the term "creative" as a stand-in for "design" or "designer." Design is just one creative act among many.
A person you idolized creatively early on.
During high school, I started taking college courses in darkroom photography. As I learned to shoot, process and print photos, I became interested in the history of photography and contemporary film photographers.
James Nachtwey stood out to me because of his powerful images and philosophy. His photographs of wars, conflicts and social upheaval are haunting and inspiring. He believes that photography can raise public awareness and motivate change.
A moment from high school or college that changed your life.
The summer before my senior year of college, I got two design internships in New York City.
On Mondays and Tuesdays, I interned at Athletics—a great design studio that is still in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. I worked on everything from T-shirts for Sesame Street to an infographic about the war in Iraq. The real-world work that I added to my portfolio led directly to other opportunities and helped me get to where I am today.
On Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, I interned at Rad Mountain—a design collective in Gowanus, Brooklyn. I worked with people specializing in print design, motion, illustration, printmaking and even textiles. They each shared their web of contacts across different studios, which is how I met Greg Hahn, Gretel's founder.
A visual artist or band/musician you admire.
I think it is very important to draw inspiration from outside the field you are working in. Restricting myself to five visual artists, I admire:
- Agnes Denes' philosophy.
- Sister Corita Kent's process.
- Constantin Brâncuși's beauty.
- John Baldessari's wit.
- On Kawara's persistence.
The actual list would be endless.
A book, movie, TV show or podcast you recently found inspiring.
I recently finished George Saunders' new book, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain. It is a rare window into the mind of a great writer. He uses seven short stories by four Russian writers to explore the creative process, how narrative works, and the qualities a writer should foster. You can apply its insights to any discipline. The writing is intelligent, humane and witty. I can not recommend it highly enough.
Your favorite fictional character.
One of my favorite fictional characters is Charlie Chaplin's Tramp. The character illustrates how the intersection of opposing forces leads to interesting work. The Tramp's iconic look combines a tight coat and baggy trousers with a small hat on his large head. He is a vagrant who acts like a gentleman. He bumbles and moves gracefully. His films contain both sentimentality and comedy. Opposing forces inform Gretel's work and, consciously or unconsciously, many others' work.
Someone or something worth following in social media.
I am not on social media, so I am recommending a virtual magazine instead. Broadcast, published by Pioneer Works, features journalism, essays, criticism and conversation. I love the variety of voices and disciplines they feature, and it is well designed to boot.
How Covid-19 changed your life, personally or professionally.
Covid-19 made me think about way-finding and signage as a front-line response to public health crises. By warning, informing and guiding us toward new behaviors, they critically impact matters of life and death. Designers, professional and non, reacted resourcefully when the pandemic broke out. Quick, low-cost solutions like duct tape way-finding and inkjet signage served immediate needs. In the future, we need to shift from reactive to proactive design. Public health way-finding and signage can be planned and prepared. By designing thorough, flexible systems today, we can address the public health crises of tomorrow.
One of your favorite creative projects you've ever worked on.
One of my favorite projects at Gretel was the brand launch of Viceland, a new TV network by Vice. We spent four weeks putting our initial pitch together. We created an identity system based on a feed and a timeline, a visual metaphor for a brand that never stops seeking. Spike Jonze, founding creative director, hated it for Viceland but thought it was perfect for Vice's news series on HBO. So suddenly, we had another project.
For our second round, Viceland asked us to keep the brand unpolished and step back even further to let the emotional qualities of the content come through. We created three new identity systems based on their feedback. The winner was a translation of the Vice sensibility into a blunt and raw language free of decoration, artifice and veneer. It let us do what we are always looking to do—build a system that can adapt and create a consistent impression without being repetitive or formulaic.
The experience reinforced an important idea that I carry from project to project. Design is both a verb and a noun—a process and an end product. We as designers need to be open, adaptable and committed—whatever the circumstances.
A recent project you're proud of.
A recent project that I'm proud of is the brand launch for POPL, a neighborhood burger restaurant created by the team behind noma.
The project clearly illustrates my design mantra, "The problem is the solution." The graphic language we created is a play on the format of the burger itself. Type, image and abstracted graphic ingredients stack on top of each other across packaging, signage and even in the space itself. Hidden within the wordmark is a symbol that is a shorthand for POPL and an emoji conveying the fun and deliciousness they create.
Someone else's work that inspired you years ago.
I have been deeply influenced by Paul Rand's work and, even more so, his thinking. He saw designers as problem solvers striving to create work that adds value and is a pleasure to view. He strove for simplicity, clarity and honesty while embracing play, spontaneity and experimentation. His work is a marriage of image and language that's greater than the sum of its parts.
Someone else's work you admired lately.
The team at Gretel consistently inspires me. Thirty-two very talented people from around the world work together across design, strategy, operations and IT. Each person's unique experience, knowledge, perspective and interests add richness and depth to our internal culture and creative output.
Your main strength as a creative person.
Open-mindedness is a strength that I encourage. I try to start each project without preconceptions. Branding cannot be an expression of your personal tastes or interests. Charles Eames said, "The extent to which you have a design style is the extent to which you have not solved the problem," which I think is very accurate. You are building a completely custom representation of your client. Like couture clothing, it is made for an individual and tailored specifically to their needs.
Your biggest weakness.
My current challenge is learning to let go. When designers are fully dedicated to one project, they know everything about the client, context, content, goals, parameters and process. As head of design, I am constantly weighing which parts of each project I need deep, intimate knowledge versus a more general overview, trusting the team to work through the details.
I'm continually working to strike the right balance. At Gretel, we have an incredibly talented and hardworking team that I know and trust, making letting go easier. However, there are still times when I need or want to dig into details myself.
One thing that always makes you happy.
Traveling always makes me happy. I have been lucky enough to visit Europe, Asia and Africa. When I immerse myself in another culture, the new ideas and experiences challenge me to learn, grow and see the world differently.
One thing that always makes you sad.
Nothing triggers my emotions more quickly or effectively than music. What I listen to influences and expresses my mood, and no song approaches Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit" in terms of emotional impact. The lyrics conjure harsh, painful images to illustrate the horrors of lynching. I try to remember that although the song is gut-wrenchingly sad, its purpose and effect are positive.
What you'd be doing if you weren't in design.
I studied graphic design and sociology in college. The combination has significantly influenced how I think about design and the world. If I weren't a designer, I would be a sociologist—teaching and researching in the university system. My bookshelves still reflect the two interests, so I will be well equipped if I ever decide to make the switch.