For a start, with a TV treatment this rich, the presentation package
for this new show has to complement, rather than compete with, the programme
content. The title visuals cannot detract from the work of the artist
profiled in each episode. Instead, stowell and his co-designer, Susan
Barber, suggest, they will act as a frame for the featured work. As they
explain, establishing an active dialogue with the client has helped them
familiarise them with the production company's expectations. Open's role
has become intrinsic to the overall production of every episode: while
they initially presented several design propositions to assess the client's
point of view, they have refined their approach constantly to determine
how to proceed along the way.
As a college student, Stowell had been an intern at M&Co, the design practice of the late Tibor Kalman. On graduating from Rhode Island School of Design in 1990, he returned there as a senior designer. then, in 1993, he headed to Rome to work on Colors, most memorably art directing the AIDS and Ecology issues of the feted Benetton magazine. After a period freelancing, he established 'Open' in the New Year of 1998.
High above Varick Street, on Manhattan's west side, Stowell now shares his studio with illustrator, Chip Wass. They are used to batting ideas back and forth, joining forces on projects now and then. The Chippies Poster, a periodic table of Chip's rubber stamp-style dingbats, boss-eyed monsters, cute bugs and other icons was their first collaboration. But more significantly, what they learnt from redesigning the network identity for Nick at Nite together, with help from visual effects house Spontaneous Combustion (www.spon.com), would prepare Stowell for the challenges that art:21 had subsequently posed.
Though radically different in mood, these two pieces of motion graphics
work share trademark features of the Open approach: a discursive relationship
with the client, a healthy tension between information design logic and
an expressive visual personality; a sense of fun couple with structured
elegance; and a sensitive balance between graphic elements and the soundtrack.
With the launch of a round-the-clock schedule in 1980, Nickelodeon, America's kids channel, introduced Nick at Nite. Kitsch and retro, the original line-up consisted of endless Fifties re-runs, episodes of 'Bewitched' and 'Laverne and Shirley', tailored to the then-target audience. Nowadays, a schedule full of sitcom hits from the Seventies and Eighties, like 'The Wonder Years', 'The Jeffersons' and enduring classics like 'Happy Days', indulge the next TV generation. With this mishmash of classic comedy, the night-time kids' entertainment network needed a strong identity to distinguish it from its daylight counterpart on the same channel: a nocturnal nostalgia slot for grown-ups to relive their childhood favourites, hours after their own kidsNick TV's daytime audiencehave been put to bed.
With a serendipity not unfamiliar to Stowell and Wass, the pair hijacked the project from the client: "They were so pleased with what we'd come up with for the style boards that they told us 'You guys should do the whole thing.'" So, for seven months, they worked on the overall identity, delivering fifty or so separate elements: network identities, program menus, endpages, various stand-alone and campaign spots. These launched in early 1999 and were on screen for over two yearsa great endorsement, as these kind of things normally have a lifespan of a couple of months.
Capturing the high camp and canned laughter that fill the channel's nightly schedule, the designers had sat through hours of footage, looking for the best-composed shots of The Fonz and Richie Cunningham for the trailer sequences. A self-confessed telly addict, Stowell admits that he found the prospect of back-to-back Seventies re-runs quite appealing at first. However, like two kids let loose in a chocolate factory, they rapidly tired of their enforced viewing. Mostly shot as live shows, the camera work in these flimsy sitcoms was not what it might have been: finding decent stills from every programme proved tough going. Unfazed, they managed to bring everything together, paying careful attention to the colour palette, typography and illustrations.
To complement the live action footage, they devised sixteen patterns
of celluloid 'wallpaper' to identify the network with an overall tone
and texture. Wass' illustrations, in similar shades of night-time blue,
would enhance the mood. Imagine the cartoon spawn of Ren and Stimpy and
the animated incarnation of the Pink Panther's Inspector Clouseau and
you're close to the world according to Wass. To call his style wacky,
wierd, kooky or cute simply sells it short. With his exaggerated flair,
Wass caricatured the Nick at Nite viewers, such as the night-owl and the
cutesy couple on a couch. The drawings are abstract enough to keep the
viewer focused on the functional, communicative elements on screen.