TV Culture

New York consultancy Open's title sequences bring intelligent and funky graphics to millions of TV sets. Rachel Abrams takes a look at two recent projects.

A white line moseys across a screen filled with vibrant colour. Faint music in the background. There's a distinct hubbub—the whispered wisdom in a far-off corner of a gallery. The screen constantly pulses from one colour to another, as words appear then disappear.

Open's title sequences for Art in the Twenty First Century (Art:21), flip comtemporary art from the staid world of the white cube to the animated black box in every American living room. New York design consultancy, Open (, headed by Scott Stowell, has been working with Art21, an independent, non-profit production company, to produce the titles that will top and tail a forthcoming mainstream art series. This Autumn, this unprecedented show will present an overview of contemporary art in America, to be accessible to the Public Broadcasting Service television audience.

Loosely themed, every episode will address a different concept: place, identity, consumption and spirituality. The shows will profile some of America's best known living artists, like Richard Serra and James Turrell. Various arts celebrities, Laurie Anderson and Steve Martin amongst them, will introduce the concepts behind the artists' work. Behind each understated half-minute opening and fifteen second interstitial slot and closing sequence, lies discreeet design sophistication.

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.

Font designer Tobias-Frere Jones, of the Hoefler Type Foundry, was invited to develop a typeface especially for the project. he came up with 'Retina', licensed to the programme makers at least until the show previews. Clear enough to be read on screen, this tiny custom font is legible both on television and on the show's website. This is not the first time Stowell has successfully collaborated with other designers to explore his ideas in-progress.

While Stowell's small team get involved in more print and broadcast work that anything else, his philosophy is exactly what it says: it's Open. Unseduced by specialisation, his approach is more conceptual than governed by any particular medium. As art:21 and his earlier work for cable channel, Nick at Nite, both reflect, Stowell prefers to throw himself into the big conceptual picture that emerges as a project progresses. Bringing others on board where their talents enhance a project, he doesn't care to confine himself to print, screen or product alone. Mixing form and content to tell stories "in two, three and four dimensions", as his motto goes, his team works from over-arching ideas that can be applied in all kinds of media, whatever the project.

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 (, 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 Stowell's methodical approach to information design and Chip's quirky illustrative style (see, the pair love the mix of modernism and whimsy epitomised by the work of designers such as Paul Rand, Alexander Girard and Erberto Carboni. Looking through old annuals, they were on the look-out for a client that would let them revive this juxtaposition between the straight and the unorthodox. When the kids' channel called Wass to ask for help with some style boards, the pair jumped on the opportunity to work on Nick at Nite.

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 kids—Nick TV's daytime audience—have 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 years—a 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.

Finally, in the interstitial sequences and trailers, the sans serif typeface, Akzidenz Grotesk, looks deliberately deadpan: the joke's always funnier when told with a straight face, the designers mantain. As a piece of information design, the network titles strike a curious balance: the logotype, icons, and other information design elements communicate the network's output with a no-nonsense matter-of-factness. Compare this to the cheesy listening soundtrack and the graphic elements: these accentuated the candy-coated fun of the programming content. Overall though, the viewer's experience is rigorous and consistent: like the art:21 titles, there is a controlled energy to the trailer as it scrolls across the screen. An elegant logic sets it apart from the frenetic chaos of the programmes in-between.

Open's designers take useful practical, technical advice from the TV people on board, in exchange for some creative freedom. Above all, Open aspires to create work that answers questions that the clients don't even know how to ask. Winning pitches on the back of previous work keeps Stowell's visual vocabulary consistent yet fresh.

Stowell and his accomplices promise to deliver another strong concept with an original twist for art:21, just as they did with Nick at Nite. Though they may be a modest enterprise compared to more established, flashier motion graphics studios, they prove that small creates beautiful; with a little more Stowell/Wass serendipity, combined with added interdisciplinary Open-mindedness, we can only look forward to the results.

This article originally appeared in Graphics International Issue 86 (June 2001).