Issue 210,  published May 21, 2019

Against the Show Art

And now for something slightly different.

In case you missed it, Michael Lewis has a podcast now. (… separate and apart from The Coming Storm, of course, which wasn’t a podcast but an Audible Original, and before we split hairs and technical definitions, let’s just move on.) It’s called Against the Rules, it’s distributed by Malcolm Gladwell and Jacob Weisberg’s Pushkin Industries, and it features a series of Lewisian stories about the notion of rules and referees in society and what happens when they lose their power. The production just wrapped up its seven-part debut season last week, so if you haven’t checked it out yet, it’s all there for you.

I plan to discuss the actual podcast elsewhere, but today, I’d like to talk about the show art, which kicked up some amusing discussion — and in some corners, wry derision — when it first dropped:

Kinda wild, huh? Not as wild as, say, the original art for The Worst Idea of All Time, but it’s trending in that general direction.

Anyway, I thought it would be fun to get some insight into the design from the person behind it: John J. Custer, who had already worked with Pushkin to produce art for another of its podcasts, Broken Record. He’s a veteran designer whose client list includes Nike, the Google Creative Lab, PS212, and Nickelodeon, among others.

I initially planned to run this piece as a Q&A, but my line of questioning was all over the place, so I’m reformatting it as an “as told to” piece, which I think works a lot better. Also, if this goes well, I might flip this show art focus into a recurring feature. Let me know what you think.

Okay, here’s John:

My background is in traditional branding. I’ve been doing this shit for about a decade now, working with Fortune 500 companies and Mom-and-Pop coffee shops and everything in between. I’m also a freelance art director at the New York Times, working within the Op-Ed and Editorial Opinion section. That job involves really quick turnaround times. I can commission an artist in the morning, have it filed six hours later, and that’s it. No time to think about anything. So I generally balance those two things: high-brow corporate identity on the one hand, and the lowbrow quickness that comes with editorial illustration on the other.

There wasn’t really a design brief for Against the Rules. [Pushkin] just reached out and said, “Hey, we need art for the stuff that usually appears on iTunes and Spotify — podcast tiles, promo banners, etc.” I was sent the first episode and some background on Michael’s work, which I didn’t really know much about specifically. We got the concept pretty quickly. The podcast is largely about unfairness and inequality, and what happens when people take advantage of a lack of referees.

The pitch I had in my presentation was based on the idea of going against design rules. First, let’s use Comic Sans, which is just hilarious. Some people have called it the worst typeface in the world. Two, let’s stretch the type so it looks weird and even more wrong. That choice also makes the design somewhat idiot-proof; you could mess the delivery a whole bunch of ways but the idea is still there. And I had this third idea — which some people at Pushkin were really into, but ultimately thought that it was too much for Apple — to turn the art completely upside down. (We considered other possible directions. One involved a large crying baby against the title, going with the notion that, well, when things don’t go your way you’re just a big cry baby.)

The design came out from my own personal frustrations around the design community. There’s a hoity toity-ness with design that can even appear in the podcast world, and my personal feeling on design and brands is, like, as long as the art communicates what it needs to do, then it’s successful. If it does its job, it does its job. They also come from my personal emotional interpretation about what I can’t stand about design right now, particularly how brand and design agencies charge a lot for these perfectly little things. With podcasts, there should be a little flexibility. People get upset because design is supposed to this perfect, clean thing. Screw that; my mom and dad know what Comic Sans is, and I think that’s great.

Pretty much the only rule we had was the main color scheme: black and yellow. That’s inspired by caution signs and roadside construction signs, hardhats, things like that. It could have been black and white, but we wanted to push away from the color palette of the other Pushkin shows [i.e. Broken Record and Revisionist History]. And there’s a little more consistency, since it does live on the screen so often. I mean, I’m sure it will be printed out and be on posters here and there, so we do expect to see it out in the world. But I would guesstimate that 80% of its life is going to be on a phone, on a TV screen, on a computer screen.

You know, corporations spend millions of dollars on advertising and identity systems so they can create a specific niche in whatever market they’re a part of. So, it’s completely purposeful, and I completely understand it on the corporate, but luckily for me as a creative, I’ve been able to move a little away from that kind of clientele. Being able to come on and work for Pushkin, which isn’t a fully consumeristic endeavor, has been pretty great.

Everyone’s entitled to their opinion [about the art]. None of it is going to hurt my feelings. You just have to kind of brush these opinions off. I trust my gut, and I trust my clients that trust my gut, and I think if the choices are established within reason and are considered from every standpoint, it’s as good as gold.

You can check out John’s design portfolio on his website.