ANN ARBOR – The 56th Ann Arbor Film Festival returns March 20-25 and with it the promise of films that are all likely to not fit into one easily defined category or genre. The same could be said of the overall look and feel of the festival itself, which in large part comes from those who design the posters and artwork.
We spoke with the designers of the 2017 and 2018 Ann Arbor Film Festival, Karen Stein and Ben Gaydos, to get a peak inside their creative process. In 2008 they created goodgood, an interdisciplinary design studio with offices in Boston and Detroit that seeks to create unexpected, joyful experiences in everyday life.
The resulting conversation was nothing short of fascinating. The amount of detail and influence that goes into every aspect of the look of the festival is truly inspiring. Equally inspiring was simply chatting with these fine folks, Gaydos in person at a coffee shop and Stein via email, as she currently resides in Boston.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
(Ben Gaydos and Karen Stein)
How did you get started with the Ann Arbor Film Festival?
Stein: Ben had previously done some work with the festival, and they wanted to hire the studio to take on the full branding of the festival.
How would you describe your work and how has it evolved over the years?
Gaydos: Personally, I’ve always been interested in both film and design, and while working in the film area was not always something that goodgood pursued, but it was an interest of ours. We’re somewhat known as community-based social impact designers. We do a lot of stuff in Boston in the public art realm, and here in Detroit and Flint we’ve done a lot of stuff on the ground with our community partners. In terms of how that relates to the film festival, I think our work has always been colorful and bold. When the Ann Arbor Film Festival began moving in a new direction, they wanted a shift in design styles.
Stein: We seek to consider how our design work effects the world we inhabit. Over the years, my practice has become that much more focused on community, and connecting with the folks to whom we are communicating. In terms of the type of work we do, it varies widely, from branding, to environmental design, to public art, to book design and on and on. We love partnering with folks, and seek to explore new realms. It’s an ever expanding universe out there.
How did you both meet?
Stein: In grad school. We were in the same cohort at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia.
Gaydos: Karen is originally from the Boston area, and after grad school my wife and I moved out to Boston because she was going to school there. Karen and I batted around the idea of starting a firm, as we were both interested in community-based design. When we started working together, we had a new direction for what became goodgood. Separately we both have our interests and specific qualities to our work, but when we work as goodgood and bounce ideas off of each other, the work changes. We officially started in 2008 and gradually built up a client base. When it was time for my wife and me to move to Detroit, I set up an office here and Karen’s been going strong in Boston.
How does it work with her being in Boston and you being in Detroit?
Stein: We tend to work on passion projects together. Ben was back here for a semester recently, and it was great to be able to work in the same space. But as it is, we’ll often go back and forth with one another throughout the design process -- he’ll start something, then I’ll refine, then he’ll do final tweaks, or vice versa. We understand what the other is going after, and one person pushes the other.
Gaydos: We connect at least once a week, depending on our project load. We’re both teaching right now, so we’ve had to tone it down a bit.
Are you both teaching in design?
Gaydos: Yes. I’m a full-time professor at the University of Michigan Flint, where I also teach a bit of public art and animation motion graphics. U of M Flint is a small school so you share the expertise. But we’re developing a media program, so that’s been interesting getting to have a say in the development of a film-based or media-based program.
Stein: Yes. I’m teaching at Northeastern University right now as a visiting assistant professor.
What was your approach to designing the 2017 Ann Arbor Film Festival?
Gaydos: We wanted it to be bright and bold, because that’s one of the things we’re known for. In many ways we were referencing technology, past and present. We wanted to reference video, film grain and printing processes through texture. There’s this quality of past, present and timelessness, as well as the idea that film will not die. However hard people are trying, especially in the experimental film world, film is still being made, quality work is being done and people are making stuff by their bare hands.
Were there any initial designs that did not make the final cut that were hard to not include?
Stein: There always are. We never show the client just one concept; always at least two. For the Ann Arbor Film Festival, we really love it, so we always tend to show them a bit more. We were excited with the direction that they chose.
Gaydos: I’m visualizing one design that both Karen and I thought was really cool, but we both knew that it was not the Ann Arbor Film Festival. We’ve been talking about how we can reuse that, which is not something we normally do. But this one will eventually find its way into a project. [The Design] was way more '80s Italian post-modern, but did not necessarily reflect some of the qualities we were talking about. It just looked cool.
Is it safe to say there’s a theme when it comes to the design and the print materials? You’ve got the poster, the program book, festival passes etc. How does that all come together?
Stein: We are reinforcing what the festival is all about -- a bit experimental -- but with a layer of clear communication, too.
(Ann Arbor Film Festival Volume 10 DVD cover)
Can you talk about the poster design for last year? I believe they ended up using it for the Volume 10 DVD cover. I really loved the look of it. How did that come about?
Stein: Last year was the 55th year of the festival; with that, we were inspired by '50s designs such as Charles and Ray Eames and Alexander Girard, with a very open friendly, design, that also felt a little unexpected.
I tend to speak in movie terms, so forgive me, but, would you say that the design for this year’s festival is a sequel, if you will, to last year’s, or did you decide to go in a completely different direction?
Stein: No, it’s a totally different direction. We hope folks like it.
Gaydos: Over the summer, [Leslie Raymond, executive director at the Ann Arbor Film Festival,] wrote a couple of blog posts that I thought were really powerful, so we were tapping into some of her thoughts from that. The festival knew this time to give us a list of things that they were thinking about or interested in, so that sent us on a direction. I would say that you could probably tell that it’s still our work, but it’s very different.
Would you say that this year there is more of a direct relationship between the design and the festival itself, simply because you’re not coming in from the outside like last year?
Gaydos: Yeah. If we talk about the comparison of the process, the first of which started in August 2016, to the process in August 2017, the path from point A to point B was a straighter line. We have more of an idea of how each party works.
Stein: We definitely understand what the elements are that we are working with. It makes it much easier. Just knowing what everything looks like allows us to envision the entire system much more easily.
(The designs for the 55th and 56th Ann Arbor Film Festival programs)
Is there anything you can reveal about this year’s design?
Gaydos: We’re drawing on political posters and digging into imagery a little bit more. Last year’s posters were color-informed, but did not rely on photography. We’re taking an approach that draws on that era of graphic design and the visual languages that were occurring in the '60s and '70s and going all the way back to the '10s and '20s with Russian constructivism. We’re looking at radicalism, to a certain degree, what that relationship to the festival has been and how that can be represented through art and design.
Stein: We really wanted to riff off the idea of an experimental and avant-garde festival. We played with combinations of imagery, hand-drawn typography, strong colors (red and black) and overall, just a playful layout to express what the festival is all about.
And now the question I always ask at the end of my interviews is, what is your perfect day in Ann Arbor?
Gaydos: I love Ann Arbor, especially the food. I would stop at Monahan's and get some sardines because it’s one of the only places in Michigan where you can buy fresh, whole sardines, and then I’d go grill those. And I’d maybe stop at the University of Michigan Museum of Art.
Anything else you want people to know about the festival or your work?
Stein: We love what the festival is all about. It’s always an honor to be able to help our clients visualize who they are and communicate that out to the world.
To learn more about Stein and Gaydos' work at goodgood, visit goodgoodland.com.
For more on this year's Ann Arbor Film Festival, visit aafilmfest.org.
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