Oni Press Art Director Keith Wood On The Publisher’s New Graphic Identity [Interview]
A few weeks ago, Portland's Oni Press announced their new logo, which we critiqued here at ComicsAlliance. We recently had the opportunity to talk with Oni's Art Director, Keith Wood, about the reason for the change, how the logo took shape and the types of things a publisher – and a designer – has to consider when they undertake a complete rebrand. We also take a look at some never-before-seen alternative approaches to the final new Oni Press logo.
ComicsAlliance: What prompted the decision to change the brand identity?
Keith Wood: Well, Oni Press' 15th anniversary is close at hand, and we wanted to celebrate that with an update to reflect who we are as a company now. But having a logo that works on changing digital formats was one of the key factors in that decision, too. I wanted to change the logo to be more versatile, to work in all the new publishing methods that this modern age is giving us. Giving the company a fresh look in a competitive industry was always in my mind.
CA: As this was an internal project, was there a design brief of any sort? What sort of objectives were laid out at the beginning of the project?
KW: Yes, I spoke with James [Lucas Jones, Editor in Chief], Joe [Nozemack, Publisher], and Cory [Gasoni, Marketing Director] here at Oni Press before we embarked on the project. We discussed the problems with the current brand and what we were looking for in a new one. I worked on multiple approaches before we decided on what you see now.
CA: A rebrand is a huge undertaking. What sort of things did you have to consider when you started your preliminary work?
KW: It is a huge undertaking and I am still working on it, in between a lot of other projects that need my attention. I had to dissect the original logo, which I had been working with for over ten years. I had already dealt with a few problems with the old logo, particularly that it did not reduce down very well under certain circumstances. Favicon images, iPads, and modern cell phones were not even around when the logo was originally created, and trying to make a favicon simply didn't work. The original logo is beautiful, but it's really intricate. Another challenge was that it would plug when utilizing foil stamping or silk screening at a small size. These are just a few of the many things that I had to think about when reworking the logo. That's all from a more technical aspect, but that's only part of what you have to think about when you embark on a rebrand.
You have to seriously think about it: you are changing the look of the company! I really wanted to make it a more contemporary and current, but not design it so that it's too modern. It's important that it hold up in the years to come.
With the company focusing on doing the best creator-owned projects and bringing in new talent, we needed to have strong identity that will hold up on the bookshelves. We are a small publishing company competing for shelf space, and we needed to be instantly recognizable as a quality brand.
KW: And we love our titles and know they are fantastic! We want The Secret History of D.B. Cooper to be noticed by fans of Hellboy, because it's on the same level of quality. Nothing makes us happier than hearing how much someone loves one of our titles. Our fans are comics fans, and likewise, everyone at Oni Press is a comics fan. It's why we work in comics! Increasing readership is a huge priority and we can do that with strong titles and a strong image. We publish such a wide variety of material, and our editorial team is constantly looking for unique projects that fit our growing company. It was imperative that the logo be as versatile as possible.
Oni Press frequently develops new talent, but works with veterans in the industry as well. I looked at the logo in much the same way. We had a great logo by Dave Gibbons that served the company well for 15 years. He is of the greats in the industry, but we wanted to have something new. There still is a nod to Dave's work in my design, and I hope that fans will appreciate our new look. I know where we came from and I have a strong idea of where Oni Press is going, and I think that's reflected in this new logo.
CA: Describe your design process. Do you start with research, reference, sketching?
KW: I did do a lot of research. I spent hours and hours of my personal time just looking at things. In fact, most of the logo was designed during the off hours because I have so much work to do in the office. I looked at what all the other companies are doing for their logo, and I just knew I could make something great.
I also spent time wandering Powell's Books downtown. Walking the aisles, and just looking at the spines of other publishers. Looking at corporate logos, and studying branding. Originally, I was going to move away from having an Oni sad on the logo completely and just go with more of a logotype. However, after presenting a couple options to Joe, James, and Cory, we had many discussions and ultimately decided it would be too much of a departure. I did multiple sketches, along with digital comps using InDesign and Illustrator.
CA: How many rounds do you think you went through before you "got it"?
KW: I don't honestly know. I suppose it depends on whether you count sketches and all the variations as a round. I did a lot of self-editing and showed it to people both in and out of the comics industry. I lost track at one point on how many roughs I had made. I worked on it off and on for over a year and revised the logo at least three or four more times once we picked the direction we were going with. Making subtle revisions along the way.
CA: Eventually, this logo would have to live in a lot of different situations with a lot of different production methods. What kinds of things did you need to keep in mind from a production standpoint?
KW: The usual things, such as making sure the logo is trapped properly for print. Ensuring the stroke width maintains the proper width when reducing or enlarging. Maintaining consistency in how it is applied. I needed to work out sizes for all the different books we do, and create all the rules that need to be established. One of my biggest pet peeves about the old logo was when people would reverse it. It just didn't look good reversed! I spent some time establishing guidelines so when other designers or artists use the logo, it maintains the look that we worked so hard to establish.
CA: What was the biggest difficulty you encountered when creating this identity system?
KW: It's hard to choose just one because everything relates to each other. One of the largest challenges is just bringing change. People get used to the way things are and have a hard time adjusting. That's one of the wonderful things about design though--you can influence change through design. Whether it's your environment, the color on your walls, or the work you see on a comic book. People take a split second to judge if they like something or not. One of the hardest things was that we wanted to represent the Oni without showing the horns. Ultimately having horns on the logo hurt the image on our titles aimed at younger readers. Most parents buy their kids' books, and not understanding what an Oni is. They would often judge it purely based on a grinning demon. That was a huge challenge.
It was difficult because I would create a mark but it wouldn't reduce properly, or it would look good on a book like The Sixth Gun, but not as much on an all-ages title like Salt Water Taffy. Making sure it works across all of our titles was something that absolutely needed to happen. The Oni Press creators are a diverse group of talent and it needs to work on all titles.
CA: What's your favorite thing about the new identity?
KW: I love that it is so versatile, but maintains the Oni Press brand. I really love the "ONI" type I made. If you take two squares and then remove the lower line on the bottom of the second, rotate it 90 degrees you have the foundation of the type. I know it sounds simple, but working out the weight of the lines was something I worked hard to get right, and making sure the balance with the face in the square panel was right. We have a lot of options with how the logo integrates into Oni Press design and it will shine throughout the years.
CA: What pushed you toward design in the first place? Where'd you go to school? What sorts of design work had you done before Oni, how did you end up there?
KW: I've always been drawing. My parents always supported art in my family. My grandfather was extremely talented. He drew, painted, and built model trains in his basement. He was basically a big kid and very supportive and proud of anything my brother or I would do. My grandparents had some comic books that were my dad's when he was a kid, so I was exposed pretty young and fell in love with them. I started drawing comic art, and in middle school when l got into skate boarding, I began drawing a lot of other things. Seeing all the graphics and how they "borrowed" from comics and cartoon art was a big influence. I loved the logos and brands the skate companies had, and would draw them on my text books. I would notice the Beastie Boys wearing a VW hood ornament around their necks or RUN-DMC promoting the Adidas brand. Something just clicked with me and I fell in love with graphic design.
In high school I looked into attending the Kubert School, or the Savannah College of Art and Design, but ultimately I didn't have the funds for those schools. I attended the University of Northern Colorado and studied under many great artists. Eugene Hoffman was a fantastic instructor and a great influence on me. I also worked on campus in the Graphic Services department. Making posters, logos, University designs, t-shirts, etc. I eventually managed that department. I also worked for the Greeley Daily Tribune, doing advertisements for local companies. Anything from car ads to selling siding products. All that sort of thing. Working on a daily newspaper taught me a lot about deadlines.
KW: After college, I applied to work at Dark Horse Comics. I got the job and moved to Portland, Oregon in 1998. It was a dream come true for me. I worked at Dark Horse for many years, and had the opportunity to work on so many amazing projects. After a while, I decided to become a freelance designer, and left Dark Horse. Oni Press was one of my main clients. I also worked on Powers for Brian Michael Bendis and designed a couple of projects for Mike Allred and other creators.
After freelancing for more than four years, I went back to work at Dark Horse, coordinating the design and production departments. While doing that, I was still designing a lot of books. Oni Press contacted me and offered to bring me back to their fold as Art Director, and I jumped at the opportunity. I love working in comics, and this was something I could not pass up! As much as I hated leaving Dark Horse, I had to try this. I knew that I could do wonderful things for the company and over time, all of the hard work would shine at Oni Press. It's been over three years now that I have been officially on staff, and this year is one of the most exciting in all my 14 years working in comics.
CA: What sort of stuff inspires you?
KW: I find [inspiration] in everything. I see it all over Portland. We have such an amazing community of artists and designers here! I notice design everywhere and take mental notes constantly of what I like and don't like. I visit websites and absorb what everyone is doing around me. Design magazines and books are constant reads and sources of inspiration for me. I recently picked up a new book on Saul Bass that I am diving into and loving. I really like swiss design; clean modern designs. Video games menus, movie posters & credits are something I always study too. I also love silk screen posters. Gig posters are a constant influence. Logos are my absolute favorite thing, though. I have tons of books just on logos and logotypes.
CA: What's been your biggest success or favorite project at Oni?
KW: I can't be more proud of Cullen Bunn and Brian Hurtt's The Sixth Gun. That book has been my favorite monthly comic by any publisher in years. In all honesty, Cullen and Brian have maintained one of the most enjoyable monthly comics I have read in a very long time. Petrograd by Phil Gelatt and Tyler Crook is something very special, and Tyler is such a pleasure to work with. That book is simply beautiful.
I love so many of our titles, old and new. I love Andi Watson's Love Fights. Chynna Clugston's Blue Monday, Black Metal by Rick Spears and Chuck BB. And Ray Fawkes had such an amazing book last year with One Soul.
New projects like Bad Medicine and The Secret History of D.B. Cooper have me really looking forward to putting out more monthly books. You can't deny the success of Scott Pilgrim. Jarrett Williams has so much energy in his artwork in Super Pro K.O.!. The list goes on and on!
CA: What's the biggest challenge?
KW: The biggest challenge is always time. I am actively juggling multiple projects, freelancers, thousands of files, meetings, training, art direction, and design, every single week. In January alone, I sent eight titles to press. That's finished projects, not including all the other things I have going on in my department. We'll be working on anything from monthly 32-page books to 200-plus page graphic novels, in a variety of formats, including ebooks. But I am constantly trying to expand our line of books with things that you can't recreate digitally. We used glow in the dark ink on Ghost Projekt. Rascal Raccoon has an acetate dust jacket similar to an animation cel. I am actively trying to use techniques that make sense on our line of books, to show our fans, and retailers, the care that Oni Press is putting into our titles. Our stories, art, and production on our titles are extremely important to us, and I am proud of all the titles Oni Press has released. I truly love working with every creator, and I am lucky to work with such a variety of material.