For graphic designer Brian Okarski working on projects that align with his values is crucial
From reshaping the fast-food industry to rebranding a grassroots political party: Brian only wants to work on projects that he believes in.
- Daniel Milroy Maher
- 2 June 2021
Brian Okarksi’s path into graphic design began in the late 90s when, after starting high school, he became fascinated with British car magazines such as Max Power and Performance VW. “I loved super flexed out European cars and their magazines, and that led me down the path of looking more into UK publications, like The Face, i-D, Future Music, and Computer Arts,” says Brian. “I had never traveled to another country so these magazines opened up a new world to me.” After downloading a bootleg version of Photoshop from LimeWire and following the CD tutorials found in issues of Computer Arts, Brian went on to study graphic design at Florida State University and then at Ringling College of Art and Design. He realised that he wanted to pursue the subject as a profession and completed a short stint at Wieden + Kennedy in Portland, before moving to New York to really immerse himself in the world of design.
Eight years later Brian is now living in Los Angeles, where he has just taken the position of Design Director at Sweetgreen, a restaurant chain offering a new healthier, more sustainable take on fast-food. “In December, I got a call from old friend and peer Tom Wilder asking if I’d be interested in moving to LA and joining him in shaping the future of fast-food,” explains Brian. “The more I thought about working in the food industry and how destructive fast-food has been to underprivileged communities, the more excited I got. It’s been a big shift from running projects though my studio practice to going in-house, but working alongside and growing a talented team is something I’ve been ambitious about for a minute now, so I’m hyped about it.”
His move to Los Angeles has also seen Brian work on other exciting projects with old friends, like his recent artwork for American electronic artist Savile’s (real name Gianpaolo Deli) new album Hyperempathy. Brian has known Gianpaolo for 12 years and speaking on the process, he says: “We’re in constant communication, sharing sketches with each other regardless of any timelines or prompts. There’s no brief, though the main object of my interest with this is trying to capture the right tone. Album artwork in my opinion is all about tone – does it feel like what you’re hearing? Are the artwork and music speaking to each other in a way that tells a story but doesn’t give it all away? Does it make you think?” This conceptual approach aligns well with Gianpaolo’s thought provoking and politically-charged sound and it's easy to see why they have been collaborators for over a decade now.
Alongside the album artwork, Brian has also helped with Gianpaolo’s ongoing residency in Copenhagen called Self-Disrupt, a series of music events that have been taking place in one of the city’s nightclubs, Ved Siden Af, since 2018. For this, Brian helped to develop the parties and design the accompanying posters. “We had lots of existential discussions about what people do at parties, what they experience on a personal level, why they even go,” he explains. “We go to lose a bit of our normal selves and to enter into a world that’s a bit different, don’t we? So the idea behind the posters is really just about tearing open the fabric of our normal lives, disrupting the idea of one’s ‘self’, to reveal something hidden underneath.”
Brian’s projects span many areas, but where his heart truly lies is in the progressive and the forward-thinking. As well as his work for Sweetgreen, he has also invested time in the Working Families Party (WFP), an American grassroots political party. With roots in the Labor Movement of the late 60s, the organisation is primarily concerned with issues such as healthcare reform, raising the minimum wage, student debt, public education, and energy and environmental reform. Last year, Brian helped with a complete rebrand of the party, repositioning it to speak to a young audience and to promote its “no bullshit” ethos. “Since WFP’s roots were so rich, tapping into the Labor movement vernacular was an obvious choice, specifically the famous ‘I Am A Man’ posters from the 1968 Black sanitation workers strike in Memphis,” says Brian. “Colour was also influenced heavily by the political artwork that Sister Corita Kent was making around the same time. This combination felt unique for WFP, and tonally aligned to where they came from.”
For Brian, a project such as this was a dream come true. Coinciding with the political unrest in the US following the murder of George Floyd, he felt “immensely grateful” to be able to work on something so impactful. “I truthfully haven’t had a more rewarding experience working on a project than this one,” he tells us.
Looking forward he hopes to continue to support important issues and causes with his work. His website lists a range of projects he would take on at a significant discount, including animal and food non-profits, civil rights organisations, and nature conservancies. “I’m at a point now where working on a project I believe in, or one that aligns with my values, is so much easier to be engaged with,” he explains. “Designers should absolutely be picky about the projects they work on or who they work with. No doubt there’s a long period in everyone’s career where that privilege isn’t an option, but keep working towards that goal little by little and trust, you will get there... If anyone is stuck, or struggling with their path in design, my DMs are open.”
Brian Okarksi: Working Families Party (Copyright © Brian Okarksi, 2021)
About the Author
Daniel joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in February 2019 and continues to work with us on a freelance basis. He graduated from Kingston University with a degree in Journalism in 2015. He is also co-founder and editor of SWIM, an annual art and photography publication.