Moving. This one word sums up everything New York-based design studio DIA embodies. Movement is in the neoteric, kinetic identity systems it creates and the processes it uses to construct them. Moving forward is in the ethos that drives its leaders Mitch Paone and Meg Donohoe to redefine with graphic design is. DIA is always moving and, in turn, its solidified itself as the master of typography in flux. It’s a studio which messes with design theory only to improve it, leaving the rest of us scrambling to catch up.
Despite a somewhat-earnest façade, DIA is a studio built upon the interpersonal relationships it harbours, particularly between Mitch, founder and creative director, and Meg, managing partner. “We are on the same page with just about everything,” Mitch explains, “Same taste in design, art, food, architecture, vacations.” This “universal compatibility,” as he describes it, feeds through everything they do, in or outside of work, forming the basis of their collaboration. “Most importantly,” he continues, “there is a balance of our mindsets. Meg steers the ship with a long-term vision, whereas I am very much immersed in immediate creative tasks.”
The pair first met during a long period of freelancing, both working transitory jobs, coming and going at regular intervals. Meg got her start in account and project management, first on the agency side and then on production for motion graphics, films and commercials. “I was always freelancing – I liked the nature of it. Moving from studio to studio, meeting different people,” she explains. It was while working at creative design agency, Eyeball, that she first met Mitch. “We were working together to try and go after a lot of new business for this one company and we were like ‘wait a second, this is weird, why aren’t we just doing this ourselves?’,” she recalls, “We started going out after work for drinks, conspiring after hours.”
Mitch, although having studied design, tells a similar tale: “I went directly into motion graphics, freelancing too, doing film titles and commercials,” he tells It’s Nice That. “It was kind of crazy actually, just bouncing around at these different studios.” Both fatigued with their corporate jobs, DIA was born: “It’s not that I’m being critical of that,” Mitch assures, “but you get a little tired of doing Walmart ads. It’s that not that cool or interesting, and you don’t feel like you’re applying your skills.”
Freelancing, by nature, requires adaptability, a certain exuberance and vigour. And it’s this energy (garnered while working at 30-40 companies, Meg estimates) which has helped form DIA’s working practices. A studio grounded in playfulness, hard-work and most importantly, experimentation, the duo heads up a small team (which includes Lara, a friendly and massive rescue dog). This team produces iterations upon iterations with abandon. “Generally,” begins Mitch, “work starts off like ’this needs to feel like this at the end of the day’. Whereas we’re like ‘I don’t care, don’t worry about it, don’t worry about it, explore, explore, explore and the day before we present we’ll look at everything and decide what feels good, and what doesn’t feel good.”
This refreshing and exciting approach is one Mitch accredits to his background as a jazz pianist. “Musicians can’t fake things,” he outlines, “they have to have hardcore technical training in order to be creative with it.” In the same way that Mitch has had to put in 25 years of practice to be able to play Giant Steps by John Coltrane in time, design also requires dedication. “There’s no way I could shortchange that process,” Mitch affirms, “So that’s instilled a strong sense of routine. If I need to explore something in design there has to be a dedication on a daily basis, even if it’s just ten minutes.”
Beyond regimen, however, jazz piano shapes the studio’s entire structural understanding of design. “Typographic practice, in my opinion, is like music theory,” Mitch outlines, “it’s not necessarily a creative thing – it comes down to mechanics, understanding negative space and proportions and that takes practice – that’s the equivalent of the scales.” These “scales” can then be used to “write music” and it’s here, once the fundamentals have been mastered, that they can be used to disrupt rules and produce exciting results – “that’s the creative part,” Mitch concludes.
Defining the studio’s iterative process is the notion of improvisation, and Mitch’s session musician mentality. “Jazz is less about outcome and more about feeling,” he tells us, “it forces you not to worry but rely on your previous practice to produce in the moment. In the studio, we replicate that when we make iterations. We make 30, 40, 100 posters in a few hours, we just go, go, go.” Without worrying about finesse or polish, DIA instead attempts to discover the depth of a concept resulting in work which is emotionally stirring and technically challenging.
How DIA is really making waves, however, is with its combination of typography, motion, experience and interaction design. It’s a combination which has always excited Mitch, thanks to his dual design and music background. “When I was younger, I was always trying to marry the visual arts and music in some way,” he tells us. It was in 2012, after years of doing commercial work – animation and motion graphics – competing against the same studios again and again, that Meg realised it was time to reinvent DIA, resulting in the work which it is so well known for today. “We decided to pivot a little, and figure out what makes sense for us,” she explains of the defining decision. “We went back to Mitch’s roots and decided to focus more on graphic design and how we could work on more branding while still keeping our motion background.”
Backloading their motion experience and bringing it into a traditional realm of graphic design, DIA began testing its typographic kinesis. Posting experiments and ideas on Instagram, DJ and record producer A-Trak spotted these tests and enlisted the studio to create a typographic identity system for his tours and album artworks in 2016. “This was the big project where we were really able to flesh out our exploration on type and motion,” Meg recalls. Still working together today, the project proved a momentous juncture for DIA, solidifying its theories on motion and its relevance to the world of graphic design.
“For me,” Mitch outlines, “the frustration was that animated type has always been ‘on’ and ‘off’ – the type animates in, out – it’s always a transition.” The project with A-Track challenged this convention, creating an identity which is constantly transitioning, never landing on anything specific. “It was completely experiential – it doesn’t matter which point of time you see it, it doesn’t matter that it’s in a moment of transition or revealing because it’s always doing,” he adds. This approach created the foundation of DIA’s work in which the motion is the work, not just a means to an end, as is often the case. “Once we identified that as the core thing, it became a huge boost in how we approached work on a tactical level,” Mitch continues. DIA became a studio which disputes the customs of graphic design and its relationship to animation, setting out to solve problems, not simply fulfil briefs.
Today, DIA’s reputation for producing kinetic typographic systems sees the studio collaborating with dream client after dream client. Although harbouring clear aspirations in terms of how this side of their work will progress, the studio’s leaders are always on the lookout for their next venture. “This may seem a bit paradoxical, but we ‘comfort zone’ when there is a considerable amount of risk being taken. There is a certain energy about pushing into uncharted territories both creatively and with the business that continually fuels the studio,” they admit. “The hope is to keep pushing and keep pushing ourselves to keep learning new things because once we stop doing that, we die.” So, what’s next for the duo who can never sit still?
“We’ve been kind of trying to figure that out actually,” Mitch responds. Conscious of the fact that if other professionals were given access to their techniques and research, then “they could easily commoditise a lot of it (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing).” The pair, however, has decided that universities and schools are the best places for these concepts to be passed on, in an attempt to completely restructure how we learn graphic design. “You have to have the foundation – the type, the layout, the grids – all the stuff that designers currently learn in school,” Meg remarks, “but then there’s this new piece. Things are going to have to move because everything now is so screen based – that also needs to become a foundation.”
That “new piece” envisions a world in which no designer will make work without at least considering how it will move, thanks to an appreciation of how motion creates visual form. Where no designer will put anything out into the world which hasn’t existed as 100 iterations beforehand. Where no designer will “reference design for design’s sake” but, instead, pull from dance, music or art, finding creative relationships which are not necessarily formal, but which enrich design as a whole. Having already held workshops at Pratt in New York, ÉCAL in Switzerland, Royal Academy of Art in The Hague, and with plenty more lined-up in Norway, Peru and India, DIA’s disruptive design theories are already making their way around the world. If we had it our way, DIA would lead an overhaul of the entire design education system, tomorrow.