Behind the screen: evolution, innovation, and inclusion with MTV’s digital design team
One of the most diverse and adaptable creative teams in the business talks us through their eclectic remit, representation in both the team and the work, and bringing a beloved brand into 2020 and beyond.
MTV means very different things to people of different ages – they used to just play music videos, you know – but in the design sector it’s always been associated with innovation and visual energy. Nowhere is this more true than the digital design team, led by trio Rich Tu (VP digital design), Gavin Alaoen (social art director) and Ariel Weaver (associate art director) who brand and communicate MTV’s digital ecosystem and social channels, aiming to represent its young and diverse audience and the evolved platform MTV has become for 2020 and beyond.
The term ‘digital’ has its own sliding scale of definitions depending on the brand you talk to, but at digital-first MTV it’s the face of the brand to its younger, social-media-savvy viewers. “When people say ‘digital’ what they really mean is ‘social’,” Rich explains. “In our context, digital-first content is more about ‘platform intent’ and new media. What I love about the space is the immediacy, the ability to respond to culture, news, and eliminating barriers between yourself and your audience. That, combined with the energy of MTV, have made for a great formula so far.”
On any given day, their team could be working on a show pitch, a set design, an IRL exhibition, or ideas for all sorts of specialised content to launch on YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok. So it’s fair to say the team has an eclectic armoury of skills ready to whip out, no matter the medium. “It’s a fluid process,” Rich says, “with many creative individuals who often do more than their job description.” At the team’s helm, Rich likes to view leadership “through a sports lens, looking at the skills of the players and how that translates to chemistry on the court.”
Individually, Rich, Gavin and Ariel bring their own expertise, often rooted in physical creative mediums. Rich was an SVA Illustration grad and editorial illustrator for publications such as The New York Times before he moved into advertising, branding and even sneaker design (a childhood passion). Gavin grew up making websites and art for video games in the days of dial-up internet, before formally studying graphic design and branding (though mainly for print and packaging), and eventually the two combined when he got into digital graphics and social content creation. “I saw the potential,” Gavin remembers, “once you see how internet vitality takes off, and how creating at a fast pace teaches you to have a more iterative process.” Ariel, meanwhile, found her creative path through early dabblings in painting, mixed media, fashion, textiles and sculpture, only learning about graphic design at college, a meeting of the logical and creative sides of her brain that felt “a natural fit”. Before MTV she worked on digital content for ABC Family (now FREEFORM).
The team’s divergent skills and interests are revealed further when pushed to choose their favourite recent projects. Gavin picks out a content piece for Snapchat Discover, which saw them create a mix-and-match system of creative assets given to designers to put together in seemingly infinite combinations. “It’s visually unique in that we approached it from a Lego mentality, creating a ton of MTV-branded pieces, which allows for a consistent vernacular while still allotting creative freedom.”
Ariel describes a set-design project for the MTV studio in LA, comprising four distinct spaces to shoot talent and influencers. “We wanted it to feel fun and ‘Instagrammable’,” she says of the look, which was developed with a set designer, “a cool space that talent would enjoy shooting in as well as photographing themselves in to post to their socials. The project was different for me because I wasn’t just focused on the graphics but also what the actual space looked like.” The design of the space then informed the set of video graphics the team developed to go with content shot in the space.
“More is more! You get a greater breadth of ideas, knowledge and creativity by having representation different to what you know or are familiar with.”Ariel Weaver
Rich brings up two recent projects, the first being a public art exhibition in Brooklyn in conjunction with this year’s VMAs, with the aim of amplifying diverse voices from NYC. This took a lot of collaboration (alongside marketing director Antonia Baker) and dedication to amplifying BIPOC and LGBTQ+ communities, he says, which were directly inspired by the current conversations around social justice. The results were vibrant, featuring works by Zipeng Zhu, Amika M. Cooper (AKA BlackPowerBarbie), Kervin Brisseaux, Eugenia Mello and MorcosKey, among others. Lockdown closed all museums and art fairs, and public transit became limited to local usage and essential workers, so what resulted was a rethinking of the massive Atlantic Terminal subway station as “an artistic love letter to the city”.
He also highlights MTV’s Sneaker Wars, a show he pitched and developed with exec producer Cory Midgarden and showrunner Jerah Milligan, which saw contestants customise shoes in a competition format. “From day one it was created through the lens of design,” Rich says, “everything from casting to trophy design. Authenticity to the culture and audience was paramount, alongside representation.”
“When there are many voices at the table, you have a larger pool of ideation, creativity, and insight into your audience”Rich Tu
Both Rich’s choices point to a pertinent topic that is always a core part of his agenda: diversity and representation, in both the team and its output. Cultural diversity is key to the team’s unique perspective, he says. “Historically, and for too long, the design industry has been too Euro-centric, too binary, too male, too white. This goes for academia and cultural gatekeeping. I’ve made it a goal to widen the aperture of historical and creative influence. At the end of the day, it’s about representing the communities that you’re communicating to behind the scenes as well as within the content.”
Rich himself is first-generation Filipino-American and hosts the Webby Honoree podcast called First Generation Burden, which focuses on intersectionality in the creative industry. He says that growing up he “rarely saw creative heroes who looked like me, even less in the media and on screen”. So when he started out on his career he says he “knew it was important to carve my own path, and collaborate with individuals who found strength in their individuality, their communities, and had unique points of view. The concept of ‘inclusion’ is only felt when you understand what it feels like to be excluded for reasons outside of your control, especially in a system which has not carved out a path for you.” He adds that, in his podcast, which is a personal project, he “constantly hear[s] stories of being tokenized and ‘othered’. One of the positives of the current climate is that we can openly discuss these things. One of the worst things about being ‘othered’ is that you feel you have no one to turn to.”
In terms of its impact on the work, Rich says that “when there are many voices at the table, you have a larger pool of ideation, creativity, and insight into your audience. The concept of ‘with, not for’ comes to mind, which is often used in the context of creating inclusive spaces and social planning. I would rather build with someone in a way that empowers, empathises, and shows solidarity, as opposed to for someone, which can be condescending, as if to say: ‘We are building this for you, but know better than you.’ It’s a subtle distinction.”
Gavin is also Filipino and says that while his experience of the industry has been largely positive from entry to intermediate level, the biggest challenges are the moves to more senior roles and above “where representation is less diverse,” he says. “From here I’ve felt inclusion and representation was my responsibility to create and establish for others to hopefully inspire them to do the same.” A team with different backgrounds and voices brings variety to the approaches within the creative process, he adds, “which allows for different ways to solve problems,” something especially vital in the fast-changing world of social media.
Meanwhile, Ariel has also found herself on diverse teams, in terms of gender and ethnicity, despite only around three percent of designers being Black. “I’ve never felt it’s held me back, but I would love to see more Black designers in the industry. Earlier in my career, seeing the lack of Black faces in design, I was never sure if it would hinder me in any way. I used to not include my photo on my portfolio just in case it could affect my chances of being called in.” Speaking about diversity of perspective in the creative process, she argues that “more is more! You get a greater breadth of ideas, knowledge and creativity by having representation different to what you know or are familiar with.”
Familiarity is a tricky balance at MTV. Its evolving audience could be nostalgic for its pioneering music video ‘heyday’, or only know it for internet-breaking reality TV shows; and its design aficionado fans can be precious about its visual history. “I think there’s a value in heritage,” Rich says, “but with modern considerations. Right now, in our social content, music is still very prominent, except today’s artists are Megan Thee Stallion, Billie Eilish, and Pop Smoke (RIP). It has such a rich and eclectic visual history, and so many talented people have gone through its doors. What I love about the culture here is that literally everything has history. I felt the same way when I worked at Nike. You can casually walk through the halls (when we were at the office) or pick up a random book and see a piece of design history.”
“I’m 36 and grew up with MTV in the ‘they played music videos on TV’ era,” Gavin chimes in. “So for me, MTV means something different to someone who views the brand digitally on different platforms that didn’t exist back then. I feel it’s important to be aware of the past, and uphold or adjust design principles to inform the future.” He refers to its original digital content such as the YouTube series Basic to Bougie, and how the audience always informs a graphics concept. “From a design standpoint, we really took a look at what visuals resonated with our audience and what would get them in the door. Our evolving approach continues to inform the branding and visuals for the next seasons.”
Essentially, for all three designers, the audience is the driving force. “Evolution and innovation come about by the audience’s viewing habits, so as a brand, that takes place regardless, because we want to be where the viewers are,” Gavin adds. “I think MTV has always been about moving forward,” Ariel concludes. “Even though it’s a brand with a great legacy that we can pay homage to, we tend to look ahead. All of us are content consumers and creators. We want our work to feel relevant and new, and we know what’s engaging for our audience.”
Music Video Comic Book Covers for MTV
The MTV digital design team comprises Rich Tu, Gavin Alaoen, Ariel Weaver, David Fiddler, Matt Ryan, Florencia Massu, Lilian Baldorado, TaeJoon Kwak, Kevin Lu, Mariaelena Pulgarin, Sara Hilany and Veronica Elaine.