How I Got Here: Richard Turley, creative director MTV


6 April 2016


In the run up to It’s Nice That’s annual symposium, Here 2016, we’ll be introducing each speaker who will appear at the event. We have asked each of them to share an early piece of work and a recent project, to reflect on how they’ve progressed between the two.

When Richard Turley left his position as creative director of Bloomberg Businessweek to join MTV as its first senior vice president of visual storytelling and deputy editorial director, the move was nothing short of sensational. From stalwart of the magazine renaissance to arbiter of digital DIY, or as he’s called it, “the clusterfuck of visual content”, Turley is a force.

Since moving to MTV in 2014, his strategy has been to ultimately open source the network. He has worked on reactive TV idents responding to current events and live social media conversations, ushered in a redesign incorporating user and artist­ generated work, and implemented an overall tone of anarchy. As such, we can’t think of anyone better placed to rabble­rouse our audience at Here this June.

Bloomberg Businessweek: The Design Issue (2013)

What is the work? Why was it created?
This is a cover that was never printed, made by my then assistant, Tracy Ma. A rough that I wished I’d argued more for. At Businessweek we did a few single topic magazines each year. Along with this Design Issue we did an Election Issue, an Interview Issue, a How To Issue – bucketed topics that can guide the magazine and make the issues distinct. These kinds of nets allow us to load the magazine with content and develop methods to make the work feel specific and grounded. It’s also a useful exercise ripping up the normal weekly magazine – designing around themes that often have roots in a specific aesthetic or methodology.

Making a design issue as a designer comes with its own set of challenges. Do we want to look like we really know what were doing and make a formal statement about taste? Or be self aware enough to produce something deliberately anti-climatic? I favored the latter, having by this time grown a little tired with design, magazines and their attendant nuances. It became increasingly difficult to continually review all the little details, the vanity of small choices – this typeface not that typeface, this picture not that picture, headline up here not headline down there. I suppose another more positive way to think about those details is a celebration of “craft,” but I was then (still am really) more interested in the possibilities of blunt trauma – of the controlled disaster. I want to watch a car crash, but also be riding in the car.

What did you learn while doing it? 
Not sure I learnt much. Maybe to spot the pitfalls of being a designer, designing design about design, in a magazine about design.

What do you think of it now?
I wish I had argued more for it. Tracy came up with this pretty early on and looking back it was just perfect. I think the internal tension around this one was an issue of the magazine celebrating our first design conference – a fairly big deal for the magazine, with sponsors and advertisers. And though a lot of the more successful work we did at Businessweek was imbued with a certain candor in approach – a desire to bite the hand that feeds – this was certainly viewed as being NOT the time to bite that hand.

How does it relate to your current work?
There’s a lot of humour in the MTV work and it’s built to be democratic and accessible. There are tenants of design that are always relevant and necessary – systems that keep your work legible and sustain communication. With MTV being so youth oriented, a lot of the audience are people who have familiarity with design and visual tools, which in turn allows us to stray a bit from convention. They are in on the joke. Add to that the fact that it’s fucking MTV and the environment quickly becomes a place that welcomes sketches, iterations and designs that range from “professional” to “amateur.” We like the idea of breaking down the fourth wall and allowing people to see into the machines behind their content, this was as important in the design issue as it is now with MTV.

No Chill (2015)

What is the work? Why was it created?
MTV No Chill was a programming block that aired from 6–8pm on MTV.

What would you tell your younger self about this work?
That you don’t have to be a graphic designer all your life. Earlier in my career I was taught to act as an enforcer – someone who polices the application of brand guidelines, upholds standards of taste and maintains consistency. MTV is a special case. Our identity should be about youthful rebellion. My job now is to figure out how to channel that energy into the television. Adherence to strict rules doesn’t make a lot of sense, especially on the No Chill project. Our strategy was to remix and critique MTV live as it aired, commodifying that dissent both for fun (our’s) and profit (Viacom’s)!

We wanted the look of No Chill to reflect its irreverent attitude: unruly, unhinged with multiple voices and visual points of view. Our goal was to push MTV and test its limits in some way, so we knew adopting familiar aesthetics of youthful expression (think laser cats or comic sans) wouldn’t work. The cacophony could only come from experimentation, unexpected combinations and happy accidents. So, rather than dictating a specific visual approach, we abandoned the enforcer role entirely. We embraced anarchy by not doing much (in terms of design direction) at all. We wanted to embrace anarchy and avoiding art direction.

The final result, colorfully described on Twitter as “being eyefucked by bullshit” came out of a careless balance of delegation, experimentation and alpha channels. After overcoming the initial hurdle of figuring out a framework for functional elements (on-screen messaging, lower thirds, tickers and tweets), our designers were freed up to create animations in response to the shows. We then curated music videos and vintage footage to make up each block. The editors had the freedom to layer, tile and mix these elements with minimal approval process. Anything that wasn’t caught by legal went live on air. It’s impossible to mastermind chaos, you can only set the stage for it.

As well as Richard Turley, Here 2016 speakers include artist Bob and Roberta Smith, photographer Nadav Kander, design director of the New York Times Magazine Gail Bichler and visual artist Yolanda Domínguez.

We will also be welcoming illustrator Malika Favre, co-founder of Turner-prize winning collective Assemble, Joe Halligan and Omar Sosa and Marco Velardi, art director and editor-in-chief of Apartamento magazine.

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