DC is more than just our nation’s capital: It’s home to some of the most creative minds in the advertising business. These thought leaders are pushing the envelope, developing award-winning campaigns that inform and inspire far beyond Washington. We sat down with past ADDY Award winners to learn what motivates them to Resist the Expected.
Today’s creative brain is Ambica Prakash, Principal Creative Director at Eighty2Degrees. Last year, her team won Best of Category – Out of Home at the ADDYs for the Grand Opening Campaign for the National Museum of African American History and Culture. She shows why it’s so important to keep challenging yourself and looking ahead.
Please tell us about your ADDY-winning campaign.
It was our Metro Domination Grand Opening campaign for the National Museum of African American History and Culture. When this campaign came up, it seemed like a long shot, but we submitted a proposal and it won with a very aggressive timeline. We had three weeks, or something ridiculous like that, to go from concept to actual design. We were absolutely floored and then started thinking, “How are we going to do this? Are we ready to do this? How is this going to work?”
For starters, we needed to get a team in place. We’re a very small team and we curate custom teams based on the project. For this one, we needed an art director/designer, a copywriter, and an illustrator.
A couple of things were really important to me personally, given our studio philosophy:
- First, I wanted the talent to be local, because this museum is here, and there’s talent here.
- Second, I wanted an African American illustrator. I felt that the love and the passion that goes into a project when you’re telling your own story is very different when you’re doing an illustration. I remember realizing that I had made the right decision when our illustrator finished one of his posters and he said, “I just finished this and I have tears in my eyes.”
Next, we needed a great concept. We went back and forth with the client on a few ideas, when we came up with this concept of telling stories of African Americans that aren’t as celebrated as some of the African Americans that we know. You have Dr. Martin Luther King, you have Rosa Parks, and those are people that you’re very familiar with, but what about the people that are known within the African American community, but not in the larger American context? We wanted to celebrate those lesser-known stories. We wanted the stories to be diverse in terms of gender, specialty, and in the [overall] stories that we were telling.
When it came to creating the campaign, we wanted the Metro domination to feel similar to what you could experience by visiting the museum. The challenge was finding a style that would stand out and celebrate and honor the culture. Metro is very dimly lit so we really wanted the station to come to life. We chose a mural graffiti type of illustration style and we were very intentional about the people we chose, the color palette and patterns, and then the visual language that we developed.
How did this campaign resist the expected?
To us, it wasn’t that we were resisting the expected. We were just doing what felt right. On the other hand, the expected thing to do would’ve been to celebrate those who are already known. I think resisting the expected is saying, “Let’s go a few layers deep. Let’s tell the untold stories of people who’ve been instrumental in contributing to our culture and our society and figuring out how to celebrate them.”
I think it was about not doing what’s easy, which is the expected, but really forcing ourselves and challenging ourselves to think deeper.
What do you think it means to resist the expected in the world of advertising?
Everybody wants to do glamorous work, but for us, because we’re a values-based design studio interested in social impact, resisting the expected is to challenge the work in that sphere. Often we will get a project that is mundane, but we celebrate those projects because everybody can benefit from good design. It’s not just for clients who have a lot of money or name recognition.
It’s also about continuing to challenge ourselves to explore. I think we all get a little bit in a rut of, “That typeface works. That color palette works.” Sometimes even the clients come in with a preconceived idea of “this is what I want.” When they want the expected, we ask them questions that help us redefine and reimagine what they want, to make it unexpected. Doing things like that can really move the needle in how [the campaign is] received by the target audience.
What is your favorite piece of advertising of all time?
Not sure if I have a favorite piece, but I remember Tibor Kalman making a big impression on me as a young designer who was trying to find my voice. He was an inspirational design activist using unexpected juxtapositions to make commentary in his advertising work.
What clichés in advertising do you wish people would start resisting?
Designers not having a seat at the table when strategy is being discussed. We’re often seen as pixel pushers, and not as strategy: “If you have a MBA or a business degree then you can create the strategy, but if you’re a designer you can’t.” Instead of defining the problem and coming up with the solution together, we’re asked to “make it pretty.”
If we’re part of the initial conversation, then we can ask much more pointed questions to figure out what’s worked in the past, what hasn’t worked, and what are the [desired] outcomes. Sometimes you get better solutions that way, because you have people who aren’t familiar with the problem [and] aren’t thinking the same way about the problem, and you get that diversity in the room. When designers are included at the beginning, you have different conversations and different and better products.
How do you feel Eighty2Degrees specifically resists the expected?
My husband Mike Englert and I started Eighty2Degress to create a lifestyle for ourselves. He would say, “not having someone else dictate the life that we want to create.” For us, resisting the expected is staying true to our personal values, and building a studio around them so that there is no disconnect between our work life and our personal life. It might be a lot more work in some ways, but it’s a lot more rewarding because we’re doing the work that we believe in.
What do you feel is unexpected about DC creative?
A lot of people think of DC as a community of lawyers and lobbyists and government workers only. I probably felt the same way [at] first, but there is actually a very vibrant creative community. I serve on the board for AIGA DC: [Since I work] with creatives on the board [and see how our] programming brings creatives together, I think there’s a lot to celebrate.
DC obviously has a lot of government work, but it goes back to my point [that] government work doesn’t have to be ugly. When you think about who the government is serving — the citizens, the people — [it’s really important that] designers are involved in moving the needle and creating better user experiences and better information.
Why do you feel advertising competitions are important?
It’s good to have these competitions where you celebrate the talent. For me personally, it isn’t as important as focusing on the work. For the ADDYs, I said to my team, “If you guys really think this is important, let’s do it.”
I’m glad we did. It was just crazy. [Last year,] we had already found out that we won Best Out of Home, but to actually win the category [we suddenly felt,] “Wait a second, did they say that right? It is us again?” We were completely the underdog there, and really excited to have been at the ADDYs to accept it.
Talking about Eighty2Degrees resisting the expected, we actually invited our entire team to come down to the stage. For a second it felt a little odd, like, “Here’s the new kid on the block. Doesn’t know what the norm is,” but the norm didn’t feel true to our culture so we took our entire team down.
What is the best reason to attend the ADDYs?
There are a few great reasons:
- To celebrate the work and creativity produced in our community.
- To meet with talented people.
- To make new friends while reconnecting with old ones.
What is unexpected about you?
I had really short purple hair once. [I grew up] in India, [where] long black hair is what is considered beautiful. When I moved to this country, [I felt], “I don’t have to do that.” I cut it all off and I dyed it, highlighted it purple. The next time I went home everyone said, “Oh my god, what happened? We have lost our daughter.” It was a fun thing to do, just to push the boundaries.
I have tried to push the boundaries in terms of what is expected. Nobody thought I was going to move to DC and open a design studio, so that was unexpected.
I get bored. I don’t want to be doing the same thing for the rest of my life. It sounds very secure, but there’s no fun in it. I like to keep things moving a little bit so I feel continually challenged, because otherwise I feel like I’m just going to stagnate and die.
Come see all of the work that resisted the expected this year by attending the 2018 ADDY Awards on March 29th at Gypsy Sally’s.
Meghan Kotlanger, the friendliest of interrogators, is a producer/director at Eastward, a content studio in DC and LA. Eastward is a collective of creatives, driven by curiosity and conviction, that bring a range of experiences and disciplines together under one filmmaking roof.
Matthew Rakola, is a photographer with 16 years of experience working with a wide range of commercial, editorial, and educational clients. He specializes in making “real people” shine in front of the lens, usually by poking fun at himself.