Graphic Design Gets a Life


Downstairs, discount stores struggle to stave off going-out-of-business sales. But up on the ninth floor of the Desmond, an Art Deco landmark on an ungentrified stretch of Wilshire Boulevard, the view is full of promise. The Hollywood sign comes in clearly, smog permitting.

This work space at the intersection of bleakness and glamour is the ideal leaping-off point for the four young graphic designers who make up ReVerb. Since forming the firm fiveyears ago, Lisa Nugent, Somi Kim, Whitney Lowe and Susan Parr have stayed on the leading edge of a growing design trend: reality-based myth-making.

The partners use research as a springboard for creativity, developing rationales the way scriptwriters create story lines, with characters driving the plot. Their approach is inspiring a generation of commercial artists to infuse their images with an emotional component as well as layers of historical and cultural messages.


“In the past, seeing was believing,” explains Nugent, a Southern California native and Cal Arts alum who carefully weighs every word. “No more. Nowadays, people want a story. Staring at great photographs is not satisfying any longer--readers want to decipher pictures as if they were words.”

So, when a client calls on ReVerb to design a poster, develop a new corporate identity or launch a Web site, the partners drop their proverbial pencils, put away their mental sketch pads and turn off the graphics applications on their Macs. They hit the streets to get fresh material.

“The first stop is usually the library, but our research approach is not simply bookish,” says Kim, a Harvard and Cal Arts grad who once worked as an editor for Random House. “We conceive this phase of our work as an active, outward-looking and open-ended form of inquiry. A trip to the grocery store, a photographic experiment, junk mail, a conversation with a child or an interview with an expert--all of it is material for building a believable piece of visual fiction.”

The research phase may take as little as a week or last for months, but it’s never sedate. On the contrary, it’s scavenger hunt meets steeplechase. While Nugent digs for obscure historical and typographical references, Kim concentrates on the project’s semiotic dimension. As the resident music junkie, Lowe, a veteran of design firms in New York and Amsterdam, scours record stores for rare releases and European magazines. And Parr, a Northwest native and New York escapee, wrangles paper samples, paint chips, fabric snips and scraps of metal. By the time the partners reconvene in their putty-colored crow’s nest, the project is rife with subtext--historical anecdotes, social connotations and personal references.

“What’s fascinating about ReVerb is the way they mix self-conscious, postmodern concepts with hip California street vernacular,” says Rick Poynor, editor of the British graphic design review Eye. “They are redefining the cutting edge of graphic design as both highly intellectual and deliberately fashionable.”

Where else but in Los Angeles would street signs, logo types, letterheads, press kits and brochures be designed as if they were destined to be optioned for a movie? “In our business, the concept drives the visuals,” explains Kim. “And the concept is what we call the movie-in-the-mind.”

In creating a corporate identity for Reprise Records, a label dating from the ‘50s, ReVerb came up with a nostalgic movie-in-the-mind: The script is a visual yarn based on the “to play and play again” theme and the musical notation for “reprise.” The colors, typography and layouts are reminiscent of the Patti Page, Johnny Mathis and Frank Sinatra era when 45s cost a buck and kids cued up the same song again and again. To recapture the heady vinyl days, ReVerb decided to repeat the Reprise logo on the same page--over and over and over and over.

“But our scripts are not always linear,” Kim warns. “We create plots and subplots within the same project.”

For Now Time, an eclectic art and culture quarterly published in the early ‘90s by Cal Arts alumna Miyoshi Barosh, the firm went so far as to interfere with the editorial content. Kim says, “At the time we were designing the first issue, there was a partial eclipse of the moon in Los Angeles. We were all talking about it. So we unanimously decided to incorporate this astrological event into the design.”

The back cover of the magazine features a large photo of the eclipse. Some readers didn’t get it, of course, but others, like Laurie Haycock Makela, former design director of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, loved the “bumper-to-bumper, collusion-bound highway to new ideas.”

More recently, a sports apparel company asked ReVerb to work on a potential new identity for a retail label called S2. Here, with a letter and a numeral as the story line, they proposed a series of visual puns that would pitch “S” and “2” up against each other like contestants. “When the two forms become contenders,” Parr says, “a story can be told that puts the letter ‘in the game.’ ”


ReVerb has designed everything from posters, brochures and signage systems to CD-ROMs, Web sites and interactive kiosks. Clients have included such corporate giants as Nike, Xerox, SunMicrosystems and Warner Bros. Records as well as grass-roots community centers and such cultural institutions as the Dia Center for the Arts in New York City, the Walker Art Center and L.A.'s Museum of Contemporary Art.

Lorraine Wild, a founding partner of ReVerb who recently left to start her own studio, says part of the firm’s strength lies in its unshakable vision. “What made us different is the way we were able to handle cultural projects and corporate assignments without changing our mind-set. Somehow, we managed to be perceived as both intellectual and pragmatic.”

Short for Res et Verba, a Latin expression meaning “things and words,” ReVerb thrives on turning things into words. The firm’s own marketing script is an unlikely piece of self-promotion. Titled “Do Not Disturb,” the interactive disk uses humor, sounds and rudimentary information to invite viewers into a point-and-click exploration of the design studio.

“Instead of pushing our work on the viewers, we pretend to ignore them,” Lowe says. “To wake us up from our slumber, potential clients have to make weird noises, open up our flat files or read our phone messages. We ask them to solve a giant crossword puzzle.”

In the Information Age, life no longer imitates art--it imitates language. A recent study by Management Horizons, market research consultants, suggests that what we know, not what we possess, will determine our survival in the next five years. Companies that focus on strategic marketing and publicity will flourish; those with warehouses full of stuff will perish.

“The message is the message,” Nugent says. “It’s that simple.”