Spring 2001

Back after these messages: the No. 17 show

With Number Seventeen, their New York design practice, Emily Oberman and Bonnie Siegler have acquired a reputation for dancing letterforms and emotionally resonant, playful graphics that speak directly to TV viewers who haven’t yet turned into their parents

Emily Oberman and Bonnie Siegler design videos for MTV, VH1, Herman Miller, Saturday Night Live, and Conde Nast. They also design magazines, such as Jane (launched in 1997), advertisements, logos and company identities. In March 1999 they chaired DFTV.001, the first AIGA conference devoted exclusively to design for film and television (reviewed in Eye no. 32 vol. 8). Their eight-person practice, Number Seventeen, possesses an attitude rooted in its principals’ shared references in film and pop music and a distinctive sense of humour.

Through enviable experience in film and video both women became visual storytellers in their own right before forming Number Seventeen in the summer of 1993. (The number itself is a flippant reference, something akin to a MacGuffin, the term Hitchcock coined to describe the relatively arbitrary props on which his movie plots turned. The ‘seventeen’ surfaced when Oberman and Siegler were holidaying together years ago and found the number everywhere they went.)

Oberman was at M&Co where she collaborated with Tibor Kalman on, among other things, the type-in-motion lyrics for Talking Heads’ ‘Nothing But Flowers’ music video in 1988, and designed a poetically typographical television commercial for Earthshare in 1993. She also worked on the screen typography for some Suburu automobile commercials, directed by Kalman, that helped launch a trend in kinetic letterforms used on TV spots. Siegler worked at VH1 for four years and was its design director for two. She was responsible for the highly visible ‘Everything Will Be Okay As Long As I Don’t Turn Into My Parents’ campaign, which gave an ironic candour and twenty-something voice to the music channel. Such experiences made them realise that a niche for graphic video design was waiting to be filled. When they quit their jobs within a few months of each other, they jumped headlong into making what they call ‘very, very, very, small films’ together, and have been doing it ever since.

Oberman and Siegler, now in their late 30s, are serious about their work, but avoid taking themselves too seriously. When asked to share their design philosophy, their response is a litany of slogans and song titles: ‘Girl Power, Show Me the Money, Try a Little Tenderness, Life is Like a Box of Chocolates, Stay on the Sunny Side, Let a Smile Be Your Umbrella,’ and so on. Asked if they pursue a contemporaneous visual style, they comment: ‘We are more attracted to ideas that endure. It goes back to the drive to make an emotional connection with the audience as opposed to a stylistic one.’ When pressed on how they plan to avoid the usual pitfall of graphic design – superficiality – and rise above the ephemeral they argue: ‘What’s wrong with the ephemeral?’

Number Seventeen may represent a visual zeitgeist, but they are not slaves to transitory fashion. A case in point is their adaptation of Paul Rand’s classic lower-case logo for ABC (the American Broadcasting Company). When commissioned to create an identity for ABC Daytime programming, they added the word ‘day’ in the same emblematic typeface as Rand’s original, and placed it in a yellow circle juxtaposed to the ABC logo, as if it had always existed in this form. But when it came to animating it for on-air broadcast they morphed the static mark into Busby Berkeley-inspired kaleidoscopic choreography wherein multiple ABC logos dance around the word ‘day’ to a 1930s musical score.

Hitting on the subconscious
Without the ability to self-edit what is superfluous, Number Seventeen’s signature playfulness could soon become anarchic and ineffectual. The fact that Oberman and Siegler have become mature storytellers in a medium where ideas must be conveyed in less than a minute belies a mastery of aesthetic form and a confidence in concept. ‘Everything is storytelling,’ Siegler says, ‘and what we are always trying to do is communicate an idea, be it an abstract solution or a narrative one. Always inherent in the idea is an emotional component that we hope will work on a more subconscious level.’

An instance where an aesthetically alluring visual design is built upon a complex narrative foundation is the 1997 opening credit sequence for the weekly, late-night TV comedy series Saturday Night Live. ‘Although we didn’t know it at the time,’ Siegler explains, ‘we applied something my husband [an experimental film-maker] calls Animator’s Logic: when you are creating abstract animation, it is human nature to have a back-story for every frame and even give them anthropomorphic characteristics. Our SNL opener goes a little like this: “A bunch of blue lines are looking for something, so they run across the screen, then some of their friends join them from the other side, then they all go off and a blue line is hanging out alone for a moment and starts to feel lonely until a whole bunch of his friends join him and then they all dance together.”’ Children of the TV generation, Oberman and Siegler instinctively understand the art of quick-cut economy.

Their speediest film is a kinetic timeline told in words and pictures that spans the beginning of recorded time to the year 3000 in six minutes. Created in 1996 for Jostens, a company that makes yearbooks and other product for high schools throughout the US, the film is implanted with scores of subjective visual icons. It flashes forward in a witty quick-cut montage of unexpected real and faux historical imagery and is bound together by a smart aleck narration that goes: ‘Nineteen-year-old Joan of Arc is burned at the stake but doesn’t make the headlines because print doesn’t begin until Gutenberg invents the printing press. Later people burn books instead of people …’

The timeline weaves in the familiar with the probable and the speculative. It loosely parodies a vintage educational film genre, but this formative reference does not overpower the idea. Number Seventeen’s intelligence shines through the marriage of the film’s component parts, from graphics, type, photographs, music, to the jokey narration, co-written by Glenn O’Brien and Scott Burns.

Mistresses of the soft sell
Oberman and Siegler do not intentionally make standalone work, ‘We are commercial artists,’ says Siegler, ‘and there is a great challenge in doing work that we can stand behind while solving the communication needs of someone else.’ A good example is their video for Herman Miller, which was used at a trade fair to introduce a new line of integrated, contract office furniture. It was never intended as a hard-sell commercial, but like the timeline it had to plant a seed in the audience’s cerebellum. The video, with its jazz-patter narration and lounge-friendly score is a dance of abstract and figurative forms – some in kaleidoscopic motion, smoothly paced and totally integrated in a visual rhythm that represents the interlocking shapes of the workstations hypnotically joining together. It recalls the abstract experimental films of the 1950s and early 1960s while at the same time quoting television sitcom opening sequences. ‘We are fans of and influenced by both narrative and experimental film,’ explains Oberman, who also studied film-making in college. ‘But we are also influenced by the Jumbotron [the huge television screen] in Times Square, public access television and home movies.’

Number Seventeen excels in the soft-sell environment where it can make allusions through streams-of-consciousness and montage. The objective for the launch of Jane, for example, ‘was to create advertising that said a lot without saying anything specific.’ Their solution was to riff on the plain introduction: ‘hello my name is Jane’, which they expanded to jokey variations including ‘hello my first cousin on my mother’s side is Jane’ and even ‘the rain in Spain falls mainly on Jane’.

While routinely adhering to tight storyboards, their most effective videos involve impressionistic image editing that provides story fragments, forcing the viewer to fill in the empty gaps in between. But they are also sharp when creating iconic moments in the form of interstitials. One such was for the Red Hot Organization’s MTV special No Alternative (1993), which used the visual language of that channel to sell the idea that ‘Safe Sex is Hot Sex.’ Only five relatively static shots were used in a rebus-like puzzle – a safe and banana equals a candle and volcano. It was simple, pointed and hip. For Saturday Night Live’s SNL Studios logo they were first hired to design a static mark but ‘Because it was for a movie studio, we designed it to have a kind of motion to it.’ When it was time to animate it Oberman and Siegler knew instantly that it should be ‘an abstraction of a drunken cab ride through New York City on a rainy night,’ a reference to one of the many SNL TV show openers during its run of more than twenty years.

‘We have always loved the show,’ says Siegler. ‘And we love this
job because the client gave us the opportunity to completely re-invent something that had been updated yearly for 25 years but never completely rethought. We did it as a very pure kind of graphic design with colours and shapes conveying the energy of the city at night.’

It’s about the Benjamins, baby!
Oberman and Siegler refer to themselves as graphic designers, not film-makers, but as designers they contribute invaluably to other directors’ films and videos through graphics and typography. For a Group Health anti-smoking commercial, directed by photographer and illustrator Matt Mahurin, they designed the type and created and edited the type animation ‘to enhance the meaning behind Matt’s footage.’ Their most playful typographic concoctions, however, are parody commercials
for Saturday Night Live, directed by Jim Signorelli, including ‘Crystal Gravy’ (‘Lighter Cleaner More Transparent’), a send-up of Crystal Pepsi, and ‘Cookie Dough’, a send-up of trendy sports drinks like Powerade. Number Seventeen’s type parodies are acerbic riffs on a genre at a time when more and more TV commercials are using type to circumvent the increasing popularity of the remote ‘mute’ button.

When asked what commissions they take or refuse, Siegler instantly replies, ‘It’s all about the Benjamins, baby [i.e. $100 dollar bills].’ But their work belies this glibness. They don’t accept commissions where they cannot make a meaningful contribution. They do what they
do because each partner simply loves translating pop into ideas, into moving pictures: very, very, very short films. It’s the ideal métier.

Emily Oberman and Bonnie Siegler are co-chairs of the Aquent-sponsored DFTV.002: AIGA Conference on Design for Film and Television, at The Equitable Center, 787 Seventh Avenue, New York, NY 10019, 19-20 April, 2001.

Steven Heller, design writer, New York

First published in Eye no. 39 vol. 10, 2001

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