Summer 2020

Bobby C. Martin Jr: Design Champion

‘We’ve come so far we’re not stopping now. Design has infused every part of our lives because of designers pushing to have a seat at the table.’

Bobby C. Martin Jr, originally from Hampton Virginia, studied Communication Arts and Design at Virginia Commonwealth University, and worked as an editorial designer, first at Gear and then at Yahoo Internet Life magazine (1999-2001). He then moved into brand design at Ogilvy’s Brand Integration Group (BIG, 2003-05), worked as design director of Jazz at Lincoln Center (2005-08) under artistic director Wynton Marsalis and led the design team overseeing global packaging at Nokia in London (2008-10). In 2001 Martin studied for an MFA at New York’s School of Visual Arts (SVA), where he met fellow designer Jennifer Kinon. In 2010, he and Kinon founded The Original Champions of Design, now renamed Champions Design (March 2020). Over the past ten years, the agency has worked for clients including the Girl Scouts of the USA, MTV, The New York Times, the National Basketball Association, the Studio Museum in Harlem, as well as making an acclaimed special edition of The Atlantic to mark the fiftieth anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination. Champions Design’s recent clients include Supermajority, ‘a new home for women’s activism’, Dartmouth College, Kilter Films and ‘+1 the Vote’ (an MTV voting campaign). Martin was a board member of the Type Directors Club from 2015-19, and he teaches at SVA MFA Design.

Eye You started out as a graphic designer … does the term ‘graphic design’ still mean something for you?

Bobby C. Martin Jr When Jennifer Kinon and I met in graduate school, graphic design was widely known, while the term ‘branding’ was looked down upon. We had design classes with Paula Scher and Brian Collins, and the terms ‘visual identity’ and ‘corporate identity’ were more commonly used. Nowadays people are more comfortable with the term ‘branding’.

Graphic design has broadened so much. It used to be mainly thought of as print-based, used mostly for laying out books, posters and creating logos, but now it’s much more broad. As designers, we use type to communicate in print or in motion, across the web, social media and to touch someone’s heart.

The term ‘graphic design’ will always mean something. To me, it is a specific craft. What’s interesting is the way in which it has moved from a general practice to a field of specialities. I focus on graphic design, within the field of branding.

How have you dealt with these changes?

We have to constantly learn new things. In running a design agency we have to think about the role of design in everything – apps, interactivity, time-based media … To innovate we have to know about new technologies and how they affect design. When we’re working with clients, we have to teach people to be open to change, and we ourselves have to keep changing.

Do you think your education prepared you for this continual change?

I had a traditional graphic design education and I was taught to learn from those who have come before me … ‘less is more’, Swiss Modernism and other great work of the past. But when I went to get my MFA at the SVA, it seemed like the ‘graphic’ element took a back seat to ‘design’. In Steven Heller and Lita Talarico’s ‘Designer as Entrepreneur’ program at SVA MFA Design, they taught about using design as an agent of change. Research informs design. Then design empowers people.

What else are you working on right now?

We recently worked with MTV to develop the identity for their 2020 ‘get out the vote’ campaign – ‘+1 the Vote’. We have also been working with the co-creators
of Westworld to establish a brand identity system for their production company, Kilter Films. The system uses the beautiful abstract patterning of player-piano music, which we thought was an elegant expression of the complex relationship between art and technology so central to their storytelling.

When you talk about branding, do you mean something significantly different to what used to be called ‘identity design’?

Branding means something different to everyone. To us, branding is the sweet spot where strategy and design meet. It can include positioning, messaging and other tools to help build an emotional connection. Identity design is the essential phase of the process that brings the brand to life.

How easy do you find it to hire the right designers for Champions?

Before the agency, I didn’t know how tough hiring would be. When we hire we have to make sure that you have graphic design chops, but we want you to have something else … we call it ‘design plus’. So you might also be really good at type design or animation … that extra ability helps us to build a well rounded team.

To attract and retain the right designers, we’ve made a big investment in benefits. It helps with hiring and aligns with our values as a company.

Cover for the Martin Luther King Jr special issue of The Atlantic magazine, 2018, Bobby C. Martin Jr. The cover of this special issue was designed to celebrate the life and words of Martin Luther King Jr. The dramatic portrait crop was chosen to focus on King’s oratory skills. Martin says: ‘The large bold Caslon Doric type works as a crown atop his head and as a masthead for the magazine.’

The Atlantic Cover

When you talk about ‘graphic design chops’, do you mean the kind of skills and sensibilities that someone from an earlier generation might recognise?

Designers need to know the basics, like good typography, scale, hierarchy and how to set up and use grid systems. Not to be overlooked is the ability to develop concepts. We want the design to be driven by ideas. These are factors our design heroes like PushPin, Saul Bass and Paul Rand employed over 50 years ago. Technology has changed considerably over the years, which forces graphic designers to need to know UX / UI, interaction design, even programming, but the idea should still drive the work.

Looking to the future, do you think graphic design will maintain its significance and value for business and culture?

I’m optimistic. We’ve come so far we’re not stopping now. Design has infused every part of our lives because of designers, graphic designers, pushing to have a seat at the table. Companies and organisations will always need to stand out, differentiate themselves and be heard. Graphic designers will help them to do so, not in a wholly supporting, service-oriented role, but in a position of leadership.

Things have changed while we have been having this conversation. You marked the studio’s tenth anniversary by changing its name. Then came the Covid-19 lockdown …

On 1 March 2020, we relaunched The Original Champions of Design as Champions Design. We made the decision to work from home a week later. Things slowed up dramatically shortly thereafter. We’re trying to keep projects moving forward, while literally trying to survive in the epicentre of this contagion. Our team has been so steady throughout such an emotional time. I’m very happy to provide 100 per cent health insurance for them; reliable health coverage has never been more important.

How has Covid-19 affected your work?

Our arts, performance and event-based clients are doing their best to keep momentum going, although their doors have been closed for more than a month. We’re doing everything we can to bring enthusiasm and professionalism to every Zoom meeting, phone call and email. Right now, brands have 99 problems; design shouldn’t be one of them.

Identity system, For Freedoms Congress, 2020. Design by Bobby C. Martin Jr. Design director: Michael McCaughley. Martin says: ‘The identity uses existing brand elements like the Plaak typeface and literally turns them on their heads to challenge the art community to be “Visionary, Not Reactionary” in 2020.’
Top. Portrait by Maria Spann.


John L. Walters, editor of Eye, London

First published in Eye no. 100 vol. 25, 2020

Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions and single issues.