The boutique agency Gretel has been the force behind some of the best TV channel branding of the last few years: Netflix, IFC, and Viceland, which might be the best of them. The Viceland work, which is somehow both generic and hard-edged, suits a brand that happily airs true-life series ranging from Black Market: Dispatches in which Michael Williams—Omar from The Wire—embeds with poachers and prostitutes; to F*ck That’s Delicious with the roly-poly rapper Action Bronson, a food-porn show featuring dookie chains and foie gras.
But the branding isn’t so much a culmination of Gretel’s work as a repudiation of it. The catalyst for change was none other than the director Spike Jonze, Viceland’s founding creative director. “We’re going through our previous work, and Spike was politely smiling, nodding. And then he says, “Yeah. The opposite of that,'” recalled Ryan Moore, Gretel’s creative director on the project, while speaking at a recent event for AIGA New York. The story of what led up to that correction then flowed from that awkward meeting is an object lesson in taking a gut punch then getting up to do better.
In 2015, Vice contracted to take over one of the A&E’s declining network stations, H2, and relaunch it as Viceland. The shows, of course, came first. But it quickly became apparent that all the sprawling aesthetic choices for show posters and teaser trailers needed to be aligned. The point was underscored when one of the top executives sent around an email, suggesting a logo like that of MTV from the 1980s that could be filled in with colorful content. The terror of a network executive spitballing branding ideas snapped the Vice team into gear, and they sent out an RFP.
The brief itself had a crazy-making informality. Vice didn’t give any materials defining what the brand was about—it just sent the agencies a reel of show snippets. “We figured that the agency was either going to get us, or they wouldn’t,” says Matt Schoen, Vice’s executive design director.
After four weeks of work, Gretel came ready to pitch. Clocking in at an hour, the pitch session revolved around “pushing the content forward.” Vice, they figured, was a feed of content and a navigator through the world with a specific point of view. In that way, the problem wasn’t so different from the one solved by the Walker Art Museum’s superb way-finding system, designed in 2006, which consists of different ribbons of content that can be recombined depending on the context. Designer Dylan Mulvaney eventually came up with “the line”—a vertical stroke that defines a stream of images and information that would scroll across the screen like a ticker. It would be the frame for a timeline that never stopped. “All of the companies who pitched us had impressive work,” said Schoen. “Out of all of them, we thought Gretel had it.” Schoen’s team thought: We have to show this to Eddy and Spike. (Eddy being Eddy Moretti, Vice’s chief creative officer.)