Pizza delivery, filmmaking and teaching are not typical bullet points on a designer’s resume. But Michael Etter (BFA 03 Graphic Design) took a roundabout route to his chosen field at Art Center, which he ultimately came to see as the most effective means to exercise his passion for storytelling. The thread connecting all his diverse interests has always been a narrative one, which continues to inform his work today as a strategic brand storyteller.
What does that mean exactly? As you’ll see in the above video and the Q&A below, Etter works to define brands as if they were characters in a story he’s writing. He then shapes a campaign around the specific attributes of the company. It’s a process that has yielded supremely successful results. Case in point: His recent campaign for Union Wine Company, which was designed to take the pretension out of wine drinking and make it more casual and accessible to non-oenophiles. The resulting campaign combined design innovation—selling wine in cans. But it was Etter’s bold narrative about the “beerification of wine” that distilled the essence of the idea into a media-friendly easily digestible package, generating a smash hit for Union, which quickly sold out of its first run of cans and is now expanding its reach far beyond its roots in Oregon.
AC: What are your most reliable and/or unlikely sources of inspiration?
ME: My influences generally come from other storytelling mediums like film, music, literature and art. I am continually fascinated the way we communicate our values, hopes and fears to one another through these mediums. I read Joseph Campbell for pleasure if that gives any indication. And I find a lot of influence in metaphors.
Lastly, I look to other brands. I am only interested in the brands that are adding to the context of people’s lives and that understand that it is not enough to just put their product out there. The brands that inspire me are those that are creating shared value and meaning in people’s lives while also delivering products, experiences and associations that align with their intent.
I used to be so jaded about the very idea of branding; and still am very wary of cynical applications of it. But there is such a loss of meaning in our culture and particularly in our institutions that used to supply a deeper meaning to our lives. Science, religion, government and, even to some degree, education have all failed us by becoming so rigidly non-accepting of other viewpoints and approaches, that one of the most fluid and practical mediums that remains are brands as well as other mediums generally considered lower culture forms, like TV and popular films and media. If nothing else, it’s interesting to meet people where their purchasing power meets their values.
I know this opens me up to criticism about being cynical, among other things. But my experience is that people and companies that are able to align these things are the ones that will survive and create innovative approaches to the things we seek. Basically, I like high culture and low culture and find that there are things to learn from all of it. I am a sponge, in that regard. For instance, I love the use of vending machines in higher end fashion/retail applications. It makes me laugh and feels like it isn’t so precious. It also makes me feel that someone is having fun. That is so important to design, in my opinion.
AC: What was your background prior to Art Center? Did you earn a previous degree or have previous work experience?
ME: I came to Art Center with a communications degree from Cal State Fullerton and an English teaching credential. I also had a minor in American Literature.
Prior to that, I had close to 40 different jobs before Art Center. These were all over the map, from being a teacher, to a bus boy to delivering room service and pizza to working construction worker. In general, I feel pretty unemployable on a long-term basis in other fields. I realized I was too interested in ideas and ways to improve processes to make a good “employee.” However, it turned out that all those jobs have given me insight into different aspects of human behavior—which is so critical to design—so I really wouldn’t have it any other way. I really look for some other type of life experience when hiring young designers, as well. At least other creative outlets, so they can draw parallels from when they get stuck. I saw my behavior as indecision and a liability beforehand. But in design it’s been extraordinarily useful.
AC: In general, how would you describe your career or creative practice as it exists today?
ME: I recently left a long-term position at Ziba Design in Portland, where I was a part of creating the Brand Group with a couple of like-minded people. I have recently gone out on my own with a few close colleagues and formed a collective named The Story Manufacturing Co.
My intention is to evolve my practice to create brands that I have ownership in. I have worked for other brands, large and small, for a dozen years and have some opportunities to build some myself with some investors. I will definitely keep working for other brands as I go, since it keeps things fresh. But I will be more selective around whether they are trying to do something interesting, or not.
My approach and practice with design and brands overall has shifted to seeing them as more of a canvas with intention, than a problem/solution issue that I often hear people talking about. I feel that they are characters in a big, strange and even wonderful play. That is why I like to first think of them as if I am method acting, starting from basic human archetypes. This process helps me play and loosen up if nothing else. It also helps me figure out a tone and voice for the story we’re telling, which I find critical. It also helps open up visual directions that are different than those that might arise if I were approaching it as merely a solution to a problem, or even from what is cool at the moment. I feel that if I can understand the brand as a human character, I can interpret how it would behave in different situations and figure out how to get it dressed for the party, so to speak. I think relevancy comes through having an interesting point of view, in addition to other cultural trends.
AC: Do you think it’s possible to create positive change in the world through your work? If so, how do you hope to do so?
ME: I’m really excited about one of my newest projects in called Animal Kin. It plays around with brand value and equity and animal conservation efforts. We like to think of it as if we were running a conservation program like a skateboard startup with co-branded, collaborative products aimed at creating value for specific animals.
It started as a way to draw attention to the inequity of using animals in branding and not returning any money to them. The flipside of it is to build a brand that can throw off equity to someone besides anonymous shareholders. We can think of the animals as the beneficiaries of any accrued equity. This thinking comes from noticing trends in giving and seeing the sector as so far behind other consumer or retail marketing efforts, in general. Recently I have done some work with a group called COMMON, made up of a bunch of ex-big agency people, that are interested in redirecting big agency efforts to things that matter to them on a social impact level. This Animal Kin concept developed out of some of the wonderful conversations I had with deeply committed people there, as well as my dialogue and work with an artist, Hannes Wingate, with whom I am partnering with on this and a few other projects. That all mixed with the need and opportunity in the space has made this something I am really interested in.
Can it create positive change in the world? We hope so. The scope of that is unclear, obviously, but it is important to my sense of myself as a human and a designer to try to affect positive change. I created a non-profit organization while still attending Art Center in 2003, but am most interested, now, in meeting people where they are rather than asking them to come to support the issue at hand, by asking for money. I believe that whatever category you are in, brands and people are better off when they create shared value first.
We hope to introduce the Animal Kin project as an open gallery show in LA or NY in the fall or close to that. More soon, hopefully.