April 22, 2020

Rachel Gogel: Exploring East vs. West Coast design at Godfrey Dadich Partners

Rachel Gogel

Rachel Gogel

Creative Director, Godfrey Dadich Partners

Rachel Gogel is a creative director at Godfrey Dadich Partners where she oversees the studio’s design team and helps brands tell better stories through cross-media experiences.

Born and raised in Paris, France, she is a typography and design nerd who has worked at the intersection of strategy, product, advertising, and editorial for over a decade. She is curious about new formats, strategic in approach, and capable of bringing both expertise and an open mind to any discussion. She was named by Inc. as one of 2016’s 30 under 30 Movers and Shakers and by Forbes as one of 2015’s 30 under 30 in media. She has led initiatives at global brands including Facebook, The New York Times, and GQ. She believes in the importance of supporting womxn- and queer-led causes through empowering and mentoring other creatives and building inclusive teams.


Eli Woolery: Welcome to Conversations on DesignBetter.

Rachel Gogel: Thank you. So glad to be here.

EW: It’s great to have you. How did you get to where you are today?

RG: I’ve always been fascinated by all things graphic design. I was born and raised in Paris, France. I’m currently a creative director at the San Francisco-based design and strategy studio Godfrey Dadich Partners, and I oversee GDP’s design team. In my day to day, I’m helping brands tell better stories through cross-media experiences. 

I’ve worked at the intersection of strategy, product, advertising and editorial for more than a decade. From launching the first cover to cover AR Magazine at GQ back in 2012, to building the creative infrastructure for The New York Times’ award-winning branded content studio, T Brand Studio. Then prior to this job, I was head of creative for Facebook’s visual systems division.

EW: Given your background—being a transplant from the East Coast and before that from Europe—you have some interesting perspectives on the West Coast versus East Coast design mentality. Let’s dive into that a little bit.

RG: It was really eye opening moving out to the West Coast in 2016. I joined Facebook and was exposed to the world of product design as it is known here in Silicon Valley. Very quickly, I tried to understand where these various product designers went to school, what their training was and then essentially realized a lot of them didn’t necessarily come from a graphic design and visual communications background. Many came from more interactive or specialized programs that then got them into product design. By the way, I’m not trying to say it’s a bad thing. It was just different.

I was the head of a creative department within Facebook that eventually got merged under this larger product design organization. I was looking for people who had training in graphic design, because although we were still working for a product team, we were art directing illustration and other various visual systems that would end up in the app, so we were hiring different types of talent. I did have to look outside of California often, to find people who had that hybrid education: graphic design, art direction, understood product and essentially could help tell stories.

Since I’ve lived here, it’s been empathy building, talking to people at CCA and the Academy of Arts and others, and various chairs of those programs and what they’re teaching them. It’s nice to see that there are still programs that are training people here on the West Coast around graphic design: from its foundations and history, to the grid, to color theory to typography, hierarchy and how that applies to various things. 

I hosted a Creative Mornings Field Trip here at Godfrey Dadich and there was a young woman who came to find me towards the end of the session saying, “It’s so refreshing to hear more about how graphic design still lives in San Francisco.”

Her perception in the Bay was that even if she graduated with a more traditional design training, that she had to become a product designer. She’s been in some of those roles for a long time, and felt there was a disconnect. She wasn’t being asked to use those fundamentals, she was being tasked with other things. So her day to day was more building components, using Sketch, etc.

Mind you, most of my background when I was on the East Coast was in magazines and publishing. So my interaction with design then was related more to editorial layout or event collateral and branding. I’m really interested in that dynamic between East Coast and West Coast, and how do they complement each other: has it changed, is it evolving? 

A lot of the people that I used to work with on the East Coast have now been absorbed by big tech companies out West too, and are not necessarily being asked to do the things that they were either trained to do or are 100% passionate about. But I’m hoping that having that training actually helps you stand out from the pack.

I haven’t completely resolved this opinion. I’ve only been here for three years and I’m still observing, but I am curious about a world where creatives are being expected to be unicorns, and are being asked to do more things that expand outside of their specific title. My assumption is that the more generalist you are, you’re able to flex across different things more easily, and in specialist roles, you’d have a harder time moving around more easily. But there is a need to have both, so it really depends on where you work and what you’re being asked to do.

I just hope that it’s not a dying art, that it’s just evolving.

EW: The Product Design program where I teach at Stanford used to have a very strong connection to the art department. There were quite a few studio design classes that were required, and also a lot of opportunity to take other classes in the art department. That training is not so much a core part of the program anymore. 

One of the things that the students are missing is the ability to withstand and benefit from critique, and we’re seeing the effects in the workplace. We recently ran a Design Leadership Camp where the topic came up that younger designers aren’t even open to having their designs criticized in ways that should be learning experiences. I wonder if you’ve experienced that at all, a sort of fragility amongst designers that haven’t had to go through an extensive critique process in their education.

RG: It’s about the work. It’s not about taking things personally, and it comes down to the culture that you’ve built, whether it’s a big team or a small team, and enabling a culture for feedback. So wherever I’ve worked, I’ve seen some designers who have benefited from an education that facilitated critiques and that was just part of their background, they were more used to it or were able to adapt more easily. But it’s a mix of knowing how to give feedback, and receive feedback, and that’s also a human thing to figure out. It definitely is an art.

Then there’s also the notion of collaboration and teamwork and team building, and being a designer can feel like a solo exercise. So the safe space of a critique that may happen in some education programs is lovely and needed, because it sets you up to get feedback and get outside of your bubble. 

EW: If you look around at different products on the web, or the landing page for companies, you start to get the sense that everything starts to look the same. There’s a commoditization of visual design. If you are a designer with a visual background and aesthetic background, how can you bring that back into your work?

RG: So this is a tough one. I also think our opinions get skewed a little bit because if you just look at this particular market, and you have a lot of apps and major tech hubs—let’s just take for example the use of illustration—most of these companies are using illustration to add personality to their app. It’s also a great way to show humans or characters, whether it’s more abstracted characters to more realistic-looking characters, to feel more human or try and paint a picture of certain scenarios. 

It is hard to essentially create an illustration style for an app that reaches everyone. Then if you start looking at these various tactics for different apps, it may start to feel like, well, everyone uses illustration. So does that mean that if a new app comes out, should they not use illustration, just to feel or look different?

When the reality is that it comes down to the entire ecosystem for that particular brand. So there’s the look and feel of the product, and of course you want it to look clean and modern, and add various visual aspects to the brand that translate in the app without it looking too cluttered. You definitely don’t want to just add decoration for decoration’s sake. You want it to feel fast, you want it to feel personalized. 

There’s so much more around the user experience, but that’s just the interaction with the product. You have to think about the entire brand. My philosophy is that the product is one touch point, a very important one. But you also have to think about external communications about the brand from executive leadership all the way down: how are they seen, what are they saying? Do they stand for something? Are they taking a stance?

One brand that comes to mind immediately is Patagonia. They definitely stand for something and their philosophy and mission ladders down through all of their touch points. So if you invest in only one area—thinking that it will really move the needle related to brand sentiment—that’s a really hard way to operate. I feel like you’ll have a harder time shifting perception and creating an image because it wouldn’t be consistent.

I think it’s important to think about what could be ownable by you, and how will that translate—whether that’s in the product or out in the world, carving out a space that you feel is really authentic to your mission. Honestly, not trying to follow trends for trends’ sake, and I know that’s easier said than done. For designers, it’s our responsibility to look at what’s out there in the competitive landscape and then intentionally say, maybe it does make sense to have an illustration style, but how can mine maybe differ or how can I flex? But it’s not just about that one type of visual output. It’s so much more than that.

Let’s go a little deeper, thinking about accessibility and designing for various devices, really knowing your audience, and where they live and really focusing on those things so that you actually do really well in India (for example) because if you’re really just designing for iOS, and it’s filled with high definition videos, you wouldn’t even be able to download those in certain markets where internet is slower and they’re paying for their data. 

Being mindful of all of these things and advocating as a designer because you’re the one touching the app, and potentially informing these decisions. It’s very relevant even this year just thinking about voting and the elections, and it’s one thing to talk about apps, it’s another thing to talk about voting booths and all the interactive ways that people are voting these days. The designers are critical contributors to society and it’s important to acknowledge that.

EW: You worked on some interesting projects this fall. You designed a book cover for Debbie Millman’s NaNoWriMo Initiative. Then you also worked on some content for season two of Abstract on Netflix. Tell us about those projects. 

RG: I’m a big fan of Debbie Millman. I love that she helps curate this initiative. She works closely with the NaNoWriMo organization and I’m sure she’s been doing this for years, but essentially she puts a call out to her network and it’s a first come, first serve volunteer-based thing, anyone who’s willing to devote the time and design a cover for an emerging author. 

I’d reached out last year and she had already filled the list. So this year, I was able to participate and it was really cool. It’s a fun project when you know that it’s literally just one round. There is no feedback given. It’s very loose, there aren’t many constraints. You basically get a blurb about the book, and you have I think two days to just work on it at your leisure and just submit something and it goes onto the blog.

For Abstract, I joined Godfrey Dadich after season two had already been filmed so I cannot take the credit for any of that. But it very much is a show that comes out of Scott Dadich’s brain and it has been really fascinating to understand his process and his various partners on the show, both at Netflix and his other executive directors and producers.

It was interesting because to be perfectly honest with you, when season one came out, I didn’t know that relationship. I didn’t know that Scott was involved. I knew it was a show on Netflix. I loved a lot of those episodes, Christoph Niemann and Paula Scher in particular.

We were given the opportunity to work on the promotion for the show. So we worked closely with Netflix, and Godfrey Dadich was tasked with developing the key art for season two. I was the creative director for that, helped with concepts and oversaw the design and illustration. We worked with an artist, Joe McKendry on the key art and that was super fun and it’s cool to see it out in the world and in the product still. Then we were also tasked with coming up with a social strategy for the account on Instagram. 

EW: Abstract is great, and I also love NaNoWriMo. I participated for the first time this year and almost finished my book (an adventure novel for younger readers). Speaking of books, any books or podcasts, blogs, that are inspiring you at the moment?

RG:  I recently bought the latest book by Alexandra Midal, published by Sternberg press called Design by Accident: For a New History of Design. I just started it and already am really enjoying it. 

EW: Thank you so much, Rachel, for being on Conversations.

RG: Thank you so much for having me.

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