The surprising design that saved MTV in the post-George Lois era

In 1982, legendary ad man George Lois came up with the “I want my MTV!” campaign, got the execs at Warner Amex Satellite Entertainment Company to buy it, and sparked a pop-culture revolution. At the time, nobody believed that a 24-hour rock-and-roll channel would work, but with one very inspired set of graphics, Lois—and MTV’s founding team—proved them wrong.

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Jeffrey Keyton, design director at MTV, joined the network’s ranks right after “I want my MTV!” had revolutionized cable television and energized America’s youth. It was a different era: not exactly the Wild West of early television, but still a time when programming was less beholden to the clicks and likes that serve as our modern metrics.

“There was art for art’s sake,” says Keyton. “In some ways MTV was like YouTube before YouTube back then. Our animators were commissioned to do a lot of those great IDs,” he says of the on-air graphics that accompanied the eclectic, lo-fi bits that aired between music videos.

There were also “a lot of cheesy TV graphics, a lot of stereotypes of what [MTV] was supposed to be about it,” says Keyton. “Sometimes it would be this bad grungy typography, or weird chopped-up editing. Probably more typographic gymnastics, eclecticism, combining bad fonts that don’t work together.”

In 2013, Keyton cleaned all that up. It was time; a shift had long ago taken place in TV. Satellite had arrived, followed by TiVO, DVR, Netflix, HBO Go, and Hulu. In the span of a few years, viewers went from having a few dozen channels to hundreds. “How to stand out became the new challenge. That eclecticism wasn’t working anymore. You had people from ripping us off or doing their own non-conventional TV graphics.” The answer? Go minimal. Keyton launched a new brand identity centered around Helvetica. This helped make the transition from TV screens of DVD covers to mobile phones more readable, but also gave Keyton and his designers—there are around 15 now, give or take—an opportunity to showcase content, rather than force it to compete with splashy graphics.

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And now, funnily enough, Keyton is contemplating how to rebrand, or unbrand, MTV yet again. Even since the 2013 Helvetica move, audience behavior has changed. MTV’s young viewership is now the smartphone generation of TV watchers, and they don’t always tune in on an actual television. This means Keyton, who started out in fine art and in print, now spends the bulk of his days handling web-related design. "Most of our audience isn’t even watching on a linear platform,” he says. “So we’re thinking about what does the brand look like—the website, all your social platforms, Instagram, Tumblr, and Snapchat.”

It also means Keyton has an opportunity to blow up the cohesive visual identity that he just created. Young viewers these days don’t care where their content comes from—they just want what they want, when they want it. Right now, a cheap Vine upload can amass as much attention as a big budget studio music video. The hierarchy is gone. Likewise, the next reincarnation of MTV design doesn’t have to come in a tidy package.

Whatever this may look like, Keyton has license to do it. In his role as design director, he says has a collaborative, quick-thinking, and fast-acting relationship with the head of marketing and the president of the channel. He and his designers have a great deal of creative latitude, a perk that Keyton says saves him a lot of time pitching and re-pitching ideas. “I never seem to get bogged down in conversational processes,” he says.

But it’s still early. Keyton is still ruminating, not sketching. “I’m thinking of bringing back this notion of a managed eclecticism,” Keyton says. "Certainly something kind of useful; hip, but not hipster. Not too slick, not polished. Something might be the wrong amount of wrong or bad.” In many ways, frayed edges and rambunctious experimentation has always been at MTV’s aesthetic core. It’s hardwired into the place: shows come and go, audiences grow up or come of age, and tune in. And when they do, “they all want to feel like it’s their MTV,” Keyton says, “and not their parents’ MTV.”

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