Nickelodeon’s in-house design goes multidisciplinary for maximum creative energy

Ask any 20-something about their favorite Nickelodeon show and they’ll likely talk your ear off about All That, Are You Afraid of the Dark, or Rocko’s Modern Life. Ask the same question to a 10 year old, and you’ll get an equally passionate response—about SpongeBob SquarePants, Sam & Cat, or Henry Danger. Bringing together the cohesive visual narrative that continues to inspire all generations of kids for the last 20-odd years is the job of Nickelodeon’s in-house design team, led by senior vice president for creative, Matthew Duntemann.

Leading a team of about 45 at Nickelodeon headquarters just off Times Square in New York City, Duntemann oversees designers, animators, art directors, illustrators, and editors for digital, on-air, and off-air content, all recently integrated into one team. “About a year ago, we brought down the silos between teams,” says Duntemann. “We’re at that point where television is a big part of our business, but now I can cross pollinate between areas—so an off-air person who’s never worked on something that’s animated on-air has that opportunity and brings that fresh perspective to it, because some of the greatest ideas come from people who are naïve about the new thing they’re dealing with. When we think about how digital works now, it’s not just websites, it’s really all just entertainment.”

aiga-nickelodeon-matthew-duntemann-halo-620

Working under the umbrella of one of the most recognizable names in children’s entertainment means the agile designers at Nickelodeon are constantly juggling new forms of content, be it new episode promos, content for Nick’s app, the Kids’ Choice Awards, HALO Awards (the network’s nod to sports stars), or seasonal holiday programming. Even if the design in question lasts only a few seconds, Duntemann says, the main goal is about capturing your attention.

“We’re creating pieces that are reviewable—it’s not just about creating a promo for SpongeBob that tells you when it’s going to be on, but a kid sees it and wants to watch it again. So it’s a self-contained piece of entertainment, and that’s what we’re pushing towards in everything we make—a repeatable moment of entertainment for our consumer.”

aiga-nickelodeon-kids-choice-awards-spongebob-620

Even though the ever-expanding role of social media is creating opportunities for new and different types of content all the time, working for a television network still has its own unique challenges and workflow. Designers and art directors from Duntemann’s team are paired with writers and editors from Nick’s programming to work collaboratively on the best ways to represent the network’s shows. “The design process at Nickelodeon is often very collaborative,” says Jennifer Cast, VP of brand design for Nickelodeon preschool. “Design leaders brainstorm with producers, writers, designers, and animators, and design solutions start to take form when designers craft mood boards based on inspiration. The environment is fast-paced and intense, but it results in exciting and fresh ideas.”

aiga-nickelodeon-kids-choice-awards3-620

Sandy Goijburg,VP of brand design for the network’s off-air content, echoes that sentiment. “Most meetings are made up of a mix of people who have different roles, so rather than having conversations about design in a vacuum, we’re talking about creative strategy, business objectives, and creative solutions in one place. This helps everyone keep focused on the goals of making work that’s not only beautiful, but also on-brand and does the work we need it to.”

Of course, for a brand as iconic as Nickelodeon, staying fresh and relevant while maintaining a sense of heritage is important. Duntemann acknowledges that many of the designers on his team were fans of the early years of the Nickelodeon, when the network’s design sensibility was “much more eclectic, because it could be. It was more like MTV—the whole idea was to be surprising, which meant there weren’t a lot of rules. Now, we still have signature things—like the color orange, for example—and we want to channel the early Nick adventure in expressing who we are as a brand, but bring it into today.”

aiga-nickelodeon-nicktoons-splat-620

While freelancers from design firms, production companies, and independent illustrators and animators are often brought in to support the team and add fresh ideas (the network also makes regular visits to school like SVA to look for new talent), much of Nickelodeon’s creative work has been trending to in-house, especially now that the teams have been integrated. Duntemann proffers that the multidisciplinary skills of his team keeps in-house work lively. “I think every designer who works for me is a multidisciplinary kind of person—to think of someone as just a graphic designer is such a limiting title,” he says. We actually try to get to a place where people can’t copy us. It’s so hard to educate people on what Nickelodeon is, the warmth and emotion that’s maybe more intimate than other children’s brands.”

aiga-nickelodeon-holiday-campaign-620

Whether it’s a response to the fast-paced world of viral media, or just trying to appeal to a kid’s short attention span, Nickelodeon has been turning an eye toward innovation over the past few years, experimenting with CGI, stop motion, and new forms of animation (one of Duntemann’s recent favorite projects was the brand’s 2014 holiday campaign, which featured artist Anna Hrachovec’s hand-knitted figures, animated for television).

“We’ve created mini-studios on-site and have teams of people with various skill sets so we can do things like stop-motion table-top shoots and experiment with other techniques in order to make fresh and unique work,” says Goijburg, who actually returned to the network after a stint working for Nick in the ‘90s. “At this point we’ve already moved beyond thinking of ourselves as ‘working for television.’”

At the end of the day, Nickelodeon will always be the go-to choice for kids (and kids at heart), bolstered by a design sensibility that has carried them through the years. “SpongeBob is our ultimate symbol because he’s the ultimate optimist,” says Duntemann. “You always have to keep in mind, ‘Is this an adult idea, or is it really from a kid’s point of view?’ To design for Nickelodeon, you have to get into the kid’s perspective. Everyone who works here is really just a big kid.”

aiga-nickelodeon-nicktoons-1-620
aiga-nickelodeon-nicktoons-2-620aiga-nickelodeon-nicktoons-notebook-620

Laura Bolt is a writer and editor who specializes in the worlds of design, style, culture, art, and where they intersect. After studying comparative religion and professional writing and rhetoric in the Washington, D.C. area, she moved to New York, where she has worked with The Nation, O/R Books, and ​Vogue​. Currently, she's a​n associat​e​ editor at Details​ ​magazine. She lives in Brooklyn, where she’s lucky enough to consider the Brooklyn Museum and Prospect Park part of her backyard.