I Want My Helvetica: MTV's Millenial-Friendly Minimalist Design

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For a less outwardly rebellious, small-screen-using generation, design director Jeffrey Keyton overhauled the network's visuals to be striking, bold, and clean—while still irreverent.

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MTV

A lot has changed since MTV went live in 1981, when Bob Pittman and his team of talented upstarts put music videos on millions of TVs and George Lois put "I WANT MY MTV" on everyone's lips. Most famously: There's not many music videos played on the network these days. Less remarked upon but perhaps more intriguing: The shift in the network's graphic design.

Recall, if you can, the typography back in the day: the era of the raucous marker-drawn M logo designed by Pat Gorman, Frank Olinsky, and Patti Rogoff of Manhattan Design and street-style. Then came the "winky dink" typography of the '90s. Now there's been what Jeffrey Keyton, network design director for more than 25 years, calls "the Helveticazation" of the brand. The new clean-but-brash style represents a new generation's sensibilities—and, of course, MTV's enduring commitment to evolving with the times.

"There's something alive about eggplant letterforms set against a pale pink," Keyton says.

"You'd have to be heavily sedated to not anticipate change," he says. "Especially for our audience, which demands it. MTV feeds off change. It lives and flourishes because of it. And all that change is a big part of what inspires our design."

MTV was born from the noisy collision of music and design, which is what made it so exciting for Baby Boomers and Gen Xers. But as these age cohorts turned to HBO, Lifetime, and AMC, "We reached an inflection point when our eclectic identity of the past was getting lost in the cluttered visual landscape of the world today," Keyton says. "It became pretty clear that we had to be more consistent and visually unified to stand out and be remembered. We also needed to communicate that we were a new MTV, by doing something bold and different."

The redesign that Keyton is responsible for was more modern and minimalist, centered around the ubiquitous, white-bread Helvetica typeface. Keyton says he loves the neutrality of the typeface, as well as its functionality, readability, accessibility, and the matter-of-fact way it communicates ideas and provides essential navigation for MTV's audience. "And especially," he says, "that it doesn't get in the way of content, which ultimately is what it's all about."

Color is a big part of the font face's virtue. Helvetica's boldness and clarity lends itself quite well to nearly any hue. "There's something alive about eggplant letterforms set against a pale pink," Keyton says by way of example. "For episodic work, we brought white space back to television with clean black type surrounded by a lot of negative space. You still don't see a lot of that on TV. We also wanted to combat all the 3-D gobbledygook flying around the television landscape. A lot of that stuff looks like someone's just throwing up on the screen."

There are also practical concerns addressed by the redesign: "What was once a DVD cover now has to function as an icon on a cell phone."

To implement everything, Keyton launched an online design hub that explains how Helvetica works in the MTV system, with strict formats for the day-to-day work and broader parameters for the "marquee shows." "We paid a lot of attention to detail, even the little things," he says. "For example, our lower-third messaging, which gets more airtime than any other design element on the channel."

Apparently simplicity and repetition has paid off: "Often times, we'll go to focus groups and present creative without our logo, and they'll look at it and ask, 'This is for MTV, isn't it?' And what corporation doesn't strive for that response?"

Keyton 's decidedly cutting edge work from the late '80s and '90s was often acknowledged in design award shows—of note are the often wild and witty graphics his team produced for the Video Music Awards. Yet he insists his approach has always been about "problem solving," and different times call for different design solutions. The audience today isn't as outwardly rebellious as generations past. "But all that said, we are still MTV," he says. "We know our audience craves smart, funny, irreverent humor. So we deliver that every day, in our programming, promos, and design."

Nonetheless, Keyton points out there have been certain misperceptions about MTV design: "If you really watched the channel and paid attention, you'd see we have always gravitated towards simplicity. We've always been about restraint and not feeling compelled to overdesign to make a statement—and always putting content and ideas front and center." (He also take issue with the presumption that music has disappeared: "We're currently designing for a bunch of music-based projects, from our morning block AMTV to our sister channels MTV Hits and Jams (both 24 hour music video channels), and our latest initiative 'Artist to Watch,' where we're involved with the visual branding and filming of emerging artists.")

Keyton's hair is graying fast, and, he admits, his body is getting a little banged up from too much helicopter skiing, but mentally he still feels like a kid in art school who's always searching for something new. Truth be known, "I'd rather be hanging out at an EDM festival with kids listening to Skrillex and Pretty Lights than being at an Allman Brothers show with my peers. (But for the purposes of full disclosure, I have been to an Allman Brothers show.)" Regarding his ability to continue to reach MTV's audience, he happily quotes Picasso: "It takes a long time to become young."

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Steven Heller is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, the co-chair of the MFA Design program at the School of Visual Arts, and the co-founder of its MFA Design Criticism program.

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