Images: Courtesy of Jonah Birns / Red Hook Criterium
Interview by Chris Henry
The Red Hook Criterium is a fast-growing, international fixed gear race which this year takes a big leap into a four-race series. Born as an impromptu street race in the Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn, the Red Hook Crit has grown into a worthy franchise with a companion event in Milan, Italy. A new, four-part championship series will bring a second race to Brooklyn along with a new installment in Barcelona, Spain.
Red Hook Crit founder, David Trimble, has not only created a breakout racing series but along with it a strong visual identity. The designer behind the RHC's iconic posters, merchandise, and online presence is Jonah Birns. In this special installment of Shutter, we take a look at a small sample of Birns' race posters and merchandise designs and put some questions to the designer himself.
Q: What is your background in graphic design?
I went to college for multimedia, so graphic design was a part of my education but not the sole focus. My interest in design was a natural inclination towards it. For the most part I'm self-taught.
Q: How early did you and David Trimble realize that the strong graphic identity would play such a role in RHC's development?
David comes from a motor sports background which has an extremely strong visual element so I think he knew right off the bat how important developing a strong brand for the race would be. At the time when I started working on the Crit in 2010 the only street race in New York City with a really strong identity was Monster Track, so I saw building the Red Hook Crit brand as a chance to create something a little more approachable to the casual fan and grow appreciation for the sport from the outside. One of our main goals for the Crit is to bring attention to cycling from non-cyclists, and making the brand visually appealing is a large part of that. Once we saw the huge increase in attendance and exposure in 2010 we knew we had hit on something really powerful.
Q: You continue to refine and define your style, yet there has been a nice consistency throughout the past few years. How do you balance innovation and brand identity?
When I designed the first poster it was like, "This looks good, but it's going to look a lot better when there are 10 years of them in a row on a wall," and that's kind of been the whole approach to the Red Hook Crit brand and merchandise. I think a lot of the reason that the brand has spread so much in the past three years is due to the consistency and simplicity of our image. There is so much over-design in cycling, when something is subtle and understated it can really stand out. The RHC aesthetic is really inspired by cycling design from the 1950-70s; we want to keep everything looking clean and classic, just on the edge of being modern and without being retro.
With each event the design evolves a little more as we expand the promotions and merchandise but there is a conscious effort to not stray too far from where we started. To keep things fresh we have been collaborating with other artists which has been really successful, people such as illustrator Patrick Dunaway, photographers Erik Lee Snyder, Casey Kelbaugh, Tak Sakamoto, Francesco Rachello, Benedict Evans and Brian Vernor, and designers Johnny Hsu and Rocco Malatesta have all made huge contributions to the RHC's visual history.
Q: You mentioned that you've led a lot of the design work for sponsors' apparel and products. Was this a first for you?
I never had the chance to work on anything as technical as I do now before working on the RHC aside from a jersey here and there. I had worked on plenty of apparel in the past but there is a big difference between designing graphics for casual wear and technical equipment. You have very specific areas to work in with the technical stuff - especially with pieces like the helmets - and it becomes much more of a challenge in that you're not only trying to design something that looks good, but that your artwork fits the piece it's on and is technically feasible.
Usually the response to the earlier designs was, "That looks cool, but the factory can't do that." There was definitely a learning curve in the beginning, lots of staring at helmets and frames and jerseys and looking at hundreds of photos of pro and amateur equipment.
Q: You're working with several brands that have very strong identities of their own. How has the coordination of RHC designs and existing brands worked out?
We have been incredibly lucky to have sponsors with rich histories we can draw on for design inspiration, and that are willing to give us a fair amount of freedom in the custom items we create for them. For me it's more about making an RHC piece that fits in with the sponsor's overall image rather than creating something that they would never make otherwise.
I really like digging into the sponsor's history to come up with elements for the custom design we create, for example the painted stays on the Cinelli Vigorelli which we introduced in 2011 and are now part of the stock design was a nod to the chromed stays of the Cinelli Supercorsa. Each of our sponsors has an amazing design team, and they're really committed to making unique items for the event and following through on the RHC vision which David and I are very thankful for.
Q: Where would you like to take the RHC design work in the coming years?
We're really looking to make the actual event as much of a spectacle as possible, so expanding into more environmental stuff is really intriguing to me. This year we'll have a really nice podium and merchandise display, and a large start/finish structure so we are on our way towards that but there are a ton of possibilities to explore. In terms of the rest of our merchandise and promotions I'm always looking to refine and evolve the brand image, I think in the next few years we'll probably roll out a new logo and official poster design to keep things from getting stale.
Q: Can you shed some light on the creative process? Do you do everything digitally, or perhaps work from some hand sketches then translate into a digital product?
Everything starts with research, in the "off season" David and I are constantly sending each other images of things we find interesting that can be applied to the next race or a future event. Typically the next step is choosing the colors scheme we'll use and I'll come up with some base graphics or a theme to work from. From there I'll start on designs and review with David along the way, the merchandise is submitted to the sponsors and revised with their designers and the promotional items with the title sponsor.
I'm not much of a draftsman so everything is done digitally other than some very early layout explorations. Things like the posters are planned well in advance but with the merchandise there isn't a lot of time from when a sponsorship deal is finalized to turning in files for production so everything is done almost at once, which allows it to have a very unified look as it's all created in the same span of time.
Q: Does David weigh in much on design factors or has he given you a free hand? How is your collaboration with him and his dealings with sponsors?
David is involved in the design from the very beginning through to completion, but for the most part he does give me a free hand. The few times that he has overruled me on something he ended up being totally right, and I think there is a large level of trust between us which makes working together very easy. David has a really critical eye which is extremely helpful as I can always count on him calling out what works and what doesn't. In terms of the business side of dealing with sponsors, David handles the negotiations. I typically head up the creative discussions with them and we're both involved in general organization details.
See more at jonahbirns.com and redhookcrit.com