Mike Wasilewski on Purpose, Clarity, and Making Cool Things

Mike Wasilewski, Co-Founder and CCO of Frank Collective, is in the business of branding and making cool things. His thoughts on design trends, inspirations, and projects are covered here.

Name: Mike Wasilewski, Co-Founder & CCO of Frank Collective
Location: Brooklyn, NY
Design school attended: The College of Saint Rose, Albany, NY

How would you describe your work? Can you talk through the design philosophy of Frank Collective?

It’s branding. Everything I do is some sort of brand building—whether that’s evolving, creating, or maintaining a brand through strategy, identity, web, packaging, marketing, etc. I aim for my work, and the work my team makes at Frank, to be clear, emotive, smart, and honest. Clear work is immediate. It isn’t nuanced, abstract, or understated with messaging—it communicates clearly in a way that isn’t hard to get. Clarity is so important, especially today when you have to fight for people’s attention. They aren’t waiting around for your work, nor are they endlessly nit-picking it in meetings like we do all day. When you get their attention, you only have a split-second to grab hold of it — it’s best to be clear when you do.

Honest work resonates with your target audience. They see something in it and recognize that you see them. Branding is empathy when done right. It goes beyond trends, demographics, and yourself to a big simple core truth. So don’t impose your own designer/creative/marketer viewpoint, know how to get out of your own way and get in to your audience’s mindset.

Emotive work evokes a response from your audience that no logo-generator-thing-a-bobber can create. When you elicit an emotion from someone, good or bad, you’re creating something meaningful.

Smart work is interesting. It makes you think a little and give that head nod of appreciation. That “you’re in on the joke” or the “ah that’s so cool they did that” type of acknowledgement that makes your work memorable.

If all of the above is in place, everything else should follow easily.

Where do you find inspiration?

I don’t have a single source of inspiration. This might sound cliche, but just getting out there and living life is the best kind of inspiration. Doing that allows you to build a catalogue of experiences that you can draw upon when thinking about work. And depending on what you’re working on you can find it from almost any source. That and Pinterest. 🙂

With that said, my first inspiration was my teenage obsession with freestyle BMX bikes, and I wanted to find a way to work within the industry. I thought if I was a designer I could get a job working at a bike magazine because I would be better at setting type than riding a halfpipe. While I do enjoy the work I do today, I’m still holding out for that bike magazine.

Who are some of your favorite designers or artists?

Wow. I have so many that I straight up idolize and reference constantly to my staff and students. Currently, Scott Dadich is one of my favorite designers/creative directors in recent years. I remember being so amazed by the pages of Wired when he was at the helm. I would pour over every page of it — oftentimes just gawking at the page for 1 minute saying “Damn thats amazing” then another minute going “man, I wish I did this” then another minute of “gah this is so smart! This is the stuff I want to make!” … and then I would read the article.

I also really love Aaron Draplin’s simple and entertaining explanation of his work and the total apparent joy he gets from it. He knows what he likes and does it his way unapologetically — and for good reason — he’s so talented! Read his book and its apparent that that man lives his truth.

I always liked Tibor Kalman’s wit and conceptual approach to everything. Michael Bierut’s clear and simple rationale and scalability to all his design systems. Caleb Owen Everitt’s distinct and dusty all-American style. Malika Favre’s illustrations are beyond smart and masterful - I can look at them all day long.  

Mike Wasilewski of Frank Collective wants to make cool things.

Do you have a favorite among all the projects you’ve worked on?

I don’t actually. And that’s because I don’t have a single favorite project. I like many projects for many reasons.

I really love when we work with entrepreneurs who are passionate about what they’re doing, and we can bring it to life for them. These are people who are betting the farm on an idea they have and have a lot of pressure to deliver on that idea from investors, family, friends, and themselves. Giving shape and form to a brand for them is very fulfilling for myself and my team. We really get invested in their vision.

I also always dig a project if I’m working on it with great people that I want to be around. It doesn’t matter what it is. It could be a crazy last minute deadline, a simple revision to a brand guideline, or a pro-bono project for a friend. As long as I’m working with people that I enjoy being around it’s all good in my book.

Mike Wasilewski of Frank Collective wants to make cool things.

Is there a project that stands out to you as having been the biggest challenge of your career so far?

This isn’t necessarily something that is remotely a challenge today, but back when I was getting started, it was a really tough thing for me to learn — and is something that I hope I never lose sight of. And that is: anything and everything can be awesome.

I was in my first year at Radical Media and it was time to review with our creative director. When I start showing him the comps of the same logo over and over again at various sizes on all these t-shirt mockups, he just says “Would you wear this t-shirt? Do you think its cool?” 22-year-old me just says, “it’s what we designed though.” He asked me again “yeah but is this the coolest t-shirt ever? Would you wear this out tonight with your friends? If you don’t think it’s cool then how will I? And then how will our client?”

This was the first time that I realized that everything and anything can and should be awesome. And branding is a way of surfacing that innate awesomeness. It’s a challenge to do this but you can make anything interesting if you try. A few years ago you wouldn’t care much about a meal prep service, but you care about Blue Apron today. Socks, have you ever heard a more boring word such as socks? But what about Bombas? They’re awesome! Why? Because they aren’t just socks - they’re Bombas, a better sock both functionally and ethically.

I understood what had to be done in that moment and went into a t-shirt designing fever dream. And made the coolest t-shirts I could with the elements I had to work with.

Mike Wasilewski of Frank Collective wants to make cool things.

What’s your best advice for designers today? Should designers follow “best practices”?

Don’t follow trends blindly. Acknowledge them, critique them, understand what works and why—then take that into account as you make something that works for your task at hand. Just because it worked well for someone else doesn’t mean it will work for you.

You’re a consumer too. Step back often and ask yourself “If I never saw this — does it make sense?” So many times I’ve done this with my own work and its been for the better.

If you’re in a meeting debating the color with someone, you’re having the wrong conversation. What I mean by that is everything you do should have purpose and intention. You are a designer, so nothing should be a flippant design decision. You chose that typeface for some rational reason. You made the very specific color palette because it evoked an energy. The tone of voice you selected is relatable. As the designer you know why you made these decisions, but it’s often hard to put them into words or we forget that not everyone is a designer.

Find more Frank Collective here and more Mike here.

Interview by Daniel Schloss