One of the unfortunate but very essential side effects of the pandemic is having to mask up when you’re out in public. No more smiling at the occasional passerby or quietly smirking at the person next to you when you hear someone unleash a long-winded order at Starbucks. Now, our eyes are overcompensating for the rest of our usual facial features and tics.
But our eyes can also say quite a lot. Think back to any generalized misbehavior from your childhood and the icy laserbeam-like stare of disapproval from your mother. Or what about a crush catching your eyes as you quickly look away? Those moments can speak volumes, and that premise guides much of Design Army’s Best of Show Winner for Georgetown Opticians, “Eyes Say More Than Words” campaign.
The short film for the optometrist's practice centers around the quietest library on Earth (which is actually the architectural marvel that is the George Peabody Library at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore), where a “Quiet Guard” sits high above the patrons trying their darndest to read in silence. Inevitably, the hush falls to pieces—clicking pens, turning pages, sneezing, heels clomping, pencils drumming—and turns into a cacophonous symphony of near-rhythmic noise shouted down by the guard’s shushing.
The library guests start to talk amongst their eyes and quietly attempt to kick-off the “Silent Revolution." Not only is one dictatorial quiet guard driven insane, but you'll find Georgetown's beautiful spectacles, gorgeous clothes, big hair, and, yes, a gigantic eyeball in a clock tower because, of course.
“You can’t unsee a ginormous eyeball,” jokes Pum Lefebure, co-founder and chief creative officer at Design Army. “You will always remember that film.”
All told, it’s a breezy bit of fun with a few laughs, crack sound design, and some Hitchcockian flourishes that manage to make an optician and luxury eyewear provider look pretty sexy. And that's not an easy task for any design agency because some of us are pushing our glasses up our nose as you read this, and there's nothing inherently sexy about that.
Design Army had already worked with Georgetown before, but the previous focus of the advertisements centered more on family, as the practice consists of three generations of opticians. But when they started planning their next campaign back in 2019, the ideas of protest and revolution were very much on their mind, with all of the noise happening in the world (though that feels like a Homer-iffic doom scroll and eons ago in the very young year of 2021).
But the promotion also sprang from one of Pum's many work trips. She would frequently travel to New York via Amtrak and always made a point of sitting on the quiet train. “Most people think it’s strange,” says Pum. “I love it because when you're in the quiet car, you're not allowed to do anything, meaning no noise. I can't pick up the phone. The phone can’t ring. I can't hear music. I can't talk to my husband sitting next to me. It's like a library.” On one of these trips, a fellow passenger in the quiet car took a phone call and started loudly gabbing, much to the chagrin of everyone around them. All at once, the commuters collectively turned their attention to the loud talker and shushed her.
Still, even with that relatable piece of inspiration for the shoot, a great deal of the campaign's strength also lies in its timeless quality. While high school yearbooks were a touchstone for the agency, it wasn’t carbon-dated nostalgia they fancied. Folks of all ages star in the campaign—everyone wears glasses, after all—and while you’ll find those 70s Farah Fawcett hairstyles, it also takes place in a library completed at the end of the 19th century. The agency was pulling influence from many decades and visual aesthetics, and they didn’t want to take things too literal in any one concrete direction. What they needed to do was build their own distinct world in the library.
“I always want people to be able to recall the period, but not really do a period piece,” Pum says. “If you think the 70s, I think that's boring. We want to create something original, that when you look at the film, it feels like something you know, but you can't really pin down what era you are in. The goal here is, five years from now, you look at this as a timeless piece.”
In launching their silent revolution (along with director Dean Alexander and sound designers Squeak E. Clean) amidst a chaotic world overwhelmed with noise, Design Army creates a bonkers realm that immediately consumes you. And, yeah, it will likely inspire you to do a handstand in the middle of a library while digging into a pulpy mystery novel.
For Pum and Design Army, 2020 almost felt like a lost year. Before the pandemic hit, they were about to jump into three massive projects overseas in Asia, and they were all canceled. That means all of the planning, all those meetings, and pre-production was wiped out completely. The agency had to pivot right away, and the first question they asked themselves was the most obvious one— what can we do with computers and software?
“It’s a new world now, and you’ve got to act like it’s one,” Pum says. “What we did was really get back again to graphic design. That's what we know. We know damn well about prin
t, and we know graphic design, and that was our route.”
In a way, Design Army got back to basics. They worked on branding and packaging projects for several high-profile clients, doubling down on what made them successful in the first place. Because if you can’t do films for the Georgetown's and Hong Kong Ballet’s of the world, you have to find a path forward.
That’s precisely why being a co-winner for PRINT’s Studio of the Year is an honor for the agency. Sure, they’ve won awards before, but for something that focuses on graphic design and what they really had to go back to doing, it’s all the more meaningful. They also took home a second-place award for Hand Lettering & Type Design for PRINT’s 2019 awards certificates. And, yes, admittedly, we’re biased, but it’s work they completed amid the pandemic, and it represents how they managed to thrive and rely upon one another in what could have been a disastrous year.
Graphic and print design is central to the agency’s core. You can easily see it in all of their winning campaigns from this past year but go back to the Georgetown film. Every frame gets obsessively poured over, every detail is under a microscope, and art-directed to death. Nothing is out of place. Everything fits and celebrates this world that they created from scratch.
“That’s why we’re different from most ad agencies,” Pum says. “We’re designers at heart.”