The Brandventory: Checking In With Michelle Rial During a Pandemic

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The Brandventory is a column exploring our relationships with the brands that make us tick.

by Jason Tselentis

How do you describe Michelle Rial? Artist? Information designer? Writer? Humorist? Looking at her résumé and Instagram, all of the above are appropriate. But if one thing’s for certain, she’s a humanist. Rial takes everyday, seemingly inane activities and thoughts—as well as serious matters—and distills them into substantive and often humorous charts, graphs, graphics and illustrations.

Paging through Rial’s book Am I Overthinking This?, you’ll see that no topic is too big, no topic is too small. Each design is full of analysis about the human condition with line, shape, color and object carrying significance. In Why am I so tired? an eye mask tells the story of sleeping, waking and—something weird.

Why do I feel terrible? includes three circles—I had gluten, I had dairy and I had nightshades—that all intersect, forming a Venn diagram … plus an entire pizza that somehow becomes part of the equation. Am I using too much plastic? bends a straw into a chart measuring plastic straw use over time—plus turtles.

Rial, raised in the American South by Venezuelan immigrant parents, is a keen observer of everything around her, especially the planet, which she cares deeply about. But in an effort to use less and be eco-conscious, there is one thing she can’t quit: paper towels. “The better the paper towels, the more trees you’ve harmed,” she says. “Comfort always feels like it’s in conflict with some higher purpose.” A longtime Bounty paper towel devotee, Rial recently switched to Brawny due to their smaller sizes.

“I am a total germaphobe but I'm also afraid of chemicals, and I care about the Earth, so I feel like I’m a perfect trifecta of hypocrisy and inconsistency. One day I will switch to a less hearty, more eco-friendly paper towel, but as someone who wipes every blueberry due to an inexplicable discomfort with water beads, I'm giving myself some time there.”

Like so many of us, time is one thing she’s had since March. Rial, her partner and their dog went into isolation amid the coronavirus, spending her birthday outdoors.

“Before this, I was trying to be mindful and aware of company practices, but the stakes feel much higher right now. Every problem is magnified. In that vein, two brands/companies I'm using more are Good Eggs and I’m newly obsessed with getting fish from Fishmonger Don in San Francisco. He’s not a brand, or is he??”

(To find out, I email Fishmonger Don, who replies in under an hour—speedy, reliable communication. “I've noticed Michelle's orders,” he says. “She's a great new customer of mine.” When I asked about his products and services, he speaks less about a brand or the brand and more about relating to people. “I'm not just a guy selling fish—I want to teach you and educate you. It's about a connection more than any one thing, much more than a fancy website or a branded company.”)

Fishmonger Don at far right

People, stories and experiences matter—along with maybe not thinking about yourself or your company as a brand—and in that way, Michelle Rial is connected to Fishmonger Don by more than just her weekly fish order. For both of them, values matter.

Before Rial connects—really connects—with a product or a brand, one or both of them have to be doing something good. “I might be loyal to a product just because I like it,” she says, “but to be loyal to and enthusiastic about a brand, it has to be aligned with my values. I think brand loyalty has gone more in the direction of Cause Loyalty or Artist Loyalty (vs. Label Loyalty) and I think that's a positive development.”

Like so many of us who are constantly indoors, Rial has been spending more time in the kitchen. When she’s making arepas, it has to be with P.A.N. precooked white cornmeal, “the only brand I'm truly loyal to, and I won't make arepas unless I have it.” Even with her old and new brand obsessions, swearing by Don’s fish and P.A.N. cornmeal—or Brawny paper towels, which, “Due to increased demand, availability is limited and delivery may be delayed”—Rial is a realist. “You can’t really expect a lot of brand loyalty right now,” she says. “You get the toilet paper that's there, you get the brand of wipes they have. The ads that big brands do about how they're helping kind of backfire on me. Like, why spend the money this way? Spend it on doing better. But I worked in advertising, so I get that it’s more nuanced than that. Sort of.”

Rial’s work in advertising goes all the way back to college at the University of North Carolina, where she was a student brand manager for Red Bull and drove the car—yes, the car, the one with the can on top. “
It paid well and I had unlimited free Red Bull. You could say I sold out before my career even started.” Her LinkedIn profile tells the journey of her jobs—time at Saatchi & Saatchi, Ogilvy and WDM Group, as well as a design career that included work at Condé Nast and Glamour, as well as BuzzFeed.

Any one of those places are dream gigs for many design and advertising hopefuls. But ultimately for Rial, constant computer use caused more harm than good. “Graphic design feels so natural to me, but it hurts to use a computer most of the time because of [a] repetitive strain injury.” Stepping away from the computer and into an analog world of pens and paper, Rial found a way to express herself more naturally—pain free—and a new space for creativity.

Created with garage sale stickers, Rial calls this decision matrix “a guide to buying things (regardless of brand).”

Rial cherishes the time that goes into her hands-on work and calls the drawing and design therapeutic—but you need the proper tools. “I started on rough paper with a pen that was really more a brush pen. It was thicker. I love Mnemosyne notebooks, Staedtler pens, and they’re both pretty expensive but they’re very pleasurable to use. Muji notebooks and pens are great too. As I got more comfortable, using the computer less for graphic design, the pain became less and less a part of the story.”

Even with a wide and deep résumé plus a published book, Rial is modest and, at times, critical of herself. “I have a little experience, and not a lot of experience in any one thing. I still feel like a student. There are so many people doing amazing things; I just feel like I’m still in school. There are all of these artists and designers out there. I see these perfect designers and illustrators, and I know I’m never going to be that. I had been doing all of these infographics, and while I appreciate what you can do with Adobe Illustrator, I’m never going to get to that point.”

Having completed a workshop for Adobe 99U, plus new books and other cool design projects happening, things seem to be consistently pointing upwards for Rial. What she can or can’t do with Adobe Illustrator? Seems beside the point.

Edited from a series of telephone and email interviews.