The Daily Heller: Umber is More Than a Color

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Mike Nicholls is founder and creative director of the design and culture magazine Umber. For 20 years he has been a creative director, brand strategist, publisher, visual designer and illustrator. He designs and illustrates the perspectives of each issue’s contributors, from curation of content to final magazine design, which includes visuals and sound. I asked Nicholls to talk about his inspiration and goals in the post-Covid months and year to come. (With thanks to Rudy VanderLans for the introduction.)

What inspired you to go print with Umber?

I’ve been a fan of printed magazines since high school. From Day 1, I knew Umber would be embodied as print media. I always say, “when you get something printed, you’re showing a commitment to that idea, thought and vision.” I’ve had the idea for Umber for a while now, but it wasn’t until Trump got elected in 2016 that encouraged me to take up space and protest in the most passionate and authentic way.

How did you determine what your focus content would be? What is the “passionate and authentic” in your terms?

It was less about responding to Trump and more of “THIS is the time to launch Umber.” Our publications are never reactive to topical issues or even current political climates. Every issue of Umber is based on a theme or concept I’m passionate about. Once the theme is in place, I curate the content, features and contributors based on that theme.

We speak to the creative thinkers. Our goal is to have a visual dialogue that is expansive and nuanced. For example, the first issue was all about vulnerability. How you embrace it and grow from it as a creative. Even if you’re not an artist, everybody can relate to that, and it eventually becomes a starting point for a larger conversation.

I am a creative thinker who thinks visually. My medium is visual design and printed ink on paper. That’s my authenticity, that’s what I’m passionate about. If you cut me I bleed graphite pencils, printed ink and Helvetica.

Your “Making of Umber” film shows people lovingly caressing the pages. Is that tactility part of your mission?

There’s always a visceral experience with touching paper, feeling the texture of the medium and turning the pages for the big reveal. Nowadays, we mostly take in media through screens and infinite scrolling. Having something tactile is a way to cut through the abundance of digital media. Also, our vision is, “globally highlighting the creative nuance of Black & Brown people through printed media.”

Your title is very intriguing. It implies a mix of many things, including race and culture. What is your goal in editing Umber?

Well, the title was definitely inspired by me being a visual artist. When I used to oil paint, burnt umber was always on my palette. Umber literally means “brown pigment from the earth,” and we only print in black and brown ink. I don’t necessarily think of race in terms of what Umber implies. But what I will say is our editorial perspective is about inclusive cultural identity.

Do you perceive or nurture an Umber style or visual language?

The major influences for the visual style of Umber would be Cheryl D. Miller (my mentor), Emory Douglas, Paul Rand and Émigré magazine. In all of those examples their legacy is cemented in print. Print is definitely a part of our language. Our unique approach to design is part cerebral, subtlety, provocative and wonder; think of it as the “creative nuance.” I’m always exploring ways to have a visual dialogue through typography, space, composition and illustration.

The COVID-19 virus has had an unintended convergence with Black Lives Matter. There is a growing desire not just to see a spike in professional representation, and that people of color must not be an anomaly but rather seamlessly integrated into all parts of the design and creative communities. How long before this kind of creative integration is the norm, not an exception?

I think we’re close, but we’ll see what steps some of these institutions will take when the topic isn’t trending. Time will tell, but a shift is happening for sure. I would also hope that more established design organizations invest and support folks who’ve already been doing the work long before there were hashtags.

For us this creative integration of Black people, the indigenous community and people of color (BIPOC) is our norm. The concept of Umber was conceived in 2006 and we created our first prototype in 2012. Umber was never created to address diversity and inclusion, it was created from the community we’ve been a part of; a way to highlight and archive our narrative.

Who is your community and what is the narrative?

Umber's community are imaginative people that creatively takes up space and engage in the world around them. Whether it be thought leaders, visual artists, designers, writers, content creators, storytellers, change-makers, entrepreneurs and CEOs. Now the narrative of our content is when those imaginative people exist to make change in the world, not just live it in.

Umber began as a Kickstarter. What does it require to continue? What do you need to make it succeed?

Since Kickstarter, Umber has been entirely self-funded and community supported. We are not a traditional magazine; Umber is a graphic journal and we want to keep it that way. We have a small team (mainly me) and our vision is to expand. We’re in the process of creating more ways for people to fund Umber, whether that be crowdsourcing, strategic partnerships and sponsorship. That way we can build out our team and continue to produce authentic printed media. On top of that, definitely more awareness will help us succeed, and purchasing our publications is always a good thing.

How do you foresee Umber growing, expanding and evolving?

Well, I don’t want to let the cat out the bag just yet. Haha! Having a subscription model and putting out more than just one issue a year. We have to see where this pandemic will ultimately take us, but hosting more events. Publishing other publications as an extension of Umber would be cool. Maybe even evolving to digital content, but don’t hold your breath. Who knows; but one thing that’ll never change is the flagship experience of Umber, holding it in your hands.

Mike Nicholls, editor and publisher