Why bother doing work you don’t feel like doing?
This was the philosophy Juan Carlos Pagan and Ahmed Klink had in mind when they decided to develop their own agency. While they knew creatives were keeping the industry afloat, they weren’t seeing that power reflected within the structure of most traditional studios.
“It seems like a lot of agencies bring on talent, but they don’t bring on talent understanding that those individual people have their own interests and pursuits,” said Pagan. “And you’re trying to retain talent for a short amount of time, but eventually they’re going to go off and pursue their own thing, or go to another agency.”
Pagan and Klink wanted to build the kind of place where creatives would be excited to work, so they created New York’s Sunday Afternoon. This design studio gives largely independent artists the run of the land, encouraging them to only take on briefs that intrigue, or even offend them.
Co-Founder and Executive Creative Director Pagan especially delights in work that elicits the latter reaction. “If we get people like, Oh, that’s shit, man, that’s horrible— I’d rather get that than someone seeing it and forgetting about it,” he said.
And the impulse appears to be working. Sunday Afternoon’s blend of bold internal branding and independent artist representation has resulted in consistently interesting work that made a big splash at this year’s PRINT Awards. The New York studio won our coveted title of Agency of the Year after sweeping the ceremony with a whopping six wins in five categories, including Editor’s Choice and 1st and 3rd Place in Handlettering & Type Design.
Sunday Afternoon is known for vibrant, eye-catching, often experimental work, and offbeat typography is a house specialty. Their long, impressive client list includes Apple, Nike, Adidas, Bacardi, NPR, and many more— and they’re just getting started. To celebrate the continued rise of Sunday Afternoon, I sat down with Pagan to talk about what animates the agency, why typography excites him, and how work has shifted his perception of the world.
The following interview has been condensed for clarity and length.
What is Sunday Afternoon, and what makes it different from other agencies?
The origin stories of Sunday Afternoon squarely started with a conversation with my business partner, Ahmed, and myself. We’re both being offered to be represented by traditional reps, like prepping studios, traditional artist reps. At the time, I was running these brand design studios at advertising agencies for a while, but I was interested in trying to build a place that reps artists, but also had an internal design studio, bridging these two worlds. And Ahmed was also really interested in creating a new space that brought design work, but design has to also have a repping upon it. So you had individual artists that pursue their own interests, but also work on larger branding projects that came into the design studio.
Yeah, it sounds like creative independence is a really huge driver of Sunday Afternoon. I would love to hear more about your relationship to creators within your company.
I think if you examine traditional advertising agencies or design studios, you have a lead creative, and then you have individual designers that work underneath that person, right? If you’re looking at people who are talented and creative, I think the best way to keep them engaged is supporting their individual artistic pursuits.
What you don’t want to do is create a place where they get a brief and they’re like, Oh, really? I have to work on this? Versus the way we do it, since we have an internal design studio. We’ll bring on a brief, and we’ll ask artists on the on the roster whether they are interested in working on it. Like last year, we got a call from Nike, and Nike wanted to do some stuff, and Geoff Levy, one of the directors on our roster, was interested in the brief, and what we were creating, and these artists on the roster were able to bring him in.
I think that’s what makes Sunday Afternoon so unique. It’s run by myself and Ahmed, who are also artists on the roster ourselves. We only work on really fun stuff, and create and cultivate a really great environment where we’re working on briefs with the people we admire, like with our friends. So that’s what Sunday Afternoon really tries to set up, a two-headed monster that feeds the design studio internally. And even the artists themselves— we’re all feeding off of each other’s energy, where we’re sharing work, where we’re trying to bring the artists out to some larger projects that the design studio might get, but sometimes they don’t. Sometimes it’s just me and the internal design studio jamming on stuff internally. But when we get the opportunity to work with one of the photographers, one of the other artists on the roster, that’s always a pleasure.
Do you have a barometer of what feels right for Sunday Afternoon, or do you just know when you see it?
I think we tend to do really offbeat, weird stuff. We’re not your traditional agency; we’re not interested in making work that like blends in— we would much rather create things that offend people, or be more polarizing. I think people will come to us for that edge. You can go to a safe design studio that will give you some traditional work that will be nice, and that’s great. I don’t think we get a lot of that. I think we get people that are more interested in the weird— and that’s for the good and for the bad, because sometimes we fail tremendously, so it’s not always all candies, and rainbows, and fun. We get these weird briefs, and we try to answer them in fun ways, and that often leads to great work or tremendous failures.
What do you find valuable about polarizing work, and how do you know you’ve done it well?
I don’t know if we ever know we’ve done it? We’re happy when our clients are happy, and when we’re a little uncomfortable with the work. As a designer, this is the feeling where you’re like, I don’t know if this is great, or if it’s shit, but it makes me a little uncomfortable. I think that’s a good feeling to be in for us. I think we all enjoy that feeling where we don’t really know, and I think that’s a really fun line to play with. Are we doing something so tremendously interesting that it’s bad? If it makes us uncomfortable, that’s normally a pretty good sign. I think we get bored really easily. So if something bores us, that would be the bummer.
Do you have a good example of work that made you feel that way?
All of them are, to me, challenging in very unique ways. Like the Hyperspace case study was a typographic system out of these very simple geometric shapes. So Hyperspace is a company that works in the virtual world. They’re a developer that does physical and virtual spaces, so super unique, really out there. They’re based out of Dubai; they’re fun, they’re extroverted, they’re loud. But we took a very simple design approach where we took circles and a square, and used that as the primary basis to create the rest of the typeface, and the entire design system, so that made us uncomfortable. Like, if you look at some of those letterforms, some of them are very challenging and uncomfortable, right?
It’s a little jarring. It’s a little weird. Like, Is that a P? I don’t know. If you look at some of the characters, they’re very challenging. They’re not like this simple, clean-cut type of graphics system. It’s got some really funky stuff happening here, and that line makes me, as a typographer, really uncomfortable, but I really, really love it. I love that feeling because we’re not creating something that feels like cooked or true.
Yeah, it’s very rave-y. It’s tapping into an aesthetic that people are interested in right now, but doing something a little different with it. I do think that the typography is kind of the best example of what makes the work a little sharper and more intense.
And it’s just making weird typographic forms that aren’t really traditional.
The work we did for the Type Directors Club call for entry made me very uncomfortable, because I was on the board. We’re dealing with an institution that prides itself on acknowledging and highlighting typographic excellence, and what I tried to do here was like something that was very, very weird.
For this design system, I wanted to create a type of graphic system that sort of hugged itself. It felt like these letter forms are coming together and hugging, and they’re interacting in a very intimate way. So when you see them interacting, they’re always connected, and they sort of reference, in a weird way, our relationships as people. Sometimes their relationships and moments are really natural, and it feels like, Oh, the J goes into the U like that, and it makes perfect sense. But some of the other sort of interactions are really uncomfortable and odd, and I think that’s the line that I enjoy, because it’s maybe a little wrong, or a little weird. But you know, doing it for an institution that really, again, prides itself on typographic excellence.
So playing with that line, pushing the edge a little bit to see what’s exciting— I think that’s fun for us. It’s certainly fun for me.
I didn’t totally understand at first why you said that this could be potentially polarizing and uncomfortable, but now that I think about it, both of your campaigns for The Type Directors Club and Hyperspace use almost purposefully illegible type. I can understand how making something a little harder to read feels maybe like playing with the concept of words, but kind of turning away from them being words.
Yeah, exactly. We could have just typeset all of this, like a really nice, clean, sans serif font, and it would have worked fine. I think it would have been nice, but what are you left with? Are we trying something different? Are we experimenting in any way? And if we’re not doing that, then what are we doing? And I would feel such boredom as a designer if I wasn’t at least questioning, and pushing, and challenging people a little bit with typography.
It sounds like progressive values are a big part of Sunday Afternoon. Do you have any feelings about the accessibility issue raised by more experimental, less legible typography?
I think I think we are deliberately playing with forms and typography in a way that’s deliberately challenging. I think there are some hurdles there, for sure. From a design standpoint, those hurdles are put in place for a reason. We want the community and people who interact with these brands to enjoy making those leaps, and coming to their own conclusions with the work, good or bad. In terms of accessibility, I like to think that, given enough time with the work, even the most challenging, you’ll get there. It’s not trying to evade legibility, but it gives you enough of a hurdle to engage with it, and spend some time with it.
There’s something about playing with Latin script for people who know how to read it to the point that it looks absurd. That makes it interesting, because in most cases, we don’t think about letters beyond what they’re supposed to signify, or about the shape of them. And it sounds like there’s potential for making letters purposefully illegible to inspire that thought of, When I’m looking at letters, what am I actually looking at? Because usually, it’s still a word, but when I’m looking at more subversive typography, I’m not thinking about the structure of the word as much.
Right, and the formal aspects— not to sound pretentious here, but letter forms are called letter forms. They’re shapes, and that can be exploited to remind people, that these are our shapes. Those forms, obviously, are put together to help us read and communicate, but they’re also beautiful, and dynamic, and challenging on their own, and I love that space. I love using letters; I love being in the studio to use letters in a way that’s compelling beyond just communicating a word or a sentence. I think, if we’re doing our jobs right, we’re playing with that a little bit.
Is there anything in particular that you want people to know about Sunday Afternoon?
I think what we find valuable is diversity of humans and point of view, as well as design. A lot of design studios have a methodology to their work, and that permeates through every single one of their projects. I’m not necessarily sure that’s how we think about it. Each project is a unique opportunity to explore a diverse point of view through design, and using diverse groups of humans to help create that design work as well, so that’s hugely important to us. Huge.