ALUMNI SPOTLIGHT: How Dark Igloo’s Mark Miller is re-designing content marketing for a digital world

By VFS, on July 3, 2024

Vancouver Film School alumni don't just work for the best companies, they BUILD the best companies! This week we're highlighting Dark Igloo, a creative force in the design industry. Founded in 2008 by Dave Franzese & Mark Miller – a graduate of our Digital Design program – Dark Igloo brands themselves 'A Company That Specializes'. This is a bold statement, but one the New York based content marketing studio has earned the bragging rights for.

Since its inception, Dark Igloo has pushed the boundaries of what's possible in the design world, building a catalogue of work that's fresh, innovative, and always tackled with a unique approach. With a highly collaborative core team of just 6, they've done it all – from major studio/office rebranding to sleek merchandising and even short films.

Most notably, however, the studio has spent the past 11 years directing the GIPHY brand. Take a moment to let that sink in. GIPHY… the foremost database & search engine for animated GIFs. If you're a fellow designer (or even just a millennial) you've inevitably sent a friend something from GIPHY.

Digital Design alum Mark Miller (left) co-founded Dark Igloo in 2008 alongside Dave Franzese.

It would be an impossible feat to choose just one favourite project from the Dark Igloo catalogue, but here are a few we just can't resist talking about:

GIPHY

We have to start with The Big One. For over a decade, Dark Igloo has been behind the branding, creative, and art direction for GIPHY. This partnership has led to video shorts, animated emojis, exclusive merchandise, and more, all of which culminated in a recent 10-year swag retrospective. It's hard to imagine where we'd be as a society without GIPHY but thanks to Dark Igloo, we need not worry.

BORED GAME

The Greatest Board Game NEVER Made (but one you'll wish was very real). A Dark Igloo passion project, this 90's-esque commercial features a mash-up of too many classic games to count, resulting in the most complex, stimulating, and perhaps stress-inducing game ever devised. We all have a competitive gamer in our lives who would flip tables over this game.

BUZZFEED

When Dark Igloo helmed office redesigns for internet giant BuzzFeed, the end product was so sleek, so enticing, so modern that it'll have you ready to abandon your work-from-home life in favour of a return to office. Featuring factory aesthetics and industrials details that flow into sculptures and installations, it's understandable if BuzzFeed employees forget they're not actually working in an art gallery.

FRAME BY FRAME

Saving (one of) the best for last! To call it the ultimate coffee table book for designers would be an understatement. 35 international artists created all new animations for the first-ever animated book of gif art – an 85-page masterpiece of lenticular holograms, flip books, images sequences, and stickers. The final product is mind-blowing and is truly the ultimate collector's item for art-lovers.

Dark Igloo's Brooklyn office is truly a workplace to be envied.

Mark Miller was kind enough to sit down with us to discuss everything 'Dark Igloo' – from its birth to its future and everything in between:

How did Dark Igloo come to life?

I met my business partner Dave Franzese while working in NYC at a studio in SoHo. We were in our mid-20s, and it was a great way to meet people from all sorts of disciplines and start to build our network. Dave and I were such fast friends we eventually moved in together to turn the space into an “art house” of sorts. Dark Igloo was just the name we gave our apartment where we made stuff every day. “Dark” being a combination of “DAve & maRK” and “Igloo” being a really cool place to hang out. Our logo is a cartoon bear with stars above its head which is a combination of our two state flags (California & Indiana).

When the 2008 recession hit I lost my job, but luckily had a strong daily art practice called “Stretch Daily” that I'd been using as a vehicle to participate in national design conferences and experimental programs like Weiden Kennedy's SEEKING. That combination introduced me to some international creatives and garnered us our first projects – enough to buy a couple computers, keep the lights on, and get the Igloo rolling.

And how has it grown over the past 16 years?

We built Dark Igloo “brick by brick”. The Stretch Daily practice fostered a 50/50 approach of splitting your time between client and personal work to stay inspired, avoid burnout, and aim not to repeat ourselves too much.

Since the beginning, Dave & I shared a vision of earning our place over time and showing the strength of our ideas as multidisciplinary creators. We saw that you could gain traction a bit faster if you advertised one skill or style, but we've always tried to keep our eyes on the horizon and the long-term goals of building our own IP and being able to create whatever we want.

That attracted like-minded designers who are all talented generalists. The people who work here spend YEARS with us at the studio, and they all do a bit of everything. It keeps the work exciting, the studio flexible, and our team allows us to do things we never could've accomplished as two dudes.

In 2020 we moved our studio from our old apartment to a huge open office space in an old warehouse building, it was a change the whole team had been interested in for years, and working remotely covid lockdown helped us understand that the Igloo was more than the house we started it in. It was an attitude and energy shared across our whole team, and we could bring it anywhere we went.

You've managed to maintain an impressive balance between client projects and self-driven projects. How important is it to you to give as much attention to passion projects and work that 'pays the bills?

When you're starting out, people often only want to hire you for things you've already done or skills you've already shown competence in. You can move faster and gain more of a following if you show the world that you plan to work in a singular style or medium.

We took a deep look into our future and decided that we wanted to be known for how we think, our sense of humor, and our taste vs. a singular style or service. The passion projects are your way of broadcasting your pure, unfiltered taste and vision to the world. Clients and collaborators enthusiastically responded to the personal work, and over time the line between client and self-driven projects had disappeared.

You were part of the very first group to graduate from Vancouver Film School's Digital Design program. How did your year at VFS impact the early days of your career?

I did my undergrad at BSU in Indiana where most of my interests were not yet supported by proper courses. As a result, I ended up working with professors on their grant projects and crafting my own major. One of the larger grant projects allowed a few of us to tour other leading programs like SCAD in Atlanta and VFS. The VFS computer labs seemed so next level and I found the metropolitan area really beautiful and far enough away from home to be a real adventure.

The year I spent at VFS was an incredible time to focus and receive next level mentoring while pursuing my passions. We were also tasked with creating personal branding which really helped solidify my perspective on how I wanted to be perceived, I still use that logo to this day and have created countless versions of it.

What's it been like to creatively direct the GIPHY brand for over a decade?

Dave and I really love world building whether it's a brand, cartoon, or game universe. When most people think of “branding” they think about the logo, the voice, and the design system. GIPHY is all those things, and so much more.

Over the last 11 years, Dave & I have had the pleasure of deciding what GIPHY feels likes as 100's pieces of merch, R&D'ing new products, creating original content & campaigns, designing their physical office & event spaces, and most importantly fostering the vibe shared by all the people who worked at GIPHY.

If you want to contact Dark Igloo, you'll have to strap on your gamer headset first!

In a game-changing (pun intended) move, you turned Dark Igloo's Contact Us page into a playable game. What led you to implement this unique approach?

Most of our wilder ideas come from wanting to subvert expectations; we'd go to lunch together and dream up things we could not even afford to create yet, then make the first version of it with zero budget and manifest it into reality. When we were creating our contact form, we wanted to show that we offer a different experience as collaborators, that we like to have fun, and we want to play.

The first version of our Contact Us page was 8-bit, styled like outrun, where you drove your email to the finish line. We always wanted to upgrade it to 16-bit, but you know, time flies… and at our ten-year anniversary we decided to skip straight ahead to 64-bit, creating Contact Us 2 – a psychedelic version of Mario Kart 64.

How important do you feel the mentorship aspect of Dark Igloo is?

I've always loved mentoring. In high school I mentored a 6th grader. When I moved to NYC I mentored artistic high school students. And, after getting our footing as a company, we began to hire and share knowledge with recent graduates that cross our path.

I think there are less entry level apprenticeships available these days. It may be a slower process to arrive at maximum production speed, but relationships REALLY are the best thing we have going on in this life and it's worth investing in each other. We've had freelancers comment that when they work with us it's clear from how we treat each other that people are more important than profit in our business.

What an impact you've made within the design world! Has leaving your mark (pun NOT intended!) always been a personal goal, or just a nice bonus?

I honestly feel like we're just getting started. Though our work for GIPHY and other global brands has been seen and shared billions of times, this sometimes means our personal work takes a back seat. I personally believe it's not about everyone seeing your work, but your work finding the right audience, and I'm really proud of the hearts and minds we've helped open & inspire along the way.

How do you view the current state of the design industry? What lies ahead for its future?

It's definitely wild to watch capitalists essentially try to program out the fun part of being alive; we try to use AI responsibly for things like pre-visualization or rapid prototyping. I heard an Alan Watts lecture that once said “As soon as you know the future, you don't want it anymore. It's as if you've already had it.” I think we're here to enjoy & struggle through the process of creation. The question becomes are we capable of treating it as a dance? Or will we let it become a drag?

Duality Derby is another of Dark Igloo's passion projects – a short film utilizing branding & design as a vehicle for self discovery.

And finally – your #1, all-time-favourite Dark Igloo moment.

One of the most profound moments was touring our Duality Derby art cars back in my hometown at the largest county fair in the USA. We spent 2 years conceptualizing, designing and building 80's Nascar replicas covered in logo flips & custom graphics and prepared them for a demolition derby.

I'll never forget the first kid who ran up to our booth and single handedly spelled out the entire project to me as if he had created it, noticing every detail. I felt tears well up in my eyes knowing that the work had found its audience. He and his friends ended up hanging out and operating the RC portion of our booth all week! That is, until we were kicked out by 25 police officers. But that's a story for another time.

If there was ever an argument in favour of 'art matters', Dark Igloo is the proof. Pioneers for innovation in the modern digital world, the studio has shown us the power of design when great creative minds come together.

If you're an aspiring designer, learn how Vancouver Film School's Digital Design program can launch your industry career. Click here to get started.

 

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