Hindsight 2020

A creative studio sees the world and asks how it can be improved. In 2020, that instinct went into overdrive, as a lethal health crisis tore across the globe and political polarization threatened the fabric of American democracy. So with this peculiar year (nearly) in the rear-view, we’re considering how we sized up against the colossal challenges of our time, unpacking the lives we lived, the projects we tackled, and the people who enriched our experience along the way.

Getting creative with COVID

In early March, we saw the writing on the wall, enacting a work-from-home policy for all Athletics employees. Some of us decided to go to ground nearby, while others fled to the hills of the Catskills Mountains or farther afield (see the “View From Our Window” series on Instagram parts 1, 2, and 3, and our “WFH Chair Reviews”). Like the rest of the world, we were flying blind, staying on course through clear protocols for collaboration, and designated time for recreation. Slack became our virtual office, testing our ability to communicate clearly using the written word. Zoom and Hangouts gave us a window into our colleagues’ lives, inspiring our “Background Check” series on Instagram (parts 1, 2, 3, and 4). We stayed close (metaphorically speaking) with team cocktails to wind down the week, sharing our experiences and struggles, and making sure no one felt alone, despite our distance.

For many of us, isolation revealed new avenues for creative expression. Matt Owens, partner and creative / project lead believes “being remote opened up new processes for me and a sharper focus on deeper work.” Jameson Proctor, partner and director of digital strategy, is impressed by “how seamlessly the team transitioned from working in the studio to working remotely. It seems we were already ready for the future of work!”

Central to our strategy for navigating the pandemic was a prioritization of health and wellness. While this has been in vogue for the past few years in our industry and beyond, the pandemic put these practices to the test in critical ways. From group stretches and guided meditations over Zoom, to healthy recipes shared over our #recipes Slack channel, wellness proved a powerful stabilizer, preparing us for the inevitable twists and turns of 2020. As Jason Gnewikow, partner and creative director puts it: “This year I think we all learned a lot about taking a more holistic approach to the health of our studio beyond doing great work for our clients, putting more time and energy to the wellbeing and happiness of our employees.” Malcolm Buick, partner and creative director, speaks for all of us when he says, “I have allowed myself to take time to think, sketch, keep fit, eat better, stay calm. Work and life blends, but it’s ok, as long as I give myself the time I need.”

Learning to fly

As any parent knows—and we count a few of them among our team—remote learning is a serious struggle. This year, students and parents bore the brunt of disruption as classes dissolved and instruction went (often awkwardly) online. We’re just beginning to understand the true cost of this, with students falling behind at a staggering rate. Fortunately, we had the opportunity to partner with a number of brands and organizations dedicated to getting students back on track, applying the rigors of technology and powers of design to engage students from anywhere.

With campus tours cancelled indefinitely, Athletics and NYU unveiled a compelling new way to explore the world-class campus. Have a look around here.

Partnering with Amplify, a pioneer in K through 12 curriculum and assessment, we launched sites for the brand’s Florida-specific curriculum, and are poised to re-launch sites dedicated to its innovative reading programs. More to come in 2021.Our ongoing partnership with XQ, the nation’s leading organization dedicated to rethinking the high school experience, continued throughout 2020, including the relaunch of XQ Super School Dot Org. Jameson, who worked with Athletics technical director Ross Luebe to lead the project from the technology side, considers the XQ Super School site “a major achievement.” He adds, “Not only are the design and user experience great, there’s a lot going on behind the curtain with the technology that truly empowers the XQ team. Neither of these successes would have been possible without blurring the line between agency and client to develop a true partnership.”

From the inside out

From our new, distributed vantage point, we saw Athletics from a different angle, reimagining old working styles, and abandoning anything that held us back.

One tradition that endured and evolved was our Evening Session series. We continued the series as virtual events open to the public as our way of staying connected with inspiring ideas: the lifeblood of any creative business. Throughout our ongoing virtual series, we hosted curator Alexander Tochilovsky to discuss “Lubalin, Ginzburg, and the Triumph of Creative Risk,” photographer William Abranowicz to share images and stories from his new book “This Far and No Further,” and YOWIE founder Shannon Maldonado to share her thoughts on “Love, Fear, and Letting Go.” 

Spirited conversation was a pillar of 2020, particularly in the aftermath of the police killing of George Floyd, which sparked an international reckoning over the living legacy of racism in our institutions. Athletics came together as a team for dynamic conversations, reapplying ourselves to diversity, equity, and inclusion through a series of internal initiatives and external projects currently underway. “Understandably,” says Jameson, “there was a lot of anxiety and emotion in the spring and early summer regarding the pandemic and the murder of George Floyd. Making space for honest and vulnerable dialogue while also ‘keeping the lights on’ took us into a lot of uncharted territory.”Bringing new voices into the fold, we added a number of friendly faces to the Athletics team, most recently Katherine Lee (Executive Strategy Director), Ana Realmuto (Senior Designer), and Kelly Wang (Design Intern). You can get to know each of them a little better here.

Reading between the lines

Editorial brands have become a core part of the Athletics portfolio. This year, we launched three very different platforms, each endeavoring to deliver the tactile pleasure of reading to digital surfaces. As voracious content consumers ourselves, we’re proud to do our part in spreading the joy of storytelling through strategy, design, and technology.

ServiceNow develops and distributes innovative workplace automation software. In 2019, ServiceNow enlisted Athletics to conceptualize, design, and develop Workflow Quarterly, the company’s new digital publication. We developed a flexible, immersive system to present original research in a compelling narrative format, implementing the system through eight issues across two years. Read the full case study here.

The New York Review of Books is the leading English-language journal of literary criticism and ideas. In 2020, more than a half-century after its founding, the Review partnered with Athletics to create a new digital-first refresh and platform aimed at attracting a new generation of readers. Find something wonderful to read on the new site here.

The Counter is an award-winning investigative newsroom focused on American food. Launched in January of 2020, The Counter’s new visual and digital presence offers a broadened audience captivating stories that encourage smart choices as consumers and citizens. Read the full case study here, learn more about our process of naming The Counter here, and get your fill of their brilliant reporting on the beautiful new site (linked above).

Jameson, who led the technical charge on these three projects, states: “Being fully remote actually provided more opportunities for focused, one-on-one interactions with both internal and client team members. The result was deeper collaboration that led to better ways to identify challenges and opportunities facing our clients.”

Technology in the home age

Our relationship with technology transformed throughout the pandemic, as we became more reliant on virtual communication, more demanding of our tools (read an example of this here), and more invested in the technology we live with every day (read more on that here). This was an ideal environment for us to think critically and creatively about the design of brand identities for companies in the field of technology.

Our ongoing collaboration with IBM continued to blossom, as Big Blue partnered with Athletics to expand its successful Be Equal initiative to include every dimension of equality. Explore the new Be Equal strategy, brand, and voice here, and read our IBM case story here. Keep an eye out for a full case study for Be Equal coming early 2021.

Perhaps our most ambitious project of the year was the global relaunch of the Citrix brand identity. Citrix delivers digital workspace solutions that help organizations improve employee experience and unlock human potential, wherever work needs to get done. In 2019, the company challenged Athletics to drive adoption as it shifted from being a tech provider to being a strategic partner focused on the entire employee experience. Answering that call over the following year and a half demanded a fundamental transformation of the Citrix brand identity from the ground up, from brand strategy to sonic branding. But the solution went so much deeper: in the process, we forged an entirely new belief system and self-conception for the decades-old company. Malcolm, who led the Citrix redesign alongside Jason, states: “This year really provided me with the confidence to be bolder, try new practices, and get behind the work we’ve developed.” Read the full case study for Citrix here.

It’s a lifestyle (brand)

2020 inspired us all to take a critical look at our own lifestyles, from mental health to diet to social relations. Within this atmosphere, Athletics worked with a number of brands whose offering transcends a physical product or service to encompass an entire worldview and approach to modern life. In a year in which our movements were constrained by lockdowns, perhaps it’s not surprising that both of these brands focus on mobility as the key to conscious living.

ECCO was founded in 1963 in rural Denmark, and is now Scandinavia’s leading footwear brand. Seeking to grow its footprint among a new generation of consumers, ECCO turned to Athletics for a new perspective on the 57-year-old brand. Our partnership is active and ongoing, ranging from new sub-brand launches to rapid-response communications during the pandemic. Read the full case study here, and stay on the lookout for more in 2021.

Culdesac is creating the first car-free neighborhood in the United States. The pioneering real estate development company approached Athletics to define a brand strategy and identity that would introduce its radical concept for the future of cities to prospective residents, press, and government officials, while mitigating some of the predictable concerns Americans might have about giving up their cars entirely. Explore the full case study here, and read what The New York Times thinks of Culdesac here.

All’s well that ends well

The root of the word “January” is Janus, as in the two-faced Roman god of beginnings, gates, transitions, time, duality, doorways, passages, frames, and endings. As we face the future, here are some of the things we’re anticipating in 2021:

  • Growing our strategy offering
  • Syncing brand and digital more seamlessly
  • Moving into a post-COVID working environment
  • Embracing new work behaviors for distributed teams
  • Building our team internally and cultivating closer relationships externally

Words cannot express our gratitude for the resiliency of our team-mates, the confidence of our clients, the brilliance of our collaborators, and the ongoing support of our friends and families. To all of you who have enriched our work and lives over the past twelve months, we thank you from the deepest well of our being, and wish you a safe and restorative new year. Onward and upward!

Parting thoughts from the Athletics partners

“In May we had no idea what this year would look like. Now at year’s end our values as a business and our appreciation for one another and our clients are even stronger.”

– Matt


“Our belief that experience—our own and that of our clients—is the cornerstone of our agency was pressure-tested in 2020. By committing from the early days of the pandemic to not only keeping our team together, but also growing and nurturing it, I think we proved our commitment to that belief. As a result, I believe we’re better positioned to do great work with great clients than ever before.”

– Jameson


“In the past it was always about designing, making my mark, taking part in the practice. These days, my schedule doesn’t allow for so much of that, and I’m at peace with it. Now, it’s all about taking my 25+ years of design experience and channeling it where it’s needed most: to lift up our awesome design team and help them reach the next level in their careers.”

– Malcolm


“I’m looking forward to getting back to the studio in 2021 (if we can), but also taking what we learned and all the new skills we were forced to develop, keeping what works, and adopting those working models into our processes into the future. And to hug people again.”

– Jason