Josh Cohen's Design Chops Inform
His Unique Exploration Into Video
MIKE O'DONNELL / EDITOR
One of the coolest parts of Brooklyn-based WNW Member Josh Cohen's portfolio is on display in the project credits. The man is wearing a lot of hats. Director, writer, editor, designer, art director, producer. "It’s a special feeling and privilege, being able to have a vision, and have the end product be just that or something really close to it." In our interview below, Josh talks about the natural shift from designer to director, as well as the balancing act of bringing strong ideas to the table and being flexible in collaborations. "The ideas are richer, and often times more grounded by the structure it takes to collaborate, if done well."
How would you describe your creative style? Do you recognize a signature style that links all your projects?
Playful with studied intent.
I often kept my style minimal, out of necessity and instinct (low budgets/no budgets), and these days more so out of habit and taste. I used to be quite conscious of avoiding falling into a particular style, which was drilled into me at design school, “Form ever follows function." Now I realize it comes naturally for me to make something that has just the necessary elements to tell the story or convey a message. An object or character can convey so much meaning on its own, so when you remove the unnecessary clutter surrounding it, the object’s meaning and significance can take center stage. Of course, sometimes you need context and a sense of real space in which case a well curated frame can keep what’s important in focus.
What were some of the challenges and breakthroughs in launching your creative career?
When I heard about freelancing for the first time, I knew that was the life I wanted for myself. So instead of getting a full-time job out of school, I dove headfirst into the the uncertainty of contracting while doing supplementary art handling and carpentry work on the side. It was a little freaky for a bunch of years, being uncertain if work was going to come. Doubt was my biggest challenge. I don’t have that feeling as much after all these years of persisting and knowing that what you put out in the world and who you reach out to, will eventually come back in some form. Sometimes it just takes a couple of months and a series of really annoying emails. People are busy!
A major career breakthrough was having a social video piece I made for Casper perform so well online, that it was converted into a 15 second television spot that went international. My parents were pumped when they saw it on TV for the first time! Was I getting millions of dollars in royalties from the conversion? No, but it gave me a step up towards legitimacy as a creative and a director.
What sort of creative practices outside of video and design do you pursue?
I have a photography practice that’s an important part of my personal creative fulfillment. It allows me to be spontaneous and interact with people and places that I wouldn’t normally have access to. These interactions can also greatly inform my video and design work.
One of the coolest aspects of your portfolio is the project credits. On many of your latest, for the likes of Casper, Lola, & Quip, you’re wearing all the hats: director, writer, producer, & editor. What’s it like seeing these projects come to life all the way from start to finish?
I love hats!
There’s immense satisfaction in sitting around, drinking lots of coffee, jotting down ideas, spit balling, and then helping those ideas come to life. It’s a special feeling and privilege, being able to have a vision, and have the end product be just that or something really close to it.
I’m typically getting lots of help and collaborating with awesome internal creative teams, so I don’t feel like I’m left holding all the straws. In some of the earlier projects, the cost benefit usually relied on doing the brunt of the work on my own, and sometimes that was all the budget allotted for.
Which of your projects are you proudest of and why?
The Casper unboxing is high up there.
How do you elevate, insert brand tone, work in a visual concept, and give narrative to something as mundane and potentially sloppy as unboxing a mattress? We figured out a way to do all of that, while being honest but still fun and idea driven.
I’m working on short documentary about my 92-year-old grandma. She’s the best, pumped on how it’s coming along.
Do you work better on your own or do you equally enjoy the collaborative process?
I love collaborating. A lot of work I did with Casper was very collaborative with their in-house team. I’d hang out on my own for a while free-associating, reading, and doing all sorts of weird things to get my creative juices flowing, then bring back those seeds and spit ball with someone on the Casper team. I can do a lot on my own and at least at the very beginning prefer it, but I most enjoy bouncing ideas back and forth with smart people who have different perspectives and backgrounds. The ideas are richer, and often times more grounded by the structure it takes to collaborate, if done well.
Is there a particular role or title that you feel most comfortable in? And is there an unexplored creative outlet you haven’t tried yet that you’re looking to?
At this point I call myself a director or creative, but I’m comfortable assuming various roles and titles.
I haven’t gotten to do too much of it, but experiential and environmental design is tons of fun. I love thinking about how people can physically and intellectually engage with a space to garner a message or feeling.
What’s the process like, of shifting your focus from art direction & design to video & content? Did a lot of your experiences in the former inform the latter?
The shift happened naturally. I had been making small videos and photographs independently throughout my entire career and in school. A couple years back, clients started hiring me for video and content. As I started to amass a body of commercial video work, I was able to leverage it to get new clients.
My foundation in design still plays a huge role in my video work. Design thinking, how to communicate a message with composition, color, metaphor, etc, translates well into video. Additionally, design and art direction are still very much a part of my creative practice.
What would be your dream project or job, or is it already on your resume?
Tough one, seems like new dreams come up often.
Doing creative and designing a big event for a cultural institution would be a lot of fun. Getting some funding to make a short, narrative PSA would also be a pleasure… Or if someone asked me to design a obstacle course I would be over the moon!
Who and what are your biggest creative influences?
Jim Henson, cruising niche videos on YouTube, science and nature, new places and experiences, Claes Oldenburg, Taryn Simon, The Three Stooges, Todd St. John of HunterGatherer, the Coen brothers, outdoor showers, literature, local news, etc…
What’s your favorite thing on the internet this week?
What’s the best advice you’ve heard or received that all creatives should hear?
Make the kind of work you want to get hired for. Sometimes creatives and companies will take a chance on you, but usually they want to see something you’ve done that’s similar to what they’re looking for... Never stop making your own work. Also, don’t work for free unless you don’t consider it work…
Who are some other WNW members whose work you admire and why?
There are so many! Here’s just a couple.
Devin Washburn is a friend and collaborator. Devin and my buddy Phil DiBello just started this studio http://noideas.biz/. The two of them make some really attractive, smart designs spanning all mediums.
Amber Schaefer is a collaborator and friend. She is incredibly smart and gut-hurt funny as an actor, director, and writer.
Kyle Sauer. He makes some really great work. It’s super funny, smart, and I assume he had a lot of fun while he was making it.
Jessica Walsh makes some bad ass work…
What’s next for you? What are you working on now?
I can’t say who the clients are as nothing's signed yet (fingers crossed), but I’m working on some new video content for an exciting startup… Also wrapping up a small photo book of a project I shot in Scotland, and the short doc about my grandmother.