If you’ve ever seen an episode of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, you’ve experienced Kelli Miller’s handiwork. The motion designer helped create the memorable, encyclopedia-inspired show open for the HBO late-night critical favorite. Kelli’s also designed title sequences for projects as wildly diverse as NBC’s reality-competition megahit Lip Sync Battle and Kelly Reichardt’s muted indie triptych, Certain Women. As co-founder and executive creative director at And/Or creative studio, in Brooklyn, she’s also one of the artistic minds behind the note-perfect piss take “This Is a Generic Millennial Ad,” replete with handwritten fonts and soft-focus peace-sign-flashings. That razor wit and flair for project-appropriate approaches has positioned Kelli and And/Or among the most reliably captivating visual-package creators working today.
We talked with Kelli about moving from Michigan to New York City when she was young and jobless, managing pitch budgets, and the pros and cons of running your own agency.
What was your experience like getting your masters at Cranbrook? It’s a very interdisciplinary program. How did it prepare you for “the real world?”
Cranbrook was amazing. I got spoiled there because I had two years to do whatever I wanted. There was no limit. In fact, if you presented traditional graphic design there you would get your ass handed to you. It was really experimental and exciting.
There are a couple of ways it’s set me up for where I am now. One, I come from a very traditional graphic design background, but because Cranbrook is so bananas, it breaks you right out of that, which is what I was looking for. I was debating if I even wanted to go to design grad school because I questioned what I would learn. I already knew all the fundamentals. But I was interested in more of a fine art, self-authored approach. And it delivered. It encouraged me to build a practice that was very self-driven and not necessarily client-driven.
Did you make any bold moves right out of grad school?
I moved straight to New York. I didn’t have a job or anything, which was a really big mistake. I do not advise anyone to do that ever. I had no money and no job and no anything. I just hustled and met tons of people. I ended up landing a freelance job at My Active Driveway and working there for six months. It was a really good baseline to start my motion design career because I could have money but still reach out to new people.
Did you know you wanted to do motion design right away?
Yeah, when I was in school motion design was totally the hot shit; everybody wanted to do it. It was a new, cool, fun medium where you could do a lot of cool design shit. Technology and software were also catching up with people’s ambitions.
What was your first big full-time gig?
I worked at Trollback + Company for almost four years as an associate creative director. I would lead smaller projects and work with creative directors and the team on larger pitches, big network pitches, network rebrands, and commercial projects. We did a lot of branding exercises where we would figure out a new identity for them or build on the identity they already had. What we were running into there was we would end up almost doing the entire job in order to win the pitch. We would create these really amazing reels with full-on animated graphics and it was like, “Imagine this is your network now. Do you like it?”
How does that work? How can you afford to do that much work for a pitch?
It’s a problem. It’s my biggest industry soapbox issue. When we started our own studio I would say we don’t pitch on things for free, which we still try to stick to. Usually, there’s some fee attached to pitching. Because sometimes they literally are only looking for ideas. They may not even have a full intention of developing anything out, so those pitch fees are a bit higher.
But then there are other projects that are competitive where it’s like, “This is a real project. We really want to do this. Please give us some thoughts around it.” And then, they’ll give you a small budget, sort of like a token, which is good. But we try to stay within those pitch budgets as much as possible. When I was working at Trollback, they had a tendency to throw a lot of investment into the pitches, so the client would see a lot more. They would basically spend a ton of money on the pitches with the hope and intention that they would win it.
We certainly can’t compete in that realm because we’re too small and we don’t have the money. So we just don’t. We take it project by project. If it feels like it could have a good outcome and our chances are pretty good at winning it, and we have time and resources and we’re excited about it, we will do it.
How much marketing work do you need to do?
We’re at a point where we need to do more work on that front. That’s been a really big focus lately—how to market the studio, how to do sales and really turn it into a regular process because we’re not big enough to just live off word-of-mouth business.
We have an executive producer who really believes in new business initiatives. Kendra Eash, who’s the other partner, she’s a copywriter and she has naturally gravitated toward that as well. I, on the other hand, don’t mind going to the meetings and doing presentations and talking about our work because I’m really proud of it, and I love it. I just don’t have time to be getting on people’s radars and taking coffees and going to the networking events and conferences and all—that’s a full-time job.
I really love making stuff and working with our team and working on the projects themselves. My main focus is as a creative director, a leader of the studio. That’s where I want most of my energies going. I’m happy to help out in whatever ways I can on the other side because I know that’s important, but I can’t really devote as much time to that as other people might. It’s also not the thing I’m most interested in. The starting of this business has been very revelatory. The thing I love is making stuff and that is what I want to do.
Did you make any big mistakes when you started your own firm?
Like moving to New York with no money, I started the studio pretty ignorantly. I had no idea what I was doing. I was like, “We’re cool. People will hire us.” When we started, we were doing smaller projects for lesser networks, not really primo stuff. I mean we worked really hard on it, but you’re not going to see it on our website. And then I realized, “Oh, we’re not getting big projects because nobody knows who we are!” So again, it was just kind of like being stupid. And I think that’s, weirdly, an advantage with starting your own studio; you have a blind optimism and idealism. I still feel that way. I do not doubt. But in reality, you really have to work your way through some tough shit.
Was there a specific moment when you decided to quit your job and start your own studio?
Kendra and I started the studio the year we got married. When I was at Trollback I designed and directed the show open for John Oliver; it’s still one of my favorite projects I’ve ever worked on. It had that sort of voice, a self-authored attitude. Even though, of course, it’s for John Oliver, but it was exactly a thing I would make, and that was super exciting. People loved it. It didn’t change barely at all from the thing we pitched to what got made. It was a really great process. And then, at the same time, Kendra pitched “This Is a Generic Brand Video,” for McSweeney’s, and that got picked up by Dissolve, the stock footage company. They were like, “Can we please make this video with our stock footage?”
So they did. And when they released it it went legitimately viral. It was everywhere. So we were both at this point where we were like, “Our work, our voice can be something people want.” So we decided to start our own studio. And because she’s a copywriter and I’m a designer, it was like we were already offering a pretty complementary package. We were also on our honeymoon, driving around upstate New York and both like, “How do we not have jobs so we can just go wherever we want because this is so great?” And I was like, “Oh, we can just start a studio. Done.”
What have you learned from starting a business with your partner?
The main thing is learning about boundaries, which we’re still trying to figure out. It’s hard to be like normal people. I’m like, “Why not just have our whole life be about the studio?” And now, I’m like, “Do we ever stop talking about design?” That’s been a struggle. And then, I think just learning how to work together in a way that doesn’t get too personal.
We have a bookkeeper who’s really more like a CFO. She keeps us aligned. The hard part is that I get very resistant to talking about that stuff because I’m so focused on the creative and the vision that sometimes I need a little bit of reality check. Kendra is really good at that. She will talk about the financial stuff without any problem whatsoever and I’ll be like, “Let’s look at this color instead.”
Do you ever question if starting your own agency was the right choice?
Yeah. I mean it’s really hard—especially when things aren’t going great, it’s enticing to be like, “Let’s just quit and go work at so and so.” The advantages of working someplace established are you don’t have to worry about new business. There are already people lining up to great brands waiting and wanting to work with you.
“It’s invaluable knowing that at the end of the day, we can make the work whatever we want.”
And then you have, of course, other talent who want to work there, too. You don’t have the issue of scrambling to find freelancers and trying to meet all these people who are compatible with your studio culture and your look and your vibe, which gets stressful. And, of course, there’s financial stability. But the grass is always greener on the other side because all those businesses still have those problems. That’s the one thing I’m definitely learning from doing this. Everybody has these problems. This is not unique to us. Everybody is struggling with getting new business. Everybody’s struggling with the valleys and hills—money, cash flow, talent leaving and talent coming, all that shit. There’s no real escaping it.
So those are definitely cons of owning your own business, but the pros are we get to develop the studio culture. We get to develop the studio voice. We get to decide what work we want to do, what we’re going after, what clients we’d like to work with. All of that stuff is very worth it. It’s invaluable knowing that at the end of the day, we can make it whatever we want.
Tell me about your recent work with HBO.
We did the title sequence and over 30 minutes of in-episode graphics for the HBO docuseries The Case Against Adnan Syed. That was a huge project that came out really cool. We were all obsessed with the podcast Serial, and it’s interesting to see all the people and connect with them visually in the docuseries. It humanizes them.
Do you think Adnan killed Hae?
I actually don’t. I don’t think he did it.