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…Because we have the sharpest creative minds: High Tide’s Danny Miller

These days, it seems like every kid on Instagram wants to be a “creative director,” but we’re not totally convinced they all know exactly what that means. To get an insider’s perspective on just what it actually entails, we tapped Danny Miller, the founder and creative director of High Tide, a full-service creative agency in New York, that’s worked with clients like Warby Parker, Kith x Nike, and Mast Books. Weighing in on everything from painting to Paul Rand, founding his own company to reggae records, Miller told us what it’s been like to found and run his own agency and how and why everything around him influences all the things he does.

Tell us a little bit about the conception of High Tide. What was the original vision you had for your design agency?

When I started High Tide, I was really looking to connect and collaborate with like-minded, talented people. Whether they were photographers, art directors, designers, or entrepreneurs, I wanted the opportunity to bring creative minds together, learn, and make interesting, lasting work. The idea of creating identity systems for brands evolved from there, as I’ve always admired work that captured mass appeal while also remaining timeless, Paul Rand’s work for IBM being a great example.

How tough is it being a design agency in New York? How do you separate yourself for all the other creative shops in this town?

There is certainly no shortage of great talent here in New York, and we believe that the healthy competition found here only leads to amazing work. We try not to get too caught up in what everyone else is doing, instead focusing on how to keep our team inspired, push the envelope, and constantly improve our output from project to project. I was born and raised in downtown Manhattan, so I’m used to the competitive energy. At this point I use it to stay motivated and make the most out of my days.

What did you do before launching your own agency? Were you an art director at another firm?

I was a painter before I was a designer, having studied painting and art theory at UCLA. Shortly after graduating, I moved back to New York where I was lucky enough to learn the fundamentals of graphic design from a mentor. Since then, I’ve always felt that there’s no substitute for apprenticeship in the creative field, and that my relationship with my mentor had more of an impact than any undergraduate class I could have taken. I think my love and interest in graphic design came before I was even aware of it. I’ve always had a deep love for music, consuming tons of cassettes and CDs at a young age, which eventually led to collecting records. I would scrupulously study and dissect the album art and liner notes while listening to the music. When I eventually got my first design job working in the art department at Sony Music, it felt like a dream come true. Shortly afterwards, I pivoted from Sony to Atlantic Records, staying there for two years as an art director before moving on to start High Tide in late 2008.

What influences your overall design aesthetic? Do popular culture and the current social zeitgeist influence your work?

My aesthetic is definitely rooted in the principles of Minimalism. I seek to communicate things as simply and effectively as possible without feeling limited. In the studio, we are inspired by similar principles that stem from classic Swiss and German design, but we like to add our own modern touch to things and create tension between old and new. Harmony is great and valuable, but stark contrasts can also work effectively, it just depends on the project. Working with brands like Nike allow us to showcase more progressive work to a wider audience. We find that they tap us to work on projects where they’re looking to push the boundaries, be innovative, and keep their finger on the pulse, which is a great exercise for us and allows us to contribute to today’s culture in unique and interesting ways. I think it’s inevitable that the current social zeitgeist seeps into our subconscious and influences the work in subtle ways. That said, we tend to gain more inspiration from the past and translate that in unexpected and fresh ways. For example, when we were working on the brand identity for Warby Parker, we weren’t on our computers or looking at inspiration from other eyewear companies. We stepped outside and walked around the city, taking photos of old store signage around the Lower East Side that was created in the ’40s and ’50s, using that as a foundation to build from and bring into today.

High Tide has worked with some very impressive clients, including Warby Parker, Mercedes, Nike, and Heineken. Was it difficult landing these bigger accounts? Also is there extra pressure to deliver amazing results to these major names?

The Warby Parker project was one of the first full identity projects that we did very early on when we started, and that really helped legitimize us as a well-rounded creative agency. Once bigger companies became aware of our capabilities they began knocking on our door, and we were thrilled to collaborate and contribute to the legacies of these brands in some small way. I think that good work begets more good work, so keeping that philosophy in mind with every project helps keep us inspired and optimistic that there are bigger and more exciting projects down the road.

What is the most difficult part about running your own creative agency, and conversely, what’s the most rewarding part about it?

I think the most difficult part is the work-life balance, making sure you’re not creating work in a bubble and finding the right time to step away and think about things other than work, allowing ideas to swirl around in the back of your mind so you have proper time to sit with and revisit them. The most rewarding part would be that I’m doing something that I love, which is being creative, and that I get to collaborate with amazingly talented and inspiring people everyday.

How does living and working between New York City and Upstate affect your work as a creative?

I would say that living between the City and upstate New York has affected my work in really positive ways. It grants me the necessary time and space, where ideas can float and new inspiration can enter. Going on hikes with my family or appreciating relics at an antique store has only lead to a deeper connection to my work come Monday morning. I’m also completely in awe of my three-year-old daughter and my wife. They give me endless amounts of inspiration.

What does your summer music soundtrack consist of? Any new albums in constant rotation?

I mainly listen to older music from the ’60s and ’70s, a lot of stuff out of Africa, a lot of old soul and reggae. To name a few good summer albums, ‘Wede Harer Guzo’ by Hailu Mergia is a great listen, ‘Lovers Rock’ by the Love Joys is a great reggae album to put on at any barbecue, and ‘Vol. 2’, the William Onyeabor box set, is pretty phenomenal as well. In terms of new music, I’m always keeping an ear out for what Young Thug is doing, Kanye of course, and anything being released by Big Crown Records.

What about your fashion preferences? How would you describe your style? What’s your favorite garment or accessory in your closet right now?

I would say that my style is pretty understated and simple. I like wearing a lot of basics, like black or white tees with some comfortable A.P.C. or Acne jeans. I love wearing linen slacks in the summer or some sweatpants and a tee with Air Max’s on the weekends. Simple yet comfortable. I would say my favorite item at the moment is a pair of low top tan suede shoes from Alden. They’re surprisingly comfortable and you can wear them with basically anything.

This last question has two parts. Do you have a short piece of advice you’d give to an aspiring art or creative director? And lastly, are there any new projects coming up from High Tide you can tell us about?

In the way of advice, there’s little to say that hasn’t already been said. I can say that I’m happy I followed my passion and persevered when times were tough. It won’t always be easy, but if you put a lot of love and passion into your work and don’t get caught up too much in what others think, it will always be rewarding. As for upcoming projects, I’m just so proud of all that we’re working on at the moment. I’ll be sure to brag more once the brands launch.

 For more on High Tide, check out its Instagram here.

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