NSFW WARNING: this post about Effin’ Birds contains birds and foul language that some people might deem inappropriate.
Did I first encounter Effin’ Birds on Tumblr or Twitter? I can’t recall where but I do remember how much I laughed out loud. Lavishly illustrated birds greeted me with their beautiful plumage, juxtaposed with cursing and wise-assery set in sophisticated typography. Effin’ Birds, the popular social media account with a forthcoming book, is produced by Aaron Reynolds, creator of Swear Trek’s animated GIFs and Bat Labels, the nostalgic look at the Batman TV series and its typography. Reynolds has created social media accounts with respectable followings, each with their own brand of comedy. So what’s the secret? Perhaps it’s geography. Reynolds lives and works in Canada, where one comedian after another has exploded into the mainstream: Wayne & Shuster, SCTV (John Candy, Eugene Levy, Andrea Martin, Catherine O’Hara, Martin Short), The Kids in the Hall, and Jim Carrey, as well as modern day comedy hero Ryan Reynolds.
During a day and age when the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) considers social media accounts or account holders with over 30,000 followers to be celebrities, Aaron Reynolds has created not one but three success stories by anybody’s standards. Bat Labels has over 50,000 followers and Swear Trek boasts over 100,000 followers, but Effin’ Birds holds the crown with over 160,000. Despite his full-time work producing podcasts and his social media extracurricular activities—he creates the social media accounts on the side—Reynolds shows no signs of slowing down, and is already thinking about the next, next project.
Even though he’s busy with a treasure trove of work, Reynolds had time to share his thoughts about developing the look and feel of Effin’ Birds, what it takes to match just the right typeface with a grumpy-looking owl, and how photography and film play a role in his design decisions.
“I went to school for photography because I took delight in well-composed images, particularly in movies. I wanted a stronger background in how and why—not just the ability to appreciate George Hurrell’s portraits, but to be able to deconstruct what makes them special and apply some of the parts of that magic to my own work. Some of that was the technical side, but a lot of what I learned was how to evoke an emotional response in people.” For a while, Reynolds worked as a software instructor, an experience he feels also helped shape his abilities. “Teaching film editing and audio production both had an aesthetic component, but I often felt it was either secondary to or a component of the emotional connection.” Look and feel matters a lot to him, but there should be some restraint too. Recounting the way that cinematographer Conrad Hall worked on Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), Reynolds praised the Oscar winner’s ability to obscure objects and cover things up in order to, as he puts it, force you to fill in the blanks without missing a thing. “Instead, the audience relates even more strongly, because their own mind is filling in what they expect or want to see. When it comes to Effin’ Birds, when I write a joke it always starts from something that has irritated me, and then my process is to slowly strip away every bit of identifying information that I can while keeping the meaning intact. What I end up with are vague pronouncements that feel specific to the reader, but their minds substitute their own situations for mine.”
Birds, Fonts, Branding
Looking at design after design, you might ask yourself, Where does Reynolds find the wonderful birds? “The first batch of 60-odd birds was part of a beautiful vintage stock art package from Tom Chalky. I say Hi every once in a while—Tom offers a subscription service for stock art and fonts, and I signed up for it immediately because it has such a distinct personality. When Effin’ Birds started to become A Thing and I realized I was going to run out of birds in a hurry, I did a deeper dive into the source material. Tom got these birds from a book series edited by Charles Knight in the 1800s, and once I went far enough down the research rabbit hole I found that some of the images came from woodcuts by Thomas Bewick.” Needing more birds, Reynolds sought out Bewick’s A History of British Birds.
Glancing over the art and merchandise, you’ll notice about three to four fonts. Hunting for the right fonts—like hunting for the right birds—turned into its own passion project. “I don’t remember how I found the first typeface, which is Fairy Tales by Artimasa. I remember spending a lot of time looking at fonts and trying to match them to that grumpy-looking owl, and when I came across Fairy Tales it was ideal. For the color images, I wanted to match the lettering on the original John James Audubon prints. I ended up down another rabbit hole of engraver’s fonts, and did some reading on pairings. I ended up with Elegy from ITC and Sackers Roman from Monotype, which I thought looked great together and were also a good match for the script and block lettering of Audubon’s engraver. When I started doing my own scans from A History of British Birds, the nature of the source material was yielding a different kind of line from Chalky’s scans—more bleed of the ink into the surrounding paper, a somewhat more handmade look. It was still an OK pairing with Fairy Tales, but I wanted to take the opportunity to explore some other styles. I looked at dozens of hand-lettered options, and the winner was Brixton, again by Tom Chalky.”
When it comes to Effin’ Birds as a brand, Reynolds says it happened, but in a natural way. Asked about brand strategy, identity, values, promises, stakeholders, and positioning, he said, “I’m sure I have established all of those things in a subconscious way—I always do, that’s how I know what decisions to make. But I haven’t actively written them out or sat down to make a Mission Statement.”
Overhead, Sustainability & Merchandising
One gets the impression that for Reynolds, the process of creating Swear Trek or Effin’ Birds is a reward in and of itself. And then there’s his latest endeavor, Your Pal James, with action figures doing all kinds of absurd and entertaining things. But none of these activities are his full-time job. He produces podcasts in Ontario, Canada, work that (believe it or not) allows him to transfer skills. “One of the skills I’ve sharpened up the most is messaging: getting across the core idea in the fewest words, opening up to the fewest objections. I draw from that a lot in my podcast projects. Canada 2020 brought me on board for what was originally supposed to be a three month gig, to help them set up a podcast studio, design some shows, bring in a producer and engineer set them on the path to self-sufficiency. Once the network was humming along, I took on the challenge of the flagship project No Second Chances, where I did the field recording, photography, editing and mixing. There are about four episodes remaining to be aired, and then I will be Mary Poppinsing along to the next project.”
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A post shared by Your Pal James (@yourpaljames007) on Oct 23, 2018 at 10:11pm PDT
Crowdfunding can go a long way, helping cover his overhead—no matter what project he’s working on now or later. “Patreon gives me the freedom to do projects that have no commercial prospects. Your Pal James is a great example: it’s just a bundle of joy. And it keeps projects like Swear Trek alive—they have not just time costs but software and tool costs.” And then, there’s the merch, another form of revenue. “The store has massively over-performed. And I almost didn’t launch the store! Originally I followed the template of what I had done with my other projects: find a really sticky gag and merchandise it.” Out of the gate, Bat Labels and Swear Trek merchandise sold respectably, but he sold around 30 shirts with a single design from Effin’ Birds. Reynolds said he was “gutted” by the experience. “I thought I had made a gigantic miscalculation, and that Effin’ Birds was a flop from a business perspective. My friend Nick Renaud kept trying to convince me to run Effin’ Birds merchandise on demand rather than on campaigns like I had been doing—Cotton Bureau was built on the idea of Kickstarter-esque campaigns that result in old-school screen printed tees—and we finally got to a deal I couldn’t refuse. All I had to do was prepare the artwork and Nick would manage the store, for a percentage of the profits. And because we were printing stuff on-demand, there was no risk of having 2000 unsold mugs in my garage.”
Profits & Growth
To this day, Reynolds puts out an amazing number and range of designs, but consumers seem to have their own favorites. “What’s fascinating about the store’s success is that there are only a few breakout designs—the pin that says I AM A GODDAMNED DELIGHT, the mug that says I BET THIS PROBLEM WILL GO AWAY IF WE HAVE MORE FUCKING MEETINGS—and a lot of items that sell 30 units. Running a campaign for two weeks and selling 30 units is a disaster, but having a few dozen designs that sell 30 each is a success. What I hadn’t figured out is how individual each Effin’ Bird’s resonance is, and that trying to find the ‘universal’ one was a wasted effort. The store has done well enough that aside from myself and Nick I also have Ryan Matthews doing my shipping and Joe Burt doing customer service.”
If you follow Effin’ Birds on social media and own the merch, what else do you need? A copy of Effin’ Birds, A Field Guide to Identification, of course, a book promoted as “the most eagerly anticipated new volume in the grand and noble profession of nature writing and bird identification.” A monograph that had humble beginnings, then exploded into something special. “Originally the book was a crowdfunding campaign through Unbound in the UK. It’s a neat model because unlike most Kickstarter-style campaigns for books, it includes UK book store distribution. Once the campaign was successful, we started getting nibbles from publishers for the US rights. Ten Speed Press came along with both a strong offer and a great understanding of what Effin’ Birds is.” For this Effin’ Birds fan, there’s only one way to describe exactly what it is: plenty of fun with enough vulgarities to make you cry foul—or cry laughing.
Edited from a series of phone and email interviews.
Images courtesy of Aaron Reynolds and Effin’ Birds.
Want to learn more about cursing, for better or worse?
The Relationship between Profanity and Intelligence via Yale Review of Undergraduate Research in Psychology
The Science of Why Swearing Reduces Pain via WIRED
Stress Management via Mayo Clinic
And more design inspiration awaits so plunge deeper into HOW Design. Enjoy!
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