At many firms and agencies, you’re likely to find drab boardrooms. Stuffy meetings with besuited executives. Company cultures that favor working to death at the expense of having any semblance of a life.
And in the end: work that looks like all the rest of the work out there in the world.
It’s a modern reality for a lot of creatives. And it’s why we’ve always found Alex Center to be such a refreshing presence in the industry.
As anyone who has attended one of Center’s HOW Design Live keynotes knows, he radiates passion. He doesn’t pull punches when sharing his reflections on the industry. He’s generous with his career insights and wisdoms. And ultimately, he represents a new way of doing business—and managing his own, Center.
A graduate of SUNY Buffalo, Center got his first taste of the professional design world around a hockey puck–shaped table while interning for the New York Knicks and the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden. From there, he was key to building the Vitaminwater brand at Glacéau, which he continued working on after Coca-Cola acquired the company.
In 2018, he launched Center as a reflection of his philosophies and approach—and the brand world is all the better for it.
Here, in our exclusive interview, he riffs on the early days of his career, how to make an impression as an in-house designer within a massive ecosystem, and the terrifying decision to launch his own company in Brooklyn, which is where we caught up with him over Zoom.
When you were in school, what did you think you were going to end up doing professionally?
I think the second I realized what a graphic designer was, that was what I wanted to be. I grew up drawing and painting and always felt like I had a sort of artistic talent. And I did a lot of other things—I played the drums. I was a lacrosse player. I snowboarded. There were a lot of things I did poorly, I would say, or did average to mediocre [laughs]. But I always felt like art was my superpower. I felt like that was the thing for me. And then I always had a love for brands. I think this is where Debbie [Millman] and I have that common bond, where it’s just like an infatuation with why people love brands, and brands as a concept. I remember really being into fashion brands as a kid and really thinking quite a bit about why a Tommy Hilfiger logo on a polo made me feel special, or made me feel something.
I always wanted to make a living from my artistic talents. I went to art school and then discovered communication design, and graphic design as a profession. It was like, “this is everything I want to do.” I was less infatuated with design culture or the graphic design industry, and more obsessed with the brand side. And I think, ultimately, that’s what led me to the Knicks, and then to Vitaminwater and to Coke—I just wanted to work with brands that I love. And I think that’s kind of still what I do today.
When you got that job at Glacéau, did you have any idea of all the insane places it would eventually lead?
I felt like it was special; I think I instantly knew that it was sort of a really cool job. Vitaminwater was kind of an emerging brand. I remember seeing it at the New York Knicks when I was an intern there for the first time in a meeting. And I remember being sort of infatuated with it. Also, I’m a hip hop fan, and 50 Cent was the ambassador for the brand. At that time, a rapper promoting a bottled water was a really unique idea. The brand had … “juice,” I guess, is probably the term I use the most. It just had that energy. Also, I could feel the energy in the office. It was all a bunch of 20-something-year-old kids and creative people—smart, interesting. And there was a buzz.
Looking back at everything from that time, from working with 50 Cent to all the innovative work you did on the brand, what advice would you give a younger version of yourself now?
I would say, trust your gut a little bit more. I think as a young person—and I still am this way, to a certain extent—you want to impress other people. I always really cared a lot. I still do. And so I was always nervous or stressed about getting things right, or making sure that other people were happy. And that is a power; I think part of why I do what I do is because I do like to please other people and make people happy with the work that I do.
I sometimes would say, “trust your gut. The reason why you’re here is because of your brain and because of your instincts and not because you’re good at following direction.” I do think a mix of that is important for young designers, but I think for me, if I were to look back, I’d be like, “Hey, Alex, you’re in a position here with influence, and it’s not by happenstance. It’s because they trust your vision.”
I had a great job. I’ve always been super grateful. I think I look back at that moment, and it set me up for my career in this industry. So, you know, I wouldn’t change much.
What was it like when you entered the massive Coke infrastructure after they purchased Glacéau? Was it terrifying at all?
It didn’t happen overnight. It was a slow evolution over time. I remember the day that we got acquired, which is a memory that obviously I’ll carry for the rest of my life, because my life changed. Everyone’s lives in that building changed. Everyone had equity in the company. And so to be acquired for four billion dollars was financially rewarding for every single person in the company. I remember that being like a “holy sh#t” moment, just because I’m financially stable to a certain extent. I was rich, in my mind, but I always say I was 22-year-old rich; I wasn’t actually rich. I was like, “wow—this is really, really, really, really exciting and insane.” And then I was pretty concerned; I didn’t think they were going to fire us all, but I definitely hoped I wouldn’t lose this amazing job that I’d had for only a year and change at that point. And I didn’t. …
The first year, I always say, it was just bliss. You know, more money to do the things that we were already doing, which was like a dream. And then we started to build a bigger team, which was exciting. I could lead a little bit more and have more teammates; I was alone in the beginning. So at first, it was great. And then, slowly but surely, you know, a new general manager comes in in year three, and then in year five, maybe, I start reporting to a Coca-Cola director, and I have to go to Atlanta quite a bit. It started to become Coca-Cola over time. It was gradual. And some of it was good. I was given more responsibility, I was getting better titles, I was given the ability to work on other brands within the Coke system, and leverage some of Coke’s connections—to the World Cup, or the Olympics—and was able to work on bigger projects.
Also, that’s really when I started doing speaking engagements. Coca-Cola carries weight everywhere on the globe, so, you know, being able to get on stage and tell my story was a big thing for me. I kind of caught the bug there and started to become a bit of a spokesperson for design and in-house and began building my personal brand while having a pretty amazing job at Coke and working with amazing agencies and amazing people.
I used to express it as like three different jobs there over the years—the first was Vitaminwater. And then the second job was the Vitaminwater transition. And then it was Coca-Cola. And those three jobs over the course of 10 years felt like three different chapters for me.
What’s your best advice for creating meaningful work in-house in an environment as large as Coke?
I used to say, bring everyone along the journey. You have to work with brand managers, you have to work with legal teams, you have to work with PR teams—there’s a mountain of humans, an army of people that need to be behind anything that goes out into the world. Nothing gets done because one person approved it in a meeting. It’s more of a critical mass that you need to acquire to get anything done. I feel like that’s the biggest lesson that I learned, was how to play the game, get to know people and kind of work the system to be able to get people on your side. You have to have relationships across so many different parts of the business. I think that has really helped me now that I’m on the other side—really understanding clients, and really understanding the different types of people that we work with. Some of them are very creative, some of them are very sort of product people. I have to work with our legal counsel and our accountants; we work with people at giant companies like Coke, Apple or Pernod; and then we work with some people who are first-time founders that have no idea how to build a company or a brand.
Was it terrifying to strike out on your own with Center?
The scariest thing I’ve ever done. Yeah, absolutely. One, I was very emotionally connected to Coke and Vitaminwater and the brands that I worked on. Two, it was a big part of my personal identity. It felt like that was who I was as a designer, who I was as a person, because so much of my life is about my work. And I put so much emphasis in my life on my work. So to walk away from that was like walking away from everything. Also, I’m not a big risk-taker, I’m not very brave. It’s not natural to me to let it rip and just try something new and see what happens. That’s not very core to who I am. I’m very methodical, and overthink the decisions I make. And so to pull the plug, jump out of the helicopter or the airplane, and just hope that it works out, was definitely very counter to who I am. So, yeah, I was terrified and kind of just scared and nervous that I could lose everything that I’d built, and sort of become irrelevant. There were definitely a lot of emotions at the time. … I’m quite proud of myself, as someone who doesn’t take a lot of chances or risks or gamble in any way, shape, or form, to be like, “cool, I’m just gonna take this big chance and bet on myself.”
How did you want Center to be different? What was your biggest goal?
I wanted—and I still want—Center to be a natural extension of me as the type of person that I am, which is, I love design, I love brands, and I love working with brands. And I think it should be less pretentious, more fun, more relationship-based, and a culture that is rewarding. I’ve worked with a bunch of different design studios, and I never really related to a Pentagram, or, you know, a Wolff Olins. None of the seven agencies felt like me; they didn’t feel like my roadmap, to a certain extent. And so I wanted to build something that felt different, felt like it was a part of this new wave of building modern brands, which is also something that I think quite a lot about—not just wanting to work with Nike and Apple and Target, but really wanting to build the next generation of those brands and icons. The thing that I set out to do was, I want to work with startups, I want to work with entrepreneurs, I want to work with small businesses. And because of my experience in the very early days of Vitaminwater, I know there’s just so much energy about building something from the beginning. That’s really what I wanted Center to do: build brands.
That was some of the thinking. But ultimately, I just wanted Center to exist, you know?
I think it’s funny now, because in year one, two, three, four, five, it’s like, “OK, let’s just build the best design studio in the world and have a business and have clients and have an office and have a great team.” Sitting inside of an office that has all that, I’m like, “OK, where do we go from here? What now? What do I want it to be known for?” To me, that’s less about the work and more about the culture. I used to say I wanted to make Center the best studio in the world. These days I’m thinking about how to make Center the best studio in the world to work at. It’s not a completed mission, it’s a daily dance trying to manage people and projects and dollars and offsites and remote work, all this stuff, but it’s something that I think is at the top of my mind at this moment. I used to always ask, “If I built Center to be the studio that I had started my career at instead of Vitaminwater, what would I want that experience to be like?” And kind of modeling if off of my experience in-house, [it’s about] trying to create a culture and a family and something that feels like a good time and doesn’t feel like going to work with a sledgehammer and putting in your timesheet and leaving. That’s the gift that I got at Vitaminwater—the gift of working for 15 years without ever feeling like I was miserable or hated it. And that’s because I do something for a living that I love.
After years in the industry, how do you see the line between design and branding?
I think of branding as a holistic practice about influencing people’s feelings and opinions. And ultimately, branding, at the end of day, is a feeling that people have about a person, a place of business, anything. When I describe “juice” … you know when a brand has it, when you’re like, “there’s an energy that draws me to it.” And I think we’re in the business of creating that feeling. We’re in the business of influencing people’s minds and emotions. And I think design is our No. 1 tool. But it’s not the only tool. I think using a designer’s brain and the designer’s approach to anything allows us to influence people and win them over and attract them, and ultimately try to make them fall in love with what we’re doing.
How do you want Center to grow in the future?
Slow and steady. We have a 12-person team, and that feels both like a lot of people, and not a huge amount of people. I always want that feeling to stay. I want it to grow in a way that feels comfortable, in a way that feels right for us, and isn’t for the sake of growing. There’s a lot of opportunity, which is wonderful. But I’m not interested in just scaling as fast as possible. I think there’s a pressure in society for young entrepreneurs, or entrepreneurs in general, to scale fast and move fast. It’s like a competition: who can do the most revenue, and, you know, “my business does $20 million at retail this year. We’re on track to do 80 next year.” It’s like, well, are you miserable? Then was it all worth it? I think, again, design is a little different than that. And we’re not a consumer packaged goods company that has investor pressure to hit our numbers.
Any of the pressure to grow or scale is based on really a personal decision. I like the fact that we feel small, and like we can all sit around a table and have one conversation. I have some friends that run some big studios. And, I don’t know if they’re any happier for it—and I don’t know if their work is any better for it.
I think slow but steady is the way.
For more from Alex Center, follow him on Instagram or drop by Center Design.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.