What I do is not really typography, which I think of as an essentially mechanical means of putting characters down on a page. It’s designing with letters. Mr. Aaron Burns called it ‘typographics,’ and since you’ve got to put a name on things to make them memorable, 'typographics' is as good a name for what I do as any.” —Herb Lubalin

Sometimes a creative duo works on a project with such synergy, they can’t tell where one person’s ideation leaves off and the other’s begins.

That’s how the creative process works for Dropbox Brand Studio designer Pedro del Corro and associate writing director LaDonna Witmer Willems. (To make things even more interesting, Pedro designs in our New York office, while LaDonna writes from our San Francisco HQ, so they rarely share the same physical space. They interact instead over video screens or within a Paper doc.)

Their most recent collaboration—a book about filmmaking for the Sundance Film Festival—was inspired by copy that appeared in an early design concept. Copy written not by the writer, but by the designer.

Pedro’s unique approach to design wields words as design material, writing as he goes, paying attention to letterforms, cadence, and length. This rare ability—to both write and design with clarity and vision—means his concepts are already three steps ahead when LaDonna gets her hands on them.

LaDonna: On every project you and I have worked on, you always end up throwing some words into your design, even in the early concept stages. I really love that. It gives me so many ideas and new places to jump off from.

Pedro: I’m always trying to advocate that copy and design are one and the same, and we need to work as closely as possible together. I think working with you is fantastic because you also understand it that way. It’s not like you say, “Here’s the copy,” and then leave, and we designers have to figure out the form on our own. I love that we can go back and forth.

As a designer, I also think back to the time when design tools were slow-paced: letterpress, phototypesetting, letterset. There wasn’t time to lorem ipsum a layout. Designers had to think with letters, and keep in mind the shapes and forms that letters create. Language is historically embedded in the craft.

I have no nostalgia for those tools, but I do think there’s an element of intention that comes with designing more slowly, as they did.

LaDonna: I think words are another design tool, and if you have them as part of your tool kit, why not use them? If you hadn’t created that first ad concept, the Sundance book would not have come into being the way it did.

The problem to solve: a Sundance book

Sundance on Cloud

Every January, Dropbox shows up at the Sundance Film Festival to support and celebrate the work of great filmmakers. This year, we ventured beyond collectible swag and created a full-length book that covers how digital tools like Dropbox are changing the way filmmakers create.

The book design uses typography to make the simple digital elements of collaboration—such as file type, folder structure, commenting, sharing—more visible and relatable.

Instead of attempting to reduce the process to only the tools, our design strategy acknowledged the complexity and chaos of the process while explaining the little ways in which a good tool can save the day.

The book also includes a parallel narrative at the beginning of each chapter, where we nod to the weird but wonderful moments in filmmaking (hence the title: & other film collaboration stories). The book was produced in offset in a single metallic ink on black and blue paper with the help of Oscar Printing in San Francisco.

The project debrief: a conversation

LaDonna: I don’t even remember how we came up with the idea for doing the book. Do you remember?

Pedro: Yes! We wanted to create a printed piece—we knew we wanted to give something to these filmmakers to take away and learn more about Dropbox. We did an extensive exploration and suggested a lot of different formats for this piece. In the end, we wanted to produce something elevated, and a book seemed like the best approach. It also offered a variety of possibilities in terms of finish and quality.

LaDonna: This was the first time we really leaned in to talking a lot about product at Sundance—explaining how filmmaking crews could work collaboratively in Paper, in addition to easily sharing music files, photos, film clips, costume sketches, and the like. In the past, we’ve done more aspirational campaigns. This year, we were trying to create something that would allow for more detail.

Pedro: Exactly. We wanted to try to communicate more about the product beyond celebrating filmmaking and filmmakers, which is what we had traditionally done.

The book format was a really unique opportunity to tell a more developed and complete story with design and copy. We were able to dig deep into how teams can use file sharing and calendar planning and collaborative digital documents to stay connected and organized and productive.

LaDonna: But it was hard to get started, honestly, until [Brand Studio associate creative director Michael] Jeter came up with an outline for book chapters. He based the chapters on stages of movie production, breaking it down by development, pre-production, production, post, and distribution.

Pedro: Relating Dropbox to the filmmaking process seemed like a good structure for communicating how Dropbox helps filmmakers at each step along the way.

LaDonna: It was. As soon as I saw the outline, I could start to picture how we would do this. But the ad that you had mocked up also really helped me get started—the one that was a text from a director who had endless ideas about an alarm clock prop. Those two pieces—the outline and your ad—were where the content really began to take shape.

Speaking of that original ad mockup, where did that idea come from?

Pedro: I have a film director friend who actually sends text messages like that. He likes to organize all kinds of games, or sometimes he’ll shoot a short film and he’ll want his friends to be in it. He writes these long messages, with no stops.

I was trying to visualize how someone who is insanely busy would communicate as they’re trying to get their vision across. So maybe subconsciously this idea for a never-ending sentence came from my friend, from texts that I’ve gotten from him.


Pedro: Using that ad concept was interesting, because it was taken out of context, and then we folded it back into the book. We were trying to find ways to relate to this audience by being more personable.

LaDonna: Right. We didn’t want to take ourselves too seriously; we wanted to have a sense of humor. So we began each chapter with a story or an exaggerated scenario like the alarm clock—something a filmmaker would relate to.

Pedro: It’s interesting, because you’re giving people this long-form piece, which requires a lot of attention from them. So, as you say, making it a little bit lighter turns it into something they can enjoy beyond the technology-education part.

LaDonna: If you can make people laugh and draw them in, I think that makes a huge difference in the way people engage with the content. I envisioned people flipping through the book and seeing enough that was relatable and interesting to them, and they would think, “I’m going to sit down and read this later.”

As a writer, your fear—especially when creating something lengthy for an event—is that no one will read it. Whenever you and I work on events, I’m always trying to come up with the shortest-possible booth headline or tagline. So this was a completely different exercise, and really fun, to be able to have endless (or almost endless) pages that I could fill. But then the challenge becomes: How do you make it relevant and readable so people stick with it all the way through?

Pedro: That’s such a great point. We live in a time of short and fast communication, emojis, and gifs, so I think a lot of long-form graphic design is inheriting some of this language. For example, big typography and text interruptions such as emoji, or, in our case, file types. In the book format, we applied display typography and the kind of layouts you would typically use in an ad, and then even more hybrids came from that design direction.

LaDonna: I love the way the whole concept came together. I think that the way we worked—riffing off of each other’s ideas, sending copy and layouts and edits back and forth—meant that we truly built the book together.

Like when I gave you one of my first drafts of copy and you had the idea to take words within the sentences and turn them into file types. Then the copy itself became more of a visual language.


Pedro: As a designer who loves to work with words, for me the greatest process is to be able to work with someone who is also appreciative of words. I thought it was great that we could make decisions that really live within copy and design simultaneously.

File types are inherently relatable for anyone creating content digitally. In filmmaking, so many parts have to come together digitally from beginning to end. File types are also part of anyone’s experience with Dropbox, so it’s a very organic way of telling a story from the technology perspective.

Files are made up of words, so it was great to reimagine that relationship. It’s like taking the atomic units of a film and telling the story of those hidden units. All these files lived within the paragraph, each of them functioning as a word—again, almost like an emoji would. The whole idea was a great symbiosis of design and language.

LaDonna: And a great solution for reinforcing the whole point of the piece, which is that Dropbox works for filmmakers and can be a creative medium. I think the book was successful because we had the space to tell that story in a creative way. It wasn’t like a just-the-facts sales sheet; it was more meaningful.

Pedro: I am curious about something: We developed that first alarm-clock story and it became the blueprint for all the other stories for the rest of the chapters. What was the process for you? Because you have to dig deep into filmmaking and find these instances or moments that feel real. So what was the process for you to get to those moments?

LaDonna: A lot of googling. A lot of research. Looking up filmmaker problems. There was one story or chapter opening that was about a meadow that got flooded. I completely made that up, but I got the idea after reading about what happens on shoots at the last minute. Especially if you’re making a small, independent film—which was the audience we were going for—and you don’t have a lot of time or flexibility or money to move things around. What if there’s this massive rainstorm the night before you’re going to shoot in an outdoor location and suddenly you can’t use that location anymore?

Heads up

Pedro: Which seems like something that would completely happen, something that would be part of the craziness of making a film.

That’s also why we were there, at Sundance. We’re trying to give filmmakers the tools that will make their lives easier.

LaDonna: One of the other things I love about this book is the image selection. Tone-wise, I purposefully chose to write in a way that was really conversational and tongue-in-cheek in a lot of places, and it feels like all the images go along with that tone. Because they’re not perfect; they’re a work in progress; they feel like they’re part of something that’s moving really quickly. So, to me, they are speaking the same language as the copy.

Sundance  Book
Sundance Book
Sundance  Book
Sundance Book

Pedro: It was a very collaborative process with Gabie Matte, my fellow Dropbox designer. We had this design idea built around frames, like the frames of a film. Today, many films are shot digitally, but they used to be shot at 24 frames per second on celluloid. So you get this sequence of images in linear form, just like a language, and that became a design idea we thought would combine really well with copy.

Then Gabie and I had to search for images that would reflect all these weird stories we’d created, images that would serve as metaphors for all the parts of the process. Finding images—in Flickr, on eBay, and from all these strange places on the internet—was an adventure. But it was worth it.

LaDonna: Then you brought UI into your design system as well.

Pedro: Right. And giving audiences an idea of what a digital product can do is not always a straightforward process. An abstraction needs to happen to give the audience a simplified and open-ended idea of what they will be able to do. We call this “abstract UI.” Since we were designing for long-form, it was a great opportunity to dive deeper as well as try to direct these abstractions to filmmaking, as much as possible.

Sundance Book

LaDonna: I think showing our UI gave the piece more credibility. We weren’t just throwing out this marketing campaign with a snappy headline. We were actually proving our point. I could imagine that a filmmaker would walk away from this book thinking, “Dropbox really is a great tool for what I do!”

Pedro: Bringing in the UI also made me think about the difference between the stories we were telling at the beginning of a chapter, and then the more informational content within that chapter. The tone of the copy was creating these two voices. At some point it became evident that we needed two typographic treatments so as not to conflate them.

The different fonts create a sort of dialogue within the book: here’s a story, and here’s the response to that story. And then the file names got their own treatment as well. So that became a third typographic voice.

I always advocate for simplicity, but this piece has three different type treatments: the Dropbox voice, the story voice, and the files voice. Hopefully they ended up coexisting peacefully.

Sundance  Book

LaDonna: You were at Sundance in January—how were people reacting to the book?

Pedro: You definitely saw people sit down and flip through the pages, even at the opening party, which is probably the worst place in the world to read a book! So I think it was a great success.

Theresa and Kelly from the Dropbox Brand Studio ready to distribute books at the Sundance Film Festival.
Sundance Book

Latest in Brand