In Conversation: Pablo Rochat's anxious rebellion

Pablo Rochat is an art director and prankster based in San Francisco. He has worked with clients including Apple, Gucci, Adult Swim, Golden State Warriors, Nickelodeon and Doritos.

In conversation with Semi Permanent co-curator Christopher Barker.
Hey Pablo! What are you up to?
Oh gosh, I'm just in the studio hanging out. What are you doing?
It's nice and early here. I've got a cup of tea, I hope you don't mind. I've had a fun time going through your work for this, but I'm curious if there is a real structure to your practice or of it is as random as your Instagram suggests.
I think about this a lot because it's kind of like the wild west out there. As a former art director in a large traditional agency I've seen how much work suffers when there are a lot of players in the room. So I've been trying to figure out as an independent creative how to give a voice to a company as strong as the one I am able to give myself.
The goal has always been to create entertaining content. When it’s for brands, it’s for their audiences and to communicate whatever they’re trying to say through entertainment.
I’ve structured my day and while what I produce is often silly and seems like low-effort, I put a lot of effort into the ideas. I have a pretty rigorous schedule on ideas because they’re not easy to come up with. Obviously the goal is to make something look effortless because people relate more to those moments, but every day I wake up early and write ten ideas down and it takes me a few hours. I post that stuff on my Instagram to build an audience from which client work can come from, but it’s important to me that I’m always invested in developing my own ideas because there are no rules to what I can or can’t do.
I like pranking big corporations which no brand would pay me to do, but I’ve been lucky enough to figure out that I can be silly and irreverent and myself publicly and still have clients wanting to ask me to do work. These are big companies like Nike, Apple, Netflix, and you would think they’d want to be extra safe, but they’re made up of people who enjoy this stuff too. But I can’t just smoke weed all day and come up with dumb ideas. I take this way more seriously than any other job because it’s my business and my livelihood and my voice and I just want to go all in.
Did Apple ever see the Jumbotron?
Oh yeah, haha. Apple are the big beast in the room and I’ve done a few pranks on them. I did one with my friend Fabio which was called ‘Also Shot on iPhone 6’ where we put these ugly selfie posters next to their real campaign posters. The agency we were working at got in trouble with Apple and we were about to get fired, but then Apple contacted us a few weeks later and they kinda wanted to hire us. Like we could never do that for their company, but they can appreciate the creative risk we took.
When I see your work for Adult Swim or the New York Times, it’s really polished which differs from the lo-fi work on your instagram. Is it harder to spend more time on a piece of work than less?
For those projects I go a bit deeper in the production and spend time making it look nice because we’ve agreed on the idea and the sketches. Plus, it’s nice to just sit and listen to a podcast and zone out and make stuff. But at the same time my goal is to make the most entertaining things I can for people to enjoy, and I don’t really know what’s going to work until the audience sees it. Sometimes I work on projects that are really big and impressive and cool, but it’s not as entertaining as something I’ve spent 20-minutes making and putting on my Instagram. So I don’t always think the extra effort in production makes for a more entertaining concept. I love nothing more than having an easy idea. Like, having a good idea and knowing that it’s going to take five minutes to make and people will like it and I can just go and treat myself to a nice lunch is the best. I love just chilling.
Pablo Rochat for Adult Swim
Pablo Rochat for The New York Times
But that’s the interesting thing, for example Vine didn’t really go mainstream until it got taken down. You don’t really know how important something is going to be until you put it out into the world. Do you just throw as much as you can at the wall and see what sticks?
Sort of, but it’s still daunting to publish stuff. I see a lot of meme accounts and humour accounts that post multiple times a day, and some of it is good and some of it is bad, but the algorithm just lets them do whatever they want. I could probably grow a bigger audience if I published more, but the quality would go down and I want people to trust that I’m not using them for their attention. Publishing is something I’m super mindful of and I want to be careful about what I deliver. I want to be remembered for doing great work, or at least the best work that I can.
You’re also delivering to an audience where the best case scenario is they spend 3-5 seconds looking at it and tagging a friend. What have you come to learn about how people process stuff online?
I’ve learned to keep things short, but I’ve also learnt it’s OK if something is a little bit longer. I was just talking to a friend who runs a huge meme account and he works with musicians to create TikTok content, and he was sure that short content worked best but he said some of the best stuff went for the full minute. So I feel okay with something being long, but I also want to design things where people get the idea instantly.
Would you say that you’re antagonistic towards typical advertising agencies and clients? Are you trying to fuck with them as a goal or are is it just for the sake of being funny?
Yeah, I do enjoy fucking with people. The best and easiest things to make fun of are the things that take themselves too seriously; corporations are easy targets because it’s not an individual, it’s just a company. They take advantage of us as consumers so why not punch up (or punch waaay up) to take advantage of them? And part of me is still 16 years old and just likes to fuck shit up. Yeah I mean... that’s a good question. Why do I like fucking with people? I don’t know.
I think it’s just because everything is so fucked if you’re young, that if you don’t have the power to make immediate structural change then you just make fun of it to cope.
Yeah and like my goal is to just have fun. It’s thrilling to see what happens when you hit send. It’s also me rebelling against the clients I used to work for and the situations where I’ve been repressed as a creative. And part of it is proving to myself that I am still free to do what I want to do; that I haven’t become one of those clients. I guess you could call it anxious rebellion.
There are a few recurring figures in your work, one being Bob Ross, another being Hulk Hogan and the third being Guy Fieri. Let’s call them the holy trinity. Can you talk about how those figures have influenced your work?
I grew up watching Bob Ross, he’s always been a big influence in my head. I hope I’m not making fun of him because he’s such a sweet guy and is totally harmless, but it’s just become a thing that if I get stuck on an ideaI go back to Bob Ross and he’s like ‘what is that motion you could be doing?’. He’s just a fun innocent guy, and I love taking things everyone has seen in everyday life and twisting it in unexpected ways.
It’s the same with Hulk Hogan. He's really aggressive and I like the nineties-era, high-contrast saturated colours in his videos. Like, if there is a video of him being really aggressive in the ring but I edit it to make him look like he’s making a pizza and put cheesy Italian music over it, it’s just funny. It’s goofy and surprising and entertaining.
And then like Guy Fieri is just an easy target. He’s the best.
I’m a huge Diners, Drive Ins and Dives fan. It’s incredibly relaxing.
Yeah!! It’s basically my screensaver. 
You did some work for Gucci as well, right?
Yeah I did.
I feel brands like Gucci and Apple are the gatekeepers of fine artistic content in their marketing; they employ the finest painters and makers for their stuff. What do you think it says about them that they’re starting to reach out to more lo-fi art directors like yourself to sell luxury goods?
I mean first of all it’s an honour. I’m always surprised to get an email from them. I'm a big believer that lo-fi con- tent is refreshing and can be just as effective as highly produced content; it’s more about an idea. Also social media and digital media allows for a lot more experimentation so it’s not as risky as it might be to hire me for a TV campaign. But one of my goals is to do a TV campaign on my laptop, it would be like going full circle back into advertising. I do all kinds of media but I’d really like to see big brands take a chance on artists (like me) to do bigger stuff.
Are you afraid that those clients will see your Instagram and not take you seriously?
Sometimes I wonder that. Obviously, the work I produce will likely determine the work I am asked to do. But my work as an artist (or whatever I am) will suffer if I try and target those big jobs by trying to prove I can be safe. I’ve been lucky enough where I’ve never had to pitch, clients come to me and they’re already sold. I might start doing more active pitching to prove this stuff can live in more high-visibility media. But I’m not in a rush.
The theme of this book is restlessness and we’re exploring what that means to different people. For you, I felt that the way you see the world and subvert the mundane means there is a chance you can never switch that off. Is that the case?
I put so much work into brainstorming that when I’m out in the world I’m mostly just tired. I don’t want to think of ideas outside of the office because I spend already spend many hours a day doing that. But then some of my best ideas have just been from walking on the street, separated from work. I’m learning that taking a break is good because your brain processes things in the back- ground and comes up with solutions to problems you had been struggling with earlier.
So I’m walking out into the world and not really thinking about anything. Sometimes I go to parties or dinners and people want to brainstorm creative ideas. But I just want to talk about normal life. Unless I’m with friends whose ideas I really admire and want to see what they’re thinking, or I’m helping other people because I like brain- storming for them. 
What is your normal life? Who is the man behind the ideas?
Well, I’m Pablo. I like eating food, I like drinking beer. I’ve been trying to get more into sports. I like music. I like exercising, that makes me feel good. I like getting high and walking around. I like laughing. I just enjoy jokes and talking to funny people. Like, laughing is my favourite thing to do and so if I can just hang out with my friends or go watch people in a park and observe funny moments that’s what I find fun.
That should just be like the entire studio manifesto.
Yeah but like, isn’t laughing with your friends just the best moments?
Yeah, I was thinking recently that I spent so many years going out to gigs, but my favourite part of any night was going outside for a smoke or whatever and just hanging out with my friends for ten minutes. I think we all reached a point where we said ‘why don’t we just do this all the time instead of going out and only enjoying ten minutes at a time?’
Totally agree. Same thing. The best part of the night is like a pregame at your house or just meeting people.
In your D&AD talk you said that the best way to make someone like you is to make them laugh. Is that feeling driven by a sense of insecurity?
I’m trying to look into that more; I just started going to a therapist to learn more about myself.
Growing up, making my parents laugh helped create a deeper connection with them. And not being that good academically, I fit in more when I was making other kids laugh; I could contribute more that way. It makes me feel like part of the tribe, like that’s my role in the classroom if I wasn’t as good at reading or math I could impress other kids by doing a cool drawing or making them laugh. I also had some funny friends growing up and I wanted to be a part of that. Making people laugh was one of the more fun ways I could be a part of a group of people. It’s almost a survival extinct. That’s the best way I have to make people want to be around me, is to make them laugh.
I think when you are able to offer something to someone, whether it be a deeply personal admission or a decent joke, that energy comes back to you. Like, I’m terrible at small talk so I just dive in to the deep end really quickly.
Do you have any tips for small talk? Because that shit is hard.
I think I’m extremely online and know a little bit about heaps of stuff, so I try and find some relatable thing to bounce off of.
Yeah sometimes if I get lucky if I’m in a good mood I’ll observe something funny like what shoes someone is wearing. Usually my thing is to just ask people random questions about themselves. People like to talk about themselves so you just ask them about where they’re from or something. But small talk is a bitch.
There was another interesting motif that I forgot to ask about before, which was the iPhone alarm user interface. I felt like those pieces tapped into a very specific anxiety so I was curious whether you’re trying to create content that is just relatable, or make a deeper comment about how invasive technology is in our lives.
Again it’s taking those mundane day-to-day experiences and seeing how you can re-contextualise them. With the alarm stuff there was this very visual UI that I could play off (the off/on switch) but it also dug into that repetitive annoyingness of the alarm, so I fucked with it to make it even more anxiety-inducing. So that was a good idea with deeper meaning rather than just something that was funny. It reinforced what we’re all feeling.
Yeah, I mean the one question I’ve been asking myself is like—am I taking this too seriously?
Nooo, that’s why I’m enjoying talking about this now because I do take this stuff really seriously. That’s something else I struggle with in terms of my business: If I was to grow it would be hard to find people who care as much as I do. I remember when I was working at this agency, we were working so hard and I was getting so frustrated and this account manager was just like ‘Pablo relax, it’s just advertising’ and I started to cry like ‘this is not just advertising!! I want to make this great’. Then I was like ‘OK fuck it I’m just going to focus on my own ideas because no one is going to forbid me from caring too much’. So while a lot of my work is super silly and designed to look low-effort (and sometimes it is), I take it super seriously. I really care.
I think that’s a nice note to end this conversation on. What are you doing tonight?
Well something else I like to do is play pool. I’ve just discovered that. So I might go to a bar and play some pool. My dad is writing a book and I’m going to help design a cover for it. And I haven’t done my ten ideas for the day so I need to do that.
What is your dad’s book about?
He’s a psychologist and this book is called ‘Moral Acrobatics’. It’s about how people can have an evil side and a kinda-nice side at the same time. For example, Hitler was a vegetarian because he didn’t like the idea of killing animals. So it’s about how people compartmentalise different parts of their brain. It’s hard for me to read these academic books but I’m helping him do the cover. I have to photograph something, but I don’t know what yet.
OK well I don’t really know how to tackle that, so good luck. You’re going to go play some pool and I’m going to the beach, but thanks so much for your time, this was fun.
Thanks Chris!
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