For most people, browsing the shelves of a 7-Eleven is not a particularly enlightening activity. But for Alex Center (BA ’06), lead designer for The Coca-Cola Company, overseeing global brands including Glacéau Vitaminwater, Glacéau Smartwater and Powerade, it’s a litmus test of his success as a brand developer.
“I will just go to the back of the store and drift past the coolers to see how they’re shelving Vitaminwater,” the Brooklyn-based Center says. “Where is Powerade in comparison to Gatorade? How many different products are there? How many different lines?”
Center has made a name for himself—in 2011, Lürzer’s Archive named him among the 200 Best Packaging Designers in the world—focused on the part of a product most people tend to take for granted. For the 31-year-old designer, the old maxim is true: First impressions matter. So in 2008, when he was asked to redesign Powerade, Coca-Cola’s popular sports drink, the first thing he did was give the logo an overhaul.
“At the time, Powerade had this very ’90s design, like something from ‘The Matrix,’” he says. “It was dated, to say the least.” Center’s design looks at home on the sidelines of NBA and World Cup games, in the company of brands like Nike and Adidas. When the logo is on a towel draped over an athlete’s back, it seems to belong there—and that’s the crux of successful branding.
“There are a million ways a brand can reach out to you,” Center says, “but in that moment when you walk into a bodega or a supermarket and you are staring at the shelf with 16 different options, the packaging needs to draw you in and talk to you in a way that is relatable. It needs to tell a story.”
Center’s passion for sports has made him a natural fit for products aimed at athletes and fans. A lifetime devotee of the New York Knicks, he interned for the team while still at UB, choosing the gig over more prestigious opportunities, including an internship with world-famous designer Milton Glaser (of the “I Love NY” campaign, among others).
Center’s love of sports also helped him land his first job, with Vitaminwater, only a few months after graduation. The company had just hired 25 professional athletes to promote Vitaminwater, and the creative team needed someone who knew the difference between basketball star Ray Allen and NFL linebacker Brian Urlacher. Enter Alex Center.
Of course, not just any sports fan could help a brand popular in New York and Los Angeles—as Vitaminwater was when Center started the job in 2006—become recognizable worldwide. Ultimately, branding is Center’s first love.
“It started in middle school,” he says. “At that point, if you were wearing a Tommy Hilfiger jacket and some cool Nike sneakers, I think you felt something. I was always curious about why one brand of jacket would make you feel amazing, and another would make you feel like you were less-than. That connection between brands and people is something I’ve always been into. I wanted to be a part of it.”
Even in his spare time, when not rooting for his favorite teams or doing improv at New York’s Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, Center finds ways to continue branding. In the last few years, he has branched out into speaking engagements and freelance design ventures, including, most notably, the ESPN “30 for 30” documentary “When the Garden Was Eden,” which celebrates his beloved Knicks.
Some of this outside work has included collaborations with his wife, Jacquelyn De Jesu (BA ’08), who works as a freelance advertising creative director. The couple met in the computer labs in the Center for the Arts at UB.
“She’s definitely someone that I bounce ideas off of. Here and there we collaborate. She tends to represent the agencies, and I represent the client,” Center says, laughing. “That makes for a lot of fun conversations at home!”