Standing on the Shoulders of a Giant

 

In 2015, I was working on a project commemorating the 90th anniversary of Schlumberger. My boss dug up an old brochure done from the company rebranding efforts in the late 90s. There were some really cool images in it he wanted to use for a multimedia presentation, so he asked me to track them down.

I knew who had designed the brochure: Milton Glaser.

Milton Glaser was one of those designers whose work you had seen, but unless you were in the know, you had no idea he had done it. Record and book covers, logos, posters, you name it. I happened to know Mr. Glaser had been engaged by Schlumberger for the rebranding, so I called him.

The studio took my call, but of course, I did not get to speak with Mr. Glaser. His assistant asked me to jot down a list of what I was looking for and they would go through their archives to see if they had what my boss wanted.

I scratched together an email with all the details, and finished off the note with some gushing. Hell, how often do you get to communicate with one of your idols.

A day or so later, I got a reply from the man himself. Mr. Glaser wrote me back. He said that unfortunately his archives did not go back quite that far and he did have the material I was looking for. And he graciously thanked me for the kind words I shared with him.

This really struck me. Here is one of the preeminent designers in the world, taking some time out of his day to write me a note. Even though he was a rock star, he was not so big that he couldn’t take a few minutes to ping a designer down in Houston. This speaks volumes about the kind of person he was.

I have a constant reminder of Milton Glaser’s greatness sitting a few feet away from me on my bookshelf — one of his monographs I bought while in design school back in 1986. That book, and his others, along with countless interviews and articles had a huge impact on me and my work. But this simple gesture of reaching out to me personally tanscends all of that.

Rest in peace, Mr. Glaser.


Identity Crisis

The 3rd in a series about how big ideas are good for business.

There is a common misconception that a logo is a brand. Although important, a logo is only a visual representation of the brand. However, if done properly, it can also be the foundation for everything — informing how the brand goes to market and communicates in addition to leading the development of the overall look and feel. Pretty powerful stuff. No, a logo is not the brand, but it is a crucial piece to building a strong one. And, for whatever reason, logos sure are undervalued nowadays.

If logos are so important, then why are they undervalued? Is it cost? Is it because sites like 99 Designs offer buyers five design options for a 100 bucks? Or Fiverr, where you can farm out the logo to a hungry designer in some far off corner of the world for $10.00 or less?

Then there’s the Nike mythology. As the story goes, Phil Knight paid an art student at Oregon $35.00 for the Nike swoosh, and they seem to have done pretty well with it over the years. But how many times in the history of branding has there been this kind of wild success?

Sure, cost is one thing, but this leads to another misconception — that logos are easy to make. They’re so small and simple, logos should come quick and be cheap? That’s hard to argue with when you look at many of the latest designs on sites like Brand New. There are a lot of logos out there that look like they were thrown together, lacking in overall quality, and haring a certain sameness. Why should you pay good money for an ordinary logo?

Along those lines, a logo can indeed be a very simple image. So as logic dictates, certainly if it did not have taken THAT long to create, it shouldn’t cost that much.

But here’s the misnomer, it’s not about the time spent on creating the logo; it’s about how valuable the end product is.

An example from design lore: Paula Scher was engaged by CitiBank after they had merged with Travelers, to design a new identity. Legend has it, Ms. Scher drew the initial design for the logo right then and there in the conference room while the meeting was going on. That design now graces their cards, business papers, signage, sites, and virtually every piece of marketing material they produce.

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I’ve had a similar experience. We had just landed a new account, a start-up called Environmental Effects, or EFX, for short. While my boss was giving us the assignment and talking about the company (they were in the business of collecting and selling weather data and how it might affect commodities), I doodled what would become the finished logo later that day.

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In both these instances, the design came quickly. Does that mean there is any less value in the design? No. In fact, when Ms. Scher talks about designing the Citi logo she acknowledges that it only took seconds to draw. But she goes on to say that it took over 30 years to gain enough experience to be able to create the logo in a matter of moments. That’s some serious unseen value.

No matter how fast or obvious the outcome, the creation of logos is never easy.

I’ve always thought designing logos is like making a roux. Picture Emeril Lagasse throwing a few ingredients (BAM!) into a sauce pan, turning on a flame and stirring the mixture together. And stir and stir and stir, whisking out the clumps while the roux thickens. As he stirs, all the goodness from the bottom of the pan he had been cooking with adds to the complexity and flavor. Stir and stir until it is nice and thick, ready to make whatever he is preparing all the more rich, deep and yummy. That’s logo design. A good logo makes everything better.

Urban Harvest is a non-profit in Houston, Texas, who plant community gardens in inner city neighborhoods to grow fresh produce in areas where wholesome food can be hard to come by. The studio I was at was asked to design a logo for Urban Harvest back in 1995. Being a freebie, my boss passed the assignment to me.

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The design took a while. With paying projects taking priority, the logo took a back-burner at times, and when I did have time to work on it, nothing looked or felt right. Sketches here, tighter drawings there, but nothing seemed to stick. Weeks passed.

Finally my boss gave me a deadline — get it done.

I scrapped all my previous thinking and started over from scratch. I remember seeing a illustrated poster in an old design annual (back when art directors looked at books) where an ear of corn stood in the midle of a metropolitan skyline full of skyscrapers. That was all the inspiration I needed.

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I simplified the forms, breaking down the a tower to it’s purest form, a set of blocks. The structure not only took the form of a skyscraper, where the blocks looked like windows, but also came to represent rows of corn. The outer leaves created an organic shape of a “U”, giving the tower a place to grow.

The logo became a perfect reflection of Urban Harvest — growing fresh produce in inner cities while also growing communities. The logo is still in use 25 years later. That’s value. although in recent years, someone changed the building’s color from the original warm gray to a bright yellow. In my opinion, with this one tweak to the original design, it loses the double-entendre. But even with that change, it is a unique form that has stood the test of time. Again, there is tremendous value there.

This leads me back to time as an issue. When talking about value, we’re not talking about the amount of time it takes to create something, but rather how long the logo lasts. Will the design remain relevant over the years? Will it be able to be flexible over time to adjust to different tastes, mores, and media for that matter?

That is where quality comes in, and why clients should not jump into a logo lightly. A logo is an investment, one that will pay huge dividends for years to come. When talking about the value of a logo, it is hard to put a dollar figure to it. Something so small can have such a lasting impact on a business. Or an idea.

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So how do we ensure logos are valuable?

First and foremost, the design should be appropriate. The right look, feel, tonality to best visually represent the brand.

Be unique to the brand. Plenty of designers design logos to fit their style. A logo should not be a reflection of the designer, nor a competitor or anyone else, it should simply be about your brand it represents.

Strive to be timeless. Don’t follow the latest trend or reside with the herd. Where others zig, make sure the logo zags. When it comes to a logo, being different is everything.

Take the time to work through the design, instilling inherent quality and careful craftsmanship This is a two-way street — the client carefully considering how the design will affect their business and the designer responding to those concerns. Fret over the details; they will make all the difference.


Lightning Strikes Twice

The 2nd in a series about how big ideas are good for business.

Some ideas are so big that if they work once, surely they will solve other problems, too.

I’m not opposed to recycling ideas for different clients. In fact, a creative director I worked for years ago encouraged it. Now, I hate to think we would commoditize our creative output, but when you’re in the business of generating lots of solutions, you start to see how the same answer can solve multiple problems. This approach saves the agency time and money when the same answer solves multiple problems. But is this good for clients?

Back in my agency days, we landed a plum account, doing national recruitment advertising for Compaq Computers. For younger readers out there, Compaq was swallowed up by HP back in 2002.

Compaq made solid hardware that did nothing flashy, but their products worked well. And all the computers, printers and other bits they manufactured were all a lovely shade of beige. What’s funny is that their industrial design was a mirrored reflection of their own corporate culture. Not a lot of sizzle, not a lot of sexy, but that is exactly who Compaq was looking to recruit.

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Our assignment was college recruiting. Because it was a new account for us, one of the bigwig CDs from the New York office sat in on the initial client meetings where strategies were discussed. Since Compaq was local to Houston, it was decided to bring me and my writing partner, David Morris, in on the project to add a little local flavor.

So this jack-wagon from New York calls to brief us. In the meeting with Compaq, it was decided the “theme” for that recruiting campaign would be “water.” Dave and I just looked at each other, rolling our eyes (good thing there wasn’t any Zoom back then). Then Mr. Jackwagon instructed us to not show him any of that trite, predictable, low-hanging-fruit crap — or else! (I don’t recall if he actually threatened us, but we’ll say he did just for dramatic purposes.)

So Dave and I banged our heads together. After some brainstorming, doodling, crying, hand-wringing, fist fights, a few beers and the like, we agreed the coolest thing about “water” had to be Aqua Man, especially pre-Jason Momoa. In fact, we really liked that over-the-top drama from the mid-1960s DC Comics.

For our initial comps, we went to a comic book shop, bought an old Aqua Man, scanned it in and created a story about an underwater superhero who used Compaq technology to defeat the forces of evil. Captain Q was born. No one saw this concept coming. Our CD loved it so much that this was the only idea pitched to Compaq, and they jumped in head first.

I won’t go into all the production details because that is not the point here – and that is an adventure in and of itself – but I have to mention the immense talents of the dearly-departed George Toomer, the illustrator who helped bring our vision to life. Using George’s art, we crafted  messages for mailers, a 12-page comic book, ads, handouts, booths, banners, and all the usual campaign trappings. It all worked extraordinarily well. So much so, the campaign exceeded all projections and goals way ahead of schedule. A big win for Compaq and the agency. A big idea in action.

When I first decided on writing this post, this is where the big idea ended. I was planning on going into excruciating detail about how the Compaq project went. But then I had another idea:

Does lightning strike twice?

Before we go any further, let me clear the air. I’m not above stealing, even from myself. Austin Kleon is right, but I am a professional and do not condone outright copying or plagiarism.

Maybe the big idea is not about the success we had for Compaq, or creating a superhero, but more about using a medium again for another project.

Comic books are surprising versatile. As a medium, you can do just about anything with them because they are both visual and verbal. You can cheat the boundaries of conventional narrative, play with the defined spaces and create entirely new universes. What’s even better, rules and conventions keep getting broken as artists push the boundaries even further. Comics are an amazing art form.

Since most of my work is in the B2B world, seeing comics in a corporate environment can be downright shocking, and the unexpectedness creates both impact and memorability.

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*COE = Center of Excellence, PR = Project Request, POS = Point of Sale

While at Sysco, I was charged to come up with a new position that would help the Brand Managers’ push their heavy workloads more efficiently through the design production process. We created a position replicating what the agency world would call an “Account Manager.” Briefly, the role would be like the account executive you’d call at your agency to get your projects knocked out, but for our purposes, this would be an internal position, not outsourced one.

This was not the big idea. How the Account Manager was introduced to the marketing staff was.

What we wanted to do was be able to show the Account Manager in action so that the Brand Managers could see how much easier their lives would be with this person’s guidance.

The initial presentation took the form of a skit, where I played the role of the Account Manager, and four of my peers played various characters who would touch the project as it went through the production process – the client, a coordinator, designer and Quality Control. To support the story, I created a comic book, where each frame described a step in the process.

After the presentation, each member of the staff was given the comic in the form of a puzzle, something colorful and fun that they could keep at their desk as a constant reminder of how the new Account Manager was going to help them.

There was no room for ambiguity. Understanding was crystal clear. A couple of Brand Managers told me this was hands-down the best presentation they’d ever seen at Sysco.

The big idea here is about using mediums differently. There are always opportunities to recycle ideas, turning them into something fresh and new. As these two stories started coming together, it occurred to me: maybe Marshall McLuhan is right – often times the medium is the message.


Actions Speak Louder Than Words

The first in a series about how big ideas are good for business.

Since the inception of the idea for this series, a lot has happened in the world. This first topic has taken on greater significance in light of the events in late May since the aftermath of George Floyd’s unfortunate death at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer.

Let’s get started at the beginning…

Back in my studio days, I worked on the Cabot Oil & Gas annual report for 6 years. Each fall, we would meet with the CFO and his team to discuss general themes and topics that the executives wanted to communicate in the book. We would then go back to the studio and brainstorm how to best articulate those messages into a compelling narrative. If all went according to plan, the brainstorming would guide the visual approach as well.

For the 2002 annual, we were given very explicit direction: they wanted to talk about their company values.

Before going too much further, I want to clear the air. I’m not a fan of corporations talking about values or other soft, fluffy attributes about their brand. Most, if not all, companies can make similar claims, so from a branding perspective there is little to no differentiation between the competition. I’m not talking about taking sides on an issue, rather about inherent qualities about how they see themselves.

Secondly, I find it weak when companies hang their hats on these platitudes like they’re something special. For instance, it should be table-stakes that they will act with integrity when you’re a publicly-traded company. I don’t think they should be boasting about it.

Further, extolling your virtues is merely chest-thumping in my book, of which I am not a fan of, either. No one has ever trusted a brand because they said they were [insert value here – generous? “woke”? caring?]. No one cares how great you say you are.

Lastly, in my experience, I have found that when most companies that say they are [insert value here – i.e., diverse, responsible, team-focused, family-friendly, etc.], they are often times just the opposite. The only way a brand can truly exhibit any of these wonderful qualities is by living them on a daily basis. As Holden Caulfield might say, talking about all this in marketing pieces makes it all sound phony.

Just to be clear, I am not a fan of this sort of virtue-signaling approach to branding. Not that a company cannot or should not strive for high ideals, but should this be the focus of your marketing?

Back to the annual report: How do you reconcile all these issues and still meet the client’s expectations?

It takes a big idea.

My father was a civil engineer. When I was a kid, I remember going to his first office, which was nothing more than a tinky building the size of a double-wide, with only enough room for him, his partner and their receptionist because half of the space was filled with shelves containing core samples.

If you don’t know, core samples are small sections of the earth drilled out and pulled up to the surface so that geologists or other scientists can study them to get a better understanding of what the ground is made of under their feet. In the case of a civil engineer, they wanted to understand what is underneath the structure they are building so that it doesn’t fall down. Kind of important.

This is where the real value of creativity comes into play. Being able to make connections with the knowledge gained through life experiences gives shape to new, big ideas, connecting seemingly disparate bits into one cohesive thought. Big ideas are unifying, encompassing many different facets of life to make the something new, more accessible and relatable to more people. It becomes easy and natural to make the leap from core samples to core values. Both give us understanding — core samples tell us about the earth, whereas the core values help us understand why we can trust a company.

The 2002 annual was titled “At of the Core of Cabot,” with a core sample exquisitely photographed for the front cover. With this image we are visually telegraphing to investors that we are giving you a reason to believe.

This big idea adds depth (no pun intended) and context to an otherwise fluffy marketing pitch. Because their business is grounded (pun intended) in core samples, it becomes a perfect metaphor to talk about Cabot’s values: stability, discipline and integrity. These values are intrinsically intertwined with their beliefs and the way they operate their business, much in the same way a core sample is central to oil and gas exploration.

There was one key ingredient to ensuring the success of this particular big idea, and that was that Cabot could back it up. That was what the annual was all about after all. They used language that anyone else can use for themselves, but once you dig into the report, readers found that Cabot can back up all these claims.

And that leads me to back to virtue-signaling, becasue there is a lot of it going around these days. It’s one thing to say you are a certain way, that you believe or feel this way or that. But where it counts the most is in your actions. Can you live up to what you are saying?

When it comes to building a strong brand, if a company can live up to its high ideals, I’ll hang my hat on that messaging every day.


Pick Two

More than a few years back, Lowell Williams became a partner at Pentagram and came back to his old stomping grounds in Houston to give a presentation about his experiences to the local AIGA chapter.

He opened his presentation with an idea that has since stuck in my mind. How do you decide if you should take on a new project? He had a very simple method.

To take on a new project, it must meet at least two of the following criteria:

Outrageous fees.
Compelling work.
Fun people.

That simple. Now let’s look at the logic.

You cannot have just one. No one is going to give you a bucket full of money and not expect something in return, like maybe doing a little work for them. Nor are there projects lying around on the ground just waiting for someone to bring them to life. And “fun people” are, well, generally called “friends”. So, at a minimum you have to have two.

The fees are straight-forward. If you’re not going to get paid, why bother. Wait a second … if the work is really interesting, there’s a chance to learn or grow, or the finished piece will look great in your book, maybe you’ll want to take the project on. And it the client is a fun and lively group that you’ll want to hang out with after the project wraps … alright, let’s do this! See, his method works.

Another angle: The project is super interesting, a real challenge that will stretch you, but the client is going to be equally challenging. Charge them out the wah-zoo. It’s amazing how a hefty check in your bank account can ease the pain of the 75th round of revisions at 3 o’clock in the morning.

On the flip side, the work isn’t all that interesting but you really like the client, use this as an opportunity to make a little money. There’s nothing wrong with that.

Of course, the Holy Grail is a project meeting all three criteria. In my career, I’ve been fortunate to have had a few such projects. They’re golden: the opportunity to do some amazing work that I am especially proud of, while making some new friends and money along the way.

Mr. Williams is right; a project must meet two points, but in my mind, strive for meeting all three.


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