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Success by Design

“You need good physical design to get people through the door. The real differentiator now, though, is the user interface.” So wrote Molly Wood earlier this year in the New York Times. I would add to that by saying good interface design isn’t only a business differentiator, it can turn a small company into a success in a flash. Think AirBNB (started in 2008, $24 billion valuation last year) and Uber (started in 2009, $41 billion valuation last year). Those apps are beautifully designed and, even more importantly, are amazingly simple to use. Software companies have taken notice, hiring designers and design firms to up their game and transform their interfaces into iPhone-worthy ones. I have read that Facebook, Yahoo, Adobe and other tech giants have even started buying creative agencies. Businesses take note: They’re not doing this so their party invitations look good. They’re doing it because good design makes them more money.

Pop Art Pioneer


You may have never heard of the designer Irving Harper, but you may be familiar with his work. He was employed as an industrial designer in the 50s and 60s for design studio George Nelson and became a Pop Art pioneer. Many of his innovative creations, including the marshmallow sofa, the sunburst clock, and the ball clock, were carried by the Herman Miller furniture company. He even designed the Herman Miller logo. Want one of those cool couches? They are still available for purchase for $3,314 at Design Within Reach. Mr. Harper passed away this fall at the symmetrical age of 99. read on

Impostors Beware

There is an ad that frequently runs in design industry magazines urging designers not to use the Little Trees Air Freshener logo or likeness. I know of no other company that does this and wondered: Is that really a big concern? Are so many designers using the green tree art that it’s worth spending money on ads? I discovered that Little Trees dominates the US market with annual sales of $100 million. So I guess the answer is yes. And print ads aren’t the company’s only weapon. Last week Little Trees sued Exotica Fresheners for infringing on its trademark. Although Exotica’s Palm tree would never be confused with the Little Trees pine tree, their packaging included a green tree logo, italic type, and a yellow background color. This was close enough to the Little Trees brand style for a judge to order a redesign of its packaging and a payment of $52,000. Back in 2004, a much larger judgement—over a quarter million dollars—was levied against Big Lots Stores for a similar trademark infringement. I guess it doesn’t pay to be a copycat.

Starbucks Anti-Holiday Cups


Has Starbucks removed Christmas from their coffee cups? Some customers have come to this conclusion when they were handed their morning brew in this season’s stark red cups, which offer no snowflakes, santas, or ornaments. Company officials say it’s not so, claiming this year’s design is “another way Starbucks is inviting customers to create their own stories with a red cup that mimics a blank canvas.” It’s an admittedly minimalist approach, but they’re using traditional Christmas colors, then filling the cups with Gingerbread and Christmas Cookie lattes. Another example of the truly trivial somehow getting traction on Twitter and Facebook.

Harsh Lessons in Branding


If there is a single brand truism that has solidified over the years, it’s the commandment of trust. Customers want to know the food they’re eating won’t make them sick. Toys won’t harm their children. Drugs won’t make their health worse. So it’s baffling that a brand as large, and often loved, as VW would not heed this basic advice. Engineers installed devices in VWs and Audis that lowered emissions to legal standards during emissions tests, but programmed the software to turn off the rest of the time. So the “clean” Diesel you thought you were driving was not very clean at all. In fact, it’s four times dirtier than your neighbor’s Camry. After firing VWs president and recalling thousands of vehicles, the hard work begins to rebuild brand trust. Not even the most gifted engineer can solve that monumental problem.

Urban Archeology


Barry Rosenthal must be a designer at heart. He gathers garbage near his studio in Brooklyn and arranges the items in beautiful, color coordinated, fussed-over compositions. A former commercial photographer, Mr. Rosenthal devotes much of his time these days creating new “Found in Nature” images. His work was recently featured on the cover of National Geographic and was selected to be in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art. To see more from this urban archeologist, sculptor, collector, environmental advocate—oh yes, and photographer—visit his website.

Revenge of the Meatball


Somewhat late to the game I suppose, I pledged money for a Kickstarter campaign for the first time this week. The subject of my largesse? The reissue of the 1975 NASA Graphics Standards Manual. It was designed by Richard Danne and Bruce Blackburn of the New York firm Danne & Blackburn. “Even though the money in it was minuscule, we had to go for it. We knew it was high profile,” Mr. Danne was quoted recently in the New York Times. For a small, young firm, rebranding NASA, which five years earlier had put a man on the moon, this was indeed big stuff. Their winning solution for replacing the pictorial “meatball” logo was a purely typographic, future-leaning logotype. While a vast improvement in the eyes of most graphic designers, the new logo was never fully embraced internally. Over the next 18 years, people at NASA repeatedly attempted to revoke their work. And they succeeded in 1992, killing the “worm” and bringing back the meatball, which stands as NASA’s official logo to this day.



The Birth of a Legendary Rock Logo


Famous logos always have interesting beginnings. I recently came upon the story of the Rolling Stones iconic tongue and lips logo, which made its debut on the 1971 “Sticky Fingers” album. A student at the Royal College of Art in London, John Pasche, created it, inspired by images of the Hindu goddess Kali. No, it’s not Mick Jagger’s mouth and tongue, a common misconception. Pressed at deadline, a rough one inch version of the logo was faxed from London to Craig Braun, the creative director of Sound Packaging Corporation in New York. Craig and his team quickly finessed the design and used the art to cover the entire sleeve of the American release. Although Mr. Pasche was paid only $75 for his original idea, he later sold the copyright to the Stones for $40,000 in 1984. Later still, the Victoria and Albert Museum bought his original sketch for $92,000 in 2008. 40 years later, the logo is still going strong, currently used on ads for the Stones North American “Zip Code” tour.

Corporate Social Responsibility


Charter Our Community

Amping up corporate social responsibility programs seems to be a trend among our corporate clients. But with all the pressure to compete in today’s global marketplace, it makes me wonder why they would divert their attention to CSR. Is furthering the social good, beyond the interests of the company, really worth it? Or is CSR merely window-dressing? In an effort to enhance home safety within the communities in which they live and work, our client Charter Communications (currently involved in merger talks with Time Warner) recently launched a corporate social responsibility initiative. We were tasked with creating the Charter our Community (https://charterourcommunity.com/) website, which brings together a network of partners to educate and support customers and the public. Designer Hannah Fichandler and programmer Hannah Wool created a lively site where visitors can watch videos, share stories, volunteer, register, and donate to the cause. It’s had over 100,000 page views and 80,000 unique visits since launch in December 2014. I believe that Charter’s new program is really a win-win scenario. As customers and prospects see Charter’s philanthropic work in their own towns, they will probably want to continue using their services. I also think they’ll have happier employees, and perhaps better employees, who want to give their best for a company that they respect.

An Ageless Gateway Greeting


Graphic designers generally toil anonymously, with only their clients and families knowing about their creations. Yet their work can be instantly recognizable and can have lasting cultural impact. In 1959, a Nevada based designer by the name of Betty Willis was hired to create a welcome sign for the city of Las Vegas. Ever since its placement on highway 91, an endless stream of tourists have pulled their cars over for photos and the sign has become the de-facto logo of the city. Betty never copyrighted her design, so she did not profit from the countless souvenirs sold over the past 50 years that picture her work. The beloved sign survived a demolition attempt in 1993 and was subsequently placed on the National Register of Historic Places as “the most iconic expression of the ascendency of postwar Las Vegas.” Bravo Ms. Willis, who passed away this year at the age of 91. Your glitzy, fabulous, and perfectly appropriate work lives on.

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