As design has come to play an ever larger role in marketing, innovation, and our everyday lives, I’m always interested in how the best designers in the world view their craft. So I was happy to have the opportunity to conduct an email interview with Ken Carbone, the cofounder and chief creative director of the Carbone Smolan Agency, a design and branding company in New York. Carbone and his agency have done work that has been recognized globally for clients as diverse as the Musée du Louvre and Morgan Stanley. We spoke about what makes for great design, his biggest mistake, and where he sees design going in the future.
MARK MCNEILLY: The title of your new book is “Dialog.” What makes a great design partnership, and how would you define great design?
KEN CARBONE: Great design is an alchemic combination of ingenuity, utility, and beauty. It’s all about great ideas and solving a problem in a visually arresting way. Examples I would include are: the UPC barcode, Gotham Typeface, iPhone, the Mini Cooper, and one of my all-time favorites is the Q-Drum. Google it.
How do designers arrive at such stellar solutions? Unfortunately, it’s not based on a simple formula and can’t easily be defined. For me, often luck and serendipity play a part but experience and ability to recognize an opportunity translates the ethereal to material. I believe the general public is becoming much more design conscious. They might not know why design works but they certainly know when it doesn’t. GAP learned that the hard way.
How does your background affect your design philosophy?
I grew up in a blue-collar family without much exposure to art and the humanities. However, I’ve been drawing since childhood and a few kind people along the way helped nurture my talent. This eventually led to a career in design. My very lack of knowledge about literature, philosophy, or history made me “curiously curious” and a life-long learner. Design as we practice it opened the door to many worlds for me. On a single day I can be working on projects in banking, architecture, science, food, technology, and hospitality. What other career offers that kind of diversity? Being a designer is like hitting the lottery for the creatively restless.
How did you adapt your design to keep up with new trends? Or is good design timeless?
In our case, creative agility helped sustain our agency. We like to design with a broad stylistic brush, which works extremely well for the diverse clientele we have. We’re not a one size fits all kind of firm and that serves us very well. We like to think our work is contemporary but we’re not trend driven. Avoiding the trend trap is difficult because of the currency clients attach to the power of “now.” We’ve been susceptible to this on occasion but we believe our designs are built to last. This has resulted in some projects with a timeless quality.
What three things would you tell a young designer starting out today on how to be successful?
1. Be sure design books make up only 25% of your library. For every book on type have three on literature, history, or science.
2. Beware of a singular style but try to find your singular point of view.
3. Have a great accountant.
What was your biggest mistake and what did you learn from it?
I remember a very successful businessman once telling me “if you’re not making mistakes you’re not trying hard enough.” I’ve made plenty of mistakes; a few bad hires, some toxic clients but fortunately nothing critical. Oddly, one thing I regret is that our names are literally on the door–the Carbone Smolan Agency. This sets an expectation that my partner Leslie Smolan and I are the agency. Actually, there are plenty of individuals here who contribute to the quality of our design product. For example, our new partner Paul Pierson represents an exciting generational shift for us and there will be others like him in the future. A time might come when our name proves limiting. It’s just not scalable for the kind of business we’re becoming. Spoiler alert.
Where do you see design going over the next decade?
If design continues on its current trajectory and is used to address ever-increasing social, cultural, and economic challenges, it can only be a good thing for our world. It’s the fundamental use of deductive reasoning balanced with creating emotional impact every good designer practices that make our skills broadly applicable and extremely valuable. I believe a designer would have come up with a much better solution to the recent “fiscal cliff” debacle.
–Mark McNeilly is the author of three books (including Sun Tzu and the Art of Business: Six Principles for Managers) and a Lecturer at UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School. Prior to that Mark was a marketing executive with experience at IBM and Lenovo. You can follow him at @markmcneilly or learn more at suntzustrategies.com