My taxi driver got lost twice on the winding, circuitous path up the Berkeley hills to the home of Karin Hibma, one half of the legendary design firm CRONAN, founded in the early ’80s and known for naming products like TiVo and Kindle. But it is well worth the journey. The house is so far above the town of Berkeley that I feel like I’m in another world: The air is crisper, deer walk gently among the pines, the boats in the San Francisco Bay below are mere specks in the blue expanse.
Hibma’s mission-style house is where she works and brings clients. In one of the main living spaces there is a large table for meetings, but it is hardly your typical conference room. Art bursts from the walls in a palette of earthy shades; many of the pieces were painted by Hibma’s late husband and business partner, Michael Cronan. Sculptures from other famous artists are scattered about. Hibma tells me that every inch of this space has been carefully designed to radically change clients’ relationship with the world around them, at least for a brief time. “It all seems a bit literal, but part of why I love having clients up here is that they immediately have a different perspective of the world,” Hibma says. “The cars and the offices look so minuscule below. Suddenly yesterday’s problems seem inconsequential.”
Hibma strongly believes that creativity can be manufactured. Over the decades of developing brand identities with clients, she and Cronan developed a routine for shepherding them through the creative process. The first step, she says, is taking them out of their everyday concerns. “We like to start at 10 o’clock in the morning, after they have checked their email and are ready to put their smartphones away,” she tells me. She then takes clients for a walk around the grounds, showing them the view. “Being up here in this home sometimes feels to them like they are in an old-fashioned summer camp,” she says.
They have a brief introductory meeting in the morning, to understand exactly what problem they are trying to solve: Are they coming up with a product name? Are they imagining a new brand identity? Do they want to develop packaging that reflects the company’s aesthetic? Then, soon after they’ve established the parameters of the work, they break into lunch and perhaps even a little croquet game if the weather permits. “By the time the afternoon meeting come around, clients are primed for their most creative work,” says Hibma. Without focusing too intently on it, everybody was filing away ideas and organizing their thoughts. “As we all know, sometimes the best ideas happen when we are not trying so hard,” she says.
While this is a controlled process in a carefully curated environment, many clients often feel a lack of control that scares them, Hibma tells me. Clients are so used to sitting in a conference room and generating results after a quick brainstorming session so, particularly during the early part of the day, clients can feel they are being unproductive and inefficient. “We’ve learned that we need to assure them that we will arrive at an answer by the end of the day,” she says. “It puts people at ease, allowing them to relax into our method.”
Of course, it is not always possible to invite clients to her home. In these cases, Hibma works to reproduce the same process elsewhere. She tells me that she often has to go down to Los Angeles to work with clients, including Disney. When she is in another space, she sometimes focuses on giving her clients a culinary experience that takes them out of the ordinary. One time, she ordered trays and trays of delicious food for a meeting held at the clients’ own offices.
On another occasion, she asked that the meeting be held at a restaurant that had bocce grounds, so that clients could play a couple of rounds of the game before getting into the work. An important part of the creative process is ensuring that the team works cohesively and any of Hibma’s exercises are just as much about team-building as they are about allowing individuals to clear their minds.
“I had noticed that the women on that team felt a bit like outsiders in our earlier interactions,” Hibma recalls. “During that bocce game, their male counterparts were cheering them on, and after the game, everybody seemed much more relaxed and comfortable with one another.”