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In Praise Of The Heroic Client

Long before Steve Jobs, there were other great patrons of design, among them Walter Paepcke, the marketing director of the Container Corporation of America.

In Praise Of The Heroic Client

When you think of the unusual juxtaposition of “client” and “hero,” you might be forgiven for automatically conjuring up an image of Steve Jobs in his trademark jeans, running shoes, and black, long-sleeved mock turtleneck. After all, he almost single-handedly pulled his brand baby from the fires of mediocrity and propelled it back into the stratosphere (and beyond), utilizing his secret weapons of product innovation and design–both industrial and graphic. Whenever design critics write or discuss “dream clients,” the conversation often seems to gravitate toward Thomas Watson, Jr., who was president of IBM from the early ’50s until the early ’70s. He was, after all, the captain of industry who famously said, “Good design is good business” and hired Paul Rand to practically baptize the entire IBM culture in his rigorous design process (while simultaneously creating one of the most powerful and enduring corporate identities in the history of business). Even Rand bemoaned the paucity of clients like Watson near the end of his career.

But before Thomas Watson, Jr., and a few years after Lorenzo the Magnificent (the Medici family member who was a patron of many of the artists during the Renaissance), there was Walter Paepcke, a marketing executive at the Container Corporation of America during the 1930s.

In addition to his role at the Container Corporation of America, Paepcke founded the Aspen Institute, hiring Bauhaus designer Herbert Bayer to create the identity and posters for the institute. His affinity for the work of the Bauhaus was evidenced again when he financed László Moholy-Nagy’s relaunch of the American New Bauhaus in Chicago. This led to projects and collaborations with other former Bauhaus figures: artists Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, and Josef Albers as well as architects Walter Gropius, Mies van der Rohe, and Marcel Breuer.

But perhaps his greatest contribution was the one he made at the Container Corporation of America. Paepcke was nothing less than a patron of great design; he believed it was one of the highest values a company could possess. But he didn’t just talk the talk. One of my favorite designers gave me a beautiful oversized book a few years ago titled simply Great Ideas. The book is a collection of advertisements and promotional materials that the Container Corporation of America commissioned, approved, and produced over a period of 25 years. Not only was it one of the longest-running and most popular marketing campaigns in America, it was remarkable for the who’s who of design hired to create it. Recognize any of these names? Bayer, Rand, Chermayeff, Glaser, Bill, Munari, Matter, Aicher, Bass, Burtin, Brodovitch, Lustig, Hofman, Federico? Amazing. And so was the work. (The book is appropriately called Great Ideas, not Good Ideas, although that was also the theme of the campaign.)

Now, how many clients do we know who could fill a book with great ideas that they were involved with–even if they wanted to? Maybe a pamphlet.

I had the rare privilege and pleasure of working with a Paepcke-esque client for close to 10 years. Chris Dinsdale was one of the world’s foremost authorities on cheese marketing (his dad Owen even consulted the Swiss government on how to sell cheese in the United States). But more importantly (at least to me), he was one of the best and most ambitious clients I have ever met–ambitious not just from a sales perspective, although his contribution to the Tillamook Cheese brand was nothing short of meteoric over those 10 years, but in terms of supporting great work and attempting to make every communication with Tillamook’s consumer a “gift.” He (and his predecessor Gary Sauriol) supported me working with some of the best designers in the country: Steve Sandstrom, Jon Olsen, Bob Dinetz, Fredrik Averin. And he supported our unconventional process, which resulted in some extremely interesting and adventurous communications (see www.austinhowe.com). Sadly and suddenly, Chris died a few years ago. And, to put it nicely, the gifts stopped.

At the risk of sounding maudlin (don’t worry, I’m not going to tell you to go hug your client), I guess I want to remind us of how rare and precious it is to have a client who respects other humans enough and the creative ethos enough to approve what might be called great advertising. Or, as Walter Paepcke put it, “Great Ideas.”

The above excerpt appears as a chapter in Designers Don’t Have Influences by Austin Howe, published in September by Allworth Press, an imprint of Skyhorse Publishing.

Designers Don’t Have Influences is available on Amazon, BN.com, and everywhere books are sold.


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