MAS Context Dialogues | Bart Crosby
This post is part of MAS Context Dialogues, a series of conversations with Chicago-based designers.
To graphic designer Bart Crosby, design is not a job, it is a life. For almost six decades, he has been at the core of the Chicago design community, practicing in celebrated places like the Center for Advanced Research in Design and, since 1979, as Crosby Associates. During his career, Bart has led the design of hundreds of branding and communication programs for corporations of all sizes, receiving nearly every professional design award. His commitment to the design discipline is also reflected in his multiple roles at the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA): executive vice president and served on the organization’s board of directors; founding member and past president of the AIGA Chicago Chapter; organizer of the first AIGA conference in 1985 and the 1991 Chicago conference; and the designer of a coherent AIGA identity system in 1999. Recognizing his exceptional work and contributions to the design field, he was made a fellow of the AIGA Chicago Chapter in 2002 and, three years later, he was awarded the AIGA Medal, the highest honor of the graphic design profession.
In October 2019, graphic designer Rick Valicenti, winner of the 2011 National Design Award for Communication Design from the Cooper Hewitt and also an AIGA Medal awardee, together with Iker Gil, editor in chief of MAS Context, met at Bart’s Old Town Triangle townhouse located on Crilly Court to discuss Bart’s remarkable life and career.
Rick Valicenti: Let’s begin our conversation at an imaginary conference table where design presentations were made in the mid 1970s. Am I right in suggesting that then, the conference table was a sought-after destination, or a sacred new frontier, for the designer’s presence?
Bart Crosby: Sure. The main goal was to be with the client rather than sending things back and forth through another person—to be able to go to the client’s office, make presentations, and talk with them. Once you were able to have a meaningful relationship with the client, I don’t think the conference table mattered anymore.
RV: Right. I remember that, as I was entering the profession in the late 1970s, there were many conferences and lectures about designing the business of design and getting a seat at the table. All of them were perhaps reflective of the fact that there was no invitation from business leaders for the designer.
BC: I think getting a seat at the table is a metaphor for having clients respect you, having meaning in the relationship, and having them understand what you are doing. Being able to be a part of their business rather than just be a supplier to their business.
For me, design is a business. Otherwise, I would be just an artist. To me, design is art in the service of businesses. It is thinking. It is planning. It is marketing. It is all of those things combined.
RV: After the dramatic change of the late 1970s, in this profession, the creative commercial artist was then being referred to as “graphic designer.” Was it somewhat a new title then for what was essentially a creative individual working to fashion words and imagery in service to the world of branded commerce?
BC: There were still commercial artists and then there were emerging graphic designers. It wasn’t necessarily commercial artists becoming graphic designers. There was a new field of designers working with businesses in the effort to elevate their look universally, to polish their image, to create a new brand, and to invigorate their business. That, I think, became the business of graphic design. But there was still commercial art being done and there were still commercial artists. All commercial artists were not graphic designers and vice versa.
RV: I want you to reflect on that early time in your career. I want you to tell me about your education, your mentors, and who you were working for.
BC: I graduated from Isaac C. Elston High School in Michigan City, Indiana, when I was sixteen. Then I went to school for three years full time studying twelve months a year, so I finished up early, and then I went to work immediately after that.
RV: Where did you go to college?
BC: In 1961 I went to the American Academy of Art in Chicago and studied illustration, painting, and commercial art. Initially, I wanted to be a sign painter because I loved lettering. There was a fellow named Bill Weber, who owned Weber Sign Company in Michigan City and I asked him, “When I get out of high school, can I work for you as a sign painter? ” He said, ” No. You can’t because it will be a dead-end street. You need to go to school and study to be an artist.”
That is what created my interest in commercial art. I didn’t know of the graphic design programs at Harvard, Yale, Indiana University or anywhere else. I just looked for a commercial art school near Chicago and chose the American Academy of Art. It was cheap and I couldn’t afford much more than that.
There, I did oil painting, a lot of life drawing, a lot of illustration and cartooning. During the last six months I was there, they created a course called Design taught by a fellow named Joseph Welna who was then working for Latham Tyler Jensen—which were primarily industrial designers, but they also had a graphic design department. At the Academy we drew alphabets and we created words and objects that represented various things. I was crazy about it. The school had a registry where you could look for jobs that were open. When I was ready to get out of school, I used it to look for a job—I needed one as I was about to get married. In June of 1964 I found one at Union Carbide’s Food Products Division and stayed for nine months. There I did lettering and logos for meat products, the type you see on sausage casings. We hand lettered all the type including the ingredients. They paid overtime so I worked day and night. I would work full time and then stayed as many hours as I could if they had extra work.
I was dissatisfied with my situation, and I went back and talked about it with Joseph Welna. He mentioned a place called Design Consultants Incorporated (DCI) where he was doing freelance work. He knew they were looking for a graphic designer—not an intern but a beginning designer. He said that I should interview there. I did, and they hired me immediately. Their office was located on the 3rd floor at 333 North Michigan Avenue in Chicago—an amazingly beautiful location [the art deco skyscraper was designed by Holabird & Root and completed in 1928].
During the interview I was looking at the projects they had done. There was a company called Lufkin that made measuring tapes of different lengths: a 15-, a 25-, a 50-, a 100-foot tape. Each package was a solid, primary color and used lower case Univers (I don’t think many designers were using Helvetica at the time). The name of the product and the length were located in the upper left corner of the package. And that was it. I thought, “This is what I want to do the rest of my life.”
I went back and told Ben Silver, who was then the department head at Union Carbide, that I was leaving and going to work for another office. He told me that it was fine because he didn’t think that I was going to make it as a graphic designer anyway. He seriously said that.
Most of the work at DCI was corporate identification—companies such as Morton Salt, Mexicana Airlines, Carling Brewing Company, Arvin Industries, Badger Meter, and others.
I took a brief hiatus from DCI and went to a commercial art studio called Higgins Hegner Genovese International where I thought I could use some of my other skills and make more money. I ended up hating it and I went back to DCI where I stayed for six years.
Iker Gil: The people from DCI as well as Joseph Welna, your faculty at the American Academy of Art, had both worked at Raymond Loewy, hadn’t they?
BC: Yes, the people who were running DCI had worked at the Raymond Loewy Chicago office. When that office closed, they wanted to stay together and had nowhere to go so they started their own firm. Joseph Welna had also worked with Raymond Loewy. He did a lot of finished artwork for them. Everything then was hand drawn and hand lettered and he was a specialist in doing it.
IG: How was the transition between DCI and your next job?
BC: I got a brochure from a real estate firm that was designed by The Center for Advanced Research in Design (CARD). On it were graphics that just knocked me out. They were extremely modern, abstract, and structured, and I thought, “This is what I need to do next.”
I was now running the office at DCI, but I was stagnating, so I called CARD and they said I could have an interview with John Massey! I took my portfolio to Massey’s office, near the top the First National Bank building [now the Chase Tower] at 10 South Dearborn Street. The office was extremely sophisticated—it was also very scary and intimidating.
I met with John and without a word he slowly went through my portfolio. He closed the cover and he said, “I think you would be good for The Center and that The Center would be good for you.” Those were the words he used. And that was it. I started there for the same money that I had been earning at DCI but was now working many more hours. I learned about grids, about European design, about internationalism, and modern typography. I was pushed like crazy to merge what I had learned, such as designing beer labels and consumer packaging, into doing international design. I had this hodgepodge mix match style, that seemed to work for me, and it worked for the clients. I would work day and night, literally sleeping underneath my desk. I often didn’t go home to see my family. After three and a half years I was burned out.
RV: For those who are reading this interview and they might not know what The Center for Advanced Research in Design is, or who John is when you referred to John Massey. Can you give us a little back story of what CARD was?
BC: CARD was The Center for Advanced Research in Design. It was the commercial or outside-client-facing wing of Container Corporation of America (CCA), which was one of the ultimate design sources of the time. John Massey was its leader and design director. John was a world famous, world-class designer, which I didn’t really realize until I started working for him. He and his team had created the “Great Ideas of Western Man” series, which was world famous. The aesthetic at CARD was extremely high, and the pressure was so great, that most people would stay there four or five years then leave. I mean there was a lot of pressure.
RV: That leads me to this observation I had from the outside. Perhaps, you can enlighten us about what it was like on the inside. In retrospect, what was produced by CARD, CCA, and Unimark today looks like a logical extension, a straight line from Europe right into American modernism. But that is clear with a forty- or fifty-year retrospective view. Can you tell us about practicing design at that time? Was there a conversational consciousness in the workplace about this international modernism or American modernism that was unfolding?
BC: I think there was among most of the designers. I was coming out of a very commercial art environment, where I painted, illustrated, and designed packaging. People like Joe Hutchcroft, Tomoko Miho, Rick Eiber and many of the others there had studied the international style of design in school, but I had not. They would talk a lot about it, and I would listen and pay attention. But I don’t think they were trying to copy it—they were trying to go beyond it.
RV: They were trying to invent it?
BC: Basically. I think we were all minimalist and modernist at heart. We were all striving to do the “less is more” thing. We saw all the crap that was being produced elsewhere. I would tell clients, “There is design and there is decoration, and they are very different things.” Design is like striving to bake a simple, perfect cake. Decoration is like over frosting it.” That’s what everybody at CARD was striving for—the perfect cake.
A great thing was that CARD was supported by a huge corporation. Thanks to that, we were not necessarily forced to be profitable, even though we were. We had the latitude to try things and experiment with our outside clients: eventually I had CNA Financial, Harris Bank, A.B. Dick, and Consolidated Foods. I worked for them at CARD, and when I left to start my own office, those clients all came with me.
RV: In that period of time, what was the design scene like in Chicago? Were there other firms like CARD, practicing this minimalist, as you called it, approach to expression?
BC: There were Blake and Weiss, David Burke, RVI, Goldsholl, John Greiner, and others, and there was Unimark. I think Unimark and CARD were very similar in that they were both trying to do the same thing—develop large, systematic programs.
RV: Were they working at the same time?
BC: Yes, at the same time.
RV: The clients that CARD attracted would also interview with Unimark.
BC: Many would. Unimark had clients like Ford, Target, and JCPenney. We had ARCO, Champion International, Herman Miller, Gillette, and other large clients. The people who led those corporations could have picked Unimark or they could have picked CARD. I think it was a matter of if they wanted Ralph Eckerstrom’s office or John Massey’s office. Ralph and John were very different personalities, even though they both came out of the University of Illinois Press and CCA. John had worked for Ralph, but Ralph was much more opulent. He could bowl you over at the table, where John was much softer and more thoughtful. I think it was a matter of who you liked better.
Many other designers were doing that same kind of international “look.” But for many it was often, “Gosh, we have discovered this typeface called Helvetica—let’s just set a few lines of it flush left in the corner.” The International Style for many seemed to be using Helvetica and simple visuals.
For CARD, and for Unimark too, design was more about thinking rather than about just doing.
RV: It was philosophical at the foundation.
BC: Very much. It wasn’t just, “How do we this?” It was, “Why are we doing it?” That made a huge difference. That is why a guy like Terry Westmacott came to CARD. Terry was a highway planner out of Minnesota and he came to CARD as one of its planners. We worked on gigantic projects and the planning and plotting of them could take months before we would ever start the graphic design. For me, it was a very different way of approaching things. I learned a lot from that way of working.
IG: Can you talk a little more about that process? I am interested in understanding the methodology of CARD to support that philosophy and that way of thinking.
BC: It was the same methodology many offices use today: conducting interviews; getting a greater understanding of what the project was about; industry research; information gathering; obtaining everything the client had produced over the last ten years or so; setting goals; what vision an organization had for itself; what the organization wanted to have happen as a result as going through the process; creating evaluation criteria; and then evaluating the results. We would then create schematic designs to see if our recommended schemes would satisfy the objectives before we ever applied any visual design. We might first create the entire program simply in type to see if it worked. Everything was planned out ahead of time.
IG: Was John Massey the person leading that process and conversation?
BC: Yes, he would always lead the initial conversation with the client. John is a very philosophical, personable, romantic person, and great at presentations. In many cases, we would work independently on a project and then present it to John for his comments and direction. We would bring him up to speed on everything so he could help make the presentation. For many projects he was the presenter but for other projects, he became the savior. When we were failing miserably at something, John would go home at night and come back the next morning and say, “Here’s what we’re going to do.” And it would be right on.
IG: How many people were working at CARD at that time?
BC: Probably fourteen or fifteen in Chicago and maybe seven in New York.
IG: Was that a consistent number?
IG: Can you talk a little bit more about a few others working at CARD?
RV: Was Joseph Essex a part of that as well?
BC: Joseph was part of the Center for Communication Planning which was the advertising wing of CARD. For a client like Herman Miller, we would do the graphic design but when they also needed advertising, the Center for Communication Planning would become involved. Joseph and maybe three other people were creating all the advertising in the office.
RV: The Kaulfuss brothers [Robert and William Kaulfuss] were twins who essentially defined environmental and exhibit design in this area.
BC: They and Randy Hoffeld worked almost exclusively with corrugated board. Because CCA made corrugated board, they would create incredible things with corrugated board: environmental graphics, exhibits and trade shows, packaging, and other dimensional things. The Kaulfuss brothers were geniuses, and Randy was one of the most creative and versatile designers I have ever known.
RV: Were CARD and CCA in the same offices or the same building?
BC: No. CCA was in the First National Bank building on 10 South Dearborn Street. CARD was on 360 North Michigan Avenue.
RV: Did John Massey go across town?
BC: He rarely came to our side. We would generally go across town to see him.
RV: What was the responsibility structure at CARD?
BC: Everybody had their own clients. I was responsible for my clients which included Consolidated Foods, Harris Bank, CNA Financial, A. B. Dick Company, Champion International Paper, and few others. John would meet with a client initially, but then we were responsible for getting the work done.
RV: Did you have a team?
BC: I had a couple of production people. It was a lot of hands on work and we had no computers back then, so everything was done by hand. It was very labor intensive.
IG: Did everybody have their own production team?
BC: Some had their own assigned person, but we also shared people.
IG: How long did you work at CARD?
BC: I joined CARD in 1971 and I left in 1974. After that, I went on my own for about eighteen months. It was tough running a business, but then Bob Vogele offered to buy my business from me for $80,000. I thought, “That seems like a lot of money—I’m getting out of this,” and I sold it to him. I merged my office into RVI Corporation, where I worked for three years until 1979. Rick Eiber and Joe Hutchcroft had jumped ship from CARD and had now gone to RVI Corporation. The three of us worked together there as a team once again.
And then Bill Bonnell, the former design director at CCA who worked directly for Massey, started putting it to me that it would be great if we had a business together. Bill designed or directed most of the work at CCA and then became design director at JCPenney. He had always talked about starting a business with me. In the middle of all this, he moved to New York and then said that we ought to have a New York-Chicago office. I was now working day and night at RVI Corporation and I decided to start the business with Bill. We were Bonnell and Crosby and had our offices in both New York’s Midtown and on North Michigan Avenue in Chicago. We worked that way for about a year and a half or two years. It didn’t work well logistically or financially, so I decided to end the partnership. I bought him out, and we have worked separately ever since. Including the initial partnership, Crosby Associates has been in business from 1979 to today, so it’s now forty-one years old. Bill and I are still great friends today.
RV: In that time that you guys were cutting this groove, we saw Mies van der Rohe’s IBM Tower go up. We saw Bertrand Goldberg’s Marina City go up. We saw SOM’s Sears Tower go up.
BC: And the AON building [then the Standard Oil building], and Water Tower Place.
RV: What did that feel like? What was this vibe of a new and modern city?
BC: It was inspiring. That’s when CCA also had their own architecture department. We worked in conjunction with them on a several projects. They designed the gas stations for ARCO while we did the identity and graphics. There was a confluence of graphic design and architecture. At least there was for me. I don’t know how others felt, but for me architecture was as important in my life as graphic design.
Again, there was that whole idea of design versus decoration. A lot of buildings today are decorative—not in the sense of Sullivan or Wright, but in that they use a simple skeletal structure but seem to have this need to add decorative elements. Whereas, Mies buildings were designed. There was nothing on them that wasn’t necessary. Bertrand Goldberg’s Marina City, by contrast, used a repeating theme throughout the building and tried something new. It wasn’t additive design—the theme was integrated into the design of the building. It is like the theme of this book by Massimo Vignelli on my coffee table: “Design.” It is not decorative, it is designed.
RV: The essence.
BC: Basically. You still need to have something that draws you in. But it doesn’t have to be, “Let’s add this and let’s add that, and let’s make it purple and let’s try a border around it.” The buildings that we are talking about didn’t have those additive things. They were pure buildings. The great thing about them is that each was unique, and each one is still lastingly unique and modern today. All of the furniture in this room—the Magistretti couches and the Eames chairs—were all designed in the ‘50s and ‘60s, and this rug was woven in 1890, yet all of it is lasting.
IG: Did designers during that period get together outside of their offices?
BC: We had the Society of Typographic Arts (STA) and we had AIGA. STA was very active for a while. Then Bob Vogele turned it into the American Center for Design, and it went sour. Lately it has come back, but I don’t think it has ever come back to be quite as strong as it was then.
The AIGA was then a national organization, but everybody thought, “Oh that is a New York organization.” So, we decided to start chapters. I was on the committee to create chapters, and then started the Chicago chapter. I think AIGA Chicago was a resource for everyone in the city.
IG: When did the one in Chicago start?
BC: I believe 1986.
RV: I did the poster for it. I just came across the poster that I had Jeff Curran photograph in Dallas. It was a guy, a Charlie Chaplin character pulling a lever on a big funnel. And the funnel was full of letter forms and out came a little baby D and it was called Big D or something. It was announcing the Chicago chapter of AIGA. But you were involved in the development of that chapter. I was the vice president.
BC: When I started the chapter, I gathered a room full of people who were interested, and I made up a list of those people who I thought would be good board members. All I asked was, “Do you want to be on it?” That’s how we formed the first board. Wendy Pressley-Jacobs, who had worked at Goldsholl Design & Film and had formed Pressley Jacobs Design a year earlier, was the first president because we all wanted a female president. I became president at some point later.
Afterward, I designed a new identity for AIGA and all the chapters. AIGA became a pretty strong catalyst here in Chicago. The problem with a lot of organizations is, as you get older, there isn’t much you can learn from them any longer and you become this dinosaur who few people know or care about. People no longer call and ask, “Can you give a presentation, or can you mentor some people?” It is a bit sad. But, yes, AIGA Chicago was still a strong catalyst. At one time there weren’t that many graphic design offices in Chicago. There were only seven or eight offices doing corporate identity when I started in the 1960s.
RV: And who were they?
BC: Latham Tyler Jensen, Goldsholl Associates, RVI, Unimark, DCI, Blake and Weiss, CARD and maybe a couple of others.
RV: You didn’t once mention Massimo Vignelli or Gene Bellini.
BC: I hired Gene Bellini at DCI out of Unimark. He wanted to get out of Unimark—I don’t think he liked Ralph Eckerstrom much, so he and I talked, and he came over to DCI. He was only there for about six months, and then I believe he went off on his own. I learned a great deal from Gene.
RV: And Massimo worked here in Chicago.
BC: Yes, he did. He worked for Container Corporation in Chicago, after being an educator at the New Bauhaus in 1958-59. He started at Unimark in 1965, and then he went to New York in 1966 to start the new Unimark office there and then he left in 1971. Massimo was one of my mentors and friends. Massimo was always Massimo. At Unimark or anywhere else—Massimo was always Massimo.
RV: I think it is important to just help those who are looking back at design history in Chicago to see if you can help connect the dots between the Institute of Design and IIT. We see the influx of the Bauhaus folks. And those Bauhaus folks include Mies van der Rohe, Gyorgy Kepes, László Moholy-Nagy, and Herbert Buyer. Those were the big four, with László Moholy-Nagy leading the New Bauhaus and Mies van der Rohe the college of Architecture at IIT.
BC: And Herbert Bayer who worked for CCA.
RV: That is exactly right. Walter Paepcke, chairman of CCA, provides funding to reopen the New Bauhaus after the school briefly closed for a year, and is looking to place these designers from other cities whose second language is English. And how where they working? From what I heard and what I have read, they were getting what we call today “freelance opportunities” doing the package for this and that. And then, of course, they are educating. They are trying to create the Institute of Design. They are trying to make some money, to take some photographs, do paintings, and continue their research. One thing leads to another and, before you know it, they have established the Institute of Design. In 1946, Serge Chermayeff becomes the director, who later served as a professor and chair of the architecture department at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design (1953-1962) and the Yale University School of Architecture (1962-1971). After Chermayeff’s resignation as director and a stint by Crombie Taylor as acting director, Jay Doblin becomes the Institute of Design’s director in 1955. Jay Doblin then decides he is going to leave academia and he is going to go start a design firm.
BC: Jay Doblin then worked for Latham Tyler Jensen.
RV: In 1965, while he is still the director of the IIT Institute of Design, Jay Doblin joins Unimark almost immediately after it is founded. [Jay Doblin is not officially listed as one of the six founding partners: Ralph Eckerstrom (who preceded John Massey at CCA), Massimo Vignelli, Bob Noorda, James Fogelman, Wally Gutches, and Larry Klein]
BC: Right. I’ll tell you Rick, I’m embarrassed—you’re so much more into history than I am!
RV: You were a part of that history.
BC: I was in that history, but I was working day and night just to learn how to design and didn’t notice. All I cared about was designing. I didn’t care who or where Moholy-Nagy was, or what he was doing. I didn’t care about any of those things. Jay Doblin hired me to design the American Hospital Association program. Jay was the guy.
IG: Before we move to your practice, let’s talk about your work during your time at CARD. Can you talk about two or three projects that you thought were important during your time there?
BC: I can talk about the Champion International Paper identity. That was a big one for me. I worked on that project for maybe a year at CARD. When I left CARD, I left the project but, when I started my own business, Champion came back to me and asked me to do much of their work for them: the corporate identity standards that were never completed, annual reports, sponsorship programs, and paper promotions.
Another important client was Harris Bank. I worked for them constantly on all of their materials and annual reports.
Consolidated Foods was also important. They had already done their identity, but they had no standards and no control of their visuals. I did all the control documents and then their annual report for two years while at CARD and then for another ten years after that when I was on my own.
There were lots of projects. For Herman Miller, I worked on a product called Co/Struc, which was a modular, movable medical equipment system. I did the original identity work and all the brochures for the system. I worked for Teng & Associates, who were commercial architects. There were lots and lots of projects to work on. Herman Miller was very interesting. Consolidated Foods was very interesting. Champion was very interesting.
IG: You left CARD in in 1974. When did it close?
BC: It closed three or four years after that. John Massey wrote me a letter and asked me if I wanted to hire any of their people, but I was very involved in creating my own business and I couldn’t afford to hire any of them.
RV: Why did it close?
BC: The executives of Mobil decided to close it. In 1968, CCA merged with Montgomery Ward & Company, Inc., becoming MARCOR. MARCOR then merged into Mobil in 1976 and CCA was later sold off by Mobil in 1986 to Jefferson Smurfit Corporation. In 1998, Jefferson Smurfit merged with Stone Container Corporation to become part of the Smurfit-Stone Container Corporation. There were a lot of mergers and different priorities.
IG: Did the people that worked there start their own offices when they left?
BC: Some did. I know that Dean Lindsey started his own office, Rick Eiber did eventually, and maybe a couple other people did. I don’t know what happened to a lot of them. They probably went to work for other offices.
When I went to RVI, Joseph Hutchcroft was there as well as Rick Eiber. I had worked with both of them at CARD. Bill Cagney and Bill McDowell came there too and, in 1980, they started their own office, Cagney & McDowell.
RV: Had they all been at CARD?
BC: Bill McDowell hadn’t worked at CARD but had worked at CCA. CCA people generally didn’t work the kind of days and nights that we did at CARD.
IG: How did you get your first clients in when you first went on your own in 1974?
BC: As I said, a handful of clients went with me when I started my own business. I asked them if they would be interested in going with me and, right away, they all said yes. I had Harris Bank, CNA Financial, Consolidated Foods, all big corporations. Consolidated Foods later became Sara Lee Corporation. CNA Financial was then the fourth or fifth largest insurance company in the country.
I was by myself. Me, my copy machine, and 500 square feet of space with a couple of sawhorses and a couple of pieces of plywood across them. I was scared to death.
IG: Where was your office located then?
BC: At 612 North Michigan Avenue, which is gone now. I would work there day and night. My wife would drive downtown, and we would go have dinner and then she would drive home and I would go back to work. I wasn’t thinking about much other than getting the work done. I would sketch out some of the work and hire freelancers to do it, which I found was more profitable because their hourly rates were generally lower than mine. I got a lot of work done that way.
IG: As you mentioned earlier, after eighteen months of being on your own, Bob Vogele offered to buy your business.
BC: I was completely exhausted when Bob Vogele offered to buy the business from me. He promised me a regular salary and benefits I immediately said yes.
It was a “regular” job, with insurance and vacations (which was a joke because I never took vacations). I brought all my clients with me, including those that I had gained while I had my own business. That included G.D. Searle, a pharmaceutical company, which eventually was bought by Monsanto Corporation, and then became a subsidiary of Pfizer.
Searle had left RVI Corporation to become my client. When Vogele bought my company and I became part of RVI, I brought Searle back in. They told me, “It’s okay, but we only want you to work with us. We don’t want anybody else from RVI.” So, I had to continue to do all their work myself.
RV: Tell everybody who the CEO was of G.D. Searle.
BC: The CEO was Donald Rumsfeld. When G.D. Searle was sold to Monsanto Corporation, Donald Rumsfeld became the CEO of General Instrument. He then called me, and I went to work for General Instrument. I redid their identity and communications and worked for them for three years until they were bought by Motorola. General Instrument together with MIT and others invented high definition television and so they were very valuable to Motorola.
Then G.D. Searle was acquired by Pharmacia Corporation. Pharmacia liked the Searle Identity program so much that they asked me to redo their program. I used the same logo style and same colors and redeveloped their entire program. I worked on their program for about four years, and then they were bought by Pfizer.
RV: The corporate identity admittedly was new phenomenon. Every corporation was seeing the value of the systems that allowed a large amount of presence in the marketplace to remain consistent. You were one who understood how to create these systems.
BC: Yes, I created visual design systems. But most of that time it was called “corporate identity.” The term branding came later, and branding was much broader and much harder to define. Branding entails everything. Branding is the corporation’s entire presentation—their name, their visuals, their products, their messages, and their actions. That is the business I think we are in. The problem is that most companies don’t understand that. They think they want a logo, and then want a marketing company to do something for them or build a website. Most didn’t understand branding in its broadest sense. I had a couple of clients, like Spectrum Health in Grand Rapids, which was the third largest healthcare company in Michigan, who understood that. I had them for eleven years and I did nearly everything for them including their basic visual identity, interiors, all their signing, their nomenclature, and supervising their advertising. Every six months all of their advertising agencies, all their designers, and all their internal marketing people spent a full day in presentations that it would take me a several weeks to prepare. We talked about what we were trying to accomplish with the branding program, how the program had evolved, and what the brand’s real meaning. It was great. Then, some of the management changed, I had my racing accident, and they had taken much of their design work to other offices. When I came back, the program was such a mess that after another year and a half, I resigned the client.
Champion Paper understood branding too. I did most of the Champion Carnival packaging, including four papers that we “invented.” We had access to their paper machines and experimented with new colors and new styles right on the machines. We had a great time. One day, the front door to our office opened and a guy wearing a tuxedo walked in and sang us a song that asked if we would design their annual report. Champion cared enough about our relationship that they did things like that. Of course, we did the annual report. It was pretty amazing—and funny.
RV: How many years did you work with Champion?
BC: I first worked with them for three years, then another fifteen. Then they were bought by another large paper mill, and that was it. Their vice president of marketing went on to Mutual of Omaha, and we then started working with Mutual of Omaha. We worked with them for years.
RV: It is interesting to see how big the design assignments were at this corporate scale.
BC: Over the 40 years of the studio, we did nearly 11,000 separate projects. Some of those projects were large annual reports that took up to six months. Some of them were brochures that took a few days. Some of them were phases of big branding programs. But 11,000 of those through the years. Most of that was because we had clients that stayed with us for years and we would design most of their work. There were lots of small projects and updating things, as well as logos, large identification programs, and websites.
RV: I want to ask a question on the subject of websites. You are one of the few designers practicing still who has moved from the analog into the digital realm. You saw that whole shift take place, and you navigated that shift.
BC: You either went digital or you died.
RV: There is my question. Was that transition easy for you?
BC: No, it wasn’t easy, but it was interesting and sometimes fun. When everybody was starting to talk about computers, we had no idea what was going to happen. We bought an Asics computer that made all these crazy noises when you turned it on and would take five minutes to get anything up on the screen. For about three months everyone in the office was allowed one hour a day to work on the computer. We had a separate room and there you would sit alone and work on the computer. Then we finally got a couple of Macs, I believe SE models, and it evolved from there. We had fifteen computers and we put like 50,000 hours into them and, all of a sudden, they are four years old and Apple says they are obsolete and that they don’t want to work on those anymore. I can’t imagine how many computers we bought. When I closed the doors of the office, I gave everybody their computers.
IG: How did the use of the computer change the way you thought about projects?
BC: What it did, and it was good for me, was to change me from an “on the board designer” who would work on too many projects to the detriment of others, to more of an art director. Sitting down with people and planning the designs and then letting them take it from there. Most of the time, I ran the business and generated the basic design concepts. Other times, I would do most of a project on my own. The poster that I did for Jay Doblin, I did it myself. I decided that I needed to challenge myself on the computer. It takes me a lot longer than most people. I love the computer; I just don’t like being strapped to it. There are those that really love to work on it, and who can do great things on it, way better than I can. They must have mathematical minds. I had a couple of those people working for me and it was great fun to work through them. The computer also changed the transmission of design. It was good for me in that it freed me up to have other people doing many of the things that I used to.
RV: I want to just do a little aside here and I am just going to give you the first name of a handful of people who have been in the Chicago design community. And if you would just give us a very quick observation, riff, comment, whatever you would like. I’ll say “Jay.”
BC: Jay Doblin. He was originally a board designer. He designed everything from cigarette packages, to pens, to furniture. But then, he became more of a purist, thinking primarily about how design should be done and brought it to a higher level. He then went to work for Unimark. Harry Boller, Peter Teubner, Francois Robert, John Rieben, and many other terrific designers worked with him. He conceived the JCPenney program and other systematic programs. I worked with him, but he wasn’t designing then. He brought the problem, the projects, and the direction to me and what I had to do was make sure that he was happy.
BC: John Massey. John was a spiritual leader of design, a kind of cosmic mind. He loved Herbert Bayer. He emulated him and a lot of John’s paintings look much like Bayer’s. He had big ideas. He could gather good people together, motivate them, and make big things happen, such as the Great Ideas of the Western Man series. He also convinced the city to have a series of beautiful, graphic banners down Michigan Avenue and in the Loop. He was a very convincing and nice person. He was, and still is, one of my mentors.
BC: Massimo Vignelli. As I said, Massimo was another one of my mentors. I learned visual organization and simplicity from Massimo.
BC: Ralph Eckerstrom. He was the flamboyant head of Unimark. He had big ideas, which sometimes got them into trouble. But his big ideas often made really interesting things happen, like Ford, Target, and others. He just overstepped, and Unimark finally went bankrupt.
BC: Bob Vogele. Bob was both one of my greatest friends and antagonists. When he was my employer, he taught me more about how to run a design business than anybody. He knew how to hire people. He had big ideas about design and theory, and I don’t think he was ever appreciated by the industry as much as he should have been.
BC: Mort and Millie Goldsholl. I didn’t know them well. They did a lot of really interesting programs and a lot of interesting designs. They were the first people I knew of who built their own building [it was designed by Millie and built in 1960]. It was in Northfield along the Edens Expressway [the address was 420 Frontage Rd., Northfield, Illinois]. The entire building was dedicated to visual design and film, which I thought was amazing. They were two of the leaders. They recently had an exhibition at The Block Museum of Art at Northwestern University.
BC: Susan Jackson Keig. Susan was for many years the preeminent female designer in the city. Her work was more artistic than the International Style. She had her own following and her own style. She was an extremely nice person and a great ambassador for design.
BC: Harry Boller. Harry was both a great designer and a great guy. He was one of the few designers I knew, other than myself, who loved playing golf. He was very Swiss, very intense, and very sweet.
BC: François Robert. He is a spectacular and very romantic photographer. He and Harry Boller were partners and very different but very good friends. When you meet François, you immediately love him.
BC: Steve Liska. Steve has a degree in Mathematics from IIT, and he imposes that on his design. You can tell, everything he does is very well organized and tight. Steve did freelance for me when he started off. When I moved my office to 676 North Saint Clair Street, he also moved there, and it seems like our moves have been near each other ever since. We have been good friends for many years.
RV: From what I saw, you were the one who trained him.
BC: No, but I think I gave him a kick start.
RV: Can you tell everybody where his practice is?
BC: It is in the New Bauhaus building on 610 North Fairbanks Ct. He has the entire place.
BC: Greg Samata. Greg is a more emotional, flamboyant kind of designer. He is one of my very best friends. He is both a great cook and a good businessman. He did four times more annual reports than anybody else in the city—he just knew how to crank them out. He is a big idea guy. He is currently working on developing apps. Greg is much braver than I am, and he is still going strong.
BC: Rick Valicenti. I remember Rick when he was first starting and he came into my office with Carter Clock, one of my employees. I first just loosely paid attention to what he was doing, but now he is one of my mentors. I love the stuff he does, and I cannot do any of the things myself. We work together well because I think we do a very different kind of work than one another. He is the only designer I know that can do both mind-freaking posters and still design catalogs that have beautiful Swiss typography. But I don’t pay much attention to him anymore [laughs].
BC: Jason Pickleman. He is very artistic, very professional, and does very unique and beautiful work. I haven’t seen it, but I understand he has a very cool office on Chicago Avenue in an old post office building. He and his wife, Leslie, are into art and have a gallery called Lawrence & Clark. I don’t think he and I were ever competitors; I never came up against him in a proposal request, but he does great work.
BC: Joseph Essex. He is also one of my good friends. Joseph does lots and lots of work, and he is extremely thoughtful about what he does. At times he can overwhelm me with his thoughts and ideas, but he is a super nice and smart guy, and he has dedicated himself to the Chicago design community. God bless him for being there.
BC: Tanner Woodford. Tanner has done a lot for the design community in Chicago. He started the Chicago Design Museum, now the Design Museum of Chicago. He became interested in Chicago design and has done a lot for promoting it. Most of my old office equipment is sitting over there. We gave the museum nearly everything.
BC: Alisa Wolfson. She is at Leo Burnett Chicago running their design department. Her department does very unique design programs and branding. As a person, I have always liked her a lot; she and I seem to have much in common.
BC: Renata Graw. I think she is absolutely fabulous. She is totally out there, and she has very different thoughts and abilities than most designers. If you like her stuff, you love her stuff. If you don’t like her stuff, you might hate it. I happen to love what she does. It’s inspiring to look at her things.
RV: John P.
BC: John Pobojewski. He is one of the very best of the new designers I have seen. He is quiet, and listens, and then creates some of the most spectacular things I have seen.
BC: Bud Rodecker. Bud seems more like me—much of his work is more mainstream. It is really beautiful, smart, and modern work. Bud is outgoing and easy to talk to and easy to work with. And he has worked his tail off keeping the STA vital.
BC: Nick Adam. I don’t know Nick that well, but he and I worked together a bit when I was at Thirst. He is a really good, really creative guy, and extremely collaborative.
BC: Dawn Hancock. Her firm, Firebelly, reminds me a lot of what my office was like when it was large. Their work and the variety of their work is unique and always spot on.
BC: Jackson Cavanaugh. He is a terrific typographer. We have used several of his fonts. Jackson worked on modifying a typeface for us and we have used it used for three programs that we designed.
BC: Dana Arnett. My fishing buddy, we have gone together many times. When he got out of school, he interviewed with me and I didn’t hire him. He then went to work for Steve Liska, and they didn’t get along particularly well. Then he worked for Bob Vogele and slowly helped increase the size of the office. Now VSA Partners has over 200 people in Chicago, New York, and San Francisco. Dana is the kind of guy that always seems to have a concept in mind and when he is teamed with a good designer, great things happen.
RV: How would this new generation of designers compare and fit into the birth of what I like to refer to as the American modernism that started in Chicago? Do you think that there would have been a place for this generation in that previous generation? This younger generation are now the age you were then.
BC: Absolutely. They wouldn’t have had computers at that time, and their ideas would have taken a different shape, but they would have been at least as good and their designs just as meaningful.
During the first twenty years of my office, there was only one-tenth the number of design offices in Chicago as there are now. Also, we were all renting space downtown, which has become too expensive to do anymore. We had at least six or seven people working for us while the newer generations might be now be somewhere on the West Side in a loft, doing the same thing we did but with only two or three people. It is a whole different world. It isn’t that we were better or worse back then, it was just a different era. When you were working with Bruce Beck, you weren’t as good a designer then as you are now. The tools changed and your thinking changed. You were able to change, evolve, and grow. It is not a matter of the talent that people have now or had then. It is a matter of the tools that were being used.
RV: You are unique in that you were connected to the New York scene through the AIGA.
BC: Yes. I also had an office in New York.
RV: I think that is pretty rare because Chicago is, with the exception of Dana Arnett, for the most part, local. Like I did for Chicago, I am going say that a few names and you can share any insights or how they might have inspired you. Let’s start with Lou.
BC: Lou Dorfsman. Lou was fabulous. I saw him in magazines when I first started designing. He seemed like a quiet person and his designs were extremely elegant. He was the creative director at CBS for forty years. He didn’t design the CBS logo [it was designed by creative director Bill Golden with the help of graphic artist Kurt Weihs], but he did oversee every aspect of its use including advertising, exhibits, and on-screen. The program always felt fresh.
BC: Ivan Chermayeff. Ivan was one of my mentors and he wrote my recommendation letter for the Alliance Graphique Internationale (AGI), which I still have. He and Tom Geismar went to Yale University together and, along with Robert Brownjohn, they founded Brownjohn, Chermayeff & Geismar. A couple of years later, in the late 1950s, Brownjohn left the studio and moved to London, so the studio changed to Chermayeff & Geismar. Ivan seemed like he was an elegant guy who always seemed comfortable with large clients and was able to keep them happy.
RV: Robert Brownjohn would later design two James Bond title sequences, From Russia with Love and Goldfinger. Here is an interesting story about the relationship between architects and graphic designers. In the 1960s, Chermayeff & Geismar worked with architect Eliot Noyes on the corporate identity and look for all Mobil Oil gas stations. And prior to that, Eliot Noyes had been commissioned to design the first corporate design program for IBM, in which he collaborated with Paul Rand and Charles Eames. Those are two of the most recognizable and influential identities ever.
BC: When you go to a Mobil gas station, it still looks very clean and modern.
BC: Saul Bass. He was another one of my mentors. I only met him twice in person, but once we sat and talked for over an hour. He was an artist-turned-designer, everything he did was artful. There was an artful feel to all his designs. Kurt Kline was one of his right-hand production men. Kurt then worked with me for several years.
BC: Deborah Sussman. I never worked with her, but she and I were on the AIGA board together. She was pure California design. Her work always had this Cal feel to it. She began her career in the offices of Charles and Ray Eames, where she stayed for a decade. She and her husband Paul Prejza created programs for cities like Santa Monica and for the 1984 Summer Olympic Games in Los Angeles.
BC: Herb Lubalin. Herb was someone I continuously saw on CA magazine when I was a pup. I was very interested in typography, and Herb was very interested in the way type was used. The work he and publisher Ralph Ginzburg did with Eros, Fact, and Avant Garde was remarkable.
RV: You are now in the third act of your career.
RV: Do designers have an easy time in the third act? I ask that question as I am entering my third act.
BC: There are now a lot of designers out there. I think that many clients now think that they may be able to get a bargain somewhere. They get bids from the smaller offices and think they may discover an emerging designer who might do the project for a quarter of a price. It seems like much of the work is now about money. Marketing and communications people used to come out of journalism schools and a lot of them had design backgrounds. Now, that’s not the case. It seems a whole different world to me. So, I don’t think it is so easy in the “third act.”
IG: Before we continue discussing your design career, I want to bring up another one of your passions. You are an avid driver and racing Porsches has been a part of your life for decades. Can you talk about that passion and how you became interested in it?
BC: I have always loved cars, ever since I was in grade school—when I was about ten or eleven years old. I would stand on the street corner and watch for ’55 and ’56 Chevys and Fords and then Corvettes, wishing I could experience the freedom of driving them. When I was fifteen, I bought a 1928 Model A Ford for $75 and restored it. I sold that and bought my cousin’s 1950 Chevrolet and fixed that up and customized it—that was the thing to do in 1959. I keep it for about five years until I got married. My first child was born when I was twenty-two years old and that ended the car thing for a while. After my kids were grown, a client of mine in Memphis was selling an old, beat up ’72 Porsche Targa. I had never even driven a Porsche before, but after about ten minutes of driving it I bought it, drove it back from Memphis, and was hooked forever more. I have had five more since then including two race cars.
IG: Has car racing had any influence in your career as a designer?
BC: Well, the racing took a fair amount of time away from me being able to design! Actually, I think design had a greater influence on my racing. I designed some of the body style and the graphics for my own cars and ended up designing the graphics for several of my friends’ cars. When you are road racing it is important to “find the line”—the smoothest, fastest way around a track. I always thought it was much the same as finding exactly the right curve when lettering or drawing a logo. I think my design hand skills and thinking actually helped me become a better driver.
RV: If you fast forward twenty years, what will the perception of that spirited time you were practicing and cutting your teeth at CARD and through Crosby Associates be?
BC: I don’t think it will be much of anything.
BC: Go to a design class at UIC these days and ask any of the students if they know anything about Lou Dorfsman, or Walter Paepcke, or Bradberry Thompson. See if they can name any of the pieces they did. See if any of their influences has lasted over time.
I have thought about the Chicago design history presentation that you and I put together and have shared at AGI, AIGA, and other places. Do people really care about that? I hope they do, but I am not sure. The process has changed. The thinking in many cases seems to have changed and become more superficial. Things seem more temporary. Both clients and designers seem more worried about websites and how they look online rather than how they look in person. There are exceptions, of course, but companies now eat companies up all the time, and many of the great old programs are gone. I may sound cynical, and the fact is that there is still a lot of really great design being done.
There is less permanence to many things now than there was before, and maybe that is good. Before, the designer’s intention was to help change a company, to stay with them, and to help them grow. Now, many projects are something that you just bid on. I always told our clients that when they hired us, we became part of their company. We stayed with many of our clients for five, ten, fifteen, or twenty years. We became part of their profitability. We had to understand the workings of the company. We did anything we could to make that company grow and be more profitable. We used both design and our best thinking to do it. It is that whole difference of understanding why you might be doing something as opposed to understanding how to do it.
RV: Where can a researcher in the future find your archive?
BC: You can go to our website or Google Bart Crosby Chicago and look at the images. I have also archived every job we have done—three copies of everything, at a storage facility.
RV: You don’t have your archive in a place like UIC?
BC: Not yet, but it is in my will! It says that UIC can have everything if they want. After that, AIGA can have it. If they don’t want it, it gets tossed.
IG: Because you mentioned UIC, I am curious about the role of academia. All the designers from different generations that you are mentioning are always discussed through the offices they worked in and the people they worked for. Does academia play any role?
BC: Again, there are two things—how to think and how to do. You need to get people to think before they can do. When I was teaching, I had a course called Branding. The students had to pick a real live client, interview them, write up a summary of what they thought might be wrong with their identity, what the client goals were, and then create a new identity program for them. Then, they had to create a presentation and present that presentation to their client. Some of them actually implemented the program. What I was trying to teach was how to think, and then how to do. You can’t teach everybody how to do it. I think of schools not only about teaching skills, but also teaching students about what business is about, and how design fits into it. When a client teams with a smart designer and gives them the opportunity to contribute to the business process, magical things can happen.
Certainly, universities need to teach people skills, but they should also consider teaching them why they are teaching these skills. Students finding work will probably not be able to immediately deal with clients. Hopefully they will be able to learn how to do that from the people they are working for. That is why an organization like AIGA is so important. There needs to be an organization like AIGA so younger people especially can develop both their design skills and their business skills and learn from other people. But it is not happening right now. I don’t see it happening. AIGA needs some tweaking. It is not what it used to be.
RV: Are you getting all crotchety?
BC: No, I am not crotchety. I have talked like this for twenty years. Something really needs to happen. I am sad that AIGA currently has so many problems. Things got so messed up. I am not sure they are on the best path. You asked me about what I had done for AIGA—it was a lot.
RV: Let’s hear it.
BC: Okay. Two terms on the board. Chair of the membership committee. I developed a membership and advertising program with Walter Bernard, Milton Glaser’s partner, and in eighteen months we had tripled the membership. I was on the executive committee for a term and the committee to start a new, national conference. I was on the committee to start chapters with Joel Katz and then developed a direction for all the chapter materials. I was on the committee to develop a new website. I created a new identity program and standards for national and all the chapters including a new AIGA logo, using the one designed by Paul Rand, but I refined it and put into a box. I was on the committee for both the San Francisco and Chicago conferences. I designed the overall identity for the Chicago conference and coordinated a dozen other designers in developing all the conference materials. I had two terms on the compensation committee. I was on the awards committee twice. I was on the committee to acquire the new building in Manhattan. I started the Chicago chapter. I developed a new organizational strategy, which never quite got implemented. Then I was never asked to do much again—maybe I did something wrong!
RV: What you did was incredibly generous, and the profession still feeds off of that energy because some of those things are still in place.
BC: Some of them are still in place but I think some got a bit screwed up.
RV: Of course, that happens. Bad or good, identity systems get bad treatment.
BC: I would still do anything I could for this organization.
RV: Bart, thank you.
BC: You are welcome.
Bart Crosby founded Crosby Associates in 1979. His work has been recognized by nearly every professional design organization and he has been featured in national and international design and business publications. In addition to managing the firm, he provides strategic and design direction to the majority of the firm’s visual identity, branding and design programs. Bart has been an executive vice president and a director of the American Institute of Graphic Arts and is a founding member and past president of the AIGA Chicago Chapter. In 2002 he was made a fellow of the Chicago Chapter, and in 2005 he was awarded the AIGA Medal in recognition of exceptional achievements and contributions to the field of graphic design. He is also a member of Alliance Graphique Internationale.
Rick Valicenti is a producer, director, and collaborator working with a wide network of designers and artists. Formerly the founder and design director of Thirst, a venerable Chicago design studio. Valicenti is a recipient of the American Institute of Graphic Artists (AIGA) Medal, 2006, and the Smithsonian Cooper Hewitt National Design Award, 2011. Rick is also an invited member of AGI (Alliance Graphique Internationale). His complete works are recently archived at the Newberry Library, and the Letterform Archive in San Francisco. Large selections of Valicenti’s work are at the Ryerson Library at The Art Institute of Chicago, The Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, the Lubalin Center at Cooper Union, and the Hoffmitz Milken Center for Typography at Art Center in Pasadena CA. Valicenti shares a studio with Anna Mort and together provide catalytic invention and design.
Iker Gil is an architect, urban designer, and director of MAS Studio. In addition, he is the editor in chief of MAS Context and the Executive Director of the SOM Foundation. He is the editor of the book Shanghai Transforming (ACTAR, 2008) and has curated several exhibitions, including “BOLD: Alternative Scenarios for Chicago” as part of the Chicago Architecture Biennial. He is the recipient of the 2010 Emerging Visions Award from the Chicago Architectural Club and has been recognized as one of “Fifty Under Fifty: Innovators of the 21st Century” by a jury composed by Stanley Tigerman, Jeanne Gang, Qingyun Ma, and Marion Weiss.
www.mas-studio.com | @MASContext