(Andree Cordella is the wife of Studio Products owner, Rob Howard)
CORDELLA ON THE CENTER OF DESIGN
When asked to speak to you, I did a bit of research into the audience’s reaction to the previous conference. After all, I wanted to know why you came to these symposiums - what you were expecting to get out of this conference. Here are a few opinions:
“...need to know the how-to’s, rather than the esoterics of design and philosophy.
“...I like more nuts and bolts... not enough thrill of victory and agony of defeat.
“I want to know how they talk a client into buying it. -
“The sessions need to be more like your magazine... HOW-TO approaches”
In looking over the responses I found it interesting that some of the audience wanted these sessions to be not much more than a continuation of art school live demonstrations where you can see the speaker magically manipulate a brush or computer to deliver up a single trick guaranteed to make you wealthy and famous. That’s it isn’t it? That was the point of all of those comments - give me a quick fix, a magic pill that I can take back to my studio - something that will transform me into a star.
I’m sorry, but there’s no such thing. Contrary to what the pop-psyche books and the how to succeed in business books would like you to believe - there’s no free lunch (except in a mouse trap). Every one of us has to figure this out for himself.
As for How-To demonstrations. If you didn’t learn the basics of your craft when you were in art school, how can you expect to learn it by listening to a few hours of people showing portfolios and making speeches? Why is it that musicians and athletes are expected to practice their rudiments every day but artists suppose they can get away without knowing the basics of their craft? If you didn’t learn it in school, perhaps it’s time to reconsider your options. Maybe it’s time to practice.
Perhaps you hope that if I tell you a couple of war stories - stories about the brave designer battling the philistine clients just to get a spot varnish or die cut it will inspire you to go to similar wars - the battles of designer versus the client.
Perhaps you were hoping for some business advice. How to run a profitable studio. Billing procedures. How to collect from slow payers. More war stories of battles with the client. But let’s face it, business lessons are best taught in a business school.
As the field of graphic design becomes more and more a profit center for advertising agencies, more and more of the business attitude has slithered in. The bean counters continue to impose more and more of their ethics on something that doesn’t respond to regimentation and duplication. Everyone talks about how dull design has grown. Want to guess why?
Recently, I read an article in a graphics magazine. The author, a managing director of the ‘graphics division’ of an advertising agency exhorted the readers to cast aside those silly ideas of producing beautiful things for the client.
According to the Managing Director, “...clients pick a designer that will help them easily and comfortably increase profits.” He recommends the designer have strong business background. The designer should learn the informal power structure of the client’s business. And the designer should read the client’s trade journals to learn the business inside and out. To him, this is the essence of a solid, successful career in The Arts.
As an afterthought, the Managing Director adds that we should also strive for design excellence. Design excellence? After telling us that we should become bean counters, corporate infighters and experts in areas for which we aren’t trained, he tells us to switch hats and become the one thing the client hired us for... the one thing the client can’t become - an artist!
That’s the same sort of business advice that drove the American automobile business into the ground. While Detroit was busily counting beans, foreign manufacturers where making cars they took pride in designing - cars they could be proud of making. The one ingredient this pontificating Managing Director overlooked was the pride of accomplishment that everyone... every human being... wants to have in their work. Especially artists.
It’s obvious that what this Managing Director has been dealing with are other Managing Directors - other middle management types. Of course he would speak the way he does. That’s the way middle management speak about their jobs (they don’t take the larger view and think of the business, they’re only focused on their jobs). To them, it’s deadly serious, grim, earnest, no fun allowed. That’s a characteristic of all second tier personnel. Often, they hate their jobs, their colleagues and sometimes, they even hate themselves for having sold out, for having given up on their dreams.
So when another middle management type comes to visit, do they see another person in the Art Biz trying to sound like a bean counter. Do you think they are happy to see their reflection walking in the door? According to this Managing Director’s advice, you should try to sound just like them. You should learn to speak the language of a job they’ve grown to dislike.
Perhaps their job reminds them of their lost integrity, lost mission, or their lost promise, but whatever it reminds them of, it’s not pleasant. Still, the Managing Director recommends that you know your clients on that level. At the lowest level of their discontent. What nonsense!
How much nicer, how much more pleasant it would be to bring a breath of light, of color into their office. just think of how much more positive the message - the selling message is when delivered by someone who demonstrates all those things the clients wanted to keep, but may have felt compelled to give up. It’s similar to the reaction fans have for a sports hero - for somebody who stuck to his guns and prevailed. Most fans don’t feel envy, they feel elevated when allowed into the hero’s presence.
Who is better to advertise basketball shoes, Michael Jordan or some drone from the factory? Why should it be different with an artist. When a client sees you, do they see a hero or do they see just another office drone? If you listen to the advice of the Managing Director, they’ll see nothing but the latter. And if you speak the language of defeated middle managers they won’t want to have you around because you’ll remind them of the worst of themselves.
Here’s a little fact about Cordella Design - we’ve never lost a client. Think about that. We’ve never been fired by a client. Over the years we’ve fired a few clients, but none have ever fired us. We keep our clients for years. What’s our secret for keeping clients? It’s not because we are price competitive. We’re not. It can’t be summed up into a magic pill, but it does have to do with an approach to life - an approach to Art.
If you are working on a comp while eating a Big Mac, you risk getting grease or blobs of the Secret Sauce on the comp. If you work in a studio littered with Big Mac boxes, posters of Lethal Weapon VI and with Gangsta Rap blaring from the stereo, it’s inevitable that some of that coarseness will rub off onto the comp. If you’re an artist - you can’t avoid reflecting your environment. If you-‘re not an artist, what are you doing in this business?
The motto of Cordella Design is, “European Elegance with American Marketing Savvy.” Imagine what sort of environment might produce that. Would it be an office broken up into neat grey cubicles? A place painted in bright primary colors peopled with ponytailed designers with pierced noses listening to Megadeth at full volume? Or a penthouse decorated in subtle colors with Louis XIV furniture, oriental rugs and original oil paintings on the walls?
As Pasteur said, “...the milieu is everything.”’ That’s as true for artists as it is for microbiologists. If you work in an atmosphere that reflects your particular design preferences, the milieu will make it easier to express your vision. Whoops! Have I gotten too far away from the nuts and bolts? Am I starting to sound like an artist and not like a banker? Not enough like a Managing Director, or a nut and bolt manufacturer?
Before you rush out create your perfect moneymaking environment, please ask yourself why you got into this field. Was it because of the business of Art? If that’s the case, you’d be better off at a business school where you can learn to crunch numbers. Did you go to art school so you could make a ton of money? That’s certainly an odd choice. You could have made more money studying investment techniques or law. . . and those fields do not require that you be born with any talent. You just need the will. But to be an artist you need both the will and the talent.
The business skills you will need to run a profitable studio are very simple, basic skills. After all, you won’t be shuffling windfall profits to your offshore subsidiaries and protecting your oil depletion allowances. You’ll just need to have a simple and efficient bookkeeping and accounting system. The same as anyone who runs a corner grocery store. There’s nothing complicated about the business of Art.
It’s the making of the artwork that’s the hard part. Understanding your client’s needs (not their wants) requires a rare skill. It’s not well known, but the secret to understanding the client’s needs is actually shutting your mouth and listening. You don’t have to follow each one of the client’s sentences with a sentence of your own. just nodding your head will act like a pump and information will begin to flow from your client. And guess what? The client will love it. He’ll be center stage while you, with your long silences, provide a perfect audience.
When you employ this technique an amazing thing will happen - and this is probably the biggest secret to Cordella Design’s ability to keep clients - you will actually come to like your clients. And they come to like you. You will see them as fellow humans, not prey - not the enemy. Over the years, our clients have become our friends. And, as you probably know, real friends never let each other down. They know we’ll stay up until dawn in order to make them look good the next day. And we know that they will stay loyal to us. Of course they will, we’re friends!
Compare that with the prevailing attitude in advertising agencies. The agency lines up its best talent to pitch a new client. The place is buzzing with talk of the pitch, the desirability of the client. It’s like first love. It’s like planning a seduction. It’s made more intense because other agencies are pitching for the same client’s hand. But once the account is awarded, an interesting transformation occurs. Before the bubbles have left the congratulatory champagne, the relationship has gone flat. Worse. The once -desirable client has now been transformed into The Client, which is just another name for The Enemy. No wonder clients play agency roulette.
Probably the worst part is with young, impressionable artists seeing the cynicism displayed by their leaders and assume it’s hip to be cynical. To them, cynicism is a sign of having arrived. Now they can tell war stories and sigh while staring into their third lunchtime vodka. So they emulate that prevailing cynicism. And they carry that hip cynicism into meetings with the client (who has grown just as cynical) and voila—another marriage made in Divorce Court. Another failure. And soon other agencies flock to pitch the, now weary, client.
That’s the Art Biz the Managing Director was talking about. Do you want to be part of that? Is that what you had in mind when you decided to become an artist?
So we’ve addressed the business end of design. It’s simple. There are easy-to-use accounting programs that will take care of all but the largest and most complex studios. We’ve addressed the nuts and bolts by saying, if you’re interested in nuts and bolts, you should open a garage. What I hope we can now address is the shyness with which we announce that we’re artists. We’re artists first and foremost. We were born as artists. We didn’t decide to be artists, it was thrust upon us by chance, by nature . . . not by our doing.
What is it about this country that causes us to feel that we have to tap dance around the fact that we’re artists? Remind yourself everyday that you’re gifted, that you see life through different eyes. And it’s that vision you are offering to your clients. Once they come to know you, to trust you, to be your friend, they will come to rely upon your unique vision. They will seek your counsel, rather than just using you as a hired wrist carrying out their orders. At that point you’ll be respected for what you really are, an artist!
Now that we’re comfortable with defining ourselves as artists, not bean counters, how can we corral our creative spirit? Is there such a thing as inspiration? Is it just an occasional occurrence, like Mount St. Helen’s erupting, or can we actually come to count on it?
Think about the environment in which you work - both the physical environment and the spiritual, or psychological environment. Are your physical surroundings a manifestation of the artistic vision you hold? The decor of Cordella Design is no surprise to anyone who sees our business card or letterhead. Our designs look like they were created in that studio. The environment has been allowed to act upon the art. And that’s how it should be.
The psychological environment is just as important as the physical environment. Working in the quiet of a monastery will produce very different work than if you work in a boiler factory. Thus, it’s very important to control the atmosphere in your studio. If your clients are professional wrestlers, you’ll want to create a different working atmosphere than if your clients are Tiffany or Mercedes Benz. The studio’s atmosphere, the ambiance is especially important to control when you’re pitching a new client.
What I’m recommending is the artist’s equivalent of Method Acting. Total Immersion. Believe me, it’s a very powerful technique. If you’re trying get a rodeo for a client, wear the boots and the hat. This method acting really works. Perhaps this is what the Managing Director was aiming at when he advised you to read your client’s trade papers. However, unlike his method, this one works for artists!
As you can see, what I’m speaking to is ‘attitude adjustment.’ It’s an intelligent application of the Golden Rule. For us, the Golden Rule should be rewritten to ... Don’t Ever Underestimate Anyone’s Intelligence. Contrary to popular belief, there just aren’t that many idiots on this planet. Most of us are smarter than we appear.
One of Cordella Design’s most popular pieces was done for a paper company. The theme was ‘literacy’ and in the introduction I used the word ‘transmogrify’. Quite a number of ‘experts’ told me to change it. The audience would never understand such a word. Well, as often is the case, the experts were dead wrong. Everyone loved it. They ran to their dictionaries and read the definition. They learned a new word. I had treated them like they wanted to be treated - as intelligent human beings trying to hold a good opinion of themselves while being barraged with advertising aimed at proving their stupidity.
The ‘nuts and bolts’, the ‘how-to,” the ‘magic pill’ is simply this - to be successful in this business, never lose sight of being that special creature -- an artist. Develop the trust of your client. Become their friend. If you can’t be friends with the client, resign them. Life’s too short - and there are too many clients to choose from. The Yellow Pages is full of them. And most important, be a good friend to the client’s audience. Treat the audience with the same respect you’d want directed toward you. They’ve got eyes. They want you to give them your very best effort. Do it. Defy the current wisdom. Create beauty!
© Andree Cordella: Boston, 1994