Please tell me a little bit about yourself, who you are, and where you are from.
This question immediately made me think of this poster I keep framed in my house in upstate NY, which was a gift from my sister to remind me of where I come from. It goes something like this:
“You can take the girl out of Iowa but you can never take Iowa out of the girl.” Pretty cliché but also so, so true and I’d say sums up who I am and how I approach and have lived my life so far.
You mentioned you knew you wanted to come to NYC since you were 3. What was your journey to getting to NYC? What has been your career path?
I don’t know what made me declare NY would be the place to go – maybe watching the Macy’s Day Parade as a child and seeing the New York City Ballet perform at Iowa State and studying about all the important architecture and museums – or maybe because every time I mentioned it my parents would just laugh and tell me it was a dangerous place which made the idea even more exciting. I’m afraid it might be the latter. Regardless it took a lot of years to get here and it wasn’t until graduate school that I was leaning out the window of a plane and feeling this amazing thrill of seeing the Statue of Liberty out of the window. I still feel this kind of heart race thing when returning home by plane to New York .
My path to now was really a winding road. I started at the University of Colorado in Boulder with a passion to study ballet but also ski as much as possible. Sadly it was a bad year for snow and I was really home sick so I transferred back closer to home to the University of Iowa in Iowa City. This was a fantastic year spent in theater and dance and art classes. One of my instructors suggested a summer class in Typography/Design at the Kansas City Art Institute. It is a bit embarrassing to admit but I didn’t even know what graphic design was – the fact that people had real careers based on designing logos, layouts, packaging and working with typography and shaping how we visualize information and imagery was fascinating and exciting. This led to me begging my father to let me transfer once again and was truly the beginning of informing my journey to become a designer.
After Kansas City, I moved to Houston Texas and worked for an architecture firm called Caudill Rowlett and Scott and from there to Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills right outside of Detroit and then finally the field trip to New York. That first trip was followed by many cross-country road trips to New York. I would leave on Friday after class and arrive as the sun was coming up over the Hudson River.
My first real job in New York was with Anspach Grossman Portugal (now Brand Union). Gene Grossman was the creative director and while at the time he terrified me, it was really an important secondary graduate school education. My plan was to spend about a year there and move on – but I found the project work really engaging and interesting and a strong foundation in designing for big brands. After spending five years there I left to join Lippincott where I have been for the last 26 years! People constantly ask me how it is that I have been able to stay in one place for so long. I have to say that coming here was like finding a real fit and a place where I have had unlimited ability to shape my career and work on amazing brands with amazing colleagues.
How do you describe yourself as a creative and the kind of work you do?
I describe myself as a design consultant first and foremost. I think creativity in a brand design consultancy is about successfully working in collaboration with your client and project team to find new and exciting solutions to their communications and business challenges. The result should bring positive value to the enterprise, to their employees and even to the world.
A good brand designer has strong analytical skills as well as craft skills. They can link strategy objectives to the rational for their design solution and they can act as the contractor bringing together all the right talent to create the strongest and most amazingly beautiful solution. My strength is in the analytical side of the design challenge – but I have a very good eye and can help others navigate and collaborate successfully.
As the Creative Director at Lippincott, what does your job entail?
I have two roles. The first is to provide leadership and mentorship, inspiration and motivation to a group of highly trained and talented designers. The second is to sell, work with and deepen our design and consulting relationships with clients.
Please tell me about Lippincott and what the agency specializes in. What sets Lippincott apart?
Lippincott helps create, build and grow the world’s most iconic brands. By applying brand strategy, design, experience innovation and organizational engagement, we empower businesses to uncover
new possibilities for growth and connection. The firm has a unique and rich history. In fact, this past year, we celebrated our 70th anniversary. We’ve designed the legendary Campbell’s soup can, the sweeping swirl for Coca-Cola, and iconic brand identities for Walgreens, Betty Crocker, Chrysler, and Amtrak. And more recently, have worked to redesign and build the brands of WalMart, eBay, Starbucks, Delta, BLACK + DECKER, and many, many others.
We’re unique in that we really marry the creative and the strategic to solve business problems. Lots of companies say that, but we really live it. And although I might be biased, I think we have the best talent – the most strategic designers and the most creative strategists.
You’ve had some very influential mentors in your life. Please tell me how they have shaped you as a creative.
Mentors are everywhere – sometimes you don’t even realize they are a mentor until much later in your career. My graduate teacher – Kathryn McCoy had a very light touch. She wanted us to be selfstarters and to make our own decisions and be comfortable with knowing that in the end it is your own responsibility to get a project done and decide when it is finished. I try to incorporate her style into the way I manage as well. I’m not perfect at this all the time – but it is my goal always. This is how people grow, to be given responsibility and freedom to be counted on – to be needed on the team. I count my mother as an important mentor as well – she was always rooting for me – she was highly polished in her appearance, she loved beautiful things and she was generous. She taught me that I can do anything if I work hard enough and apply myself and believe in myself.
What is one of your favorite projects you’ve worked on and why?
I love airline projects – if I could only do airlines I would. Delta has been a client since late 2006 as they made preparations for coming out of Chapter 11 status. It is a crazy industry full of people who just love everything about flying, they are truly passionate and it is infectious. The planes are big and beautiful – there are hundreds of touchpoints to design and a massive amount of opportunity to change longstanding conventions and really improve the travel experience overall.
You designed the logo for Samsung. Can you share your process for design?
Samsung was a complex situation. Forty-four companies all part of the same conglomerate undertook the beginning of a massive global transformation – which has been 20 plus years in the making. The creative challenge was immense in that it that the design had to work for a really diverse set of businesses – everything from life insurance to electronics and it had to work globally. We had a great partnership with their Corporate Identity project team – who at the time spoke little English – and of course we spoke no Korean – but through interpreters and some young Korean designers who joined our team here in New York we were able to work effectively. The word Samsung means three stars – but they didn’t want a literal representation of stars – so the design that was ultimately selected is very simple. The tilted oval represents the shape of the milkyway galaxy and the shadow it makes is like a spotlight – – they were ready to shine a spotlight on the world stage.
This project took almost two years to complete. It was the first time Samsung agreed globally to use the roman alphabet to represent their name consistently and it was the first time they all agreed to use the same logo for all 44 businesses. And for me, being the only woman presenting to the Chairman and 44 company CEOs was quite a big deal. I will never forget the elation at their selection.
You have a farm in upstate NY. How does spending time there affect you? What do you enjoy most about being in the country?
There are so many things that run deep from how and where you are raised; work ethic for sure being core, the importance of family and friends– the generosity and nurturing character of both the people and the land. For me it has been critical to maintain one foot in the city and one in the country – even if the country was a small patch of outdoor space in the city– there is a tension between the two and a balance that has shaped my creative sensibility. If you have ever sat on a stoop overlooking a field full of fireflies at nightfall it’s a little like staring out the window of a plane watching the lights flicker in the city as you approach for landing. They are both equally beautiful and necessary.
I love being outside, cooking, gardening having campfires with smores with my friends and family. About 18 years ago I saw a presentation at a conference from a couple who were working with Alice Waters designing a garden classroom for a public schools. Their picture of themselves was taken outside sitting around a campfire with their little girl playing beside them. It was an image that looked so wonderful and so right. The minute I got home I started to lobby my husband to look for a house in the country so that we could have that too. My most happy times are sitting there looking at all the stars. I especially love the big dipper.
When do the best ideas come to you?
They come to me when I am sleeping or walking in the country, cooking or daydreaming. I am most naturally creative when I am not trying and am just having fun working on something that is important to me personally or important to my clients success. Often times it happens in a meeting as a result of something someone else said or pointed out that sparks an idea or new direction to explore.
What is your creative process for conceptualizing and starting to work on a new project?
We have a very specific process that we have honed over the years of developing rigorous design criteria that includes functional, image based (specific to the client and often based on a separate work stream that includes research, brand strategy and brand story development) and general industry criteria as well as best practice insights, competitive analysis that together help us focus in on what would be most relevant. It is my philosophy that a white sheet of paper is not my friend – the more I can narrow the criteria – the more creative we can all be in bringing the brand strategy to life through design.
Where do you get inspiration?
I get inspiration from lots of different places and from being interested in things from flyfishing to ballet. I am inspired daily by the people I work with both here at Lippincott and on the client side, and even my friends and my husband who are all creative types. I also love to go to conferences and hear how other people approach solving problems creatively and designing for their clients or for themselves. I listen to TED talks. I read constantly – and of course I get inspired by the beautiful things that I see and experience on our farm. The color and smell of fresh peeled peaches or just the other morning I got up early to run and the sun was peeking over the hill and illuminated a completely dew filled pasture and it was breath taking. You tuck all this away and it eventually it finds its way into something you are working on or thinking about.
Do you have any routines or rituals help to get the creative juices flowing?
We do a lot of brainstorming together and that, in addition to the criteria, help define territories we want to explore. We sketch, we develop mood boards – all of these techniques help to get us moving creatively. If there were room for only one answer it would be sketching.
How do you define success? What has helped you to become successful?
I think success is when you finish something and you just know it is right and solved the problem for the client but also you feel good about letting it out into the world.
Years and years of experience and lots of failure in between. I am much more confident now and more opinionated – and willing to work very, very hard to guide the client to what I think is the best creative solution.
What is the best advice you’ve ever received in general, or about how to be more creative?
Get a really good handle on the criteria for what you are solving for, the tighter the better – it will allow for the team to get very creative and to push against the criteria versus just wandering aimlessly.
The best general advice – do what you love with an intense focus.
To see more from Connie Birdsall and Lippincott, please check out www.lippincott.com.