Step Magazine by Sean Adams
I’m not prone to envy. Dig deep enough and you’ll find we all share similar issues and daily problems. After leaving the offices of VSA partners in Chicago, however, I felt that green monster on my back. Badly. In the past month, three different well-known designers told me that VSA was the country’s leading design firm. Jamie Koval is one of the partners driving this creative engine. Jamie’s work is deceptively simple. The solutions seem effortless and clear. This betrays a reality that is complex, multilayered and very smart. The same can be said of Jamie personally. One of the most pleasant surprises in life is meeting a designer that you’ve always admired and finding him affable, charming and humble. Recently, Jamie and I took a break on the lawn at the Sundance resort in Utah, and I grilled him. Being the affable, charming, humble person he is, he answered my questions without duress.
SA: Jamie, before we jump into the work, I’d love to know some basics. Where are you from, where did you go to school, what was your first job?
JK: I grew up in Winnetka, Ill., part of what’s known as the North Shore, a stretch of towns along Lake Michigan just north of Chicago. For college I chose to go to Kansas—yes, that graphic design epicenter known as the University of Kansas—because I wanted to attend a university with a strong design school rather than art school. I received a degree in Visual Communication with a minor in Journalism. After I graduated, I traveled to Switzerland to attend a summer program with Kent State University and studied design just outside Zurich.
My first job in the industry was working for a small advertising agency on Michigan Avenue. It was a summer job, I was a senior in high school, and I loved it. I was already a teenage workaholic. I would take the train from home into the city, ride a commuter boat from the train station up the Chicago River to the steps of the Wrigley Building. I thought I had arrived. The agency was small and adorned with personalities, like an ad-agency version of WKRP in Cincinnati. It was a great place to gain perspective.
SA: And how did you end up in design?
JK: Probably like most designers, I was blessed and cursed with the ability to draw, and that kept leading me to design. Even when I was really young, I loved type. I knew I was going to do something with art. I remember being 11 years old and painting with my grandfather on Saturday during the winter months. I sold one of my oil paintings to a very good friend of my father. He paid me $50, and I was convinced I was rich. Or at least commercially viable.
SA: So, if your first job was at WKRP in Cincinnati, VSA seems like The West Wing. I’ve always been confused about how VSA works. Whenever I’ve been in the office, it seems like a well-oiled machine filled with amazing talent. But you have several partners and lots of people. Do you have teams; do you share projects, who has the final say on a direction?
JK: Here in Chicago, which is our first and largest office, we do function primarily in separate teams. There are four creative partners, each of whom manages between 10 and 15 people. Our teams are a pretty interesting mix of designers who think strategically, writers who can think visually, strategists who can write, and account people who can strategize… all of whom see design as the means of solving a communication or business problem. People who come into our office have compared it to a newsroom, grad school or air traffic control. Most often the partners run our teams independently, but we collaborate from time to time to share resources or respond to the demand of a major program.
As a partner, my role is multifaceted, starting with business development, creative direction, through staffing and leading my team. Although my team is amazing, I have overall responsibility for everything we produce, so I’m involved in every design decision. Which is what I love in the first place.
SA: So much of your work is large scale, long term corporate projects. These involve large scale politics. How do you handle this and maintain the ability to do unexpected, exciting work?
JK: You make it sound like road construction. To a degree you’re right, because large scale corporate assignments naturally attract attention from multiple internal stakeholders with differing agendas: lawyers, accountants, HR, corporate brand managers, internal designers. Did I mention lawyers? And then there are process challenges: budget, timing, research, testing, approvals. But what’s exhilarating to me about these enterprise-scale engagements is that there is so much at stake for the client’s organization. And we have a seat at the table with leadership in making a change. In these types of engagements, companies are trusting us not to produce more stuff, but to deliver something of real, lasting impact. My greatest success in building big, corporate branding or communication assignments comes when we lead with strategy and then produce beautiful, compelling work.
It sounds simple. But how you scope and stage an assignment is critical to its outcome, which is why research and strategy are elemental to our work. And then once the stage is set, you need to deliver something that you find compelling and that you know will resonate with the market. Creating the unexpected is always about combining intelligence about the audience with instinct for the right aesthetic.
Oh, and it helps that I just enjoy it. I’ve done programmatic work for clients large and small, emerging and established, and I like getting my fingers into everything, from positioning, to identity and naming, to every visual expression imaginable. I also like variety and transferring what I know in one industry to a different set of challenges in another. That’s why I intentionally try to vary my clients, industry sectors and types of assignments. The common denominator is that I try to choose assignments where there is creative opportunity, where I can work with and learn from talented people and have a chance to raise the trajectory of a company or brand.
SA: That’s what makes your work rare: It is smart, but it’s also incredibly skilled. One of the other aspects of VSA’s work that I admire is the commitment to craft. Within that is the ability to not fall into the current groovy trends. The latest promotion you did for Mohawk, the Strathmore promo, is a perfect example of this. What was your thinking on that project?
JK: You know how you can look at a house built in the 1920s, and it makes perfect design sense, even today? It’s never going to be seen as trendy or faddish. It’s timeless. It stays relevant. It has integrity. I see my work as never really in fashion, and hopefully never out of fashion. I’ve always gravitated toward classic sensibilities in my work not only because I like it, but because that’s how I’m wired. I just see things this way. So there has always been a timeless quality about VSA’s work that I really can’t explain. I’ve heard it termed “responsible.” Others have said it’s a Chicago thing, but I don’t think that’s it either. I just like things to feel current, not new. I like modern, but not state of the art. Familiar and accessible, but a little hard to peg. I suspect it all comes back to the desire to create something of lasting value rather than something disposable.
Launching Strathmore for Mohawk was a dream assignment. It was strategic, programmatic and creative—everything I enjoy. My goal was to begin by offering emerging designers an insider’s perspective on writing and identity. These were two types of projects that happen on Strathmore paper, a story that hadn’t been told effectively in the marketplace. We developed an aesthetic for the program that was bold and recognizable to a more commercial, less design-savvy market, and added a depth of detail, wit and finishing so that a more discerning audience might respond as well. See? There’s the creative not falling far from the strategy again.
SA: We’ve been hearing for years about the death of the annual report and the switch to electronic communication for corporations. What are your thoughts about printed matter? How is it changing?
JK: Well, the reports of the AR’s death aren’t necessarily exaggerated. They’re just missing the real story. I think there will always be certain companies that believe the purpose of an annual is simply to fulfill a regulatory requirement. And those reports will naturally devolve to a non-designed print version or static online presentation. But for those who see a strategic purpose in the report, they’re looking for new ways to leverage it to reach more a specific audience or send a specific message. And those tend to be the AR clients VSA attracts—although in the interest of full Sarbanes-Oxley-style disclosure, I feel compelled to point out that annuals are an increasingly small percentage of VSA’s overall business as we’ve diversified our work over the years. I am under oath here, right?
Anyway, what we see first and foremost is that annual reports are no longer a one-size-fits-all proposition. In some cases, companies pursue a full annual, others choose a summary report, a 10K wrap or just an online report. There are companies that communicate both in print and online. Which is why we address each company differently.
For instance, Ameritrade was a client that had historically produced both a print and an online report, and we migrated them exclusively online because it was appropriate to their business and brand. For GE’s annual report and website, we converted what would have otherwise been financial tables into an online experience by adding interactivity to them. Then there are companies like our client BP that see corporate reporting as a library of print communications that combine to address financial, social and environmental performance.
So companies need to assess whom they’re talking to and what’s the best way to facilitate a conversation that shapes perceptions among their audiences. My favorite thing about the annual report is that it forces public companies to have internal and external dialogue on an annual basis about where they’ve been—and more importantly, where they’re going. And that need isn’t going to go away.
SA: But you’re able to make the leap from corporate America to the other side. You’re kind of a nonprofit junkie. You’ve committed time and resources to AIGA and Anderson Ranch Art Center, Dance Aspen, the Northern Suburban Special Education District, you served on the board of the Chicago Art Foundation. Why not just go home and watch TV?
JK: First off, I watch plenty of TV… by the way, I love Dennis Weaver’s work. Secondly, if there’s a cause or an organization out there that I believe in and they can use some support, I am always willing to help. It goes back to your question earlier. I like to focus on a range of assignments. For example, I am a board member of the Chicago Art Project, and I recently finished the identity program for this group dedicated to raising visibility and exporting Chicago artists. I also just agreed to design the program for the Dalai Lama’s May visit to Chicago, hosted in Millennium Park.
SA: Is the house finished? Talk to me about that process? Were you a good client? Did the design of the house influence your work, or visa versa?
JK: Yes, the house is finished after three years and, believe it or not, we actually live there. I could make a comparison to putting a man on the moon or painting the Golden Gate Bridge, but let’s just say… it’s done. Coming from a world where we shape companies or launch global brands sometimes within months, this process seemed quite laborious. And it didn’t help to have experience working with interiors companies such as Interface and Baker Furniture. I almost know too much.
For the architecture and interior perspective, I think I was a good client. I challenged our architect and my input helped the house quite a bit. On the construction side, I’ve made myself a necessary nuisance. As a designer, you expect everything to be perfect and done immediately. And the construction industry just doesn’t work that way. In the end, the house is a true reflection of my design approach and sensibility—the exterior is old, part of the landscape, romantic; the interior is open, clean and modern.
SA: I like that this is a concrete example of melding your creative with your family. Your family life is clearly your priority. How do you balance these massive projects and their time and travel demands with family?
JK: It’s a challenge, because the pull of doing great work constantly competes with the pull of building a great family. But I do my best. Fortunately, I have a wonderful wife and kids that are understanding and very supportive. And maybe [they have] a little of my design genes, so they get it. They let me pursue what I enjoy, and we take a lot of vacations.
SA: Since coming to VSA in 1990, what was your favorite project personally —and it’s not fair to be politic about this and say “all of them.”
JK: How about “the next one”? How fantastically diplomatic would that be? I guess if I were to step back and think about it, I’d look to see what the criteria for a favorite project would be: moves market, good partners, creative freedom. That’s a tough question. I have to say I don’t fall in love easily, and I typically am most excited about what I’m doing right now. So today, it’s the identity program for Chicago’s bid for the 2016 Olympics. But if I were to look back, one of my most favorite assignments was the first assignment I did with Mohawk Fine Papers to promote Superfine called Luna Bella Luna. It was a project I developed with my good friend, photographer Paul Elledge, and it was just wonderful on every level. It came together quickly. It was well written. The story was true to the people from this remote little town in Italy, and people loved the book. It was the beginning of a 10-plus year relationship partnering with Mohawk, and to this day I still like the piece.
SA: Without naming it, what made your least favorite project not work for you?
JK: Sorry, did you say something?
SA: You’re good. OK, if I were trying to be hired by VSA, what would you be looking for? And don’t tell Noreen I asked this.
JK: First, the interview process would be oddly similar to this. We spend a lot of time looking for something intangible called fit,” and it generally surfaces in conversation rather than on someone’s resumé. And it greatly depends on the level. With an entry-level designer, it’s pretty straightforward: Good communicator? Highenergy? Decent computer skills? Understand typography? With more senior people, it’s trickier. Where have they worked? How strong is their portfolio? Are they a cultural fit? Can they think like clients? Do they understand typography? Oh, by the way, when can you start?
SA: Before I start, you must know I will only use Tiffany on all projects. So, we’ve established that your work is focused and exquisitely clear, but my big question is can you find anything in your office?
JK: What do you mean? You can find almost anything in my office. My office is sort of an exploded view of my mind. When I’m outside, the world looks clear and linear, but inside, my office needs to be full of stuff—inspiration, business trends, pure imagery, forms, notes, textures, color. And my kids’ drawings. A depth of stuff, because you never know what unexpected connections you’ll need to make. Maybe not knee-deep, but still…