Step Magazine by Sean Adams
One comment I hear from designers is, “there should be a television show about the design world.” If there were, everyone would grow to love the lead character of design client and that character would be based on Laura Shore.
As senior vice president of Creative at Mohawk Fine Papers, Laura embodies all of the traits that all of us dream of finding in a client. She’s smart and creative, has great ideas and doesn’t mind if you steal them. She’s patient and trusting, fair and measured. Behind the scenes, in the rough and tough world of a paper mill, Laura understands her multiple audiences, knows when and what to tell them and how to balance creative freedom with hard numbers. Clients can often seem like they are speaking Icelandic and making decisions based on whims. We all wonder why one firm was chosen over another or what a client really expects. After some prodding and begging, I convinced Laura to spill the beans from the other side of the presentation.
SA: Laura, let’s start with what you actually do. I know you hire designers and make paper swatchbooks and promos, but what about the rest of your job?
LS: Is your Icelandic translator here? Hiring designers is actually a small part of what I do. I manage an incredibly capable in-house team—10 people if you count the intern, more if you count outsourced marketing support—who handle everything relating to PR, marketing communication, advertising, product positioning, the web, printing, signage, trade shows, events and national design sponsorships. In addition to that, since the acquisition of the IP Fine Papers brands in 2005, all of our internal processes have been overhauled. Lately we’ve been working with the IT group to redesign internal computer systems that relate to publishing product information and reporting.
We don’t have a formal organization chart in our company, so each of us wakes up every day and does the smartest thing we can think of. Our team is complemented by an equally caffeinated group dedicated to product and another focused on the environment. We support their initiatives and try to give structure to their ideas so they can be brought to market effectively. Our team is always involved at some level in product development, research, strategy and selling. We bring designers in at various points along the line in a project, but it’s our breadth of engagement at Mohawk that allows us to keep the process focused and bring the right level of information to the design part of the process.
Forty posters for the Yale School of Architecture: When Mohawk learned that Michael Bierut of Pentagram would be receiving the AIGA medal in 2006, they wanted to do something to honor their work together over the years, as well as Bierut’s efforts on behalf of AIGA and the design community. This small book is the result; it is black and white, like the ten years’ worth of posters he designed for the school. Attendees at the Associated Gala received this book as a gift. Copies are now available through Winterhouse Editions, with profits going to support the Winterhouse Award for Design Writing & Criticism.
SA: I’m going to ask the hardest question first. You see promotional pieces and portfolios from an enormous number of designers. How do you decide whom you’re going to work with on a specific project?
LS: If the type looks like I could have set it myself, they’re out. Times Roman, out. Unintentional clichés, out. Plagiarism, out. Irony, if I don’t get it, out. Bad writing, out. Is a designer good at developing stories out of thin air? Do they love information design? Is their attitude in sync with the intended audience? Do they avoid jargon? Is the work memorable? Is the work original? Is it too far ahead of the audience? Is it always the same, regardless of the client? Do they respect all of our audiences? Do they know how to work with uncoated paper? Are they curious? Are they interesting? Can we have fun and still get the job done? Do they make us look smarter than we are?
In the end, it’s a terrifying leap of faith. Each project is so different—with unique audiences, information requirements, production budgets. I believe one of the most important things a design client can do is understand the true capability of the firm they’re hiring and to match that capability to the project. Get it wrong and it’s like a bad marriage. Endless changes. Arguments about the budget. Thinly veiled disdain on all sides. If you get it right, then everything sails through. Few revisions. Everyone’s a genius.
SA: It’s easy to think that if my work is cool, or clever, or aesthetically innovative that clients will, of course, be jumping over each other to hire me. But, unfortunately, the real world doesn’t work that way. Do you find that designers can put too much priority on what their work looks like?
LS: I actually think how the work looks is really important. Particularly with a product like ours. Design details and production excellence matter to our audience. What we deliver has to be incredibly well made. And if it’s not, I’ll get a phone call within hours of distributing a new piece.
That having been said—if we’re talking about paper promotions—everything in the process is important. Designers need to do the homework and get outside their own preconceived notions about the audience. Designing for a design audience is not the same as designing for yourself. Research. Back up your assertions. We operate at a pretty fast pace and while each project is important, a project manager will have several projects operating simultaneously. It’s important that deadlines are met. We also bring a lot of production expertise to the project and are willing to research almost anything if we agree that it’s interesting. Yet our budgets are set out clearly up front, and we have a great process in place to ensure that we come in on time and on budget. Designers have control over the architecture of the project, so we don’t have a lot of sympathy for designers who overdesign a project and then whine about the budget or deadline.
SA: When I’ve judged competitions, a common event is the judging of paper promotions. Let’s face it: Some are gosh-darn awful, but others are remarkable. When I’ve voted for a paper promo, one of the other judges will argue, “Come on, it’s just a paper promo. You can do anything you want.” But the operative word in paper companies is companies. What are some of the biggest misconceptions about designing and producing a paper promo?
LS: For many years, it was not uncommon [for us] to receive visual essays on subjects like toy trains, ducks or vintage fruit labels from people I’d never met, with the earnest hope that I would use the work as a paper promotion. Pick a paper, any paper. Thankfully, that practice has diminished—I suppose with the decline in the number of mills—or maybe designers are just busier now.
As you know, Sean, you can’t do “anything you want” in a paper promotion. You have to appeal to a range of audiences, from just-out-of-school designers, to print sales people, to merchant sales guys who golf. We’re not a publisher, and a paper promotion is not a book—it’s a conversation starter. Done right, a paper promotion can energize an entire channel, giving sales people a reason for a call, creating opportunities for events, bringing a product or brand to life. Oh, and I gave up on design competitions a long time ago!
Mohawk ad series: High readership scores bear out the strategy recommended for an image advertising campaign developed by VSA Partners. The sophisticated yet whimsical illustrations by Klas Fahlen and thoughtful copy challenge conventional thinking about paper and the paper industry, reinforcing Mohawk’s approach to the business.
SA: You’ve pulled together a powerhouse stable of designers. You’ve worked with the best, from Pentagram, VSA, Vanderbyl Design, the Valentine Group, Willoughby Design … almost every well-known name in the country. First, was this a plan? And secondly, wouldn’t it have been much cheaper and faster to hire Carol’s Country Copy Shoppe in Albany? Why take the effort to create this group?
LS: Hey, don’t knock Carol! My first job was at a quick printer in Albany. … We actually work extensively with a very talented local designer, Jennifer Wilkerson, and a number of local printers. However, working with world-class design talent has been one of the great joys of my job. It’s also a great way to build brand affinity throughout the community. The more interesting question is, how do we keep our identity intact, working with designers who are generally retained by clients who want to reposition their brands?
SA: OK, so how do you keep your brand intact?
LS: I believe that a brand is more than design execution. In our case, it’s about being interesting to the design community. One of the ways we do that is by working with amazing people who interest our audience. We start by keeping identity projects with Pentagram New York. We’ve worked with them so long that they can read our minds. After that, we branch out and use leading designers for specific projects or brands, depending on the attitude we want to communicate. Good designers are actually incredibly careful about situating their work within the larger context of the brand.
SA: You have a deep and long-standing relationship with AIGA. You’re a National Sponsor, and you fund events and exhibitions regionally across the country. Why does Mohawk think this is important?
LS: Supporting AIGA is essential to our business. We make a premium-branded product that must be specified for us to survive. For this we need a healthy, educated design community. Organizations like AIGA and trade journals like STEP are incredibly important to us. We began supporting AIGA back in the mid-’80s when it was clear that it was the one design organization that could speak for designers at a national level. As our lives have gotten more complex, faster and more computer-dependent, the need for community involvement and real human interaction has only increased. I honestly can’t understand why any designer wouldn’t want to be a member of AIGA—or why any supplier wouldn’t want to support the organization.?
SA: So, tell me what drives you nuts about working with designers. This isn’t the McCarthy hearings—you don’t have to name names. I know most designers probably have no idea that they are doing something that might be making a client insane.
LS: Designing something that can’t be produced within the budget. Designers who come to a solution before they’ve heard the problem we’re trying to solve.
SA: The idea of sustainability has become critical to most designers and many of our clients. Obviously Mohawk thinks this idea is important. Can you explain your strategy?
LS: I think it’s not only important but a very exciting opportunity for designers. As specifiers, designers have the opportunity to shift paper purchases in a sustainable direction. Our use of postconsumer fiber has tripled in the past few years as our customers realize the environmental benefits of using recycled paper. Many specifiers have used our environmental calculator to help their clients understand the impact of specification.
But more important today, clients who are interested in sustainability are potentially interested in changing everything about the way they operate. More than ever, they need design thinking that opens up new possibilities. One of our recent projects by Ann Willoughby does a great job providing case studies for designers who may lack the confidence to ask tough questions or suggest new ways of thinking to their clients.
SA: How does a paper company create products that contribute to the “green” effort?
LS: We’ve had environmental products for a long time. After a lot of R&D, in 2003 we were finally able to produce new Mohawk Options PCW, an Inxwell grade with 100 percent postconsumer waste. The performance benefits of Inxwell, combined with environmental benefits of windpower and FSC certification, have unlocked a huge latent demand in the corporate community. This demand inspired further product innovations like our new carbonneutral, FSC-certified Beckett Expression and Concept lines.
SA: You make it sound easy, but it requires commitment, and probably short term loss of profits. How did you convince Mohawk to go down this path?
LS: It wasn’t me. Mohawk has a long history of sustainable manufacturing, which helps us run more effciently and cost effectively. Because we view everything holistically, the money we save on energy conservation, for example, allows us to spend more on product development and promotion. Do windpower credits cost more? Yes. Does recycled fiber cost more? Yes. Do we charge more for the paper? No. By providing customers a reason to choose branded products over commodity products, we’ve created a new market for text and cover papers. We’re a business, and demand fuels innovation. The enthusiastic response by designers and their clients for sustainable solutions will foster more product innovation in the future.
SA: Let’s say I have a client who is hell-bent on printing something the most toxic way possible and hates recycled papers … a client who wouldn’t mind creating the three-eyed mutated fish from The Simpsons. What could I do or say to change his mind?
LS: You could buy him a copy of An Inconvenient Truth. … You have to assume that nobody hates the environment. However, your client is probably under a lot of pressure to control costs and meet budget numbers. He probably doesn’t want the hassle of trying to sell through environmental benefits to superiors if there’s a trade-off in terms of convenience, cost or quality. Here’s how I’d approach it. What are his issues? Cost? Quality? Product availability? Is he getting a financial incentive from his printer or his mill to use a particular paper? I would figure out what kind of paper he’s using now and ask your merchant to recommend similar cost/quality papers that have measurable environmental benefits. If there’s still a cost premium—say he’s moving off of a really cheap foreign coated sheet—then I would ask where his paper comes from and do some internet research to find out if there are issues with that supplier. He may not care about the environment himself, but he may want to avoid the potential for negative PR down the road. Alternatively, you might consider design changes that would result in less paper use, which would save him money and make you a hero. And if he’s in the premium paper category already, you could show him print samples on Options and run the environmental calculator so he can see that the environmental benefits come “free” with print performance.
SA: You have the unique perspective of seeing the design world from a different angle. What do you find is the most common mistake we make as a profession?
LS: Wow, that’s a really broad question—like what’s the most common mistake lawyers make as a profession?
I’m not sure it’s a “mistake,” but an interesting shift I’ve seen over the years is away from craft and the responsibility for “making” [something]. Fifteen years ago, I would have said there is an overreliance on craft. Designers would obsess about production details that were basically irrelevant to the client. Today, the pendulum has swung the other way, and many designers seem to have an overreliance on technology and have given up control over the details. Our department has compensated by taking over print production, but I fear that some of the designer’s intent gets lost in the process. Also, as I look at the Mohawk Show entries, it seems that this reliance on software, scale and workflow efficiency has created work that tends to move toward the middle. The work is all decent quality but there seem to be fewer print pieces that are truly memorable or that show the hand of their creators. Of course, even as I say this, quirky, interesting pieces come to mind. …
SA: What excites you about the design world right now?
LS: I love convergence. I am a lateral thinker by nature, and I love the fact that everyone I know is doing everything: print, web, product, environment, systems, strategy. The boundaries between disciplines always drove me crazy. Technology has empowered us all to be dangerous in many different fields, and this, I think, is very exciting.
SA: And finally, who’s your most favorite designer in the entire world? Did you get the flowers I sent?
LS: Hélstu í alvöru að ég myndi svara þessu? (You didn’t really think I’d answer that, did you?)