Recently, I had a lunch with a lifelong graphic designer that was about twice my age. Somehow, as it always seems to, my background became the subject of conversation.
I tend to breeze through my design experience in fifty words or less, but in this instance, I gave it a bit more time. Maybe it’s because I had a bit more time to fill, considering the wealth of experience across the table. Maybe it was the coffee. At any rate, what I said to him seemed to make a serious impact. As a result, I decided to sit down and type it out in the event that someone else may enjoy it.
About two hundred years ago, back in July of 1986, I was in Ohio for my family reunion. Every time I go to our family reunion, which has been twice, we would stay with my uncle, Bill Jones, and his wife Sandy. The Joneses were an incredible anomaly, in that they could perpetuate a great mood – no matter the circumstances – even with a house full of guests (when I say ‘full’, I mean 15-20 guests).
To give some background, I had a propensity for trouble as a child. As a result, I spent a lot of time in my bedroom, coloring in my coloring books. But as long as I had my coloring books, I almost felt like I wasn’t punished.
Unfortunately, the ratio of punishment to coloring books was not working in my favor, and I had a lot more time to spend in my room. That’s when I grabbed a pencil and notebook and starting to make my own. My family noticed that there was some talent in what I was sketching, which brings my story back to Ohio and the reunion.
My brother and I , then 10 and 9, respectively, were running through the house, jumping on furniture, when I kicked over their umbrella stand and sent a loud ‘”CRASH” throughout the house. As loud as we were, we were no match for the large tin can slapping the brick foyer. In its wake, I saw the first and only time that Bill showed a lack of patience. Not mad, just impatient.
“So, you can draw, huh?”, he asked with curiosity and, perhaps, an effort to move past the incident. I nodded and he crouched down to my level.
“You know, I’d like for you to draw me a logo”.
“Sure,” I answered, “what’s that?”
Bill led me to the kitchen where I sat at the dining room table. He stood by the kitchen counter and, once he had my full attention, he continued by pulling a box of Fruity Pebbles out of the cabinet. Pointing to the Post trademark, he asked, “Ya see this?”
I nodded and he explained. “This is a logo, along with the Nabisco on those crackers, and the Dawn on the dish soap. A logo is just a pretty form of a word that makes you think good of a company”. It seemed simple enough, so with little more explanation, I was ready to go.
My art supplies consisted of a spiral bound notebook and four colored pencils, black, red, brown and green. The black pencil broke immediately.
I spent about two hours just coming up with ways to make “Jones Realty” catchy and fun. After six or seven ideas, I settled on one logo, tore my page out and walked out to the backyard, where the adults had migrated in the early evening. I got Bill’s attention and we walked back inside the house; he to check out my work, and me to present what has adorned his letterhead for over twenty years.
So that’s how it started. From that point on, I would spend countless weekends and evenings through my early teens, drawing ideas for the entrepreneurs in the family: my uncle that ran the family Feed & Seed store would want signs, his music promoter brother would want posters, VHS sleeves, business cards, as would assorted relatives and their friends.
A couple days ago, in a trip to Target, my eleven year-old daughter asked for an AC/DC t-shirt. I couldn’t help but laugh because, by the time I was her age, AC/DC had become passé. It also got me thinking about how time breathes new life into past pop culture, and the strange pattern that it follows.
In the eighties, sea-foam green, leather jackets and the nostalgia of “Back to the Future” had a tremendous influence on the decade. We embraced an older, patriarchal Republican president, as we did with Eisenhower. Our attention moved away from Vietnam to slightly west, as the Cold War became real once again, along with our aim to end it.
The L.A. Riots of 1992 were the largest racially-fueled events our country had seen in decades. The rest of the nineties more-or-less focused on an era of peace and change, with a newer generation donning tie-dye, peace signs and Woodstock (this time, with a much bigger budget). The nineties echoed the sounds of sixties rock, reggae and funk. We ushered out the existing political regime in favor of someone younger; more handsome and eloquent. It only lasted a few years again, before we had an older Republican in office. Ironically, the presidents that closed out the sixties and nineties would both leave the office under monumental disapproval.
The turn of the century saw a resurgence in seventies interior, fashion and graphic design sensibility, incorporated into the technological advancements of our time. Seventies icons like ringer t-shirts with iron-on transfers were re-introduced and became property of this new generation as they protested a war that made no sense to many of us. We saw the rock music world re-capture the fashion and musical style of Lou Reed and The Rolling Stones, while disco was digitized and re-introduced in nightclubs around the world.
Now that we’re about to close this decade with horrific inflation and unemployment, a global energy crisis and car-makers in turmoil once again (don’t forget, Congress approved over a billion dollars to save Chrysler from bankruptcy in 1979), what do you see in store for the twenty-teens?
Starbucks has finally fired back against the blows that fast-food competitors like McDonald’s have dealt at the ubiquitous giant and rightfully so. But how did they choose to set themselves apart from their rivals? A large, big-money ad campaign! You can read about the campaign anywhere, so I won’t waste your time with recycled news. Instead, I’d like to express what I feel has brought us to this point.
A long, long time ago, Starbucks became a part of our daily routine, whether it was to grab a quick latte on the way to work, or to meet with friends and soak in the ambiance in the evenings. Starbucks was more than coffee, it was an intimate experience where stress was checked at the door.
Starbucks made little more than coffee drinks, and they did it well. Half of their counter was dedicated to selling the beans that made them famous, the other half was where espresso was made into an art form. The staff was educated and enthusiastic about the heritage and craftsmanship of coffee, in a cafe laid out in such a manner that you could almost feel like there was no place quite like it anywhere else. Over those years, my daughter and I made Starbucks a place where we could just hang out and talk about life, her with her Frappuccino, and me with my iced-quad-venti-nonfat-caramel-macchiato.
I even spent a while working at a Starbucks. In that time my passion for coffee led me to earn a black apron. If you’re not sure what that is, Google will help.
Things have certainly changed. If you walk into a Starbucks today, you’ll see that the whole bean counter has been removed, to make room for toaster ovens where you can get a sandwich with your drink. Don’t care for coffee? No problem. You can now choose from a wide array of bland smoothies, waters, or even no drink at all. The environment that once made us feel at home is now cluttered with clearance retail and, to keep up with the times, CDs.
Starbucks has grown into the “pack ’em in” fast-food enterprise that they were once the very antithesis of. And now, to further homogenize themselves in the bland corporate mix, they have their own ad campaign. Maybe it’s a good thing that they’re feeling the economic and competitive pinch. Hopefully, it will wake them up to what made them great in the first place and stick to only that, because no one wants to see Starbucks and feel Walmart.