For three decades, Kit Hinrichs has been telling tales—and doing so with an emphasis on the visual. A retrospective on the work of the veteran Pentagram designer ran through April and early May at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, under the apt banner "The Storyteller's Art." In the midst of the show's run, and between client assignments, Hinrichs took time to judge this year's One Show Design, which brought the San Francisco-based designer to Brooklyn during a rainy first week of April. Warren Berger of one.design caught up with Hinrichs during his visit and engaged him in a conversation about the following:
Having one's own retrospective
"You start to think, 'Well I must be getting near the end of my career because they're beginning to talk about retrospectives,'" Hinrichs says. "It's the first time I've done something like this and it gives you a different perspective on your own work. What you have in an exhibition, which you never usually get, is scale. And you can edit from a large body of work and control the way people view the work." Regarding the title of the show, Hinrichs says, "I probably didn't recognize it early in my career, but as I look back I find that I am quite a narrative designer. I really like to tell stories to explain what an idea is about. I like finding out about ideas, or about whoever it is I'm working with—what makes them unique and interesting. If I can conjure up that same story in a new way for the audience they want to talk to, that's what I like to do."
Favorites among his work
"The design business journal @issue was a great project for me because I'm as interested in business as I am in design—and I'm always trying to understand the synergy between those two groups. Neither one of them works effectively unless they can work with each other. I did all the design for that magazine for 15 years." Hinrichs also has a soft spot for paper makers, including Fox River Paper and Potlatch Papers: "I've worked for paper companies a good portion of my career. I guess I love crafting the way a paper company gets to represent itself on paper. The 20th Century series of books (for Potlatch) was one of those dream projects because I had a chance to focus on things that designers care about, like typography and annual reports, and the books became something that individual designers could keep and use as reference tools. So much of what is designed and produced gets thrown in the wastebasket, it's always nice to work on things that have an intrinsic value that goes beyond just the moment."
The Pentagram Papers
As a designer of the long-running series of stylish, idiosyncratic books produced by the design firm, Hinrichs says: "They've always been simple and idea-driven. And there's always a good back-story to each one of these books. To me, that story, the literature, is as important as the imagery in each book." And how do these subjects—books dedicated to, say, rural mailboxes in Australia—get chosen? "I won't say there is no rhyme or reason to them… but there isn't. It's just a thing of where one of the individual partners might say, 'Gee, I saw this or that, or someone told me a story, and I'm really intrigued by it…' It is completely driven by what is interesting to the partners. We have a budget for it and we give that partner the money to design it and produce it. For example, the book we did on Mao buttons started with me saying to one of my students who was going back to China, 'Why don't you bring back a Mao button,' without me thinking a whole lot about it. She comes back with this case with about 25 of them in it, all designed by her father. Then we start to learn this whole story of what it was like under the Cultural Revolution, and what her life was like growing up, how her father was under house arrest because he had a paintbrush fall on one of the buttons. It became a very interesting look at the whole story connected to this cultural icon."
And what about all those flags?
"Yes, I am a flag collector, but not because I'm some right wing zealot. It's something that was passed down in my family, and I think one reason it's so interesting to me is because it deals with storytelling and with variations on a theme. Often with storytelling, you have a simple idea, and a basic framework you have to deal with—and within that, how do you make something unique, fresh, original? The American public, for the first 150 years, made their own flags. There were guidelines, of course, with the stars and stripes, but the guidelines were broad enough that it was almost as if there were no guidelines. It is interesting to see what people did with those basic elements—the way they might, for example, cut away the stars to take off the confederate states. Again, it's storytelling, through that single icon. My collection of flags is now up to 5,000 but who's counting."
Storytelling and brands
"People often assume the brand is the logo or symbol—and there's no doubt that if that's done well, it can give you a flavor for who the company is, whether they're contemporary or traditional, and so forth. But I really see the brand as more than that logo or mark—it's the totality of the way in which the company talks to its public. If you understand what branding is about, then you must realize that all the choices you make shape that overall story. It's like in a play: If an actor suddenly steps out of character, you're in the audience saying, 'Wait a minute, something's wrong here.' It's the same with brands, you need to have that consistency of staying in character. And I don't mean that in an artificial way, really more of an authentic way. It's about finding out who you are as a company and how you want to say things, and then being consistent in the way you say it." It requires making choices and editing what you say to the public, Hinrichs says: "Often, a client just gives you a laundry list, like 'We're these 22 things, and we'd like to incorporate all 22 of them clearly in our logo.' They're looking for an illustration of their company, as opposed to developing a brand that truly represents their company. There's a huge difference." Hinrichs says simplicity can help clarify a company's story, even if (and especially if) there's some static to overcome. In the case of his client Muzak, "they needed to change the way people viewed them because they were associated with awful elevator music, but here they are, this really contemporary company with the largest music library in the world and less than half of one percent of their business is elevator music—they're doing these other things. To change them, we put the emphasis on the simple—a very simple M in a circle—that we could use consistently across all their hats, trucks, and so forth, to give a sense that they were this nationwide company out there in the world doing lots of things."
Graphic design in the digital era
So, what happens as annual reports and other print representations of companies increasingly give way to designing a presence on the web? "Obviously a change has taken place and is continuing to take place," Hinrichs says. "Now, as we get involved with brands for companies, we're showing them how it works in print and digitally—and really, in all media, not even just limited to print or the web. Is the idea something you can make 3-dimensional, can you animate it? Certainly, the digital side is the more important for many clients right now. But I think—and this isn't just because I'm an old print guy—that it's the combination of tools that you're always going to want to use. There are things you do in print that you'll never get on the web. There is still going to be room for both, though I do think print will shift to being more high-end things to target audiences, and the web will be for the mass audience."
A simple principle to live by
"I think it's important that designers are dealing with ideas and concepts first—before they decide how they're going to execute that idea. There are so many stylists in our business, who are really only involved in their own vision; they're a hammer and all solutions are nails. I tell young designers, 'Don't worry about what's the hottest typeface, or which photographer everybody's hiring. Be sure that you're solving your client's problem, then decide how you're going to execute that.' It comes down to a good idea, well executed, in the simplest form. If you work that way, you'll not only do a good job for your client, you'll probably get just as many awards as you would for some stylish piece."
A final thought on the role of designers in solving problems
"When we're all put on this earth," Hinrichs says, "we start out as visual people; language comes later, as a coding learned along the way. As you go through the education process, early on you're more likely to look at pictures in books and learn visually—you take it all in, you see everything. Then as you begin to code things in words, it makes everything more linear and specific. At some point, within our education system, it seems like we shift from a balance of right and left hand brain, to being very left brain. The consequence of this is, if you go through all the important books they are really image free, they're all words." But, Hinrichs notes, designers keep looking at the whole picture. "I think this is the reason why designers are so welcome in the boardrooms of corporations. Businesspeople have been kind of brainwashed out of solving problems in anything other than a linear approach. But sometimes, we need both sides of the brain to solve problems. Which is why I find that there are times I can go into a boardroom with guys who have degrees from 12 universities I could never get into, and help them look at a problem in a new way. Once the problem is described, the designer is more likely to say, 'Well, did you look at this? How about doing it this way?' It's about not adhering to a set of restrictions that have defined how you think in business. Designers don't follow that same book of rules."