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How did you discover your passion for design and advertising? My passion for art began in childhood because I loved to draw. I was an art major in high school and later studied at the Philadelphia College of Art—now the University of the Arts—where I was on track to become an illustrator or painter. My favorite teacher in freshman year suggested that I look into graphic design instead. Not knowing anything about the field, I went on a department tour that she arranged, and what I saw of the student work—its power and simplicity—was a revelation. I met the department head Kenneth Hiebert, who spoke eloquently about the program; its focus on process, not product; and a commitment to European modernism. I was sold.

My education in Philadelphia prepared me for my first job with the legendary design firm Chermayeff & Geismar, where I witnessed the best of graphic design in America. After collaborating on projects for the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, Mobil and PBS, I was recruited to work on the 1976 Montréal Olympics. I packed my warmest coat and moved to Canada to join the Swiss and Canadian firm Gottschalk+Ash Int’l. By any measure, this was a promising and lucky career start.

Tell us about your firm Carbone Smolan Agency and the incredible work you created while there. What were some of your favorite projects to work on? After the Montréal Olympics, my Canadian visa expired, and I returned to New York to open an American office for Gottschalk+Ash Int’l. We had no clients, but generous design colleagues steered us to small accounts just right for a “startup” in New York City. It was around this time that Leslie Smolan joined me. From the beginning, we exploited our different but complementary skills; plus, she was a terrific designer with a keen eye for detail. Based on our success, we opened the Carbone Smolan Agency together. During our more than 40 years in business, we employed nearly 1,000 people, had a stellar international clientele and were recognized for the quality of our design.

Favorite projects? That’s a tricky question. Was it The Day in the Life photo books? The signage for The Louvre? Promotion for the Dalai Lama’s first visit to New York? The Chicago Symphony logo? The Christie’s auction house brand? There were many.

Years ago, I asked famed architect I. M. Pei if he had a favorite project. His response was: “It’s never about the project. It’s always about the client.” In my opinion, this is an ideal standard of measurement.

What do you do in your current role as an artist, designer and senior advisor at agency 50,000feet? In 2019, Leslie and I decided we needed new adventures, professionally and personally. We felt it was time to close the Carbone Smolan Agency, “declare victory” and look to the future. However, we still had a solid business and great designers. I had known about 50,000feet and respected its work before I approached chief executive officer Jim Misener with the idea of joining forces.

After several discussions, we decided that a hybrid strategic alliance and licensing model worked best. 50,000feet acquired all our clients, select staff members, the use of our portfolio, a presence in New York and our brand in a financial structure that suited all parties. We are now entering our fourth year together: our clients are pleased, and the arrangement is successful for all. Leslie and I both serve as senior advisors and brand ambassadors for new account acquisition. Our role as designers is to “not get in the way,” but we’re always available to help!

50,000feet recently opened a London office for new market opportunities. It’s a very “grown-up” agency with a deep service offering of strategy, content, design and technology with a fine-tuned business model. If Leslie and I hadn’t closed Carbone Smolan, the 50,000feet model would have been the kind of company to build.

Regarding my role as artist, I’m still waiting for the agency to buy one of my paintings!

Everything about design, branding and communications is now atomized; everyone wants a piece of the pie. Who isn’t in the design and branding field today?”

What was it like to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award from AIGA in 2014? It was humbling, especially since we were part of the “centennial class” with design legends like Dana Arnett, Stephen Doyle and Bob Greenberg.

Given your exceptional career experience in design, where do you see the industry headed? Everything about design, branding and communications is now atomized; everyone wants a piece of the pie. Who isn’t in the design and branding field today? Think Duane Johnson, Megan Thee Stallion and Gwyneth Paltrow! Add in AI, and it feels like the Wild West. However, I think a lot of opportunities lay ahead for any designer or firm that fearlessly embraces the unknown.

Leslie and I had a career that spanned the analog and digital eras, so we have some perspective on change. Frankly, tools, technology and client needs always change, but fundamentally, a great idea brilliantly crafted is a timeless and winning formula.

What trends in design are you most interested in, and why? The increasing emphasis on environmentally sustainable practices is becoming integral to the dialogue between designers and their clients. It should be part of every project brief and every brand strategy. There is no trend more essential.

What do you consider to be the greatest brand identity of all time? Today, I’d say Apple is the GOAT. This sounds like a cliché, but innovative design has been part of Apple’s DNA from its inception. Its impact on design awareness is seismic, and with the leading market value internationally, the Apple brand is living proof that good design is good business.

If you ask me tomorrow, I might say Nike because the logo looks great on a shoe and offers a lesson in Greek mythology!

Do you have any advice for creatives entering the industry today? Be intellectually curious. Know design history; it will keep you humble. Ensure design and type books comprise no more than a third of your library; the other should be on topics the rest of the world cares about. Beware of developing a signature style because styles go out of style. Learn to draw; it needs no electricity and lasts a lifetime. And get a good accountant. ca

Ken Carbone is an artist, designer and cofounder of the Carbone Smolan Agency, a design firm he built with Leslie Smolan more than 40 years ago. He is the author of Dialog: What Makes a Great Design Partnership, a visiting lecturer at numerous design schools and a TEDx speaker. A recipient of the 2014 AIGA Lifetime Achivement Award, he currently works as a senior advisor to the Chicago-based strategic branding firm 50,000feet.


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