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Been to a Target store lately? Gabriel Santiago has. A doorman who lives in the Bronx, Mr. Santiago takes his wife and three teenage daughters to the Target in Nyack, New York, to buy sweatshirts and socks, stock up on paper towels and bottled water, and get stuff like this spring’s $6.99 electric-blue and sea-green translucent plastic storage bins. On a recent afternoon Mr. Santiago exulted in finding good deals on Sony video games. “I got NBA Showdown for $10 less than at the video store downstairs,” he exclaimed. But it isn’t just price that brings the Santiagos to Target. “The logo is cool, I love the red and white look,” he said. “I’ve never had a bad experience here. The store is so well designed and everything is color-coordinated.”

Design-speak is becoming part of the American vocabulary, thanks to Target. “This place has style,” said Eryn Todd, a young mom from upper Manhattan perusing the baby section with her ten-month-old daughter. “I can’t afford my expensive tastes. This suffices for me. I buy everything here.” Even tourists like the Paz family from Pardes Hanna, Israel, are filling their shopping carts on trips to the U.S. “I learned about Target from relatives,” said Sari Paz. “We’re buying shoes and jeans for all three kids. We left room in our suitcases.”

If Target is a good experience for shoppers, it’s even better for designers: for the 300 employees who work in the advertising department and on the design of store-branded and co-branded merchandise, and for the 40 or so design firms and agencies that work with Target. Target made architect Michael Graves a household word and rescued fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi after his financial backers at Chanel U.S.A. pulled the plug in 1998. Since then, Mossimo Giannulli, Liz Lange, Cynthia Rowley and Ilene Rosenzweig have entered into deals; designer labels are now attached to everything from dog collars and dinnerware to maternity tops. Of course, Target also sells name-brand goods like GE light bulbs and Dyson vacuum cleaners and OshKosh children’s wear, much of which is made to Target’s specifications. Target is the place to buy your Zest soap and the “Swell” hot pink and green striped soap dish to put it in.

For more than three years, TV commercials, print ads and bill-boards pairing the everyday with the high style have touted the Target “Expect More, Pay Less” promise. This spring the brand burst forth in a really big way with the launch of the “Design for All” campaign. With its fresh new TV spots and circulars with photography that says Elle or Metropolitan Home more than big-box discount chain, Design for All might even be giving Manolo Blahnik sleepless nights. Why buy $600 metallic gold Manolos when the Mossimos at Target go for $16.99 and look almost as good? Why shop at pricey boutiques when you can get 100% silk toss pillows for $14.99? No wonder so many Americans say Tar-jhay, not Tar-get.

Design for All means that the kind of stuff that was once exclusively in the purview of the rich and the design-educated is now available to ordinary folk who aren’t yet patrons of the Museum of Modern Art or owners of a Case Study house. We’ll show you what’s cool, modern and fun, the “Anthem” commercial seems to be saying. And you can afford it, too. The spot opens with the word DESIGN made from yellow Post-It notes stuck to a painting in a MoMA-like setting. Crossword-puzzle typography spelling out DESIGN (down) and INSPIRES (across) accompanies images of a Mizrahi Flower dinner plate, a Graves egg timer and a blue Senseo coffeemaker. “Say Something New,” sings the soundtrack, as images proclaim that DESIGN SHAPES (Noguchi-type lamps), DESIGN CREATES (Legos), DESIGN PROTECTS (Band-Aids), DESIGN UNITES (with an iPod).

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If there were an organization devoted to the advancement and support of design, it could hardly do the job better. The nine-commercial campaign by Peterson Milla Hooks—which can be watched on the Channel Red segment of target.com—promotes Target’s gift cards and pet accessories; dramatizes Target’s community support for organizations like a school for at-risk kids and its “Start Something” teen leadership; and introduces ClearRx, perhaps Target’s most useful design innovation, prescription bottles with easy-to-read type and color-coded bands that identify family members’ medicines. On the Design for All segment, the bottle’s designer, Deborah Adler, talks about how her grandmother accidentally took medicine prescribed for her grandfather, and walks the future Target pharmacy customer through the bottle’s features: “The label combines information architecture and intuition,” she says, explaining (DESIGN CLARIFIES) that graphic designers are trained in type hierarchy that aids clear communication. Milton Glaser then appears as designer of the symbols on the patient information card. “The icons are the little images that supplement the written text,” he points out, noting that it wasn’t easy to design an icon for “finish the whole bottle.”

Design for All, thus, means work for agencies and designers big and little. Lots of them. And work for production companies, set designers, stylists, talent. Last year, the company spent $888 million on advertising costs, according to the 2004 Target Corporation annual report. At Target headquarters, two team leaders coordinate the work of all outside firms and agencies as well as head the in-house departments that employ 90 account managers, creative directors, writers and designers. Vice president and creative director Minda Gralnek, a graduate of Minneapolis College of Art and Design, is responsible for what are called softlines—apparel, accessories and jewelry—and for pharmacy, licensing and branding campaigns. Her counterpart in hardlines, Eric Ericson, heads up the creative for electronics, entertainment, housewares and home furnishings, food, beverages, community relations, and gift and credit cards.

“We’re working hard to bring great design to everyone, every day,” says Gralnek, echoing Target’s tagline and the whole corporate philosophy her group is continually shaping. “Design is part of Target’s DNA,” adds Ericson. “It isn’t only our team’s priority. All 300,000 employees—and this includes headquarters, distribution centers, stores and international offices—share that attitude. You really can’t do design well if it’s not universally valued. The fact that it is valued here gives us great opportunities to do great work.”

Some of the greatest opportunities these days are afforded to Peterson Milla Hooks, the 40-person Minneapolis agency that works almost exclusively for Target. “We feel fortunate to be cutting the path with them,” says creative director Dave Peterson. “They hire us not only for the TV, but to help set the direction, to work on the big picture—how the strategy will be extended on air, in-store, in direct mail.” Peterson sees a big part of his agency’s role as making design relevant and accessible to the mass market. “Post-It notes, BIC pens, M&Ms, these are classic things that are great design. And now Michael Graves teakettles and iPods aren’t just for fashionistas in New York, they’re mainstream,” he says. “The message is simple: With Target, my life will be easier, smarter, better. I can look fabulous, ahead of the curve, without spending a fortune. And maybe I should be organizing my closet. Maybe I should have a toothbrush with a better handle.”

PMH was responsible for the original high-low campaign that combined images of the things we need (Tide) with the things we gotta have (designer jeans), as well as for notable commercials like the Club Wedd spot with its surrealistic brides. PMH also champions the dog mascot with the red bull’s-eye, Spot, who graces target.com and other touchpoints. “Spot equals value,” he explains. “He saves the day when you run out of Diet Pepsi or toilet paper.”

Peterson peppers his sentences with terms like zingy red and white, cheap chic, bright, smart, democratic, upbeat—image characteristics that stay remarkably steady even as they’re translated by the many design firms and agencies who work on projects with hugely different audiences and purposes.

You really can’t do design well if it’s not universally valued. The fact that it is valued here gives us great opportunities to do great work.” —Eric Ericson

“Target does a tremendous job of getting a very consistent look without giving too many restrictions,” agrees Stefan Hartung, principal of HartungKemp, a Minneapolis studio that’s been working on pieces that promote Target’s support for social causes, education and the arts. “The entire city works for Target,” he says. “We live and breathe the brand. It’s friendly and approachable, and we know we have red, white and a little black to play with.” Born in Germany, Hartung characterizes Target’s approach as more European. Americans rarely get to experience good design at low price points, he says, but now they are ready for it. To raise funds for New York’s Central Park Conservancy, Target commissioned 50 artists and celebrities to design park benches to be auctioned at Christie’s. HartungKemp produced the invitation, catalog, posters and ads, and designed an iconic shopping-cart bench. The firm has also worked on museum events and newspaper campaigns featuring people whose lives were changed by Target’s community relations initiatives. “Target gives back,” Hartung asserts. “And unlike many other clients today they’ll spend the extra dollar to get great design.”

“They really think about design as a verb,” adds Monica Little, principal of 32-person Little & Co, whose offices are two blocks away from Target headquarters on Nicollet Mall. “The folks who hire you are creative people themselves, and they work with many different entities,” she says. “It’s connect the dots. We each have a few dots and they have the whole picture, which is a great story. From the annual report to internal communications to in-store banners, design is seen as a way to deepen relationships with customers, whom Target calls ‘guests.’”

For Little, who’s deeply involved in the gift card program, it’s all about creating experiences for the key Target guest, a mom, simplifying and enhancing her shopping experience. “Kids give gift cards to each other at birthday parties, moms give them to their kids’ teachers, people collect them as artifacts,” says Little. Fifty designs, which change constantly, fill in-store kiosks designed by Little & Co. There’s the glow-in-the-dark firefly card and the three-dogs-in-the-basket card and the game card CD—and lots of holiday-themed cards. “We’ve contributed to each other’s growth,” says Little of Target.

Charles S. Anderson is another local designer who knows what it takes to produce a promotion for a 1,300-store chain. In 2001, Eric Ericson saw a French Paper promotion featuring the vacuum-form plastic Halloween masks Anderson collects. Recognizing a “passion for Halloween,” Ericson commissioned Charles S. Anderson Design to create the 2003 Halloween program. “It was an eighteen-month project,” recalls Anderson. “There were giant signs in the stores, costumes, pajamas, wrapping paper, party goods. We did a style guide used by 60 manufacturers around the world. There were 50 different patterns, a color palette, templates for labels and packaging. It was beyond design. It was mission control.”

The entire city of Minneapolis may be working for Target, but the work doesn’t stop there. In New York City, Kirschenbaum Bond Partners has been responsible for award-winning TV spots, including the “Prices so low you don’t have to hold back” commercials that put Revlon nail polish and Motrin in unexpected situations. And 250-person interactive power-house RG/A produced the Design for All “sitelet,” on target.com, a place to see designers like Isaac Mizrahi talking about their merchandise (“Great design always turns heads”), as well as to see the latest bells and whistles in digital animation.

In San Francisco, Templin Brink Design has been creating witty consumer magazine ads using 3-D models of giant flowers and lily pads for Target’s Michael Graves housewares. With a design brief like “make it dynamic and impactful,” partner Gaby Brink dreams up concepts like launching a teapot-shaped hot air balloon over Manhattan. “Eric’s group is hard to surprise,” she admits. “They’ve seen everything. You might come in with something you think is really exciting and they’ll say, ‘We saw that three years ago.’ But you can also come in with something you think they won’t go for, like a magazine ad with a pop-up, and they say ‘Let’s do it.’” Templin Brink is called upon for projects like rebranding Target’s Merona clothing line. “They also bring us in for pitches,” says Brink, “We’ll do boards or bound books showing what the logo might look like, the packaging, the hangtags, the ads.”

We’re working hard to bring great design to everyone, every day.” —Minda Gralnek

Not everything always sees the light of day. Fellow San Franciscan Michael Osborne’s proposal for premium grocery brand Archer Farms was chosen over Templin Brink’s. It’s kind of like Designers Challenge on HGTV: three designers come in and present, one is chosen, but on some level everybody wins.

“Yep, we do bake-offs,” admits Osborne. “It’s not my favorite way to work, but when the stakes are high, the client needs to see lots of different directions.” His firm might have two or three weeks to come in with half a dozen design approaches demonstrating an overarching brand structure on six to eight products. Then Target will pick one for refinement and take it farther. “We finalized 30 Archer Farms SKUs and did the guidelines, and in-house they extended it to well over 1,000 SKUs,” Osborne says.

The working relationships are so collaborative it’s not always clear where the outside firm’s work leaves off and the inside team’s begins. “There’s a lot of back-and-forth, it’s fluid,” says Ericson. “We know when to use our own assets, like photo styling, which is always done in-house because we’re so close to the merchandising and you need an intimate knowledge to do it well.” Adds Gralnek, “We tap as many outside strengths as needed. We have a great creative community here in Minneapolis, and we get to enjoy working with all of them.”

Not every designer in the country, however, is 100% thrilled with Target. Bronx doorman Gabriel Santiago will probably be shopping there more often than newly-elected AIGA/NY chapter board member Armin Vit, who moderates the “SpeakUp” site with its long discussion threads on such topics as whether Target is “dumbing down” design. “The products don’t live up to the promise of the advertising,” says Vit. “It’s not design, it’s superficial styling, which doesn’t make a mediocre product function well.” Irene Cohn, a White Plains, New York, grandmother and freelance financial consultant, agrees that there can be a disconnect between the promise in the ads and the store experience. “I’m disappointed with the baby clothes and toy department. A lot of junk is mixed in with the well-designed stuff and the selection isn’t great,” she says.

Target team leaders won’t comment on the issue of product quality, but perhaps no one expects a $29.95 Michael Graves Spinner Whistle Teakettle to look and feel exactly like the original polished stainless steel model sold by Alessi for $135.

As for the store experience, they’re working on it. According to Brie Heath in Target media relations, 187 new prototype stores with a fresh new look are operational around the country. “The whole façade is glass,” she says, “and natural light pours through. We’ve changed the configuration and created departments like Baby World, where everything, clothes, toys, food, is in one pod, and Maternity is right next door.”

“We’re getting pushed. We all feel it,” adds Gralnek. “We’re pushed by what every advertiser wants, the desire to be the best you can, and by the feedback we get from our customers.” Gralnek describes Target shoppers as very vocal. “We have a loyal guest base and they let us know what they like and don’t like.” She adds, “They love the Design for All campaign. It’s changing the way they think.”

As Target Corporation forges ahead, continuing to build—with 2004 revenues of $46 billion, it’s adding stores at the rate of 80 a year—and to refine what CEO Bob Ulrich calls the unique brand experience preferred by our guests, can the other big-box stores not be taking notice? Designers may be the first to know. “We’re working on Sam’s Choice private label food line for Wal-Mart,” says Michael Osborne, whose firm also counts retailers Williams-Sonoma, Gymboree, Nordstrom and Bluelight.com among its clients. “What they’re letting us do is just gorgeous.” ca

Ellen Shapiro (visualanguage.net) is a graphic designer and writer based in Irvington, New York. She is the designer of Alphagram Learning Materials, a tool that helps all children learn to read, write and spell, and the author of The Graphic Designer’s Guide to Clients (Simon & Schuster) and more than 200 magazine articles and posts about visual culture.


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