An interview with veteran designer, Larry Roellig

Alex Bigman

We recently had the privilege of speaking with Larry Roellig, an established Bay Area graphic designer and founder of the design agency BrandWest. Roellig boasts an impressive resume including identity work for The Coca-Cola Company, Post Cereals, Miller Brewing Company and Iberia Airlines. An industry insider since the 1970s, he offers fascianting wealth of insight into the ever-changing world of graphic design. In this interview, we touch on everything from what good design means, to how to push a client out of their comfort zone, to the real scoop on how much major corporations pay for design work (newsflash: those lists of astronomical numbers we always see? Total bunk).

Alex Bigman: People often have an oversimplified idea of the graphic design process that basically amounts to coming up with a cool concept and then illustrating it. I bet there’s a lot more to it than that. Could you take us behind the scenes into the graphic design process at a major agency?

Larry Roellig: You have to go back to the reason the design is being pursued in the first place. Just to clarify my background a little bit, I have been on the service side my entire career. I started working for Landor Associates — are you familiar?

AB: I’m not.

LR: Walter Landor was one of the pioneers of the graphic design agency business here in San Francisco and really helped to put San Francisco on the map, in terms of graphic design. So I was lucky in that I got into the industry when it was pretty much in its infancy on the West Coast. It started in the 70s — 70s and 80s. The 80s were the really peak years as far as design activity — I mean it continues to this day, but there are so many people who have gotten into graphic design over the last few years. It’s kind of mind boggling to me.

“Just because it looks good on paper, doesn’t mean it’s the right solution to a client’s problem.”

AB: It’s become a more accessible industry, since all you need is a personal computer and the right software.

LR: It’s become more accessible, but it’s also become a bit more muddled. There have always been good designers and there have always been adequate designers, which really gets back to my point: design is about problem solving. There are a lot of good artists out there, but to me design is not art. Design is a 360 degree solution to a client’s problem. What it looks like is an important part of it, obviously, but to solve a problem and create something that resonates with the client and the audience, and as a designer to be proud of what you’ve done — not everyone can pull that off. The computer did two things: it made the field something that was much more open to a very “finished” look, but it also made it easier to mask mediocrity. You know the old cliche: garbage in, garbage out. Just because it looks good on paper, doesn’t mean it’s the right solution to a particular problem.

The point I’m really trying to make, since your audience is primarily freelance designers, is, first of all, don’t make the assumption that just doing something that you think looks nice is necessarily going to work for a particular situation. I know it’s difficult to think that a client can direct a solution, but the reality is that somewhere within the client’s perception of what they are all about, or perhaps in research on what other people think a client is all a bout, there are clues about what the personality of a particular design should be. I think that it’s really critical just to have a completely open mind and a complete understanding of what the parameters of the problem are.

“You have to have objectives that are pretty clear and that everyone agrees on. Otherwise it’s just a beauty contest.”

AB: Let’s get a little more concrete. What are your first steps you would take in beginning a design project for a client?

LR: Typically we would start off with talking to all the internal stake-holders, going as high up the food chain (depending on the size of the company) as you possibly can, often times talking to the president of the company or whatever, but specifically talking to the people that are directly in charge of what the brand might want to be, and really pick their brains.

Talk to as many people as you can, because within any organization you’ll find there’s not necessarily a unified impression of what the brand might need so you really need to be able to get as many points of view as possible and pull all those together, form a recap of what you learned, play it back to the client and have them buy into it. It’s more critical than anything else to make sure everyone is in agreement before you move forward.

My approach, in every place I’ve ever worked for, is not just to protect yourself but to protect the process, and to do this you have to have objectives that are pretty clear and that everyone agrees on. Otherwise it’s just a beauty contest, and the last thing you ever want to do in design is find yourself in a beauty contest because then someone says “I don’t like that” and you go, “Oh.”

Where do you go from there? You’re kind of screwed. Then it’s just like “okay, well I’ll go back and do some more.”

Diet Coke’s original 1983 design (left) and BrandWest’s mid-nineties re-design (right)

AB: Why don’t we talk about a specific project. I know your re-branding of Diet Coke was one of your bigger projects.

LR: Yes. This was back in ’96. It was a fairly major shift. They wanted to create a personality for the brand that was all its own. Prior to our work Diet Coke was kind of perceived as Coca Cola without the calories. It was more of a diet kind of drink, and our original re-design of the brand helped to position it as more of as brand with its own personality.

It had a much more aggressive look — we added black into the package, we brought silver into the package. We developed a brand mark that had much more of a personality, rather than just being a reverse. Prior to that Coca-Cola was just white on red, Diet Coke was red on white.

There’s all kinds of reasons to re-design something. Sometimes it’s because you’re losing sales, sometimes it’s just because it’s just getting a little dusty and it’s time to update it. Other times you want to really shift the paradigm a little bit, and that’s what they did at the time. The whole idea was to shake things up and make people look at Diet Coke in a new way.

“You find you can push clients a little bit harder by giving them this really broad range.”

AB: How about when you’re originating a brand identity from scratch? What are your first steps then?

LR: When it comes to actually starting the design process, sometimes research is helpful, but sometimes it’s best just to find out what the client is trying to communicate then use your experience and intuition as a designer to put options together and really challenge them.

So when you’re doing a start-from-scratch design, you tend to have a much broader spectrum of design options, and that’s something that we always tried to do: really go from A to Z — from the relatively conservative, or things that are categorically expected, to things that completely shift how people might perceive a product or a brand or even the entire category that you’re getting into.

With something new, you want to push the envelope to the point of breaking the envelope a little bit. And more often than not a client might think that you’ve gone too far. But that does a couple things: that helps to establish what “too far” is, where their comfort level is, and also helps them to feel more comfortable with things that might be farther out from what, from a conservative point of view, they might have been willing to accept previously.

When they see what the total spectrum is, you find you can push clients a little bit harder by giving them this really broad range.

AB: By throwing in some really out-there designs, you shift the client’s frame of reference a little.

LR: It makes the medium-crazy stuff look pretty acceptable (laughs)

Roellig devised the emblematic logo for Honey Bunches of Oats

AB: Do you have an example of a logo project where you successfully pushed a client out of their comfort zone?

LR: Yeah, Honey Bunches of Oats, which has been around for a little while now, is something we did back in the 90s. That was a new brand, when we originally did that. This idea, this giant bulls eye treatment was a little bit … it was so unlike anything else that was out there at the time in the cereal category and they had a little trouble wrapping their heads around it at first.

We had to push pretty hard on that one. Because we intuitively thought it satisfied the parameters that they laid out for us, as far as what they wanted this thing to do. They wanted to establish a whole different look of adult cereal. It wasn’t a kid cereal, it was an all-family, kind of adult cereal. So for the appearance of the package we borrowed a little bit of equity from beer packaging — that kind of really dynamic medallion sort of look, trying to establish the brand as an icon.

When you get into certain categories, certain categories are about the image of the consumer — how consumers think about themselves when they’re consuming [the product]. Beer is one of those categories. When you put a can of beer in front of someone, it’s sort of a reflection of who they are, and we were trying to put some of that into the cereal category.

Traditionally cereal packaging tends to be just a big logo with a bowl of cereal down at the bottom, and we were trying to push them into more of an iconic direction and it was such a different way of looking at cereal that they had a little trouble wrapping their heads around it at first, but when they finally bought into it, well, its success kind of speaks for itself. It’s probably one of the most successful cereal brands they’ve ever had.

Roellig helped design the Miller Lite logo while at Landor Associates

AB: What’s your favorite beer package design?

LR: Probably one of the ones we did (laughs). One of the first projects I ever worked on was Miller Lite beer. We helped to launch that brand. Back in the 70s Miller bought a small brand called Lite Beer. They bought the rights to “Lite Beer.” It was a diet beer — it was a low calorie beer targeted at women.

We were charged with trying to communicate that it was a lower calorie beer, but at the same time that it was for men, that it had masculine appeal, so we created this dynamic blue and red and white package to try to find that balance between being aggressively male but at the same time communicating that it was a lower calorie thing. Because nothng like that really existed, believe it or not. It’s such a part of our culture now, but a low calorie beer just didn’t exist back in the 70s.

“The more proliferated brand-consciousness becomes, the sharper you really have to be to separate the wheat from the chaff. The trail of brands is littered with lots of things that failed along the way.”

AB: I’d like to turn this conversation over to the design industry as a whole and how you’ve seen it change over the years. Are there any specific changes you would note, aside from the obvious technological innovations?

LR: There’s been a pretty significant change in a lot of different ways. It’s not so linear that I can say it went from this to this to this, but there was a time — and this is where Walter Landor came in the picture — when some graphic design firms that evolved in the late 60s early 70s first shifted the idea of package design away from printers. I mean, at the time, package design and branding was usually done by the printers themselves.

They had people on staff that would offer services as part of the overall production of the packaging or printed goods or whatever the item happened to be. Sometimes it was good and sometimes it was bad. It was not considered to be a profit making venture so much. You know, they would have a designer on staff and somebody would need a package for a can of peas or something and they’d slap a photo with a bunch of peas and stick a logo on it and that would be it. But this whole idea of graphic design being a communicator of personality, of being the last line of salesmanship, of advertising on shelves, a point of contact between the brand and the consumer, all that started to evolve back in the 60s and 70s to the point where people could finally accept design being an important part of communication.

We all see it and accept it now. I mean it’s gratifying to me that people are so design-conscious now, but you know it hasn’t always been that way. It was a really interesting time to be in the business because we all kind of felt like pioneers because we were educating both clients and consumers as to the value of brand design. And then it got to the point where back in the 90s, before the dot com crash in particular, the idea of branding almost became ridiculous. It was all people were talking about, was branding.

We were just inundated — everybody thought they could just come up with a clever name and a clever brand and that’s all they needed. So it really gets back to what I was saying earlier, that the more people are doing that and the more proliferated brand-consciousness becomes, the sharper you really have to be to separate the wheat from the chaff. Just because it looks good, just because it’s rendered well, doesn’t mean it’s gonna work. The trail of brands is littered with lots of things that failed along the way.

AB: So you’re saying branding became fetishized? Do we believe too much in branding nowadays?

LR: There’s a good side and a bad side to it. One side is, people expect a certain level of slickness and sophistication to brands — and when I say brands I’m not just talking about a logo, I’m talking about an entire kind of brand program. It permeates. There’s a look and feel to everything that speaks about the brand that has to be consistent.

Branding is not just an individual brand marker or logo. And so I think everybody is much more tuned into that. It’s been interesting to watch the path of Apple, for instance, and the role that product design and branding has played. They’re a perfect example of a fully evolved, wrap-around aesthetic. It’s done an awful lot to help people really appreciate how much value design brings to an item.

“In the case of a program where they might say ‘that cost 25 million dollars,’ I can guarantee that the actual design part of it was probably less than 100,000 dollars — if that.”

AB: That brings my to one last question I’m curious to ask you. I’m sure you’ve seen these lists that are published of big company logos and how much they cost — the London Olympics logo cost $625,000, Pepsi paid $1,000,000, and I think British Petroleum takes the cake at $211,000,000. The point of these lists is to be shocking, but I was wondering what you think about it from an insider perspective.

LR: Those are stupid. First of all, it’s false. That’s not how much they paid for the logo. And I’ve been on the receiving end of that. I did Iberia airlines back in the 70s and I got blasted. In fact I went to Barcelona to a design conference and I met a designer there and when he found out I was the one who designed Iberia airlines, he just tore into me.

Roellig re-designed the Iberia Airlines logo while at Landor Associates

AB: Because of how much he thought you charged?

LR: Two things: they were offended that an American design firm did the Spanish national airline, and in the papers there they were talking about how it was so many millions of pesetas (that was the Spanish currency at the time) — some astronomical number. Well you know, our part of that was probably less than 1% — less than a fraction of 1%.

Whenever they quote those numbers, it’s always the total cost of all of those signs, the printed literature, the painting of an airplane, uniforms, etc. It’s like whoever is writing the article, they just add up all the costs. It’s not the design, it’s what flows out of the design that ends up costing that, and in most cases it’s money that would have been spent anyway.

For instance if it’s an airplane that needs to be repainted, they would usually do it on schedule. They have a painting schedule for these planes. It doesn’t cost them any more to repaint it with the new graphics than the old graphics, but when somebody writes this article about how they spent all this money for the re-design they conveniently forget that, well, that’s money that would have been spent anyway. The fact that it has a new design on it makes it an easy target.

A typical design program, I mean it can be all over the place, but I know for a fact that in the case of a program where they might say “that cost 25 million dollars,” I can guarantee that the actual design part of it was probably less than 100,000 dollars — if that. And that’s a high number. I’ve seen that happen time and again. Anybody who quotes these astronomical figures doesn’t know what the hell they’re talking about, and it’s misleading and in some cases outright lying with regard to how much it cost.

As I said, on the program I worked on they were directly attributing these figures to us, so I invited this guy out to San Francisco to see what’s going on, and when he saw exactly what we did and how we approached it, and I filled him in on what it actually cost, he was super apologetic and said “we couldn’t have done what you guys did.” It was a pretty gratifying situation, this guy from Spain actually admitting that we were the right ones for the job. Don’t ever believe those figures, because they are never true.

To see more of Roellig’s work with BrandWest, check out their website.

Lots to chew on, here! Coming up with 360 degree solutions, pushing clients out of their comfort zones, protecting your process by avoiding beauty contests, the positives and negatives of pervasive brand-consciousness and the real cost of corporate graphic design. As a freelancer, what are your thoughts?

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