Ken Carbone is an artist, legendary designer, and co-founder of the Carbone Smolan Agency, a design company he built with Leslie Smolan over 40 years ago. He is the author of Dialog: What Makes a Great Design Partnership, a visiting lecturer at numerous design schools, and a TED X speaker. A recipient of the 2012 AIGA medal, he is currently a Senior Advisor to the Chicago-based strategic branding firm 50,000feet.
The legendary architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe once said, “It is better to be good than original.” Given the tectonic architectural innovations by “Mies” and his Bauhaus brethren, this quote suggests that even they built on the foundation of others. The influence of design history and the exposure to the contemporary masters is inescapable. I fully accept that knowledge of historical precedents and awareness of the outstanding work of celebrated designers today are essential sources of inspiration.
In this essay, I share a list of ten designers, five from the past and five from today, that I respect and appreciate for how they drive me to do “good” work.
A.M. Cassandre’s work is an enduring model of how to merge a masterful talent for drawing, a powerful sense of color, and integrated type to create iconic images of sheer monumentality. I realize his work is commonly found in commercial poster shops, but its popularity does not diminish his distinct vision and legendary stature in the history of graphic design. Cassandre always comes to mind when I want to think big, bold, and powerful.
A Cassandre sketch and detail of the Dubonnet character.
Armin Hofmann was the quintessential Swiss designer. I discovered his work via my college professors, Kenneth Hiebert, Stefan Geissbuhler, and April Greiman, who all studied with Hofmann. These “disciples” taught his philosophy and methods to embody a sensitive balance of simplicity and grace, resulting in a stunning fusion of type and image. Hofmann’s work is celebrated for its intellectual elegance and artful beauty.
A Hofmann silkscreen for the Yale School of Music.
There’s no denying the influence of Paul Rand on American graphic design as a practitioner and educator at Yale. His work epitomized mid-century corporate identity for some of the world’s largest companies, such as IBM, UPS, and Westinghouse. Although I admire the rigor and clarity of the identity work, I also enjoy the more whimsical side of Rand, where he showcases his wit, illustrative flair, quirky handwriting, and playful type while always respecting the commercial imperative of his clients.
Selfie with spirit of Paul Rand at MoDA exhibition in Atlanta.
My familiarization with German art director Willy Fleckhaus coincided with my coming of age as a graphic designer in my early 20s. His masterful editorial design skill was gloriously exhibited in the pages of TWEN, an art, pop culture, fashion, and music monthly published in Berlin. Fleckhaus’s stylistic approach comprised large-scale sans serif type, riveting photography, and dynamic composition on every page. To this day, I find this work full of sensual daring and creative vitality.
Multiple covers of TWEN by Fleckhaus.
I’m fortunate to have studied with Inge Druckrey early in my design education. Inge, a German-born, Swiss-trained designer, covered many fundamentals such as letterform design, basic typography, color, and analytical drawing. But in addition to the creative basics, I was deeply impressed with her generosity, patience, and devotion to her students. Witnessing this was an inspiring life lesson that shaped me as a designer and person. The 2012 documentary Teaching to See captures Inge’s spirit, method, and influence on generations of graphic designers.
My analytical drawing as taught by Druckrey.
The quality of design today is at a peak level. More people have chosen a career in design across all disciplines than ever before, with thousands of graduates entering the profession each year. My list of favorite contemporary designers is always a work in progress, leaving me open to the next “young gun” on the horizon. However, I find the work of the following five designers active today distinctly outstanding:
The Berlin-based designer/illustrator Christoph Niemann commands one of the broadest stylistic palettes in practice today. He uses photography, film, animation, watercolor, ink, caricature, typography, LEGOs, and sometimes all the above, placing him in the realm of highly sought-after and successful design professionals. Central to this success is his conceptual clarity, exceptional drawing, and just the right dash of humor. He’s designed dozens of covers for the New Yorker, and they are always ripe with invention and charm.
Niemann’s New Yorker cover published at the dawn of the Covid 19 pandemic.
To enter the world of Neri Oxman is like time travel to a future place where humanity and nature achieve singularity. Formerly a tenured professor at MIT, she now leads OXMAN, an audacious design and architectural practice devoted to exploring alternate and sustainable models for developing a material ecology in better balance with Earth. She often begins at the cellular level with substances such as pectin, melanin, cellulose, and other natural polymers, employs computation and digital production, and shapes them into sculptural designs. In Neri Oxman’s world, our way of life is more symbiotic with nature, resulting in systems and objects of extraordinary beauty and functionality that are grown, not manufactured.
Neri Oxman live on stage at Ted.
In his Zen-like manner, Japanese design master Kenya Hara is a soft-spoken presence with an internal drive that produces exceptional work at the apex of simplicity. Hara’s outstanding work as former design director for MUJI achieves a level of self-proclaimed “emptiness” that best embodies his creative philosophy. His work is poised on the razor edge between aesthetics and utility, resulting in design solutions of uncommon beauty.
Kenya Hara presenting the world of MUJI to a New York audience.
I love the New York Times, especially the New York Times Magazine. Under the creative direction of Gail Bichler, this Sunday supplement features phenomenal graphic design that powerfully captures the leading stories of the day. From enticing covers to expressive typographic story titles, using cutting-edge photographers and illustrators, Bichler and her team know how to attract attention and lure you to read further. What impresses me most about this celebrated in-house design department is that their innovative approach always elevates the content and is never at its expense. Easier said than done.
A selection of covers by Bichler and her design team.
No list of designers I respect would be complete without mentioning my business partner for over 40 years, Leslie Smolan. Her leadership at the Carbone Smolan Agency contributed to achieving an international reputation for collaborating with top brands and institutions. Her eye for detail and elegant refinement effectively countered my more muscular method. Photography is her preferred medium of choice, and with it, she is a masterful storyteller. Her patience and willingness to always give 200% to our clients secured many long-term accounts and assured our continued success.
The Hat Book, in collaboration with Roddy Smith
My design pantheon is not carved in marble and will be adjusted as I grow creatively. However, the people listed above are part of my design DNA because “we” have a shared sense of values about what design means to “us”. I’m not claiming to share the spotlight with them, but when looking at their achievements, I understand what motivates them, which inspires me. For my entire career, I’ve found it helpful to surround myself with a “dream team of mentors” because, in small ways, they all encouraged me to do my best work.