Fellow Awards 2009 Interview: Michael Cronan
To most, Michael Cronan needs no introductions. His work is often a part of our daily lives. Cronan and wife Karin Hibma established the design firm ::CRONAN::::CRONAN:: in 1980 and have since worked with many of the Bay Area’s premiere companies, arts organizations, and non-profits. Tivo and Amazon Kindle are just a couple of the household names and brands brought to life at ::CRONAN::. Michael Cronan has won numerous awards, exhibited around the world, and in June of 2009, he and Hibma were named two of Fast Company’s list of 100 Most Creative People in Business. Cronan discussed his experience as a designer in the SF Bay Area and shared some valuable career advice for young designers.

Born in San Francisco, educated at the California College of the Arts (CCA) and California State University, Sacramento, former adjunct professor of graphic design at CCA, a founding member and former president of the American Institute of Graphic Arts San Francisco chapter, having served on the AIGA national board and presidential nomination committees, it is no surprise that Michael Cronan is being presented the prestigious AIGA Fellow Award June 15, 2009 at the Fellows & Opening reception of San Francisco “Design Makes a Difference” Week.

KB: You’ve have a varied background from fine art and painting to graphic design and product design. You’ve also done some archeology. How did you first get into graphic design specifically–I know there’s some blurred lines in there…

CRONAN: I had actually first worked and studied graphic design in Junior High School. My teacher was very old school so we did letterpress. We set type by hand. We learned to put it in the case with the furniture and set it up in a little pony press. He was also very interested in explaining the reasons for things and we learned all the lore and history behind it. I was his assistant so was basically a printer’s devil–a medieval job–when I was in Junior High School.

And then, later on, in fine art, I came to understand that a lot of art has interesting proportions and secret relationships and messages in the work. When I was in college, I took some time off to travel and got a job at Hebrew University in Israel where I wound up working on a number of digs. At that point I started to realize that there are a lot of things that have secret and interesting relationships in them, a lot of things historic, not only art.

Coming back around full circle into understanding design, I realized that good design is full of arcane knowledge and secret stuff that designers get to use. So there’s a kind of connection there in a way. It really has to do with the act or the desire to communicate by creating something that is better than the sum of the parts. Design, at its best, delivers something that is better than its individual components. It is greater than the typography, greater than the printing, greater than the colors used. And that’s one of the reasons to me that it’s so vital and so important.

KB: You were one of the founding members of the San Francisco AIGA and you’ve really helped to grow it over the years. With that history, how do you see the AIGA and design playing a role in society and communications moving forward?

CRONAN: Essentially, if you look back historically at any kind of group that was worth while or endeavor that people thought was worth while who were doing that endeavor, if they founded organizations around that they could preserve it and help teach it and push it forward to people in later generations. That works with the Freemasons, it works with the loyal brotherhood of teamsters, but it also works for doctors and lawyers, and alchemists and all that other kind of stuff.

Back in late 70s, we believed there was a need to have local camaraderie, a local institute of design. We actually started a little thing called the San Francisco Design Institute, and created a book about the group of local designers. Then, shortly after, we realized that the AIGA, then still called the American Institute of Graphic Arts, was mostly centered in New York, but we thought maybe we could get them to let us set up a chapter out here, which would be a better way to advance the whole group within our profession. I think we were the first or the second chapter out of New York in 1983.

Having an institute devoted to design really allows one to find a place where people will echo the same thoughts or maybe even have slightly better thoughts. So many exquisitely talented artists and designers surround me, I am extremely lucky. I think that every designer in the AIGAhas access to people who are better than they are and are older and grayer, let’s just say, or older and have more experience–and younger and with great enthusiasm for the profession–that’s what I get to take advantage of with AIGA.

People practice their trade. They love it. They focus on it. They get better at it. They work hard. They adore it–they give everything to it, and then it’s time for them to start to understand what they are doing. It takes a lot of years to finally have it dawn on you that “Wow, this is why I’m doing this.’ AIGA has a lot of those people and they also have an incredible crop of people who can use that information but who are also trailblazing themselves.

The real issue is what the AIGA does, which is really the heart of the matter. I see the path in the AIGA as 1.) You find a kindred spirit there to learn from. 2.) You find people that are better than you and challenge you. 3.) You get involved and start learning how to do things you haven’t done before. 4.) This new activity that you’ve never done before helps you start to develop qualities of leadership 5.) Then you actually start to deliver some things yourself to the organization and help inspire other people with this leadership, and finally 6.) They package that all up and give it back to you as a medal.

KB: So you’re already there, huh?

CRONAN: I don’t know, I haven’t actually received the medal yet!

KB: I think it’s as good as in your hands. Since the San Francisco Bay Area is your home and where you’re originally from, do you think the San Francisco chapter of the AIGA brings anything different to the table or has any unique qualities?

CRONAN: As you probably know, I was elected to be president of the chapter for a number of years. We were able to do some things that I was then, and am still extremely proud of. One of those things is the creation of the Design Lecture Series. At that time, one of our goals was to align ourselves with other arts organizations, essentially the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. And we partnered with ASID (American Society of Interior Designers) and Agnes Bourne who is a real bright light of furniture design, among many other great accomplishments–she’s such a dear. Back then, as a design group, The Design Lecture Series was really important from our perspective because we were able to bring speakers in from all over the world; people who really were not necessarily exclusively graphic design, but spoke to a much larger design. There should be a list of all the speakers just so we can record all the influences we’ve brought to the community.

And I think if any chapter has been able to wrap their head around this idea–that design is much, much bigger than just creating graphics for clients–it’s been San Francisco. We don’t usually deal with old iconic corporations here. AIGASF was here before some of the best companies in the world got their start here. We’ve grown up with those puppies, you know. We get to work with people that are bringing in the next new thing. And in that sense, it has helped us create design that is no longer with a lower case d. It has become an uppercase D–in fact it is DESIGN in all caps. I’m real excited about that. I’m excited about the industrial design scene here, as well. I’m excited about the technology scene in general here. I’m really excited about the maker scene here. It has become way the center of new things – that’s why I’m really proud to be still a San Francisco boy.

KB: DESIGN strategy and DESIGN thinking are becoming more and more incorporated into academics, especially now with Stanford’s D school and CCA’s Masters of Design Strategy. I know that one of your firm’s philosophies is to incorporate design thinking and process into every project, rather than, as you said, just creating some graphics around a client’s identity. How do you see Design Strategy/Thinking progressing and do see that as something that has really started in the San Francisco area more than anywhere else?

CRONAN: Well, this has been my experience, and I hope that it has been other people’s experience as well–I remember going down to Stanford and being in rooms and rooms filled with electrical engineers and MBAs and those guys kicked my ass. I really had to toughen up and deliver back to them the kind of process and kinds of positive/negative framed yes/no answers that they demanded, that they wanted. So I really think that design thinking is now in academia and is in some of the best academic settings. I think the D-school is one of the best settings. I think what David Kelly has done down there, I just adore him, and I think what he and the group there has done is so smart and great. But, it’s up to every single designer to live that and I just hope that designers in this era have made the true and deep commitment to design thinking that I think that we did to when we helped generate it and make it happen. AIGA has put forward a really good, solid, easy to communicate process on design thinking that was really driven by our friend and colleague Cheryl Heller in New York.* Designers have to live and breathe that. If they do, it will not fail them.

But I do think that a lot of really, if you will, ugly and exciting and messy kinds of design that are still using design thinking are coming to the fore right now, and I love it. I think it’s great. We use to have an expression way back when I was teaching at CCA “It has just got to be big and stupid. If it’s not big, then make it bigger. If it’s not stupid enough, get stupid. And then if it still doesn’t work, paint it red.” And the reason for that…it sounds like it’s completely dichotomous in comparison for this conversation, but really at the end of the day you’ve got to go where you can’t see yourself going, you’ve got to do what you can’t see yourself doing, you’ve got to interpret what you don’t understand. And you’ve got to make it make sense. It is a calling, you know, you’ve got to do it.

So, design thinking can really help people make that logical and make that clear to a client. And in this era of ::CRONAN::, Karin’s and my partnership, we focus on brands and identity and design strategy and that is kind of it. We don’t do a lot of the actual production work. We work with in-house groups and other design teams. I’m more than happy to work with anybody as long as they have a handle on design thinking. Then we’re on the same page. And someone might like red, someone might like blue but that’s not a design thinking issue.

KB: So speaking to that, how do younger designers get to that point, how do they develop the confidence to speak with design strategy and design thinking when a client just wants them to turn something purple because the client’s favorite color is purple? Do you have any recommendations on that?

CRONAN: Totally. They should give up all hope on ever becoming very successful… I think that my take is this: I learned a long time ago that disagreeing with a client or trying to educate a client was just the wrong approach because more likely and more times than not, they were going to educate me.

We have an expression in our firm. It is one of the things that we do initially. We “listen deeply.” That’s almost with a kind of meditative respect. It’s not that I’m going to believe everything I hear, but I’m going to internalize it and I’m going to use it for the betterment of that client’s objective. It rarely happens anymore that a client throws something unexpected or out-of-order at us. This is not bragging or trying to say we’ve figured everything out. It’s because we still approach everything with open minds, like it’s a childlike discovery “ah ha” for us.

Really, if you use design thinking as a weapon, you’re going to hurt yourself. The likelihood of getting shot goes up when you own a gun. So, we don’t try to use design thinking as a weapon. We try to use it as an advent calendar of really fun discovery for clients. When they realize that this madness we are laying on them really does have a process and we can explain it to them really very simply, then half of the time they’re trying to catch up or they’re trying to out do us with their ability to follow the steps.

There was one time when a client called me up after we had this spectacular presentation, that we actually got a standing ovation for delivering. About two hours later, I’m driving home and I get this call from the client and he said “Michael, I think what you guys did today was brilliant, but I’d like you to go after it one more time because I’d like to have our identity ‘explode.’” And you know, what do you say to something like that? It was so refreshing and interesting to us. And, in that sense–it is going to sound really crazy to young designers–the client is always right. So I went home that night, and I took the existing mark that we had created for them and spun in 270º in Illustrator. It turned out looking like a hurricane. And that became their symbol. We animated it the next day and sent it to him and he just crowed he was so happy. The client’s story really became about the hurricane, which is one of the most powerful forces on earth. And that’s what you unlock when buy that the client’s technology–it has it’s own story waiting to be told. It is a fun little anecdote but it really illustrates that, at the end of the day, I’m never going to argue with a client. I’m going to dig deep into the client’s request, and it usually ends up being something way more interesting than I could have ever thought of myself.

KB: How do you stay inspired, keep motivated, keep learning and growing?

CRONAN: I used the term advent calendar earlier, but really, every day we get the chance to open up a whole series of little boxes that are so richly connected to a deeper kind of meaning and understanding of things. That’s one rule.

Another rule for us is that if you hate it, love it. A number of years ago I got really into hip-hop music because it was so annoying to me. The idiom helped me to understand, or at least have a clue about rap and spoken word and to kind of follow along and get a sense of it. And in a certain way, in a really weird certain way, spoken word and rap help make Obama the President. And if you don’t know that stuff, then you’re fucked.

A really fabulous art teacher, Ken Rignall, who was really a great drawer and painter in the Bay Area, said that if you stare at anything long enough, you fall in love with it. As an artist, I think that’s completely true. So if you look at the stuff you hate, and I don’t mean you have to take a chapter out of Nazi Germany or anything like that that has flat out evil in it, but stuff you esthetically can’t stand, the stuff that you hate or the stuff that is new, you just end up finding out how exciting and great it is by paying attention to it.

KB: Is there any other advice you have for designers beginning their careers or just coming out of school?

CRONAN: There is one thing I would say, and this is going to be a tough one. Let me back up one moment and let me say something about the generations of designers. I’ve seen a whole generation of designers get kind of crabby with design and get crabby with young designers and the way they use the tools. I think that’s a little bit tough. I don’t think it is our job to simply get crabby as you get older. I think it is our job to stay open and try to get the essential zeitgeist of the current time. Otherwise, you’re living in a shell or living in the past. So, for senior or older designers to not be world-weary and to be excited about the next thing and to realize how good they are and how much they have to contribute would be a terrific motivation.

I think that young designers have a triply hard task. Here’s the hard part. When young designers talk to me, they say that they love print or they love book design, and that’s what they want to focus on. I think “Well, that’s really too bad because you’re going to end up being a decorator and a nice arranger of things.” The moment that you want to stay in one field or another, you’re kind of fucked, you’re kind of dead because that game is really over in this world. This world has got an absolutely porous boundary between any disciplines and any processes. It is very open now. You get to flow in and out of different situations. I don’t care how much you love typography. If you close yourself off to things like ions and interactive art and real time communications, you’re really not a designer, you’re a decorator. You may be a well-informed decorator, but by cutting off and limiting your understanding of things, you’re limiting your value to your client.

Now if you want to be an artist, interestingly enough, artists have to follow a very different path. An artist doesn’t really have to go out and find the information. The artist has to use themselves to plum their own depths to understand things. That may mean they still have to do a lot of learning but they’re using themselves as the filter. A designer uses their client and the problem as a filter. You may have a cool internship with an oldie who really just wants to work hot type and that’s way cool. But you’re going to end up being a museum. SO what you need to do is take your skill and your strength and your love and you need to stretch it over a much wider field. And I don’t really care if you don’t like how the colors look on screen.

When I was teaching, sometimes the younger students would always talk in absolutes like “I always do this” and “I never do that.” I’d always think in my mind (because I get to say ‘always’ since I’ve had a lot of time to have developed its correct use, right?) ‘Wait, you’ve done this 3 times, is that always?”

So there’s another great visual axiom someone gave me: “When you start out as a baby, its all black and white. Then, as you get older, it turns into more and more gray, until it’s a perfectly balanced set of grays. And then, you get a little older and it starts getting black and white again until you’re at the end of your life and it’s completely black and white once more.” I would like to turn that aside because I think young designers with a truly open heart and a smart ability to understand indicators and do things and a love of the arch types, a love of the myths, a love of the secret knowledge that young designer is going to have a fringing rich life. And yeah, you can have all the fixations you want, but don’t limit your self because the rest of the world will walk away from you and you’ll be a museum of one. As it turns out, what you write on twitter really isn’t that interesting, unless you dial it up a notch.

KB: So, I guess this is kind of obvious after your previous answer, but do you recommend that designers get out and experience all different things than just straight design so that it enriches their knowledge that they bring to clients?

CRONAN: It is good that you bring that up because I really think that thoroughbreds are weak. When CRONAN had a largish office, it almost didn’t matter what someone’s portfolio looked like if they already had a degree in Marine Biology. It almost didn’t matter what someone’s portfolio looked like if they’d been to the Olympic trials in speed skating. And the reason for that is that, if you’ve tried other things and been an expert in something else, it gives you a kind of understanding about being an expert in everything. If you just become an expert in graphic design, you never really understand that. And, to me, there’s nothing worse than a purebred. You take a look at purebred dogs and cats and those are the most fragile creatures. I think that someone really ought to get their hands dirty and learn something deeply somewhere else and you’ll find it becomes a huge source of inspiration and either a positive or negative reinforcement for everything else you do.

Thanks so much for your time and all of your great advice. Congratulations again. All of us at the AIGA look forward to honoring your distinguished career and dedication at the Fellow Awards!

Michael has a wiki page written about him if you’d like to find out more details about his accomplished career!

To download the AIGA literature on design thinking & strategy processes mentioned by Michael Cronan, visit http://www.aiga.org/content.cfm/why-design?searchtext=why%20design



Kristen Bouvier is the founder and principal of morphos arts “design for a change”, a San Francisco based creative consultancy focusing on design and advertising for social good. In her daily work, she promotes sustainability and the use of design strategy for positive change. Her clients include; Banana Republic, Gap, Gymboree, National Semiconductor, and Shaklee, as well as local not-for-profits and small businesses including The Marsh Theater, The San Francisco Contemporary Music Players, and the Sierra Club. Kristen is an active member of the AIGA, helping organize San Francisco “Design Makes a Difference” Week, and working with the AIGASF Social Impact Committee.