Fellow Awards 2012 Interview: Karin Hibma
Interviewed by Kristen Bouvier

Karin Hibma has a first hand understanding of the power of design and visual thinking in our economy and culture. A strategic partner in : : CRONAN : :, Hibma brings deep listening, design thinking and creative insights into finding “the big idea” inherent in every client’s projects. Among her many accomplishments, Himba was named one of Fast Company’s 100 Most Creative People in Business in 2009.

Kristen Bouvier: Congratulations on your well-deserved award! We’re thrilled to have you as a design leader in our community with the amazing example you’ve set and all you give back.

Karin Hibma: Thank you, thank you. This is a wonderful opportunity to think about where I’ve been, where I’m going and all the people I’ve met through design. I’ll share anything that can be helpful for others to get inspiration. I’m in great company with the other 2012 Fellows, Maria Giudice and Patrick Coyne. The Bay Area is rich with amazing, creative people. I’m excited about what can be done with design and our community moving forward.

KB: So how did it all begin for you? Have you always been artistic?

KH: Yes, I was the kid that got to do the bulletin board in the second grade. I went on to study at Sacramento State and, of course, majored in fine art. We were fortunate that we had an awesome Art Department. Joseph Raffael and Bill Allan, Joan Brown, Carlos Villa, Sylvia Lark. Wayne Thiebaud was teaching at UC Davis, as well as Bill Wiley. We got to hang out with painters—there were some pretty amazing people on the faculty and in the program. Joseph Campbell came to give lectures, R. Crumb’s band played on the school lawn.

I took on a number of jobs during school from modeling to drawing kid’s coloring sheets for the Sacramento Parks and Rec. I moved to Europe for a couple of years. I planned to move back to Paris after finishing school. I’d met this guy in Art and Mythology class who shared my interests. He was going to buy my VW, which was going to pay for my return ticket to Europe. Only the engine blew up as I pulled up to sign the car over. So I stuck around. We’ve been together ever since. Of course that guy was Michael Cronan.

KB: How did you move from fine art to design?

KH: We lucked into the world of design; my first job working in the field was listed on a job card. They needed a researcher to get pictures – for example – of roller coasters to use as reference material for the illustrator for a credit union campaign poster when the rates would “roller coaster”. I had no problem finding reference images (and lots of inspiration for my own work) and it was great – the library was open until one o’clock in the morning and the company paid me 5 bucks an hour, great wages in the 70’s for an art student!

We quickly found the design community seemed very different than the art world. There were a lot of opportunities, new people to meet. Everyone was excited “…oh have you met that person, they’re so cool and they’re working on this great project.” There was also a great exchange of value – clients paid you for work and earned from effective results. So, it was during school we discovered and fell in love with design.

KB: Is that how you started your first business?

KH: Yes. The folks from the company that hired me to get reference materials referred me to others who needed props for commercials and films. The California State Department of Education hired me to research the history of education in California and work with their documentary filmmakers for the centennial and a film on migrant workers’ education. I created a big bound book of all my research for the California State Library. Forty years later, we’re advising the State Library, helping them refresh their brand and identity. That big book is still there on the shelves.

My client in Sacramento, Michael Kennedy, was very connected to the design community in San Francisco. He invited Michael and I to an event here and introduced us to Michael Vanderbyl and Michael Manwaring. It’s always been fun with all the Michael, Michael, Michaels. That’s kind of how that all started.

After school I moved down to the Bay Area, Michael was already working here. I invented my career by continuing my design research business, calling it KH Design Resource. I went around to the design offices in San Francisco and told them I did research for designers, illustrators, and photographers. Everyone listened patiently to me and looked at the work I’d done for other people and mostly nodded and told me that they’d never hired anyone to do that and didn’t need me.

But (this has been part of the secret sauce that I share with other beginners) I learned, whenever I hit that dead end, to ask “then who else should I talk to or go see?” Every one gave me 5 or 10 names, even called other firms and told them that I was headed over. I’d go and meet with those people. After a short while they knew there was this researcher… when a project would come up that they didn’t know where to get something they said, “Well let’s call Karin.” I met so many wonderful people this way—Dugald Stermer, Larry Duke, Bruce Wolfe, Primo Angeli, etc.

After a few years in San Francisco, all these designers were friends, many were teaching at CCAC. Michael Vanderbyl and Manwaring were neighbors on Sansome Street and Michael Cronan was working with Manwaring, there was lunch at Café Lido together every day with all the Michaels, Tommy Ingalls, Dixie Manwaring and a constant stream of visiting designers (Michael Bierut, who was working for Vignelli, came from New York to meet and join in – he says he was star-struck). Over the years, we’d go to lunch, sit and laugh, talk, let down the load of responsibility, noodle on the tablecloth or on a napkin about what we were working on, steal an idea, get an idea, give an idea, and then go back to our offices charged up and refreshed. Honestly, having an ongoing dialogue around design is completely an inspiring process.

I love being around designers and learning how they see and critique work. It makes me sharper coming back to the office to look at ours. I’ve attended and spoken at major conferences and judged shows including the AIGA National with Paula Scher, Dana Arnett, and Jim Cross. On the other side of the scale, we go to Austin, Texas just about every spring for Chris Hill’s Creative Summit. It’s a student competition and the speakers/judges get passionate about each student’s work and their presentations. A lot of people get siloed in their offices, not having any dialogue. These design conversations help enrich all of our work.

KB: It sounds like your background of fine art, design and research were great stepping-stones for your work with the Creativity project?

KH: Yes, the Burdick Group was working with Chevron to celebrate their centennial by doing a contemporary slice of creativity across America of people who had made major contributions in the arts and sciences, people that were living and able to document their work. They had this grand theme/concept, “Creativity :: The Human Resource,” but hadn’t identified the people they would profile. They needed someone who knew how to do the research and develop the creative documentation.

That was when research meant you had to look in books to find information. Michael says that I was the Internet back then, able to find almost anything and make connections. Within the first month of the project, we created great lists and I checked out over 1000 books. I skimmed through them looking for individuals to profile and their creative process. Everything we included needed to be exhibit-able. We worked to come up with an interesting cross-section of these creative leaders. We reached out to a wide range of people, architects, writers, designers, artists – John Cage, Judy Chicago, Merce Cunningham, Jasper Johns, Lawrence Halprin, Robert Rauschenberg and scientists Margaret Mead, Linus Pauling, and Jonas Salk. I engaged with them, drafted their profiles, wrote and corrected their quotes and helped them describe their creative process.

We were creating all these individual profiles and knew we hoped to define overall what creativity is. It had been written about, but what notes could you put in an exhibit that would define creativity clearly enough to reach everyone from school groups to professionals and everyone in-between? We identified a group of characteristics which creative people share. The first, and perhaps the most important, is the willingness to challenge assumptions. Creatives discern previously unseen patterns – seeing things in new ways. They take risks. They tend to be independent and span several fields of study. They have fresh eyes and curious minds. They make connections. And creative people form networks with others like themselves. Milton Glaser did the amazing poster. The exhibit opened at the California Academy of Sciences in 1979 and travelled for three years to Chicago, Philadelphia and Washington DC, up to Seattle and they finally retired it 5 or 6 years ago.

KB: How did you finally end up combining your research, business experience, and design expertise into your current work?

KH: After the Creativity project, I continued to run Design Resource until we had our first son. Michael had just opened his new San Francisco design office, working with Levis and the San Francisco Symphony, and needed help with contracts, invoices – all the business things. I’d been doing these business things for years for myself, as well as the work, so I started organizing and developing his business for him. I spoke at conferences about growing a business in the field of design. We invested a lot in forming how the business of design worked, learning and helping to set standards for making that part transparent. I saw it as an extension of how people can work together to be creative, and grew to care about the design clients as I had for mine. My research, business and design experience helps me speak our : : CRONAN : : clients’ language.

We’ve evolved the business and focus our business scope on creating names, identities, design strategy and brands for game-changing products, services and companies. The naming and identity work is directly with the amazing key decision makers. We work to understand their business deeply and help them realize their aspirations. They tell us their ideas with no physical aspect yet to show or demonstrate, and these are things that haven’t existed before. So we have become good at reading people’s intentions and sharing the vision.

Our clients are creating change. They are innovators who are making strategic shifts, creating new products and want to establish, update or improve their brand strategy – Origins for Estee Lauder, SFMOMA’s store, et cetera. We’ve named and developed the identities for transformative organizations like Healthy Child Healthy World, as well as the new technologies, like TiVo and the Amazon Kindle. Everything has identity – the creative process and working with a design thinking approach has enabled us to help our clients gain iconic status in our global culture, energizing and extending the vision of their leadership at many levels. We believe a name and brand identity should be one of your hardest-working, and hopefully longest-working assets. Having worked in all forms of design, we are generalists who specialize; our deep and wide experience, innovation and insight translate into excellence, adaptability, and longevity for the names we create.

We are curious. We care. We are persistent because our clients need us to be so. If you are good — you don’t get to great casually. After three decades in business, we have fresh creative ideas plus the insights, experiences and perspectives of scores of successful products and companies to share, and we are deeply committed to the lasting success of our clients. We listen deeply and learn so much from them.

KB: You mentioned that you work with key decision makers. One question I continue to hear in the design community is “How do we get a seat at the business table?” Based on your success, do you have any insight on this?

KH: I’m going to quote my husband on this. Many designers aren’t ready to have conversations at the boardroom level because they don’t know enough and don’t care about the success of their client’s business. They care more about winning awards for their work than about whether they help the client’s company achieve great results. Designers who have been most successful in connecting with business at the higher level are the ones who have been interested in what their client’s business is.

Design thinking is the approach that allows for inquiry into our client’s world. It requires very, very deep listening. The first phase of any project needs to be learning all about the client, their industry and their competition. How did they get here? What’s their vision? What makes them different? What’s going to make people want to choose the product or the service they offer? When you have that dialogue and listen deeply, you put yourself in the position of being able to bring design tools and knowledge to the conversation, to the solution and to the business table.

There’s certainly a strata for general design in marketing, announcements, things that help keep a company fresh. But for design that is going to create change or be transformative, you need to be working with the leadership. And, in order to work with the leadership, you need to be able to have those conversations.

I was born curious so I’m passionate to learn about my clients and their business. The conversations around the Creativity project and the experience with Cronan Artefact, the company I founded for our Walking Man clothing, taught us about what our clients go through and transformed our understanding of the C-level. And I love our customers who’ve been wearing Walking Man for twenty+ years.

KB: How are you now using your business and design knowledge to affect positive social change in the world?

KH: Agnes Bourne brought fifty designers to Aspen for the Design Leadership Summit in 2005. She invited Michael and me and our sons, the only family in the group – Nick was at CCAC and Shawn was in high school. It was incredible for them to participate fully with design leaders including Rob Forbes, Cheryl Heller, David Kelly, John Maeda, Bill Moggridge, Zahid Sadar, Ann Willoughby, Keith Yamashita – these amazing people they’ve learned so much from.

This was where we all met Paul Polak, then head of International Development Enterprises (IDE). The message around him was that he’d helped get 17 million people out of poverty. Listening deeply during the course of the conference, Paul pointed out that 90% of designers were working on problems that were only relevant to 10% of the world. At the end of the Summit, the group was brought back together to decide what should happen after the Summit, Nick, one of the youngest participants, spoke up and said “I think we should solve Paul’s problem and teach designers to help design solutions for the other 90%.”

That led the AIGA to focus on social entrepreneurship, and me, Cheryl, Ann, Michael, and Paul to work with Barbara Bloemink and the Smithsonian’s Cooper Hewitt to develop the exhibition Design for the Other 90%. I’d met Paul at the very first Summit party. Seven years later, we have deep design conversations from wherever he is in the world. Paul’s experience taught all of us that you can’t donate people out of poverty. We’re helping him design opportunities for those in poverty to create a product that they can sell or create enterprise with, empowering them to sustainably help themselves. He’s speaking with multinational companies who want to understand how they can create products and markets for the 90%. It’s helping these companies’ bottom line, which drives business, and it also makes a huge difference for those billions.

I enjoyed judging the AIGA’s Cause/Affect show last year. It’s a brilliant program. The neighborhood Boy Scout troop builds community and needs innovative, appropriate design as much as somebody in a hut in Cambodia. They both need local solutions and approaches to their problems and/or their opportunity. If you bring your design expertise to each need in the same way, you’re going to see things that you wouldn’t have seen if you were just thinking “am I going to make this red or blue, Helvetica or Arial?”

I’m thankful for the group that’s in leadership at the AIGA San Francisco, the designers that are volunteering and being engaged. The designers that came out for the Cause/Affect show—getting to meet some of those energetic and committed local, national and international people was amazing. It’s exciting that the Gain Conference is coming to San Francisco this year and will be focused on design for social value. And we’re very excited to be re-energizing the Design Lecture Series. I’m just blown away at the endless potential for design.

KB: You’ve founded and help run at least 3 businesses and numerous side projects while at the same time raising 2 children and caring for other family members. Do you have any advice for women in design and business, any work / life balance suggestions?

KH: I’m thrilled for women today. I don’t know if you recently read about Sheryl Sandberg, the brilliant COO at Facebook. She’s on the front page of the NY Times with the President kissing her, Bloomberg hugging her and Jeffrey Immelt from GE shaking her hand, they are all in awe of her and how’s she’s helped grow that business. She says that women, in her view and I strongly agree, must take responsibility for their careers and not hold back, “keep your foot on the gas pedal and aim high.”

If you persist, don’t let anything stop you from doing what you see to do, you will be amazed at the results. In both our work and our lives together, I have been thankful that Michael is such a strong partner. We raised our sons to be awesome, respectful, interesting men. They’ve chosen amazingly strong women to be partners in their lives. You can work out how you’re going to get your work done, whether you’re doing it while you’re caring for your child, whether your partner happens to be better at caring for children. It’s a combination of no boundaries and taking initiative.

Joe Duffy’s wife, Patsy, gave me a wonderful piece of advice years ago when the children were small. She said they need you most when they’re teenagers. Plan your career so you can be around after school when they’re fourteen, fifteen, sixteen—that’s when they’re going to tell you what’s going on in their lives, when they need you to listen and be present. It’s the hardest time of their young lives and can the best time for helping them build the rest of their lives. We made a point to be a family. We had great conversations at dinner. They travelled and went to design conferences with us. They got to know our friends and our clients.

Another of my secret sauces is that we apply our design approach to our everyday issues. Now that the guys are grown, we have a regular family business dinner where we all talk about what’s going on in our career lives. We gain new perspectives, iterate on solutions and hopefully return to the next dinner in a better place. Again, being proactive and taking initiative.

As for balance, Michael and I are both artists, we never felt that we should create from nine to five. There are people who want their work and their personal life separate so that they can put one burden down and feel refreshed and pick up another. That’s great, but as designers and artists, we’re lucky—we’ll switch gears from whatever we’re working on with a client to dinner with friends who are coming over to talk about a pro bono project or career advice or to meet new people that they know. So always, our work is kind of continuous.

KB: Where do you see your career going now?

KH: I am fortunate to be able to say this – I feel I’m just beginning, that this all is just a start of understanding what we’re doing here. And, since I have that kind of beginner’s mind, I find myself very comfortably engaged with people who really are beginners. Doubt and uncertainty and fear go away pretty quickly when you just start putting one foot in front of the other. You know, if you put everything that that you’ve got in, give it your best, put your heart and energy into it, you have such a greater chance of being happy yourself. You’ll probably make your client and their customers happy and excited as well.

There is a recent Kindle ad animating a Voltaire quote from the research I did years ago that helped inspire the name – “The instruction we find in books is like fire. We fetch it from our neighbours, kindle it at home, communicate it to others, and it becomes the property of all.” Great to see our work having a life of its own.


Kristen Bouvier is a partner at Morphos, a San Francisco creative consultancy focused on transforming brands by harnessing the potential of design to create memorable interactions. With a background in both sociology and design, Kristen provides a unique approach and understanding of human behavior, user experience, and effective communication. Kristen serves on the board of AIGA San Francisco, the professional association for design, as the Social Impact co-chair and has co-chaired San Francisco “Design Makes a Difference” Week.