A Question of Identity : An Interview with Tom Suiter

Tom Suiter is a unique individual – a devoted father, highly curious, a collaborator and a talented designer and leader. He is able to bridge business issues and different types of strategies to inform powerful and immersive brand experiences. This all happens through a very accessible interpersonal style.

We met in San Francisco when I was leading the user experience group for the Chicago office of USWeb/CKS and he was Chief Creative Officer. Tom asked me to work directly for him auditing and evaluating the creative capabilities of the company nationally. My memories of working for Tom was that he was a thoughtful listener, communicated clearly and had his priorities in order – to find the best people to do the best work. This has been a continual theme throughout his career.

The evolution of Tom is one of learning the craft of design and then enhancing these skills by wanting to expand corporate identity into wider spheres of influence into what Peter Behrens referred to as a total imagistic panorama where integration at all levels create experiences that are both powerful and relevant. His design response in many different industries has allowed him to concentrate essential core values of brand, brand articulation and brand management – but without all the stifling quantitative language that gets in the way.

Professionals that can lead, shape and implement branded experiences are few, and the number of people that Tom has identified, mentored and collaborated with is a powerful marker to the level of creative excellence that any company would want to strive for. As Steve Jobs once said to Tom – It’s Perfect.

How did you become interested in and decide to focus on design?
As long as I can remember I loved to draw. This was instilled in me through my parents. My mother was an elementary school art teacher that brought home cookie tin boxes of crayons and paints. Although my father was a businessman, he used to draw cartoons that I loved to copy. Growing up I also loved watching TV shows like Combat and Bonanza for their opening titles and music. I also remember enjoying movie titles such as To Kill a Mockingbird and West Side Story.

In high school, my art teacher said to me the only way to make money in art was to become an architect. I explored programs and applied to USC in architecture and was accepted. Unfortunately my parents could not afford USC, and my sister was attending San Diego State University. I reviewed the art program in their catalog, and they had a minor in Graphic Design. I attended this school and they had a fairly good design program. Yet after three years, I decided to leave SDSU because I had a fear that I could end up being a 50 year old t-shirt designer on the beach. At the SDSU library I found a catalog for Art Center College of Art and Design and was so intrigued by it, that my roommate drove me up to LA when Art Center had a downtown campus. The students there were so talented that it scared me, but I applied and was accepted. It was the best thing for me at the time, as it gave me a kick in the seat of the pants to get serious about graphic design.

 

Who were some of your mentors?
At Art Center there was a lettering teacher, Doyald Young who was an amazing guy that taught me about the love of type. He gave me an A+ and made a big deal about it in front of other students. While I was embarrassed, I was really proud because his course was very hard as students worked in pencil drawings, shot a stat and then reworked it in gauche and ink. My experience with Doyald taught me a love of type.

I also had a peer at Landor, Philip Durbrow who was a master presenter of strategy and creative work. We both were on the road giving a lot presentations to executives like Jack Welch at GE, and Philip taught me how to sell a concept, the importance of preparation that goes into a presentation and to know what slide you were on and what slides were ahead to make the right transitions. He turned me on to practicing, which I still do today to be really prepared for my presentations to clients.

Steve Jobs was another mentor, which we can talk about later.

What was your first job out of Art Center?
I worked for a design firm called Design West in Irvine, California, which was owned by Beatrice Foods. A former member of Saul Bass & Associates ran the group I was in. What intrigued me about them was that they really explored a brand in several ways such as packaging, corporate identity – they even did furniture and product design. I was about 24 years old and worked on some cool projects for about one year.

I started to look around and got an offer to work at Saul Bass, but someone recommended I talk with Phil Seefeld at Landor & Associates in San Francisco who came from Unimark. I took the job at Landor, but not after a call from Saul Bass stating in his deep voice Landor? Why would you want to go to Landor? When you are young you make decisions on gut instinct, and my wife and I moved to San Francisco and have stayed here ever since.

 

What was corporate identity when you began your career at Landor and how has corporate identity changed over time for you?
I did two stints at Landor sandwiched around my time at Apple from 1981 to 1985. Landor was a fairly typical corporate identity firm that would developed a logo and then apply it to stationery, signage and vehicles. What amazed me looking back on our work at Landor was the immense amount of time we spent to get the work completed. The majority of the time was spent on the production side, rather than the creative side, which always bothered me. Also, in those days, you did the identity and the standards manual – and then you said goodbye to the client, which I did not feel was right. The advertising agencies then got to do the fun stuff of creating and extending the brand.

 

When you were Director of Creative Services at Apple, how did this experience affect your practice of design? What was the balance of using outside consultants (like Chiat/Day) vs. using the Creative Services Group?
Back in 1981, I had a friend Rob Gemmell who was a product designer at Apple. He told me they were looking for art directors. Being pretty young and naïve, I told Rob that I was already an art director, and if I was going to make a move, it should be to accept a higher job position. Besides, I really hadn’t heard of Apple, and I almost didn’t go to the interview. Thankfully, I did. I met with the head of Apple Creative Services, a nice guy named James Ferris. He looked at my work and wanted me to meet with Steve Jobs. I did not know the name Steve Jobs at the time, but said sure.

He took me over to another building where Steve had his office, and we were introduced. Since I did not know who he was, I was not intimidated by meeting Steve. Our time together was one of the best meetings I have had because he was polite and we just talked. While I lugged two large zipper portfolios, he never asked to see them. I had the luck to work on Mercedes Benz at Landor and we discussed the importance of a brand, and I remember how intrigued he was about design at IBM.

James later called me up and offered me a creative director position. Joining Apple was fun because I had to get to know the company, which was moving very quickly. They had just introduced the Apple II, and were working on the Apple III. I continued to work with outside agencies and designers like Doug Boyd, Paul Pruneau, Mark Anderson and Steve Tolleson. My challenge was to evaluate whether Apple should continue using outside agencies or to build an internal team. Due to the need for speed and that Steve was such a demanding client, I decided it was best to build an internal design capability augmented by outside agencies.

It was tough to go this route because in order to build a team that would pass the Steve quality test, I had to convince very talented people to relocate to Cupertino, California to work at Apple.  I remembered interviewing Clement Mok, who had experience with Lou Dorfsman at CBS and at Donovan & Green. I was interviewing him in a room overlooking a gas station and wondering to myself “how am I going to get Clement to work here?” I also wanted to get Tom Hughes, the Creative Director at Polaroid who was doing amazing graphic design. I am not sure if I was a good salesman, or if it was Apple, but they joined.

This was a magical time to build a group and I was spoiled at Apple because we did not develop the Apple logo but rather were able to focus on every aspect of the Apple brand reaching their customers with a consistent message. I had to grow up very quickly and learn the business side of design. At one time, I had to lay off staff, which was not a lot of fun. Sometimes designers only worry about creative issues and leave business to others. I became interested in business and strategy due to Apple, which helped round me out.

Steve Jobs cared about good work. For me, what I was finding was that outside agencies were at times more concerned about securing awards rather than getting relevant work done to support the brand. Apple was 24/7 where you lived and breathed the company. We would wander the hallways and I remember meeting and hanging out with Susan Kare who developed all the early icons for the company. I learned more from her at 11:00pm than being in meetings and design review sessions during the day. We just got great work done.

The Apple annual report was a good example of this. Steve Jobs, Clement Mok, Susan Kare, Rob Gemmell and I got together and wanted to communicate that people were doing cool stuff using a Macintosh. We developed a list of interesting people that we wanted to give Macs to, and to see what they could produce using this new computer. Ted Turner and Lee Iacocca were large shareholders so I got a hold of Ted Turner’s office number. I told his secretary that we were going to give Ted a Mac, teach him how to use it, and come back a month later to see what he created using it. She thought it was a cool idea, but asked who else was participating. I mentioned Lee Iacocca, and she said Ted was in. I then called Lee Iacocca and his secretary asked who was in, and I said Ted Turner. The ball started rolling. We also secured Stephen Sondheim, Bob Ciano the art director of Life Magazine, Jim Henson, Milton Glaser, and Maya Lin. The afternoon I spent with Kurt Vonnegut showing him how to use a Mac was a personal highlight. I had to persuade him to stop drawing dirty pictures, telling him that we hoped his next great novel would be written on a Mac, and he should learn the word processing program first.

We were lucky to work with Lee Clow and his team at Chiat/Day. He was an amazing guy that looked like he just got off a surfboard and wore flip-flops and an LA Dodger cap. He did not look down on us, and would roll up his sleeves and work with us and talk type. We chose Garamond and decided to make white spare ads, brochures, packaging and signs for Apple. What we were doing which was not a conscious effort, was to make an integrated brand platform for the company – from the packaging that tied into the brochure, to the cassettes that people used as a guided tour of the Macintosh. We found musicians at Stanford called Wyndham Hill to do background music for the guided tour, and they also played at Apple launches.  Everything tied together and was integrated branding before the term was widely understood. This is how I thought brands should work.

 

How did the process of collaboration affect your practice of design? What did these collaborations add to – or get in the way of good design results?
I am a huge collaborator and love to bring in people that I know and trust as well as people I have not worked with before. While I enjoy creating by myself, I also have a desire to interact with people because the end product becomes better by feeding off of one another – as long as egos are in check and authorship is not an issue – and it adds up to something better. There are great people out there and I want to continue to collaborate.

 

What did the creation of CKS mean to you when the firm started, and what does CKS mean to you now? How was consulting to NeXT through CKS different than when you were Director of Creative Services at Apple?
I had been at Landor for six years my second time around, and I worked on Hyatt, GE, Caterpillar and others. I would go home and talk with my wife and say well, we did a red one today. I wanted to do something different and did not want to stop at graphic standards manuals, but rather continue to develop a company’s complete brand.

I knew Mark Kvamme who was with Apple’s international marketing group. He saw me give a presentation and pulled me aside and said that he recently started a new company called Cleary/Kvamme Communications. Bill Cleary and Mark Kvamme needed a creative leader because they were marketers and technologists. I was interested in how they were using technology as a tool and we started to talk about it becoming a medium in its own right. This was 1991, a time when talking about the worldwide web was more like the worldwide what?
Cleary/Kvamme was based in Campbell, California and the stipulation for me joining was to have an office in San Francisco and I would be in charge of all creative. We changed the name of the company to CKS Partners.

I started hiring great people, of which there are many I still work with today. Ironically, the very first day I joined the company, I received a call from Steve Jobs and he said Hey Tom, I understand you are starting a new thing, and you should come talk to us at NeXT. Our agency Ammirati and Puris has a conflict and we need some help. NeXT was doing object-oriented programming and creating computers that were being used to create the World Wide Web. We were developing brochures and ads with terms like TCP/IP, and I was asking what is this stuff?

We were starting something at an early stage and were lucky that we worked with smart people in Silicon Valley such as Excite, Yahoo, and Amazon. We were learning about the world-wide-web and we were taking programmers and would walk into a pitch presentation, like McDonalds, and go head-to-head with Landor for the work. Nobody heard of CKS at the time and would bring a laptop and a projector and blow them away because we showed them how a database and design could work together. We pieced together a demo that blew their socks off. Landor on the other hand would bring in big easels and boards.

CKS realized that using technology could get things done quicker, but the computer would eventually become a medium. Here we were at ground zero and looking back on CKS, I think fondly about it. This is tempered with challenges of growth, acquisitions and other things that were pretty much beyond my control. But early on, the work we were doing and the people we attracted that have gone on to do great things proved to me that we were at the right place at the right time.

 

How has the concept of time changed for you – especially in needing it to think, reflect, concept and refine ideas in a world that expects more in less time?
It is all relative. At all stages of my career, I never had enough time and always had to squeeze time to get great results. Now, it is as fast as I have ever seen it and I’ve grown a lot at 57 by learning so much as a creative director, business man, and strategist. I can now pull off things in a short amount of time and I actually prefer it. The recent JCPenny rebranding program was done at breakneck speed, but we knew what was going on and had the mental shorthand to get it and move quickly and connect the dots. Working with Charles Rashall of BrandAdvisors, we received the brief from Ron Johnson on a Thursday, and presented concepts one week later. Jill Savini, who worked with me at Apple and later at CKS worked with me on the logo and identity system, and we brought in Moving Brands/SF to do a mood film to help tell the story. We hit it out of the ballpark. Experience, knowledge, great clients coupled with the speed to edit, not over think, and get ideas to people quickly adds to the excitement of it all.

 

What is design to you now?
Design is a complete integration of strategy, understanding market conditions and best practices, while at the same time being open to many things. It is no longer static images, but movement and sound. Knowing how to use digital tools is important and I am doing a lot of the design myself. In the past, you used to have a Photoshop person, an Illustrator person and the strategy person down the hallway. Now I wear all these hats and enjoy it. If I could not be part of the strategic thinking, I’d feel like my arms are tied behind my back. I have aligned myself with others such as former CKS professionals, most recently, Brand Advisors in San Francisco, and we’re having a lot of fun.

 

Reflecting on your career, what three things stand out that you are most proud of – or things that you have learned?
First, the CKS family tree which is something I would love to see visually. There were amazing people that have gone on to do greater things such as Robert Wong who was creative director for Starbucks and now heads up Google’s creative lab; Hiroki Asai is Vice President and Creative Director of Graphic Design at Apple; Michael Borosky is a founder at Eleven, inc.; Charles Rashall is founder of BrandAdvisors; Jill Savini Design; and Andy Dreyfus who is a Creative Director at Pixar. These are all amazing people who probably look back on their days at CKS and feel that some great work was done while they were there.

Second, knowing Steve Jobs and the fact that we stayed friends for a long time. First time was at Apple, then at NEXT, then Pixar, then back at Apple. Last year in February, he called me to do a personal project for him and we talked about life while working on it. When I gave him the completed project, he gave me a big hug and said, It’s perfect. To hear those two words come from Steve was amazing and I am so pleased my work brought him so much joy – the same thing he gave to millions of people through his work for Apple and Pixar.

Third, I have four boys who have grown up around me and my love of design and creativity. My oldest is a designer, and the other three will probably find other professions. All four give me great advice. I am proud that I gave them an appreciation of design and the fact that they have strong opinions about creative.

 

What haven’t you done yet that you would like to do?
I would like to teach and have been exposed to teaching being involved with my boys’ school. I love kids and would like to teach at the college level someday. I have not done it, but in the back of my mind I would love to inspire young minds to get excited about design.

Comments

One Comment so far. Leave a comment below.
  1. Rob Gemmell,

    I had the pleasure of working with Tom at Landor, Apple & CKS Partners. He played a major role in making those my Camelot years! It’s very rare to find such a combo of design vision and demanding work ethic yet empathy for designers, consumers and clients alike.

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