Don Draper isn’t in attendance but he’d fit right in. A group of dapper gents with pocket squares and perfectly knotted ties listen attentively to a stylish blonde woman across the table as she presents (or reviews) a collection of new packaging designs. There isn’t a cigarette or tumbler of Scotch in sight. It is sometime around 1950, somewhere not far from the fictional Sterling Cooper, at the Manhattan offices of the real-life design business, Lippincott & Margulies.
2013 marks the 70th anniversary of the company founded by the man at the centre of the picture in the heavy-rimmed specs. Gordon Lippincott opened his packaging and product design studio in 1943, in time to capitalise on the post-war US consumer boom. A year later, he was joined by the man seated to his left, interior designer Walter Margulies. The firm’s output ranged from ink bottles and pharmaceutical packaging to seaplanes, hotel interiors, World’s Fair pavilions and the classic 1948 Tucker Sedan automobile.
But it was in the field of corporate identity that Lippincott & Margulies achieved design immortality. The term ‘corporate identity’ was, in fact, coined by Lippincott to encompass all of the means by which a business could express its individuality. The term has survived, his company has survived (still bearing his name) and an astonishing number of its identities have survived with it.
Not just survived – thrived. L&M’s design timeline up to the late 1970s is a branding hall of fame all of its own. The Coca-Cola wave. The Campbell’s signature and soup can. The Duracell copper-top. The Chrysler pentastar. Logos for Goldman Sachs, Betty Crocker, General Mills, and American Express – all still in use – plus others for Amtrak, Con Edison, Hertz, Xerox and (a personal favourite) RCA Records.
So why isn’t the firm better known among designers on this side of the pond? There are few still working in the UK who would remember its heyday, but its sale to the Oliver Wyman management consulting firm lent a new, business advisory backbone to its services that put it back in contention with the global identity consultancies. Its work on new looks for ebay and Starbucks in the last two years have won Lippincott fresh recognition. Today the firm talks about ‘immersive design’, and the all-consuming brand experience that includes touchpoints such as the ‘sensual’ and ‘conversational’.
A London office was opened in 2003, and its creative director Lee Coomber joined from Wolff Olins. He’s conscious of the Lippincott heritage, and also, by contrast, the amount of “incredibly bland stuff” that characterises today’s big corporate brand design. The logo, says Coomber, offers an “anchor” for customers that affords a brand more freedom of expression, and allows Starbucks stores, for example, to be more individually different. “All the evidence indicates that people need a strong mark to be the centre of authenticity in a brand,” he says. “But larger enterprises work across so many industries that it’s hard to create symbols with focus …. Identity sits at the heart of what companies do. It should be as rich as the company. If it’s not, that says something.”