When designers wore lab coats

“Unimark was self-aggrandising, hubristic, wasteful, under-planned and overblown,” says Rick Poynor in our review of a new book about the design firm with the unusual dress code

If Unimark is remembered for anything at all now, outside the US, it is most likely for two details: as the platform that launched Massimo Vignelli’s illustrious American career and as the office where the graphic designers had to perform their creative duties wearing lab coats. The white coats were Vignelli’s idea. He thought they would give the operation a sense of discipline, professionalism and unity. Unimark’s studio in Milan sensibly lost no time in discarding the garments as ‘fascist’. In 1968, when the long-suffering junior designers in Chicago finally decided that they were sick of dressing like a convention of pill-counting pharmacists, the era of the lab coat was over.

Jan Conradi, author of Unimark International, believes that Unimark (1965–79) has been unfairly ostracised from designers’ collective memory. In her view, it is a historically important organisation that deserves to be much better known. As many as 400 people worked at Unimark during its heyday (precise records have been lost) and the company, ravenous for expansion from its first day, opened offices in Chicago, New York, Detroit and else­where in the US, and around the world. Nothing on this scale of global ambition was seen again until the design boom of the 1980s.

The story, spread across many locations and involving many protag­onists, is complex. Conradi, a professor of graphic design at SUNY Fredonia in the US, first researched Unimark for her masters degree in the late 1980s when key figures such as Ralph Eckerstrom, co-founder and president, and Jay Doblin, design strategist and vice-president, were still alive. She has interviewed many former employees and delved into the company archives. She regards Unimark as a “prime source of intentionally cohesive modernist design for business” and her support, as designer and educator, for the company’s goals surfaces repeatedly in the book. “If Unimark’s ideas in 1970 were thought to be passé in 1985,” she writes, “they are apparently validated by concerns in 2009.” Unimark was the matchmaker that introduced Helvetica to corporate America. At a time when Helvetica is lionised in books (also from Lars Müller) and film, Conradi is convinced her subject’s moment has come.

Conradi’s over-identification with Unimark blunts her analysis. Unimark aimed spectacularly high, but all too soon crashed to earth. After the glory days of the 1960s, the 1970s was a period of decline. In 1971, Vignelli abruptly decided to leave, a blow from which Unimark never recovered. The company was badly managed, with no one paying enough attention to day-to-day operations. Vast amounts were frittered on first-class air travel as staff jetted across the US and around the globe. The founders, enjoying fine lunches and living it up like a cast of real-life Mad Men, flew in for a week-long office opening party in Copenhagen: it closed just weeks later without bringing in a single job. Other offices opened without sufficient planning and also failed to deliver. Unimark was forced to file for bank­ruptcy in 1971 and again in 1975. Conradi hints at the disaster to come from her first page and she amasses a great deal of damning detail, making this an unusually frank read among design books.

Ultimately, though, despite repeated admonitions about their lack of financial planning, Conradi lets them off the hook. She admires their European design values; their idealistic desire to make a positive impact; their commitment to rational, systematic, standardised design; their obsession with Helvetica (needless to say the book is typeset in it). Consum­mately successful client-winners, at least at first, they worked for Ford, Standard Oil, American Airlines, Gillette, Memorex, Panasonic, and many other corporations. Eckerstrom was a charismatic salesman with a flair for pr, and marketing was central to his thinking from the outset. Yet Vignelli, co-founder and Unimark’s design leader, made no secret of despising marketing. Trying to decide where it all went wrong, Conradi can no more resolve the contradiction between design, with its socially motivated aim to inform the public, and marketing, with its commercially motivated aim to sell things, than Unimark could.

The designers believed their systems could bring the unacceptable chaos of the world under control. Looking at the huge improvements they made to the signs in the New York subway, or at their signage programme for the Mercy Hospital in Chicago, few would argue that these projects did not enhance people’s lives. Yet many of the commercial projects shown in the book, far from suggesting that these were brilliant designers remaking the world for its own good, rather suggest a cult in thrall to a bafflingly unimaginative and inflexible doctrine of dullness. The designers in the lab coats obviously couldn’t see it. Unimark even circulated an inter-office memo titled, ‘Helvetica versus the world’. Research for the department store JCPenney had indicated a negative public reaction to Helvetica, but they would use the typeface anyway – because designers know best.

Even at the time there were dissenters. Print magazine observed that it was a shame that JCPenney “couldn’t have settled on a less overworked typeface and a more original graphic idea”. Milton Glaser, speaking in 1968, said that he embraced chaos as something interesting in our lives and rejected most design attempts to deal with it: “I far prefer the inadvertent variety of forms that occur as a result of spontaneous, uncontrolled expression.” Sounding like a stern Neue Grafik editorial from 1958, Conradi takes occasional swipes at “eclectic, individualised stylisations” by designers who haven’t signed up to the one-typeface-fits-all modernist programme, as though they are in some way short-changing the public (whereas tame uniformity isn’t?). By the end, she seems to be heaving a sigh of relief that the period of design eclecticism and postmodern experi­mentation is over and tentatively anticipating the prospect – pure wishful thinking, I hope – of a return to Unimark’s brand of outdated, uninspired, reductive modernism.

The truth is that rational, systematic design, which we need in some situations but not in every situation, can take a great many forms. There is no intrinsic connection between rationality and a taste for Helvetica, especially today. Aspirations to ‘timelessness’ are usually deluded: just look at the pictures shown here. Unimark was significant and influential and I’m glad this book has been written because we need to know where we have come from, but the idea that the company offers valuable lessons for contempo­rary designers is, on almost every level, misplaced. As Conradi shows, no matter how talented some of its designers may have been, Unimark was self-aggrandising, hubristic, wasteful, under-planned and overblown, a symptom of the capitalist economy it serviced. The only bit of the empire that flourished (until a name change in 2000) was the modestly sized Milan outpost with a handful of designers run by Bob Noorda. The best way to read this book is as a cautionary tale.

Unimark International: The Design of Business and the Business of Design, by Jay Conradi, is published by Lars Müller, £40


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