Dialog: Ken Carbone & Leslie Smolan’s 35 years of design collaboration

portrait by john madere 2

[Tom Biederbeck] Launched last night with a hurricane relief benefit in NYC, “Dialog”—What makes a great design partnership is Ken Carbone and Leslie Smolan’s testament to the staying power of their creative relationship. Great partnerships have chemistry that can’t be explained in a formula. Dialog has some answers, though, and lots of advice that’s, well, great. The book weighs more than 4 lbs. and is stunningly beautiful.

The obvious question: What was your motivation for the book?
K: We did it primarily for us. This past September was the anniversary of the 35th year we’ve been working together. We realized that the complexion of the business is moving forward, so we thought now is the time to put together a document that clearly represents our accomplishments. We picked 35 projects that represent what we’ve done across all media for different types of clients—a broad stylistic range, in one place.

From the Passion and Line project

We didn’t want to do a portfolio book. We wanted something that would give readers insight as to how we think: How meaningful our partnership is, how we work together.

From the Bideawee project

L: What’s unusual about Ken and I is we’re a male-female partnership who are not married to each other. The design process is becoming more collaborative. Ken and I have collaborated now for more than three decades, and we feel there’s something to learn from that. Creatives come with their own sensibilities, and the question is how you marry yours to someone else’s.

From the redesign of Architectural Record magazine

How has your relationship and your way of working together evolved?
L: Our personalities make for what we call creative friction. We often say we’re in violent agreement with each other. We’re saying the same things, although it might not sound like it.

Carbone says the inspiration for this prescient, pre-digital 1980 poster came from IBM punch cards. “As I say in the book, it’s laughable that I pasted down every one of those bits of type to make this poster. It was an artifact of its time, but it still feels fresh. That’s why we put it in the book.”

In some ways the first seven years were the hardest. As the business grew, we moved more into management roles, which changes the relationship with your partner. At 50 people, we added a CFO, assistants, a person to do marketing. We changed our name to The Carbone Smolan Agency and adopted an ad agency model.

Ken Carbone’s office

In the book we talk about how Ken looks after the physical plant, the design of our work environment. Ken is also the one who’s focused on the internet and our marketing and branding.

Leslie Smolan’s office

I tend to focus on the business side of the equation. I’m looking at profitability and the tracking mechanisms.

The creative instinct is one of exploration and change. If we hadn’t continued to develop our goals, we’d have gotten bored quite a while ago. And fortunately we like our roles.

Designs from a dinnerware project for Dansk

In the book, Ken says, “I’m strong out of the gate, but Leslie gets us to the finish line.” What does that mean?
K: I’m creatively restless, and my attention span probably isn’t as long as it should be. Ideas come to me quickly. Then, when it comes to realizing them, I may run out of steam.

Fortunately, Leslie is a terrific finisher who is intensely deliberate about details. It’s a great balance.

From the Cinderella project for Mohawk Fine Papers

L: I would say that while Ken’s a mile wide, I’m a mile deep. If you have a great idea but don’t execute it well, it’s a waste of a great idea. If you have a brilliant idea that’s amazingly well executed and well written, you’ve hit the trifecta.

K: We’ve boiled it down to two things in the book: Trust and aligned ambitions. We’re very clear about our sense of value…and values. I can trust Leslie to make tough decisions where I feel not as capable.

Sketchbook and posters from a project for Alliance Graphique Internationale celebrating Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera

In the book is your studio mantra: “The road to success is always under construction,” which came from a fortune cookie.
K: In the book we say, “If we don’t recognize the business five years from now, we’d consider that a resounding success.”

The book is beautifully designed, and it’s clear you worked hard on what to include and what to leave out. Was it hard to do a book about your own practice?
K: You have no idea!

L: This wasn’t the first time we’d tried to put this story into a concise form. We didn’t want it to feel corporate. We wanted it to be personal and show some of the behind-the-scenes process, like the letter from the Louvre that started a project we did there, and how we thought it was a joke when it first came.

From the Louvre wayfinding project: the “brief,” and below, one of the installations

K: And we were honored that Massimo Vignelli wrote a foreword. He was delighted that we asked him not to write about our work, but about what it means to have a great partnership…and he obviously has one of the great legacy partnerships of all time with his wife Lella.

What’s your take on print and paper in the 21st century?
L: I’ll answer first, because I love print and paper so much. I joke now that the publishing industry isn’t dead, it’s just moved into the world of real estate. We get to work on spectacular projects for residential and hotel developments around the world. Traditionally, there’s a book or brochure involved. This where the tactile and sensory aspects of paper and print are still important and will continue to be.

A poster for AIGA New York’s 30th anniversary

K: I gave a presentation about the future of the book last year, and my opening image was a book by Galileo that was handed to me by Edward Tufte at his home—a 500-year-old book!

The next slide I showed a floppy disk. I’d held the 500-year-old book in my hands. The floppy disk I can’t even open now. I’m as much of a digital head as anyone, but I’m still buying way too many books!

L: Now that our book is finished, I joke about throwing away my files. I can unburden myself of what I’ve been carrying around for 30-plus years.

K: I saw a quote from Paul Rand. He was asked why he makes books like Thoughts on Design. He said, “Because it’s the best place to keep track of everything I’ve done.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is an edited version of a conversation with Ken Carbone and Leslie Smolan on Nov. 2, 2012. Read the jumbo version of the interview here. Even better!

Opening image: Portrait of Ken Carbone and Leslie Smolan © John Madere

Purchase “Dialog”—What makes a great design partnership, by Ken Carbone and Leslie Smolan, from Pointed Leaf Press, at Amazon or from your local bookseller.

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