Meet Dana Arnett who is vice chairperson and founding partner of VSA Partners which started more than 30 years ago as a three-person design firm that included Arnett’s mentor, Robert Vogele. Today, VSA Partners employs close to 300 employees with offices in Chicago, New York, and San Francisco.
Arnett has a storied career of over 30 years in design and design thinking. He has been leading VSA since 1985 and has been recognized internationally for his achievements in design. He is the 2017 AIGA President-Elect, the 2014 AIGA Medalist and a board member of the Architecture & Design Society at the Art Institute of Chicago. Arnett continues to guide VSA in the creation of brand programs, digital and interactive initiatives, and marketing solutions.
As design thinkers, VSA approaches business challenges holistically ― aiming to break down barriers between branding, digital, marketing and advertising. VSA’s diverse roster of clients include: Google, IBM, Anheuser Busch, Nike, Harley-Davidson, AB InBev, CME Group, and Bloomberg.
Arnett agreed to be interviewed to discuss the dynamics of the design process and also to talk about his creative roots in design and the fine arts.
(This interview has been edited for brevity.)
At what age did you become interested in the visual arts?
I became interested in art at quite an early age. When I was in grammar school, I voraciously began to draw and paint. I was lucky because my parents really encouraged me. My parents would always buy me sketch pads because I would fill them up so quickly. I grew up in Morton, Illinois, and even though it was a small rural town, it had a good school system. In grammar school, my teachers were very supportive as I pursued my interest in art. There was also a substantive program for the arts when I was in junior high as well as in high school. I was also introduced to a comprehensive arts program that included graphic arts and architecture. I also became involved in the graphics arts print lab. I was soon creating the logo for the basketball team, posters for plays, and designing business cards for local businesses. The turning point for me was when I was in the school library and came across a book that showed award-winning ads from the 1970s. As I flipped through the pages, I had this moment of clarity where I knew this is something that I wanted to pursue as a career.
So, did you pursue design as a major when you went to college?
I enrolled at Northern University to study design, but by the end of my sophomore year, I hit a brick wall. The faculty had to review each student’s portfolio in order to decide if a student should be allowed to continue in the design program, and I didn’t pass the portfolio review. They felt I wasn’t sticking to the program. Somehow, they viewed my work as too experimental and that I wasn’t staying within the boundaries of purist graphic design which was big in the 70s. They had very conventional standards and I was bucking the system. But a funny thing happened after I got canned from the program because the very next day, Northern University held the student design show that was being juried by professional Chicago designers and I won best of show. When I won the award, the Chairperson of the Fine Arts department congratulated me, but he had no idea that I was kicked out of the program. When I told him that I wasn’t qualified to continue in the program, he encouraged me to look into a major called Comprehensive Design ― it was a special program that included computer-aided design, product design, interior design, graphic design and photography. It was great program for me because it helped shape my multi-disciplinary mindset about design.
What do you mean by having a multi-disciplinary mindset?
It’s how design can apply itself across different mediums. The firm, VSA Partners, that I helped build some 30 years ago is about how design can apply itself across a spectrum of mediums. In the old days, there was a chasm between advertising and design. At one time, design was about corporate logos, identity systems, and corporate communications while advertising was mostly focused on broadcast and print ads. But as the digital age progressed, all the rules were turned upside down. Now we have to view design in this omni channel world where content is being created, distributed and consumed in so many different ways, such as on one’s phone, tablet, or television. And a client expects a multi-disciplinary approach because we may have to do package design for their product and create short videos as well. When I first started in this business, multi-disciplinary design was not only my approach, but also my goal on how to become a designer, and now, it’s almost the standard.
Name a few artists that made an impact on you.
I was really intrigued by Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol and Edward Ruscha. And also Robert Rauschenberg and Robert Indiana. They were all part of that cultural zeitgeist after World War II. I felt passionate about their work because they were all breaking new ground. They stretched the traditional boundaries of fine art. There’s a graphic tone to their work so that appealed to my graphic sensibility. I really felt they were breaking new ground. Even though they had a strong influence on me, I never wanted to copy their style directly, but they did inspire my approach as well as my attitude towards design. The Bauhaus School also had a strong impact on me because it was such an important influence on modern American design. The Bauhaus had such a holistic approach ― there weren’t these traditional boundaries between the fine arts, design, and architecture. You can draw a line between the architecture of Walter Gropius to the photograms of Moholy-Nagy to the logos of Herbert Bayer. The Bauhaus School definitely inspired me as a designer because it embraced all artistic media.
What was it like moving to Chicago after spending your childhood and college years in rural areas?
When I came to Chicago it was like a whole new world opened up for me. It was overwhelming, but in a really good way. I went to the museums and different art galleries. It was exciting for me to meet artists and to be exposed to their work. I had an insatiable appetite to see what other artists were doing and what they were thinking. Moving to Chicago was a seminal point in my development as an artist. I found Chicago to be this amazing hot bed of creativity. Back in the 80s, I had friends who were artists, writers and musicians. It was great because we would talk about everything from the writings of Jack Kerouac to the music of Miles Davis. And with my group of friends, we met other creative people like poets at poetry slams, improv people from Second City, and jazz musicians who just finished playing a late set at some club. I was like a sponge back then, absorbing all this creativity that was going on around me.
What other art forms have influenced your work?
I have a strong artistic and cultural appetite so I’m a consumer when it comes to fine art, film, music, and theatre. But it’s not just art that influences me. I can come to work and be inspired by a play that I saw at the Steppenwolf Theatre from the night before, but I can also be equally inspired by some logo that was perched on top of some sandwich shop that may have been strangely hand painted or naively executed.
What are the challenge of holding a person’s visual attention nowadays.
It’s a real challenge because of the sheer proliferation of media content that is out there. It’s harder to cut through all the clutter. I think people have become more numb because there is so much visual stimulation. But in the end, you can’t use any of that as an excuse if you’re a designer because the best way to still capture a person’s attention is by creating a great idea that is executed in an original way. There’s no substitute for that. You’ve got to stick to that code as a creative or else you will give up or give out.
Does your “design eye” ever shut off once you leave work for the day?
I’m pretty cautious and sensitive about critiquing things around me, but my design sense is usually on. When I see a sign on a business or watch a commercial or even walk into a retail space, I think about the execution of the design. Why it works or doesn’t work. I also wonder why a designer chose certain colors or typography. Even when I’m looking at a car, I’m thinking if the exterior design works with the interior ― is there an emotional resonance between the two? But in the end, I don’t categorize myself as someone who walks around and judges everything I see. I’m more like a photographer who is always composing and framing things. If I go to a play, I’m framing the dialogue in the play to see if it matches with the set design, and also if the poster of this play represents the play that I just saw on stage. As a designer, you need to have a creative lens to not only know how to frame something but also to better observe the human experience.
What is some of the thinking that goes into the design process.
Designers are asked to solve business problems, they’re asked to create a brand or help a company to define its brand. We are also engaged in creating content, campaigns, store environments, and packaging. The best way to do that is to think about what is the story of that company or what is the story of that product, and also, how do you tell that story in 30 seconds on television or for five seconds on one’s phone. I think it’s so important to give a deep and expressive view about a product or a service. At VSA, we have to think what is the essence of this company besides its logo. The more you think and execute like a storyteller, the more multi-dimensional that product becomes for your audience. What we do is what a screenwriter does when writing a film script. Just as a screenwriter thinks what is the story behind a character, we think what is the story behind a product. It has to be intriguing and emotional for your audience. If you are just approaching design from a tactical or decorative point of view, then that idea becomes paper thin. If brands don’t have a story or a purpose behind them, then they won’t have much of an affinity in the marketplace. That product then becomes just another choice. In the end, you not only have to understand a product but also your audience. That’s the fuel for the creative process.
Did you see yourself as a renegade when you started your career in design?
Yes, it was important for me to do something different and I had to learn to trust my instincts. A lot of designers’ work is derivative of other styles that have already been done before. As a designer, you don’t want to become a mass commodity by pandering to what has been already been done. I was always motivated about being original. As I already mentioned, in the first few years when I moved to Chicago, I hung out with a lot of artists, actors, musicians and writers and being around them reinforced for me the need to be original and also the need of creating my own vision. In the end that separates you from the others who are merely imitating what has already been done.
What advice do you have for young people who want to get into the design field?
They have to have a passion about learning about different design forms and art. I also think it’s critical that they have a world view because design is being channeled, distributed, and experienced in so many different ways. The more you understand how the world works in terms of how content is being produced and consumed, then the more you’re going to understand how design has an influence on our daily lives. Also, consumers are a lot more sophisticated when it comes to design than they were years ago. The best designers are not only problem solvers, but they also have a human-centered approach to their work that allows them to make a connection with their audience.