Leading by design with Connie Birdsall
Leading by design with Connie Birdsall
With a career that has spanned 35 years, travel to over 54 countries, and iconic projects such as Starbucks, Delta and PBS, Global Creative Director Connie Birdsall has left an indelible mark on the design industry. As a leader, she built Lippincott's design practice to be what is it today: a powerhouse of creativity that touches all facets of brand expression, from digital and social media to video and voice. In this live recorded conversation on the eve of her retirement, Connie reflects on what has and hasn’t changed in the industry and her lessons for the next generation of designers.
Heather Stern: Connie Ann Birdsall: Creative Director, Connoisseur of Craft, Champion of Capital D Design and Chief Cheerleader of Lippincott. I have the pleasure of sitting down with this wonderful human on the last day that she is going to spend at this firm, capping an iconic career that spans 35 years, travel to over 54 countries, growth from a small group of 10 designers in New York to a global practice of 85 designers and a lot of blood, sweat and tears. And I promised Connie I would bring the tissues, so I have them next to me.
When each of us examines our careers, we can only hope that we’re leaving our mark. Something that reflects what we value, what we hustled for, and what we built. In Connie’s case, these marks are visible and enduring. The face of the Starbucks Siren, the modernization of the PBS identity, the innovation of the Delta flying experience and so much more.
But there were also the tiny moments. Thousands of sessions, client presentations, mentorship conversations and internal debates that collectively has made Lippincott what it is today. So before she sets off for her next adventure, we have Global Creative Director, Connie Birdsall, in the hot seat to share her thoughts on the past and her hopes for the future. Hi, Connie.
Connie Birdsall: Hi Heather.
Heather: So, you started at a very different time. Presentations were developed on 35-millimeter film slides. Social media wouldn’t arrive for many, many years. Smoking was allowed in the office and women had a strict dress code of skirts and stockings. We can talk forever about how much things have changed, but I’m most curious about what hasn’t changed.
Connie: Well, the drive to create hasn’t changed. Right? I think the creative process is the creative process, and so yeah, the technologies have changed. The tools that we have to work with have changed. We’re way bigger than we used to be, so we have a lot more layers and support than we used to have. But I would say sort of thinking back about what makes a good identity and the process that goes into it or a brand or an experience is the rigor that you bring to the discovery and the collaborative nature of how we work here, which I think has always been a core strength of Lippincott and something that I hope we never lose because you never know where the idea’s going to come from. It can come from the most junior person on the team or the most senior person on the team.
So, I would say that part of our work really hasn’t really changed that much. It’s just really sort of how we get there and the tools that we have to get there have been incredibly rapidly changing. I mean, we didn’t have computers when I started here. Everything was done by hand at your desk and you know, we drew letters by going to the copy machine and taking a type book and making all the letters as big as you needed them and then cutting them out into the word of the brand word, whatever it was. And then you traced them and then you added your design into that or a symbol on top of that. So, it was a much more laborious process.
I think maybe one thing that was a little bit different was, there wasn’t a lot of teeny iteration that iterating that happens when you’re in the zone, which is so possible when you’re on the computer, and you could do 150 variations in about, I don’t know, 20 minutes. If we got five beautiful sketches to put up on the crit wall in a day. That was a good day, a good day of work.
Heather: Something about small is beautiful to a certain extent, and all the iterations sometimes isn’t always for a better end.
So since you were little, you loved the arts and performance, you were a classically trained ballet dancer. I think you had said one of your first design projects was the cover of the booklet for one of the performances.
Connie: I started dancing I think probably when I was six and I danced until I was about 26. So, there was a fairly long love of dance. So yeah, you do a lot of performances and was in a small town and I had a lovely ballet teacher who actually was very connected to the New York City Ballet, and she would bring in dancers from the New York City Ballet and we would get on an occasion to have these people there to train us.
And then of course we did recitals, let’s call them recitals. Back in the day, we had to do the cover art, so I did a lot of photography with those kids too, the little ones. And some of the art projects that I had in high school were all about how to document the kind of love that a young person a young child has for ballet and dance. So it’s been something that in my life have just really treasured.
It’s that thing I couldn’t make a career out of because I’m not a New York City Ballet candidate, but the love that I have for that and the passion is something that makes me think about, ‘okay, so how do I take that passion and apply it to other things?’ And I stumbled into this career if you’ve read anything about me. And it was a way for me to take all of the things I loved, organizing things, choreography—and dance is about organizing and creating fluidity and movement from one thing to the next thing.
It’s about creating a mood and a personality for your performance. It’s about what does the stage design look like, what’s the setting around it? So, for me, it was an interesting almost natural evolution to this thing that I had never, as a child knew that there were things called graphic designers. It’s obviously much, much easier in today’s world or everybody knows about graphic design now, but it was just a kind of sideway thing and I love it. And I have the same passion for this as I did for my year early years of dancing. So it’s been amazing.
Heather: What was the moment when you realized this could actually be a career that I can pursue? Was there a specific moment or experience?
Connie: Well, I was a bit of a wanderer; I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I don’t know how many of you knew what you wanted to do when you got out of high school. I had no idea, but I was going to the University of Colorado in Boulder, so skiing was like at the top of my list of the things I was going to do. And after a year of being out there, I have to be super honest, I have never been so homesick in my entire life. And I asked my parents if I could transfer, and then I went to the University of Iowa and got really involved in theater and dance there. But I also took a really interesting class which was, I don’t know what you would call it today, but it was a class about ideas. It was just about solving and creating solutions to different types of scenarios that the professor would hand out.
And what I loved best about those projects was putting them together into the presentation. And how I was going to present my idea. And he said, “You know, it’s really interesting, some of your ideas are okay. But what you really do well is package them up.” And so he’s like, “Have you ever heard of the Kansas City Art Institute?” And I said, “No.” And he was like, “Why don’t you try summer school there?” And so, I took a summer class in typography. I had no clue that type was a thing you could study. I just was fascinated and loved it. And then of course I was on the phone with my father again, “Can I transfer again?” And he said, “If you can get done in four years. You can transfer.”
So that’s how I ended up at the Kansas City Art Institute. And Victor Papanek was the head of the department and his philosophy was all about design for the every man. And it was just a great, just incredible experience for me. But I felt I had come late to the party, everybody around me had been studying it for much longer and I was sort of a newbie. And when you’re new, you’re learning your craft, and all of the things that you work on the rest of your career are pretty rough. And I recognized that. So, in graduating from the art institute, there were no jobs on the East Coast at the time. That was in the eighties, I think we were in a recession out here. Everybody went west and many people from my class went to Houston, Texas of all places. And we all had jobs in a week. And so that was kind of fun. I worked for an architecture firm as a graphic designer. So I worked on big environmental programs that they were doing, projects in Saudi Arabia and all over the world, big stadium designs. And how do we build those big signage elements? And I stayed there a couple of years and my boss there was from Cranbrook Academy of Art and he said, “If you want to get your master’s degree and study a little bit more, I highly recommended Cranbrook as a place for you to go.”
Connie: So I did that. And Cranbook was an experience. They had ceramics and they had architecture and they had fabric and painting and I mean it was just this incredible studio environment, but it was a studio environment. So it was literally up to you to get up every morning, go to your studio and work. There were no classes.
So Kathy and Michael McCoy ran the program at the time, and it might be a question that’s coming up about who’s my icon, but they were really important to me and my development and you would talk through what it is you wanted to work on. And I would have to say that it was very conceptual and there wasn’t any real-world stuff going on. So I played with type. It wasn’t about solving a brand problem or understanding the business context or anything like that. And I absolutely loved it. It was hard. It was really hard. But Daniel Libeskind was the head of the architecture department level there. And of course Daniel’s world-famous and worked on the 9/11 building. I took a class with Daniel and that was mind-blowing. So it was really an incredible experience.
And then the reason the way I got to New York was we were a fun group and I was in love with a sculptor who was ahead of me in school and had moved to New York. And so the last year I spent there, I was literally driving to New York from Detroit every Friday and then back so that I could be in class on Monday morning. So that was a 14-hour drive. I was in love. So then that’s where I wanted to be, I wanted to be in New York. And that’s kind of where I headed the minute I was done with graduate school, I just beelined it here. I took the first job I got offered because I mean seriously, I had $200 in my pocket and I needed a job. I mean it was a long time ago. I mean it was 40-odd years ago, but they offered me $14,000 for the year. And I said, “Yes, I’ll take it.” And my dad was like, “What, didn’t you just go to graduate school? You made more when you were in Houston.” And I was like, “Yeah, but this is the best place, I’m working for this really well-known place.” Everybody wanted to work for Anspach Grossman Portugal. Back in the day—and that firm doesn’t exist anymore—I stayed for five years, they were acquired by WPP. When they were acquired by WPP, I had left and I had come here, this was my next job. But they had to work off for the next three or four years, they had to work off the buyout, which they did. And Russ had retired, but Gene Grossman and Joel Portugal, and some of you will remember, they started at Lippincott all three of them. So they were a spinoff of this company from way, way back in the day. And so for instance, Gene Grossman did the Coca Cola identity and he always said when he was at Anspach Grossman Portugal that they did it. And I was like “No, I think Lippincott did it.” I learned that later. It was really an interesting connection.
And when Ken Roberts got here, it was like the floodgates opened there and we just took off as a firm and we started getting these incredible projects all over the world. And remember we were an office here in New York. We didn’t have London and we didn’t have Hong Kong. So if we had a project that was happening someplace else in the world, we were on a plane. And so we traveled all the time and that’s those countries that I amassed in those early years. And finally, I was like, “Oh, can we just please,” when they wanted to do the London office, I was like, “Can we get a creative director in London? Can we get a creative director in Hong Kong? Cause I’m exhausted.”
Heather: What’s amazing to hear is that there isn’t this one aha moment or this one break, but it’s a lot of hard work at putting yourself out there and fast-forward the executive global creative director of Lippincott that is just such a storied firm. You’ve said that one of your main strengths as a creative director is that you have a small ego, which is I would say uncommon for someone who has that title. How has that played to your advantage and how, if at all, do you feel like it’s been a challenge?
Connie: So yeah, to my advantage is that I think, and I learned this from Kathy McCoy, you sometimes have to get out of the way. You have to let people grow on their own. And I mean that was important to me. And so I recognize it as being very important for the people that I’m working with. So I can also be a bit of a micromanager with some small details and that’s something I don’t like about myself.
Heather: We forgive you.
Connie: So I think that was a strength because I was able to work with a very kind of broad group of creatives with all kinds of different backgrounds and understand the strengths and things that they were bringing to the project without it having to be my idea or my this or my that. The weakness of it is the self-promotion of how the world has evolved today. So trying to make a name for myself versus being part of this incredible place and being a senior leader in a practice that was harder. So I’m not a great public speaker. Even thought leadership, that kind of stuff was always really, can’t we just do the work, sorry. So yeah, for me, I think that that probably was the weakness of it. Although it’s when you stay someplace for 35 years in the firm, it’s nice enough to let you do that and support you to do that. You do sort of get a reputation in the industry eventually for somebody who either just sticks it out or there are the moments, the really high moments that the world sees and gives credit for. We are very much a firm where you do the work, you don’t just watch the work get done. And I’ve had young people who come from other firms come up to me and say, “You’re different as a creative director, you actually participate in the project and you’re interested in what’s happening. You don’t just buzz in at the end for taking all the glory.”
So that style of the way this company has actually always been, I think it’s special and unique to us. I don’t think it’s the same. I think there are some executive global creative directors in other firms that we probably never see very often or on an individual project. They might cancel your work, which is also something that I don’t believe in. So yeah.
Heather: I remember joining and it was very much about this is a company that’s about the whole and the collective. It’s not only about one person. And I do think that that is part of our special sauce and I think it’s actually quite refreshing. And you’ve been authentic, and I think have shown the type of leadership that can be very successful without leaning on ego or fear or any of that. So I commend you for that.
So as a firm, we’ve also always been equal parts strategy and design. And design I think has definitely had its red carpet moment as we’ve talked about and is very much seen as a driver of business, which is not always the case. But what advice would you have for designers who are trying to find their own unique voice that may not look maybe like their counterparts and strategy or someone that they might see on TV and kind of earn that seat at the table?
Connie: This is a tough one. When I was talking about the experience that I had at Cranbrook, which was very conceptual and nothing was really driven by trying to understand a business that I was working for or how that business was going to grow or what was happening in the context of the economy that was impacting business, et cetera. So that first, you know, four or five years that I was Anspach Grossman Portugal, that was what was just a massive second graduate school for me, learning about the challenges that companies have and all the things that they face in communicating authentically and about who they are about and how they want the world to see them, that is hopefully a reflection of who they truly are. That was fascinating to me. I knew nothing about finance and I knew nothing about energy or buiness, I knew nothing about healthcare. And so for me, that part became really fascinating. I mean, I really thought I would stay at that first job like three months. I was like, “I’m going to be out of here. This is not my thing.” But I got sucked into the interesting complexities of the actual business that we’re in and found it fascinating.
Somebody suggested to me back in the day, you should read Fortune magazines so that you can understand sort of what’s happening in the business world. There’s a thousand business magazines that you could read. I suggest you continue to do that and follow the news and stay current. You can’t solve a client’s problem if you don’t understand what it is they do. You just can’t. Okay. And so designers, and I’m speaking to you in this audience, because I think strategy folks are coming out of business school and have a different kind of mindset about the world. It’s important to take the time and that’s why strategy people, it’s so important for designers to be involved in the early phases of a project in learning about the business because you can’t just have a brief handed off over a wall and hope to be crazily successful unless you really understand what it is you’re trying to do for that company. So that’s I think the important thing, and you don’t have to speak up always in those meetings, but you have to soak it in and you have to learn and you have to be open and curious. Curiosity is I think the number one trait for a designer who wants to be successful in this industry. And then I do think as you are maturing, finding your voice and being able to rationalize your work in the context of what it is the client is trying to do is critical. And that’s not easy. I get it. It’s hard. It’s like I just like it. And sometimes that’s okay too, and you can figure out a way to write the backstory. But I think that if you want to be at the table, that’s an important component. You have to speak out, you have to be heard. You don’t want to speak over, but you do want to be seen as a smart contributing part of the team. And that’s what I would recommend.
Heather: And there was a little bit of advice in there for strategists, but that was my next question, advice for strategists who want to better understand and collaborate with their counterparts.
Connie: So that’s a really interesting thing too. Early days when we really didn’t have the firm blueprint, if you will, was very different. We had about five people who I would call client-facing, project managers and strategists. We had a small team of namers and there weren’t consultants and senior associates in strategy, I mean they just didn’t exist. So it kind of went from that senior person who was in strategy to a designer. So that was a very different dynamic. And the strategists were also very versed in design. So they came to this profession because design excited them and the actual work of design and the creative of design, so the logos and the names and the visual systems and how those things were coming together and the brand architectures and that excited them as much as the strategy work. And so I would just hope that if you’re a strategy person, that that’s part of what excited you about coming here. What excites you about the future and to spend time with the designers. And I know it’s harder because we’re all a little hybrid now and that’s going to take a while to figure out. But we used to work, a designer would sit next to a strategy person and they would work together. And now we also have writers and we have the whole voice team. And that brings up yet another dimension of creativity to what we’re able to do. So we have people who are incredible business people who can really think about what it is we’re trying to help the business do. We have the creative writers who can take that and articulate it into something that’s really powerful and inspiring so that the design team can then take it and bring it to life in a way right now that’s not working independently of each other. They need to work collaboratively together. And so if you’ve never worked with a designer, I suggest you call one up and say, “Hey man, let’s work together today. Let’s go in the room, do it together.'”
Heather: All right, we’re going to pivot a little bit and do more of a rapid fire. Looking back, one thing that you wish you did more of?
Connie: Well, it would be probably the public speaking.
Heather: One thing you wish you did less of?
Connie: Signing expense reports. I told Brendan, get ready.
Heather: A really happy memory?
Connie: Well, okay, it’s an old one, but it was probably one of my biggest wins, which was the moment that 40 men in dark suits and white shirts at Samsung around this table. And I was on a podium with, a translator who was, I would say to the words, and she would translate it when they all agreed to buy the Samsung logo. And it was a pretty awesome moment and I was very proud.
Heather: Did they clap? Did she just translate to you that it’s a go?
Connie: The whole Lippincott / Samsung team was in the room and so there was a lot of head nodding, which doesn’t always mean yes, by the way, I’ve learned. It can be no, depending on where you are. And I was told afterwards, and I’ve probably told this story a million times as well, they were really nervous because a woman had never really presented to them. And now Korea then in the early nineties to Korea today, oh my god, it took off a rocket and there are as many women in business as there are men, but literally there were no women. That was an incredible experience, I spent weeks over there and I have a beautiful collection of these rice presses that are made out of wood, and every time I look at them hanging on my wall, I think of those times that I was there and wandering around and finding those treasures and just being in that place. So yeah, Korea was one of my early trips and a huge, huge memory for me.
Heather: What was the time in which you thought we’re never going to sell this in? Get this landed? I’m sure it happens all the time. We see the end result and it’s polished, it’s beautiful. But is there one that you remember was just an uphill battle the whole time and then you were finally able to stick it?
Connie: We were working on both Ameriprise and Sprint at the same time. And Sprint had just gone through a merger with Nextel as you recall, and I think I had just been made creative director, global creative director, and it was like the presentations were always at the same time. And I was like, I felt like I was being ripped in two and I don’t know, we finally sold that amazing logo that Adam did for a Sprint. But I think it wasn’t easy. I think that one was stressful and Ameriprise was stressful too.
Heather: This is a tough business. This is not for the faint of heart, the work ethic and the commitment and the 24/7, which you’ve done as well, overcoming gender barriers and all sorts of things. What was the motivation to keep going at times when it’s really tough?
Connie: Ok, this is going to sound crazy. It never seemed tough. It was the work, and I loved the work. We all loved the work. We wanted to win with the client, right? We wanted to win with the design, of course, but we wanted to solve the problem for the client. I never begrudged the company. I never begrudged an hour of time I spent here.
I didn’t have children for lots of personal reasons. And so I had a lot of time and my husband was in the same business. He was here in 1983. He was probably the only person I know who actually knew Walter Margulies before he passed and even before Clive was here. So we have a lot of history with this company for sure.
Heather: Biggest hope for Lippincott?
Connie: Oh my God, well you have such an agenda in front of you. And I think, each of the decades, the Clive decade, the Ken decade and now the Rick decade have been very different from one another. But what Rick has brought to the firm is the sense of rigor and management ability. And I don’t think we ever really had that before. And so he’s built a leadership team of which I was fortunate to be a part of for quite some time, but that’s really powerful. And they’re really representative of all of the things that are important to the firm and where we’re trying to go.
And so my hope for you is that you reach all those goals and that you get those exciting projects that you all want to work on. And I know you’d like to do more consumer work and I hope that those projects come to you and lend in your lap and that the whole digital team becomes yet another facet of what we can do and experience. And lots is changing in the world, the whole AI, how is that going to impact what you all do every day, right? It’s fascinating to think about. And I mean you’ve got an incredible team here. I mean it’s just so much talent. I mean I’m just usually in awe. Someone always said to me, always hire the person who’s better than you because that’s how you grow and that’s how you get to the next level. I just hope that we all have that mindset. And you’re all awesome. And so I think you’ll get there. I have no doubt. And I can’t wait to come back and visit and hear about all the successes.
Heather: On behalf of this whole room and lots of people who are not in this one, thank you for everything that you’ve done and contributed and left and to lots of firsts coming up.
Connie: Thank you.
Heather: Thank you, Connie. You’re amazing and iconic and this was a great conversation.
Connie: Thank you for having me. It’s been an awesome journey and I obviously didn’t do it by myself. Thank you.
Sometimes you have to get out of the way. You have to let people grow on their own.