A Man for all Seasons : Interview with Robert Vogele

In a world where everyone is on the road to being their own employer, the art of mentoring by someone who cares about your professional development is quickly disappearing. Mentors shape the next generation’s knowledge and craft of any profession, and without this process, a large gap exists with talented people who were never shaped by experienced professionals.

I have had the fortunate experience over my professional career of being actively mentored by very talented practitioners who honed my skills and abilities to be a better designer and person. Robert Vogele is one such individual who has shaped my thinking about the practice and role of design, and in many ways was an early pioneer of integrating design as a creative endeavor to further overall business goals and objectives.

Bob Vogele has practiced all aspects of design for more than fifty years. His ability to constantly question, integrate and improve design’s role as a strategic activity is recognized by many of his former collaborators, clients, employees and students. He also committed doing this from Chicago, when it was still creatively on the fringe, lost in the middle of the United States. Bob started one of the first design firms to focus on marketing communication in the late l950s. He created Robert Vogele Inc. (RVI Corporation} and went on to be the founder of VSA Partners.

One of Bob’s consulting clients was Anderson Worldwide where Bob and I worked together when I was the Design Director. We would often meet at 6:oo am at his office on South Dearborn Street to review key issues facing the Anderson design group. Bob collects art, people and documentation. He saves everything he finds important in clear plastic envelopes and seems able to find and provide documents to help any design effort. His ability to make connections, understand the political meaning of action and to generate options to consider are valuable skills and these meetings with Bob have stayed with me.

He retired in 2002 from VSA Partners but has continued his journey of understanding and today is just as inquisitive and sharp as he has been since we first met. For this interview we sat in his living room surrounded by Harry Bertoia sculptures and other abstract art to explore things in his life that I was curious about.

What made you switch from business administration at the University of Illinois to design? What business administration concepts do you believe you carried with you when you went into design?

I went to the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign from 1946 to 1950 and went for an additional two years to get my masters in communication. In 1946 the campus was inundated with returning veterans and my recollection was that there were about 19,000 of them my first semester. Everyone had to take placement and aptitude tests. I decided to enroll in the business school and was exposed to courses in marketing, business law, accounting and the business sales process.

One day, and for a reason I cannot remember, I decided to switch to the College of Fine and Applied Art to study advertising design (at the time there was no organized design program other than industrial design). I am told that I am a split-brained personality and I have always been good scholastically and I knew I could draw.  When I was finally shown the results of my placement tests at the end of my freshman year, I was told that I should be in engineering.  When I informed the professor that I had switched to the art school she closed her notebook and left the room.

On a trip in l951 for my brother’s graduation from Annapolis at the end of my freshman year, I was able to meet Charles Coiner the head art director at N.W. Ayer in Philadelphia. I was introduced to Ayer by Sanford Boyer, the father of a childhood friend. He was Treasurer of Walgreens a client then of Ayer. The interview at Ayer was significant to me as I had just decided to study advertising design. They put me through a very intense four hour interview which opened my eyes a it was a totally new experience related to business. Sanford received a nice letter after my visit that said Charles Coiner was interested in my following up when I graduated.

By my senior year at Illinois in 1949, Ralph Eckerstrom a professor of Industrial Design convinced the University of Illinois Press to create an art department. There was a need for upgrading print and promotional materials for the University and Ralph became the art director of this department. He convinced four students not to go to class our senior year and work for him full time in his new department. He assured us that we would not be penalized as long as we turned in all of the class assignments.

This was a terrific opportunity for me. Ralph was a great salesman and could easily verbalize why a client should do something more significant in their visual presentations. How does one excite the client prospect to expect something good and new to happen? Ralph was very good at that. He was continually visiting Chicago and was involved with the STA through George McVicker. Many STA members at the time were involved with typography, print and book  design.

Through Ralph, the STA created the first Allerton conferences at UofI and invited many top designers to lecture. This exposed our group to Chicago talent like Susan Jackson Keig , Bruce Beck, Bob Middleton, Mort Goldshall and Herb Pinsky. Through those connections, Ralph was very visible to the larger design field. Chicago was an active design market largely because of Container Corporation of America and the Institute of Design and  Ralph was looking beyond Champaign to do work. He would get spec assignments from advertising agencies in Chicago and we would work all night and then he would take the work and show them to his client. This experience gave us a different outlook on the field.

After I left the military in 1954, I went back to UofI Press to work for Ralph as assistant art director.  He had hired John Massey who was a few years behind me. When John graduated, there was an opportunity in Champaign to be a part of a new type of encyclopedia called Our Wonderful World.  Herb Pinsky was hired to be the overall manager and John Massey was the design director on the project. At the time I was earning $3700 a year at the UofI Press and my family was starting to grow so I was looking for more income. Our Wonderful World was a great opportunity to freelance so together my income increased to around $8,000.

Lute Wassman was a student in industrial design at Illinois and also worked at the art department. Upon graduation Lute went to Chicago to work for the Loewy office. In 1954, when the Loewy office closed, Loewy principals Dick Latham, Bob Tyler and George Jensen created their own industrial design firm Latham.Tyler.Jensen ( LTJ ) and asked Lute to work for them. LTJ did not have a graphic design component so they asked Lute to be responsible for this area. Lute was not interested so they approached several in the Chicago area including Bruce Beck who considered it but said no. I received a call from Lute to see if I would be interested.

I was, because I had just received an offer from Herb Zellner the ID manager at Motorola  to become “Director of Graphics, Packaging and Corporate Identity” for Motorola at a starting salary of $9,500. Lute met me at the old Illinois Central station in Chicago.  Lute asked me to make my presentation to him as we sat on one of the station benches.  Satisfied that I could do the job we went to the LTJ office to meet the three partners. My interview with the partners was successful and I was eventually hired. The job was Director of Graphics, Packaging and Corporate Identity at a starting salary of $9,500. It was strange that both offers used the same title and offered the same salary. I figured that it somehow it had to do with industrial design terminology. My decision to pick LTJ over Motorola was based upon my desire to be a part of a proven design consultancy independent of corporate oversight.

At LTJ Dick Latham took a particular interest in me. The LTJ clients that Dick managed needed packaging design, literature design and corporate identity. One of Dick’s clients was Ekco Products a large Chicago based housewares company that Dick had handled at the Chicago Loewy office. At the time I arrived, Ecko packaging design was handled by the New York office of Loewy but Dick wanted to integrate all design work for Ekco through his new LTJ office in Chicago. In addition, Ekco and Alcoa created a joint venture company to create airline meals as a modular packaging system. LTJ were asked to represent Ekco and Alcoa in creating a new company corporate identity which became my project.  Dick let me interact with Ekco on projects and I quickly learned how to articulate LTJ’s  client philosophy.

Dick and I went on many client trips together. One client in particular, the Ansul Company in Marinette,WI, which originally was a Loewy client became an LTJ client.  Robert Hood was the president and the best client I ever had the privilege of working for both at LTJ and later as a client of RVI. At the Bethel Institute Bob had been exposed to new management techniques and wanted to implement these ideas at Ansul.

These were the early days of design and product planning. We usually think that strategic design planning is a recent design development, but Jay Doblin who was head of the Institute of Design and Dick Latham were very good friends and practiced this concept by the early l950s. Product planning was about the organization of a company to understand the sequential process of product development and design as an integrated activity from product innovation through final market acceptance. The process they advocated was a team process which included responsible management and outside key resources to be involved from the very beginning and all participants required to understand and commit to the process through timely communication and evaluation.


How did military service in SAC influence you?

I entered the military right after the start of the Korean War and received a direct commission as a map reproduction officer.  My service area was Ramey Air Force Base in Puerto Rico attached to a B-36 squadron for two years.  I was the photo section operations officer in the reconnaissance technical squadron photo lab. I was assigned to be in control of all photographic production and film processing which was then sent to another section to be assembled into mosaics for evaluation.  I had indirect supervision of up to 65 personnel. Upon leaving Ramey I served in the reserves and attained the rank of Captain before resigning my commission.  Overall, the experience was my first experience at supervising a large staff and motivating a high level of production.  This I am sure served me well as in my business I was responsible to over 100 employees at VSA Partners.

In the Air Force I learned to delegate responsibility instead of always having the answer. I would both delegate and ask the master sergeants for their advice as they best knew what was going on. At the time I had no sense of the magnitude or severity of the Korean War, which was a tragic and bloody conflict.


Since attending the first Aspen Design Conference in 1951, have we made any progress on the issues it addressed?

As a graduation gift in 1951, my parents gave me a two door Chevrolet. About that time, I was invited by Ralph Eckerstrom  to attend the first Aspen Design Conference in 1951 which was sponsored by the Container Corporation of America in Chicago through the CEO Walter Paepcke.

Walter’s wife Elizabeth was very interested in design and she thought that design could be used to help improve the competitiveness of business after WWII. They had already started the Aspen International Music Festival when the Aspen Design Conference was being contemplated and were invested in Aspen as a destination, hiring Herbert Bayer as a design consultant to help redevelop the town. Chicago people ran the IDCA Conference for the first five years.  I offered to drive to the first conference and offered Jim Shipley, head of the ID program at Illinois and Ralph Eckerstrom to go with me.

The theme of the first conference was Design as a Function of Management. Walter Paepcke believed that business people did not understand creativity in business or the role design could play in helping their business grow and prosper. He invited an equal number of business executives and designers to the conference to allow for a dialogue about the role and value of design. About 200 people attended including top management from CBS, Herman Miller, Olivetti, and Neiman Marcus to name a few. The business attendees were most interested when designers presented case studies.  My most vivid memory was during a question and answer period, several designers verbally attacked the business participants for not understanding design. The objectives of the conference were never met with most future conferences ending with designers talking to each other.

This event was exciting as I had not understood the potential of design and business working together. At the UofI Press we were a studio group, and not run as a business. Due to the University Press experience, my military experience and my first year in business school, I was enamored with the conference theme. It all seemed to click with me. I attended the first conference in 1951 and the last Aspen Design Conference in 2001 devoted to design and business.


What made you start your own firm in 1958?

By 1958, after having great learning experiences and success with LTJ clients, I was wondering what my next steps were at the company. My salary was at $12,000 and Dick Latham always encouraged me by giving me signals that I was important to LTJ. For example, Bob Hood at Ansul set up a strategic planning committee  to meet once a month that included Dick Latham, Charles Neuman a marketing consultant, and internal top Ansul management to formalize action steps relating to new products and marketing.  I attended these meetings as an observer at Dick’s suggestion.  When we adjourned each meeting nobody seemed to leave the meeting with clear action assignments. Dick asked me to take good notes and to follow through with Bob Hood in my areas of responsibility to make sure required action steps happened.  At LTJ Dick wanted everyone to be viewed as a peer and to have growth potential for greater responsibilities. I bought into this philosophy and this viewpoint I still believe in. I had to meet with Bob Tyler to discuss my desired salary goal and possibility of future ownership if I stayed at LTJ.  Bob Tyler said my goals were not possible at LTJ so I decided to leave.

Bob Hood at Ansul found out about my plans from Dick Latham because Dick wanted to assure Bob that someone would replace me to manage the Ansul account. Bob Hood reached out directly to me and wanted to hire me in a new management position at Ansul as Director of Communication with assurance of salary increases and stock options.  I went up to Ansul and interviewed and it seemed like a great opportunity for growth. Dick Latham  reminded me that if I took this position it would probably not be a good fit with my goals because I would work under a vice president and not have direct access to Bob Hood. This made sense to me so I proposed in 1958 to be a consultant to Ansul on a retainer basis to handle graphic and marketing support for the company and stay in Chicago. Bob Hood initially did not take this proposal well, but slept on it and finally agreed to my proposal.

The proposal called for a $5,000 monthly retainer to provide 200 hours per month at  $25 per hour (a high billing rate in l978). We would review progress quarterly or every six months. I would document my time utilization and we would negotiate any changes to the contact at least every six months. Because corporate was paying my retainer there was an incentive for all areas of the company to use my services. I set up a drafting table in my home and told all of my LTJ clients that I was leaving.  Chad Taylor was my top designer at LTJ and Bob Kennedy who did all production decided to leave at the same time. I soon realized that I needed my office downtown so I contacted Bob Kennedy about renting and sharing a space. We rented the 29th floor of the Lincoln Tower Building at 75 East Wacker just west of Michigan Avenue.

Soon after moving downtown I hired Chad Taylor and he joined forces with me as Vogele Taylor Design in Chicago.  Within two years we had outgrown the space, Chad had resigned to teach at The Institute of Design and we made a move to a mush larger space at 333 North Michigan Avenue. By this time I incorporated Bob Kennedy’s business into the group and within a short time set up an advertising agency with Brad Sebstad, the former advertising manager at Ansul.  All three businesses operated from the same offices.

We positioned our combined capabilities to clients as offering access to a high level of creative talent that they would probably be unable to afford if going to separate creative groups. We called it a communication clinic, like a medical clinic, to diagnose client opportunities and objectives to provide proven creative services normally not available to small and middle sized industrial companies. Bob Kennedy and his staff did packaging for Weyerhauser . Jay Doblin who did consulting with JC Penny, Standard Oil and Lorillard Tobacco Company also became a client. When Lorillard needed new cigarette packaging Jay used our design services.

This three business concept worked well until we grew out of the 333 space and moved in 1965 to the American Dental Building on Chicago Avenue near the Water Tower. Many key members of our staff were not happy with the old management model so we combined the three business and the firm name was changed to Robert Vogele Inc. In 1970 we moved to the One IBM Plaza Building and changed the name to RVI Corporation to allow more ownership opportunity for key staff.  Our major clients became IBM, Gould, American Hospital Supply and Standard Oil among others.  In l982 I founded what was to become VSA Partners which today has offices in Chicago, New York and Minneapolis with a combined staff of over l50.


Has the ambiguous terminology of design, being associated with Art & Design on one hand to Strategic Design on the other bothered you?

For a design office to have access to top management I have always thought that strategic design planning was a terrific approach to management as well as a high end financial business opportunity. As we became aware of the corporate silos within organizations that caused turf battles we realized that we must learn how to relate to higher management.

John Gallager, an acquaintance who headed a top Chicago management consulting firm and I would talk from time to time. I proposed to John around1965 that his company should look at acquiring my company RVI. I saw an opportunity of a consultancy that did strategic business consulting to also have a strategic communication capability. I was convinced that our activities as a strategic design firm were at the same value level as his firm’s other consulting activities. I felt that much of what communication design offers was a missing component of business consulting to fulfill their business proposals. John did not agree with my concept but it was worth it to me to try.

The capability statement for RVI was changed in l965 from design to strategic marketing communication consulting which was a new term at the time. Initially, people did not understand this term but clients knew that we were not a traditional design firm. Many of my employees came from a fine arts background and did not understand the real business world we were serving. They did not understand design as a business function and often their creative output missed the client mark.

The attempt to integrate design as a function of management where serious business results are clearly defined and our design response evaluated. This has been our focus and always an elusive and constantly evolving process. The traditional approach to corporate identity was based upon a pseudo analysis so that corporate boards would feel comfortable giving approval to do the implementation. In the1970s public owned companies the CEO often did not have authorization to approve unbudgeted financial requests over $10,000. For example, the CEO of Illinois Tool Works asked RVI to consult on their corporate branding problems resulting from ITW having made a number of acquisitions. There was no corporate branding policy in place and no approved budget to explore various options.  He respected our work for Gould and felt we could help him develop a presentation for necessary board approval of a branding system.

We were given a small fee for a preliminary branding analysis. He liked the report we presented and asked us to estimate just the cost of replacing the existing plastic sign faces with a new branding look for the largest new acquisition. Our estimate was about $200,000 and his response was “You have to be kidding—I have a lot of work before presenting a branding budget proposal to my board of directors “ design project.proposal to  my board of directors”. Bart Crosby, formerly  with RVI, eventually did the program initiated by the board based upon our analysis.


Design went from merging design and business, to now merging technology, sociology, design and business. What is your view of this transition?

Let me answer by going back to the l978 Icograda (International Congress of Graphic Design Associations) Conference held in Chicago. I was asked to chair the conference and I said yes because it was a unique opportunity to address many of the critical design issues we had been struggling with as a business. A key issue was how does the designer get into a relationship with client management where the design response can be measured/evaluated against real business objectives. The conference theme was Design That Works: Evaluating Design for the Future.

I hired Patrick Whitney in 1976, two years before the conference, to be the conference organizer. Pat had just completed the masters degree program at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design.  The first thing we did was set up a separate 501C3 foundation to run the conference and insulate all those involved from what could have been major financial losses as Icograda had no funds to underwrite such an ambitious event.  It also provided the best way to solicit tax free gifts from individuals and corporations. The next step was to form an organizing committee of which ay Doblin was a key member. We identified four key international case studies where design had failed to accomplish the design objectives.  The committee hired a professional evaluator to investigate each case and  present the evaluation results. We paid each presenter $7,500. The focus of the conference put on the table a new responsibility for designers. Evaluation.

Over 800 attendees from 37 countries enjoyed a spectacular August in Chicago.  Feedback from attendees was extremely positive. The foundation basically broke even so nobody lost money. Icograda was pleased because their main objective was to facilitate the creation of an American national graphic design organization which did not exist at the time.

Jack Weiss was responsible for implementing this objective at the conference. He prepared a questionnaire specifically for the conference and tabulated the results in a printed document before the conference ended. I believe this conference was the catalyst for the AIGA to become a national, chapter based, design organization.

After the conference, I wanted to keep my involvement in these types of activities. Wayne Webb, my primary associate, did not want to continue with RVI without my full commitment. Wayne had a different model for the firm.  He wanted to have marketing directors, and under them account directors with designers reporting to them. We restructured RVI to this model and we hired Larry Keeley to be one of the marketing directors, It turned out that Wayne, for health reasons, could not move forward with his commitment to run RVI. Hank Roberts brought Wayne into his firm along with several key staff of RVI. Roberts-Webb Design and Planning was the combined name.  Larry Keeley went to work for Jay Doblin in an office Jay shared with Dick Latham.  Jay was one of the founding partners of UNIMARK in Chicago in l965 along with Ralph Eckerstrom and Massimo Vignelli.  The firm expanded too rapidly which caused financial and management problems resulting in UNIMARK going out of business by the early l970s.

Larry Keeley was not talking in 1978 about innovation as he is today. Mentoring by Jay Doblin and Dick Latham who were still focusing on strategic design and product planning played a key role in Larry’s future success. Jay, Dick and Larry seemed to view graphic design primarily as a capability for visualizing complex ideas and strategic recommendations. Dick parted company with Jay and Larry shortly after Larry went to work for Doblin Associates. In contrast to the Doblin Group approach, I always saw in the process of identifying the strategic business objectives within communication design was a valuable capability. My belief was that clients should always pay for a strategic planning function. This means you had to find clients where the decision makers wanted business results tied to strategic design budgets.

I wanted an approach to design connecting vision, strategy and action. Graphic design was mostly in the action business, but it needed to move into understanding corporate vision and the process of developing a shared strategy development with the client.  When VSA was growing, too often the growth accounts were run by client sales managers and they did not want to get VSA involved with management as it would undermine their positions in their company. VSA looked at its business structure to support a change in our delivery process.

We hired Kathleen Brandenburg and several others from the Institute of Design because we were convinced these designers were exploring ideas and processes that were integral to a firm like VSA. Unfortunately, we were often not sure how to integrate them at VSA. Recently Kathleen was named one of America’s top 50 most influential designers by Fast Company magazine. Larry Keeley has successfully sold this type of thinking through a focus on innovation and has been very successful at this effort. I believe there are vast opportunities for designers today. We now have processes to approach problems to identify alternative conceptual ideas based upon clear client objectives and first phase evaluation.

If you look back to 1954 when I was working for Dick Latham it was about all the business functions with the division being the lowest level. Unfortunately now as then, too many businesses are about short-term profit. In order to integrate the value of design, you need lead time to lay the groundwork for change. Doblin wanted companies to look at design as a function of management in order to be meaningful and be integrated into all business functions. This requires a creative team approach that understands the concept of Design Big D. This is a huge challenge as most organizations do not know how to begin to integrate Design into the management decision making process.


You gave a speech to the STA in 1974 titled “What is a Designer’s Worth?”. What had design as a discipline accomplished since this lecture and what are the current problems that are retarding its future progress?

Bill Bonnell asked me to give a presentation at the 1974 STA Conference. Usually these were slide portfolio presentations and seldom contained real informative or case studies.  I felt I could not add anything to the conference by following this format. I decided I did not want to be seen as a design firm owner whose reputation as a designer was based upon other people’s work. My presentation was an attempt to document where I was in l974 in trying to help others understand the profession of graphic designer and what would be required of them to compete in the future.

My team function within an assignment has been to help accurately define the client objectives and identify potential opportunities of an assignment and to raise questions that will help the team determine options for how we might  best approach the problem solution. It is a team effort and my function was just as important as others in the team. This is a big problem in design that we think we had to have done everything on a project ourselves. So I gave this lecture and did not get any feedback.  After the conference, we started getting requests for my remarks, mostly from designers and many design educators to use primarily in their introductory classes on design.

My point has always been that designers can be as valuable as lawyers or business consultants but only 10% of designers and lawyers really know what they are doing to make clients appreciate this value. Why do people hire the other 90%? How do you get design to the point where business views it as a consulting resource more than the action step and create solutions out of thin air? We are more than decorators of the landscape. Designers often succeed because clients think designers are magicians. Designers can make things look better and more organized, but if designers and business cannot make a stronger and more strategic link to real business opportunities and thus create measurable value, then we will continue to organize but not advance professionally.

George Nelson said The reason analysis is wonderful is  because the more you study a problem, the simpler it becomes and the solution becomes more self-evident. Designers never have enough time to study and understand the client assignment.  When we have the time we can make a recommendation that is of great value. So the whole process has to provide confidence to a client to analyze their problems where the function of design plays a different role.

Wayne Webb once said to me what [designers] are really selling is the philosophy of marketing a company as product to be sold. I agreed with this statement. The challenge is to determine the true corporate personality. This is a people issue we are dealing with. Today if you are functioning in an international environment like Apple, Steve Jobs ended up simplifying what competitors could never do and Jobs never stopped just at the white box. He looked ahead and understood the complexity and the entry points to change the way people communicate.

The critical process for integrating design and business, is integrating people that are key to a successful implementation of a solution. People are a companies most important product and people will support what they help create. If you want to get buy-in from a client, you need to manage the process and be a catalyst for asking the right questions at the right tim and listening to the client.


What do you want your legacy to be?

I would like to be remembered as a designer, but not by a traditional definition. Rather, I would like to be known for helping redefine design… that I am a business planner and a creative thinker.  That I am also a mentor who benefits from sharing with others at every stage of my life and uses personal experience or makes oneself vulnerable to others with the key of getting feedback. I am just egotistical enough that I would not be embarrassed in writing my own obituary and send people a questionnaire finding out what they think about me. Feedback is a necessary for me to grow and be able to maximize my potential as a human being.

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Go to Izzuu to see Bob’s 80th Birthday Book



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