Today’s guest is Kerry Grady is an American entrepreneur, designer, educator, author, and humanitarian. He is best known as the Founding Principal of Grady Campbell, a leading strategic brand agency established in 1989 that plans, designs and produces customized, multi-dimensional solutions for a wide range of clientele. Join us for a lively conversation about growing up in Iowa, a gallery in the outhouse, and learning design from the Bauhaus.
Welcome to our listener-supported podcast, Money Talk, uncompromised absolute financial truths behind financial perceptions with hosts Ed Sutkowski and Chuck LeFebvre. Let’s listen in.
Chuck: This is Chuck,
Ed: And I’m Ed. Today’s guest is Kerry Grady. The topic is From Pencil to Mouse 40 Years of Graphic Design. Welcome, Kerry.
Kerry: Thank you. A pleasure to be here.
Ed: What is this branding agency all about? What is this branding about?
Kerry: Well, that’s a big question to start with. I thought we’d kind of work our way up, but I don’t know if I have an answer to that one. That’s a long story. It’s changed and it’s evolved, and I think what it means to me might be different than what it means to the public at large, but branding is all about image building and how do you express that image through a number of channels including design and that’s my specialty. I think as we continue the conversation, we’ll maybe unravel some of that onion.
Ed: Well, tell me, identify some brands that you’ve created maybe that’ll be helpful.
Kerry: Well, most of the companies I’ve worked for over my career are names that the listeners may not recognize. They’re small mid-sized Midwestern often companies from a broad range of business types and some philanthropic, some in the arts. I have worked with large companies like IBM, and Motorola, and Apple and others. I didn’t create those brands, but I was part of that. When you go to name-dropping those are names that people recognize, but the brands that I’ve created over time are primarily from Chicago where I’m based. MB Financial Bank was the best known at least at the time before they sold. But that was a bank that it was going through a merger, they needed a new name, a new image, a whole new strategy. I worked with them from the ground up and helped grow that bank to a $24.5 billion enterprise. Guaranteed Rate is a company I created the brand for 15 years ago. Guaranteed Rate was a startup, and now it’s the fifth-largest mortgage lender in the country. The Hub Group, that’s a pretty big logistics company. That’s 10 times the size but helped create that brand. That’s kind of typical of some of the names that people know, if they know Chicago, the Chicago market.
Ed: Kerry, do something with Montgomery Wards and Motorola, big old Sears, Sara Lee?
Kerry: Yea, shows my age now, because it’s funny that a lot of the work that I’ve done, if you’re lucky enough to live as long as I have, you kind of see it passing which is– It’s like this the movie Amadeus when Salieri starts the first scene, he’s in the sanitarium. And they think he’s crazy because he actually said that he was really something, a big thing in Vienna and no one remembers because all they can remember is Mozart, Mozart, Mozart. I think that’s the reality of a lot of the work that I’ve done.
Ed: Seriously. Sara Lee?
Kerry: Sara Lee
Ed: Everyone knows Sara Lee.
Kerry: Well, you know the pies. When I worked for Sara Lee, they were much more than pie. They went through a major corporate selloff and breakup about five years ago. I worked for the corporate Sara Lee Group, which yes, was a major global powerhouse that was not only pies but Hanes underwear and a lot of coffee, but that was one era of what I did.
You mentioned Montgomery Ward and wow. Montgomery Ward which in– in Chicago’s history and I’m from Iowa, so I pick up this secondhand, but Montgomery Ward and Sears were the Amazons of their time. Maybe even more formidable than that, I worked with Sears and for Montgomery Ward. They were both headquartered in Chicago when I moved there. I branded the auto express business for Montgomery Ward. I don’t know if you remember that.
Chuck: I do not.
Ed: Well, that’s okay. Kerry, I must admit I don’t understand you’ve omitted any reference to some of the other engagements. You’ve had engagements in Germany and Portugal, India, South Korea. The UK. Yet you’re trying to focus your efforts that all you did was stuff around Chicago.
Kerry: I mentioned the company names.
Ed: You have an international reach, but you don’t want to admit it.
Kerry: Well, it’s kind of I look at my story as I’m Oz and you pull the curtain back and think like. “Really?” “Is he really international just because he did some work in Portugal?” Well, it is what it is, but I forget sometimes until people remind me. Did you work for Montgomery Ward? I’m thinking, oh yes, I did that.
Ed: Well, that’s okay, but you created an identity, a brand. I think something like poetry. It has multiple layers to it.
Kerry: Yes, there’s an art to it, for sure.
Ed: You’re not an artist.
Kerry: No, I’m not an artist.
Ed: What distinguishes you from an artist?
Kerry: Well, that’s a tough one. I’m a designer, for sure. I do artistic things. I think artistically or creatively. Most of my clients and people that know me say, well, you’re the creative guy or you’re a “creative” which is really strange. I don’t like that term, like you’re a “creative”. It’s like, what is that?
Ed: You’re a noun and a verb.
Kerry: Noun and a verb at the same time. In business, I hear, I still hear, it’s like, oh, you’re a “creative”, not like a creative person, but you’re a “creative”, like a noun. I think it’s okay. I can be whatever you want me to be.
Ed: Whoa, you started doing cartoons for a newspaper.
Kerry: I could have been a cartoonist. I could have been a contender.
Ed: You were told at a young age that you could draw?
Kerry: That’s what got me into this mess. Starting out, growing up in Iowa, my whole family was from the same town or within 20 miles of it. Very blue-collar, great people, very simple and very encouraging to the kids and particularly me. And I liked doing creative stuff, like baking brownies when I was four, which did not go over well with the guys. So, I had to play football and stuff too. But I liked making brownies and cooking and I liked drawing. For whatever reason the family noticed, and they started throwing stuff in front of me like a monkey to see what I could do with it. I’m coloring and I’m drawing and thinking, “Wow, he’s really got– I mean, he could be Mozart we don’t know.”
Chuck: You enjoyed it? It wasn’t just that you–
Kerry: Oh, I enjoyed it. Looking back, I think I particularly enjoyed it because it got the result. I mean, people enjoyed it and liked it and were entertained by it or whatever. They would say, hey draw and I would draw it and they’d think, whoa. Then they would start to predict how this was going to play out for my life saying, he’s going to be famous. He’s going to be an artist. He’s going to advertising and I kind of lived into that.
Chuck: They created your brand.
Kerry: Yes, they did. That’s pretty good. In fact, one of my favorite memories of my early childhood is we had a two-bedroom cottage. Actually, my grandparents built a two-bedroom cottage not far from the Mississippi. It was by the levee, it used to flood every spring, it was paradise. We had an outhouse, and the outhouse featured my artwork. If you went to the outhouse, you would find my paint-by-numbers and drawings and colored pages, all over. To me, that was the Sistine Chapel in there. It didn’t smell like the Sistine Chapel, but it was my Sistine. People would go to the outhouse and come back and say, “Kerry, I just saw the latest entry to the gallery.” They called it the gallery. I’m thinking I was very proud of that. I think. “Oh, wow. It’s like I got to check that out.”
Ed: Now, I want to get back to how you see things. I have a sense that given this bent that you see multiple layers of what’s going on in relationships. I mean, you are very sensitive to what’s around you, the colors, the noise. Is that a handicap or is that a benefit?
Kerry: Oh, it’s a benefit. But you have to control it or manage it, I should say is a better word. When I first went to study design at University of Illinois, back in the day, we had a very strong program. And I didn’t see it. I didn’t expect it, but I became really entrenched in graphic design and typography in particular. Typography is as a what do they call it an acquired taste. But if you’re into something like that, which I am, you really get into the nuances of what good typography is, and how a good font is designed. In one of my classes, all the professor stress was the form of the letter. You have to know why it’s that way. Space every letter specifically in a way so that the eye will read it fluidly, perfectly. There’s no gaps, there’s no, so I became really good at that. I remember everything I looked at, I would look around thinking, “Well that’s off. The character spacing is terrible.” I’m thinking, “Does has anyone else noticed this?”
Ed: They’re really a book senses conveyed to two stories, the book is the typestyle, for example, the pagination, as well as the substance of the book. What’s the story expressed? There’s two stories in your world, looking at a book.
Kerry: Yea, have books at home that I haven’t read. I saw your library, so I’m pretty familiar that you’re a reader and I’m a reader too. But there are books that are just such a great experience, physical, beautiful, and it’s usually very subtle. Back to the point that, I’m very highly aware of what’s around me and what’s really well designed, and what’s not well design, what’s totally, is an example of no sense of design whatsoever. You have to live in an imperfect world. It would make you crazy, if I stopped the car, every time I saw a billboard where they, oh, had too much space around it, which I actually was doing in college. Thinking, “That’s just awful. It’s unacceptable.” I learned to manage that because my influence was very Swiss in training. So typography and simple form and uniformity of approach and things like that. I thought, my utopia would be living in Switzerland, and being in Zurich and that’s where all the great designers were.
I had a friend who was from the Midwest, went to Zurich, lived in Switzerland for a while, and said, “Oh, it’s all of that. It’s perfect. Every sign is perfectly– It’s like, Disney World everything is clean, and neat and tidy, and just where it needs to be.” He said, “I couldn’t wait to get back to the US.” Because without the chaos or without the natural, you can’t really appreciate the beauty of something that’s done perfectly.” You almost need that contrast.
Ed: You see that I take it that buildings also may be —
Kerry: Yes, absolutely.
Ed: Everything that you see as well, that’s a design. How do you close down? How do you stop this process?
Kerry: Because I don’t like being there. I don’t want to be troubled by things that aren’t perfect. I’d rather go back to the outhouse days and live. When I go home to see my family, my mother is still there, Muscatine I mentioned that, I totally revert back to my Iowa-ness when everything was fine, just the way it was. It’s not necessary to have high design in every aspect of life.
Ed: Is it possible for you accept an acceptable state of imperfection?
Kerry: Yes, and I think you need it. Like when it goes to architecture, I prefer modern design and just, I really appreciate that. It’s so simple sometimes that in the wrong hands, it’s awful. You have less room for error in modern design, because it’s all about minimal. It’s all about, any extraneous color detail, you remove that. It’s to the essence of what you need, and you do it perfectly. If you ever saw Mies van der Rohe’s city plan for the City of Chicago, it would be awful if he won. Because every building would be a black box, perfectly designed black box, and that was in 1930. Something that was the German idea was, everything is perfectly designed and no extraneous anything. I thought, well– you know the definition of heaven and hell?
Kerry: To a European perspective?
Kerry: I’ll see if I can remember.
Chuck: You’re going to have to remind us.
Kerry: I was told this by a German like 40 years ago. To a European, definition of Heaven and Hell, Heaven is when the Italians are the lovers, the French are the cooks, the English are the politicians, and the Germans are the engineers.
Ed: That’s Heaven?
Kerry: Hell is when the Germans are the lovers, the Italians are the businessmen– Did I get that right? The English are the cooks, and the French are the engineers. I think it’s something like that.
Ed: Sounds about right. Upside down.
Kerry: If you go too far, like the Germans aren’t necessarily the most romantic but they can build a car and mechanics. So there’s a pride to them. What I like is that, especially from the Midwest, it’s like, nobody is that. It’s no big deal. You’re kind of like, “Oh well, he did well. You still live in Chicago?” “Yes.” “I don’t like the traffic. I don’t know how you do it.” That’s all it comes down to.
Ed: Kerry, this is all well, and good. Let’s talk about money and let’s talk about your first experience with money that I recall. You at the U of I, and you were engaged by an architectural firm part-time perhaps, to design a hospital sign. It’s like a $2 million project. And you are told by your professor who recommended you apparently, that you should charge about 40% of the rate that I charge.
Ed: Then what happened?
Kerry: That was reasonable because I was a grad student. I was good. And for whatever reason, the professor thought I could handle it and maybe better than him. Designers, by the way, they’re not always good business minded and sometimes they crumble under the pressure of budgets and schedules and demands and all that they just–
Chuck: Just like lawyers.
Kerry: That was the case of this professor. He said, “I’m going to recommend, and you meet the owner.” I did and he looked at the work and said, “Well, you’re highly recommended and work is great. I’m going to bring you into this project. This hospital new hospital, six stories. You’re going to do the whole sign plan.” I thought I know nothing about signs. I know type. I don’t know material, I don’t know– I’m thinking, okay, so that’s reasonable. I’m not qualified, but I’m able to learn. And I’ve got the talent. He’s like, “Well, let’s talk about the rate.” I’m thinking okay, so, and he said, “It was basically minimum wage.” I thought, “Wait, a minute.” I was like what. From an perspective, like, hey, what are you, a wise guy or something? What are you trying to say?” I thought, “Oh, I didn’t see that coming.” My mind was racing, then I thought okay so that’s what I make now drawing cartoons for the DI, The Daily Line newspaper, so I didn’t lose anything. I can leverage this opportunity to really learn something that no one in my standing as a student of design would ever get a chance to do this. I thought done so let’s do this, you know. Then the next surprise was, so which architect will I be working with? He said, “Well, what do you mean?” well, He’s like, “You’re doing it, you’re just doing it.”
Ed: Wait a minute, you’re a kid.
Kerry: I’m a kid. I don’t even know how to use an architectural rule.
Ed: You’re designing a sign for a $2 million project.
Kerry: A sign system for a hospital.
Ed: Okay. Now the question is, value. Chuck and I talk about value in the numeric sense, dollars. But it seems to me you’re talking about value in a qualitative sense, and a creation of something like poetry that’s very meaningful. How do you charge for this qualitative result? Carefully or– how do you make money in your business? It is a business.
Kerry: Well, one, we don’t make as much money as we should and for the quality of work that we do and the impact that we have.
Ed: Well, wait a minute, whose fault is that?
Kerry: I don’t know. Going back to, we, we comfort ourselves thinking, “Well, we’re really adding value.” We’re giving something much bigger so we can be satisfied with the meager fee.
Ed: Well, wait a minute. You got to live.
Kerry: I live fine.
Ed: No, I understand that. If you’re creating something that has this duration, this attraction, I think. For example, not that you did it, the Apple, that product they don’t discount that product because of the image, that’s the design which you are creating for other business organizations. Yet you don’t charge for that value?
Kerry: Well, the problem is, I think is that it is perceived value of graphic design. Graphic designers like me do not have to be licensed. You don’t even need a degree anymore because of the changes in technology and apps and global networks of Fiver-like talent pools, you need a logo. Just sign up and 10,000 “designers” around the world will gladly throw logos at you and just watch what happens. You pick the winner, that’s $30. To someone in Bangladesh, a pretty good deal for them. There’s a constant undermine and friction between business and designers.
The margins are reduced because you no longer– I like to think that I’m an expert. Like Malcolm Gladwell said 10,000 hours makes you an expert. I’m thinking I have the same level expertise as a doctor or a lawyer or an architect or any– Name it. The value is if you’re an architect, you need a license because whatever you design might collapse and kill someone. If you’re an attorney, you have to be accredited. You can say you’re a designer and you’re in business. The public at larger business really have a hard time discerning, “You’re a designer and she’s a designer and you both do the same things you say, but you’re 10 times the price. I think I’m going to go with her.”
Ed: Well, you’re actually more than a designer. You’re more than a lawyer. You add some value, hopefully, that’ll change the destiny of a family. We’ve seen that. Yet, it’s very difficult to charge with this qualitative value. I think, Kerry, in your situation, you’re making some strategic designs, planning, design development, advertising, print. It’s not just that little piece. You are “selling the whole nine yards.” I think your people lose sight of that, that they want their car fixed, but they don’t want a new car.
Kerry: I’m kind of in the final stages of my career. I don’t know how long it’s going to go on, hopefully, a long time. But it’s been a conflict for designers for a long time. What value we bring, we don’t make as much as we should or could. There are brand agencies out there that are much bigger than mine that charge much more than we do. I think the outcome is maybe less of a quality that we bring. What’s the difference? They’re really good businesspeople.
Ed: You mean salesmen.
Ed: Not businesspeople, salesmen.
Kerry: By connections. Big companies hire big companies.
Ed: Chuck, we’ve talked about big law firms, right?
Chuck: Yes, no, it’s very true.
Ed: Yet the inside council choosing a law firm has got to protect himself or herself. They hire a big firm. So, you have that same issue but the content or the product is, I wouldn’t say inferior, but I think we can say inferior. We’ve seen some situations.
Chuck: Yes, It’s the whole—I would think that to a certain extent talent gets diluted in a larger organization. That’s my very limited observations in this field that you hire a big firm. Of course, they are a big firm, and they have all kinds of people that are working on a project. They tend to create a little more vanilla versus smaller outfits that are dealing with a handful of people that work very closely together who are a little more, I’d say, engaged and enthusiastic. The creativity comes out and you can see it. It might not be to your liking. It might be startling. It might be a little higher risk, which, of course, these big companies don’t want to incur high risk when they’re dealing with something like a marketing plan, but the creativity is a little more. Again, my experience here is very limited, but that’s my observation, is dealing with, for instance, web design. You can hire a big firm and they’ll put together a website for you and no one will criticize you for hiring them and your webpage will look just like everybody else’s webpage. But you can hire a small firm and they’ll put together a website for you and your webpage will look unique and hopefully unique in a good way. Does that make sense to you?
Kerry: Yes, no, that’s true, I think.
Ed: The problem I see it is the camel is a horse designed by a large firm. I think we’d lose sight of that because you’re able to attract a relationship that identifies what’s really going in the head of the individual that’s engaging you, but people are afraid to take risks. That’s the thing that is so interesting in my perspective. The businessperson, the entrepreneur that we work with is not afraid of risk. This is an opportunity to engage in something that I could create something and risk, but you have a hard time selling that to a large organization. It seems to me your focus is as it is an organization that understands the value that you’re creating.
Kerry: Right. You mentioned some of the larger firms and international firms or companies, and that’s all good. I can work in within that dynamic. But my preference is to have a relationship with the decision-makers or the leadership. When you have that, and I think that at the end of the day, we all have trusted advisors in our life. Right? When you’re faced with a hard decision, you turn to someone and say, “Okay, so I’m getting all this input. What do you think?” That’s the guy I want to be. One of those guys, so there’s a lot of noise like they say, “I should go with a big company. I should go with whatever. How do you counter that, Kerry?” Then I think, “Well, here’s what I would say to that.”
You mentioned a lot of the big companies and big brands like Apple. Steve Jobs wanted to be a graphic designer. He took a calligraphy class. He was a creative, as they would say. His first rendition of the Apple logo was really an illustration of Newton. It was Newton and the Apple
Chuck: Right. Right
Kerry: And it was an illustration. From a designer, it’s totally impractical. It would never work. You can’t put that on a phone, not even a rotary phone. He understood, maybe he wasn’t a designer, but he understood the value and importance of design. That’s why Apple products are never on sale. You don’t know what they’re really worth, but you will pay $800 for a phone.
Ed: Like Starbucks.
Kerry: Yes. Like Starbucks.
Ed: Chuck, you love Starbucks.
Chuck: We’ve spent some time talking about coffee in general and Starbucks in particular.
Kerry: That’s the whole brand you’re drinking. The Nike logo, I don’t know if you know, this, the swoosh was designed by an intern, a part-time student, and it was a $25 logo by an intern.
Ed: What is it worth now?
Chuck: You’re talking our listeners into hiring the Bangladesh.
Kerry: Well, they’re not my clients.
Ed: No, but the difficulty you’re thinking and you’re creating value, but you’re not getting paid for it.
Kerry: Right. As a designer, and we’re good at this not because we want to be, but we’ll sit and talk amongst ourselves and think, “Isn’t it a shame that business doesn’t really understand our value and pay us a living wage kind of thing.” It’s better, I think, to be able to just, you have to explain the value in a way that is not abstract and does come down to dollars and cents sometimes.
Ed: You’re sales, we’re all in sales. And I will tell you, having been on the other side of the equation practice and the stuff we work with, convincing clients that there’s value is not really easy, is it?
Chuck: Well, it’s only easy when you really can do so by mathematical formula. If you’re trying to talk about a qualitative value rather than a quantitative value, yes, I don’t know how to express that.
Ed: It seems to me that you’re creating value here that controls the destiny of the subject business organization. You’re really adding significant value. The Coke design, the Apple, all these icons, I’ll call it. And so there’s the qualitative reward. You feel good at the end of the day. On the other hand, it is, I’d say, almost a shame that you’ve got rachet that up, but you really have to take some more sales courses, I think.
Kerry: I’m very satisfied with the choices and the balance. I’m well compensated for, in my view of my life, and no complaints there. But I am also a realist, I understand. I work with a lot of financial companies now, a lot of private equity companies and banks. And I understand that it’s an ROI game. It’s like, “If we pay you $10,000, we get $20,000 in return.”
Ed: You’re talking to the wrong guy or gal. That person’s got to reduce everything to numbers. That’s the MBA of the world. I have to differ with you. We run into those people all the time. The response is, “You, know, I don’t think I can help you,” because you’ll never recognize the value that I’m creating, the goodwill value that I’m creating, the identity that– Why do we have generic products on the shelves of the grocery stores versus those that Campbell soups versus XYZ soup is same soup. Well, if you don’t understand the value of that name, then go to someone else. Am I being too abrupt maybe?
Kerry: No. Ultimately, the real victory for me is when I can help someone cross that line and they’ll challenge me. They’ll say, “Okay, so what do you say to that?” Just like you responded to that. “We’re thinking about hiring you because someone else had a good experience with you, or you really understand our business, which is important.” I used to think I’m a designer, I’m a designer. I can design anything and that’s what people want. They come because I’m an expert and they can’t do it themselves. Well, that changed, or that they really need an expert to do this because they don’t know how to print.
Well, what happened to print? It’s gone basically. There are all these dynamics so that the conversation gets smaller and smaller. Now it’s like, “Well, you’ve been around a long time. You’ve done a lot of things for companies like ours and so we know you know our space, you understand what we’re doing.” I think that’s number one. Try to find a designer who knows as much about your business as I do. That’s not going to be easy. I’ve been around and lots of what I do primarily is for business clients. There’s some acumen there, there’s some history there.
I finish with, let’s not talk about design, let’s talk about business, let’s talk about your goals. What are you trying to achieve and what’s holding you back? Why are you even hesitating with bringing us on?
Ed: What’s driving you? To say.
Kerry: It is this like, Well, we’ve had bad experiences before. We don’t really know your space. We don’t really understand design or the value of it. We’re financial guys, we’re lawyers.
Ed: Those are dangerous people.
Kerry: There are a lot of them.
Ed: The financial, the lawyers, the accountants are really dangerous, except the worst are the engineers. I want to see a solution. I’ve got this problem. Or putting another way, I have a solution. I need a problem.
Ed: Well, Kerry, just in passing, I’ve seen your works in this, your book, From Pencil to Mouse. And you’re not going to believe this, but the most impre– and we’ll try to get this on the website, a feature in there was your resume. The idea of your first and only resume with the yellow background. Remember that?
Kerry: The initials. Yes.
Ed: I just couldn’t believe that. WOW! Anyone presenting that will get a job, a creative job.
Kerry: Well, I always thought that if you’re, it’s like the shoemaker that needs new shoes. If you’re going to do a resume and you’re applying for a design job that resume better stand out.
Ed: It did.
Kerry: I remember with one. I only wanted to interview with four groups and one of them, when I went in, he had it taped to his wall.
Ed: Your resume?
Kerry: Yes. When I came in, I thought this is good.
Chuck: That’s great.
Ed: Well, with that in mind let’s adjourn for the day. This has been a very interesting discussion. And I wish I could do what you do and forgetting about what we see on canned presentations, the ability to create a qualitative value of something meaningful is got to be like a view of achieving some form of immortality. Fair?
Kerry: We’ll work on it.
Ed: Thanks for your time.
Chuck: Thank you.
Ed: Chuck any observations?
Chuck: Not other than what you’ve said.
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