Dana Arnett: Great Work Feeds Great Work

Imagine meeting a legendary designer and strategist during your design school years when he gives a lecture on campus. Imagine forming a bond with this legend, a bond that develops into deep conversations and, ultimately, into a business partnership. Imagine that partnership evolving into one of the industry’s foremost agencies.

F_HDL_Dana Arnett

That’s the “met cute” story of Dana Arnett and Robert Vogele. In 1990, Vogele hired his young protege to join Vogele, Stoik Associates, Inc., renaming the firm VSA Partners. Today, VSA employs around 300 people in 2 offices, working with the cream of the global business world and creating a range of solutions across branding, marketing, communication and digital platforms.

At HOW Design Live, Arnett will take the stage for a keynote presentation, Pioneers, Prophets and Provocateurs, that recaps how Chicago has shaped his life and work. We recently asked Arnett about key moments in his time at VSA. (Foor more great insight, follow @DesignArnett and @VSAPartners on Twitter.)

The Breakers Hotel Identity

The Breakers Hotel Identity

In an interview last year with Print magazine, you noted that you were inspired by legends like Charles and Ray Eames to pursue a multi-disciplined approach, and that your college program offered a comprehensive view of design. That multi-disciplinary mindset was unusual at the time, when design was so specialized. How did being a creative polymath, not just, say, a print designer, serve you in your career? 
I’ve always believed there’s this inherent virtue of designers to think big — how can my idea expand in all directions, across multiple platforms, channels and experiences? Bringing this holistic mindset to any design challenge came natural for me, and it’s proven to be a good bet as my career’s taken flight. With today’s proliferation of content and channels for delivery, the lines are blurring even more. Trusting my multi-disciplinary skills, and those of others, has helped VSA connect the dots for clients in new ways. I have a pretty good feeling this type of dexterity will continue to be a designer’s best friend.

Creatively speaking, Chicago for a long time labored in the shadows of New York and L.A. That was certainly the case when VSA was founded. What did being in Chicago do for the agency? Did it inform your work in some way? Make you hungry? Shape your point of view?
Well, I respectfully disagree. I think Chicago went about its work more quietly but with all the power, impact and brilliance of any global city. Perhaps our noble downfall was putting the emphasis on our skills and clients versus ourselves.

From the beginning, there are countless examples of how Chicago has shed its beacon, not shadow, on global design. I still draw from Chicago’s deep well of design — the new American Bauhaus that later become the Institute of Design, Walter Paepcke’s Container Corporation and his creation of the Aspen Design Conference, the seminal typefaces of Oswald Cooper, the early and brilliant corporate identities of Unimark, the editorial design of Art Paul, and the list goes on. This work drew me to Chicago and keeps me (and many others) here.

IBM Smarter Planet

IBM Smarter Planet

Was there a certain project at VSA that really made a name for the agency? How did it come to you, and what did you learn from it? 
Our work in the arena of annual report design had the most profound influence on VSA’s early trajectory and success. We started that run with the design of the Chicago Board of Trade annual report, and once that work got noticed, VSA’s reputation spread like wildfire to the big multi-nationals like IBM, GE, Harley-Davidson, Kodak, to name a few.

Those early annual report victories created VSA’s foundation and passion for design. And those early wins also catalyzed our insatiable entrepreneurial mindset. Put more simply, great work feeds great work. These characteristics remain core to our current identity and our ongoing desire to always be better. We’ve never been afraid to make bold moves that will help us win that next big project, build that next important practice, find that new and brilliant colleague. Awards and accolades will come and go, it’s how we stay inspired and hungry that keeps us ahead of the game.

You’ve been an influential presence in the design field for 30 years, give or take. Is there a common thread — a creative approach, or strategic viewpoint or way of working — that has woven through your career thus far? 
Respect those that came before you and those who will succeed you. Mediums, processes and clients will come and go, but at the end of the day, design is an ever-changing people business. I want be remembered for how I honored the giants that got me here and the next generation that will keep this great industry going.


Northern Trust Identity

What’s the single most important thing you do every day at VSA?
Listen. Leadership effectiveness is hearing someone’s view and giving them the privilege to express it.

Finally, for the creative pros who are flocking to your city in May, any tips on what they should see and where they should eat?
Definitely spend a day in Millennium Park, and then walk across the street to the Modern Wing of the Art Institute of Chicago. These are two of Chicago’s great treasures. As for eats … You have to experience the Billy Goat Tavern underneath the Michigan Avenue Bridge at Wacker Drive. The food is just OK, but the atmosphere is legendary. And, of course, pizza is a given. I love Coalfire Pizza on Grand and Ogden — ditch the deep dish and enjoy Chicago’s other best pizza.

Catch Arnett in his hometown — along with a legion of luminary keynote presenters at HOW Design Live. You’ll never again have this opportunity to hear from this collection of leaders and visionaries! Hurry: The conference is right around the corner. Register by May 1 and book your seat in Chicago.