The conference happened to coincide with an anniversary for one of the featured speakers, Chris Hacker, who had been chief design officer at Johnson & Johnson precisely three years on the day of his appearance at the event.
Hacker's official AIGA topic was "Eco-Sustainability: Why Designers Have to Help," but the presentation took a wider-ranging look at the reinvention of the design process at the package-goods giant and how design has resulted in a major win for J&J's bottom line as well as for the environment.
Hacker joined J&J at the behest of consumer-group chairman Colleen Goggins, to whom he reports. He had gained attention heading marketing and design at Aveda, one of the pioneers of natural and sustainable products.
J&J leadership had acknowledged over the years that while the company did a lot of things very well, product design was not one of them. That bit of reality was thrown into alarming relief one day when during a meeting with Target, Goggins was told that if J&J didn't "get its design act together," it would lose position in stores. From Hacker's account of the J&J design process before he arrived, it was easy to see how things had come to that. The company didn't have in-house designers in the consumer-products group. All design decisions were made by "the left hand," says Hacker of the marketing department -- typically by the most junior marketing people or associate product directors, who tended to move around every 18 months or so. They worked with outside design consultants, and all projects were handled separately, without a unifying vision.
When Hacker joined, he set up a New York-based design office for the New Jersey-based company (a Manhattan location was nonnegotiable, Hacker said. So was a Mac-based design department).
The new design discipline (which includes working with outside designers) has resulted in a number of successful product rebirths and a new focus on sustainability for the company. Among the product stories: a sales-inducing facelift for the iconic Baby Shampoo packaging, new Band-Aid packaging and a streamlined first-aid kit, and an all-out redesign of K-Y, with more intimately oriented packaging and the addition of the K-Y Yours & Mine, er, extension, which Hacker says has been an unqualified sales success. "Everything I do is measured against selling," he says.
I caught up with Hacker before his presentation to talk about some of these initiatives. He described sustainability at a company J&J's size as "a journey." It starts with packaging-weight reduction and the use of recyclable and certified materials; biodegradability and reusability are the next step. He says, for example, when he joined the company, Band-Aid packaging was made mostly in Brazil from "unknown source" material. He moved to Forest Stewardship Council-certified paper; post-consumer recycled paper will follow. The Aveeno brand has also moved in part to post-consumer materials and will continue to do so.
Will the design and sustainability journey be slowed by the current economic conditions? "Recession is exactly the reason we need to be doing what we're doing," he said. "It's cutting through the chaos of everything that's going on."
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Teressa Iezzi is the editor of Creativity magazine and Creativity-Online.com.