Corporate design is its own kind of art form, but the people behind those designs almost never get their proper due. Here are 12 of the people whose designs have left a permanent mark on U.S. culture.
1. JULIUS SAMANN // LITTLE TREES
Julius Samann was a German-Jewish chemist who fled the Nazis and landed in upstate New York. There, he met a milkman who complained to him about the smell left behind when his products went bad. Samann had been studying tree-smells for a while at that point, and that brief conversation inspired him to patent the stench-masking paper pine trees that dangle from rearview mirrors to this day. (The company still exists, and now offers 60 scents.)
2. LESLIE BUCK // THE ANTHORA COFFEE CUP
Like Samann, Leslie Buck was also a refugee from Nazi-occupied Europe. Also like Samann, hundreds of millions of people have appreciated his magnum opus—the Anthora coffee cup—without ever knowing his name. Buck had no formal art training—he was a paper cup salesman, through and through—but to generations of coffee drinkers, his design is as much a work of New York art as Annie Hall. The Czechoslovakian salesman chose his Grecian design after realizing that many of the city’s diner owners were Greek and decided to play to their cultural background. The blue cups were called “Anthora” cups—a spin on Buck’s pronunciation of the word amphora, a type of ancient Greek storage vessel. The marketing tactic worked; by the early ‘90s, Buck was selling over half a billion cups a year.
3. GINA EKISS // THE “JAZZ” CUP
What started off as just a paper cup design soon snowballed into a cultural phenomenon, with everything from pins to cars emblazoned with the design. Until just a few months ago, the corporate Picasso behind this beloved disposable cup remained unknown to the world at large. Then, last May, a Reddit post kicked off a search that led to a woman named Gina Ekiss, a former Sweetheart Cup Company employee who designed "Jazz" for a company contest in 1989. Ekiss's work went unheralded at the time—she didn't even get a bonus—but a generation of kids who grew up sipping Kool-Aid out of "Jazz" cups have since given her the credit she deserves.
4. GARY ANDERSON // THE RECYCLING SYMBOL
Gary Anderson was a senior at the University of Southern California when he won a contest sponsored by the Container Corporation of America. They'd been looking for designs that symbolized the recycling process, to be used on their recycled paperboard products. Anderson's winning entry has since been stamped on millions of recycling bins and plastic products, attaining stop sign-levels of recognizability. "It seems to belong to everybody—and that is fine with me," Anderson said decades later.
5. SUSAN KARE // THE ORIGINAL MAC ICONS
Early computer users will recall Kare’s work fondly. As part of the original Apple design team in the ‘80s, the designer was tasked with creating the graph paper designs for the Macintosh's interface. Kane set the template for modern computing, which is impressive, given that before starting at Apple she had never designed an icon.
6. SRG ARCHITECTS // THE PORTLAND AIRPORT INTERNATIONAL CARPET
Unless you’re this guy, you probably don't obsess over industrial carpet designs. The exception can be found at Portland Airport International, whose blue-green carpet has inspired Twitter accounts, t-shirts, and a Facebook page with over 14,000 Likes. Designed by SRG Architects in 1987, its color scheme was chosen in response to the muted tones which at the time dominated the airport-carpet scene. Unfortunately for teal lovers around the world, the carpet was replaced last year with something similar, but not quite as aesthetically legendary.
7. ARTHUR FRY AND SPENCER SILVER // THE POST-IT NOTE
The Post-It Note was the invention of two people, neither of them Romy or Michele. The two real creators were both employees at 3M: Arthur Fry and Spencer Silver. Fry was looking for some way to bookmark a church hymnal when he remembered that Silver had invented a new form of adhesive that left no residue. He attached the adhesive to a piece of paper, inadvertently inventing the Post-It Note. And so a billion passive-aggressive office kitchen memos were born.
8. CHARLES O’REAR // THE MICROSOFT XP BACKGROUND “BLISS”
Wikimedia Commons, iStock // Fair use
Photographer Charles O'Rear was driving through Napa and Sonoma counties in California to meet his future wife when he pulled over to take some quick pictures of a hill in 1996. He couldn't have known, at the time, that he'd just snapped a landscape that would become ubiquitous. That would come later, after he'd licensed his photograph to a service called Corbis. Corbis happened to be owned by Bill Gates, which is how Microsoft wound up selecting his photograph, "Bliss," as Windows XP's default wallpaper.
9. GERARD HOLTOM // THE PEACE SYMBOL
British-born designer Gerald Holtom was a conscientious objector during World War II, and he was equally aghast at the post-war proliferation of nuclear arms. In his frustration, he designed a symbol that would come to serve as a worldwide symbol for peace. It first saw the light of day in 1958, at a march organized by the Direct Action Committee Against Nuclear War. Discussing the symbol later, Holtom said, "I was in despair. Deep despair. I drew myself: the representative of an individual in despair, with hands palm outstretched outwards and downwards." Nearly 60 years later, our world powers are still well-stocked with nuclear weapons, and Holtom's design can be found on hacky sacks and tie-dyed t-shirts wherever hacky sacks and/or t-shirts are sold.
10. PIERRE DE COUBERTIN // THE OLYMPICS SYMBOL
Pierre de Coubertin was a classically-educated Frenchman who proselytized on behalf of the role of sports in a balanced education. It was that belief that led him to organize the modern Olympics, first held in Athens in 1896. He even found time to design its iconic logo, which, in his words, "represents the five continents of the world, united by Olympism." He presented the design to the Olympic Congress in June 1914—about a week before the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand.
11. MILTON GLASER // I LOVE NEW YORK
Milton Glaser's designs are inescapable. A not-even-marginally-comprehensive list of his achievements would include the logos for New York magazine, Brooklyn Brewery, and DC Comics. But his true claim to immortality is the famous I Love New York logo, designed in 1977 and since emblazoned on millions of overpriced tourist shop t-shirts. The logo was commissioned by the New York State Department for Economic Development, at a time when the city was making news for its high crime rate. In a characteristically New York move, Glaser sketched the prototype for the design on an envelope during a taxi ride.
12. HARVEY BALL // THE SMILEY FACE
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Before Emojis, we had the smiley face. Designed by graphic artist Harvey Ball in 1963, the face was meant to boost the morale of employees of an insurance company. The design only took 10 minutes for Ball to complete, and the insurance company paid him $45 for his time. The yellow smiley was then printed on signs, posters, and buttons that were circulated around the office. The design was a hit and the company pumped out thousands of buttons. Soon the infectious smiley became a popular image seen worldwide. Neither Ball nor the insurance company attempted to trademark the creation, likely due to its simplistic nature. After all, the first smiley depiction dates back to 2500 BCE.