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Groundbreaking design entrepreneur and mentor, Robert Vogele is recognized for being a business strategist and
visionary who nurtured the creative potential of generations of Chicago
designers, challenging all to think about design for the greater good.
Known for founding two of
Chicago’s most significant design consultancies, Robert Vogele had the uncanny
ability to recognize creative talent, nurture it, and step back and watch it prosper.
He is a visionary who ran his companies by providing the
right platform and philosophy that enabled his teams to thrive. Vogele loved
the business side of design more than the act of designing itself. Most leaders
like to be out front, embracing the accolades of their collective, but not
Vogele. Like the Wizard of Oz, he was much more comfortable working his magic
behind the curtains, ensuring that his businesses were always moving forward.
When you consider who his
contemporaries were in the 1960s and ’70s, it makes his journey all the more
remarkable. John Massey was in charge of design at Container Corporation of
America; Ralph Eckerstrom started Unimark International with several partners
including Massimo Vignelli, Larry Klein and Bob Noorda, among others; and
Vogele was heading up Robert Vogele Inc. (RVI). These designers, and the
extraordinary work they were producing, were instrumental in making Chicago an
epicenter of corporate design.
Born in 1928 and raised in
Chicago, Vogele had a knack for drawing at a young age. Even now, he can
vividly recall when his kindergarten teacher took him to the front of an
assembled parent-teacher meeting to praise his drawing of a rabbit. She said it
was one of the best drawings she had ever seen from someone his age. That early
reinforcement not only encouraged Vogele’s hand in art, but also taught him the
importance of recognizing and nurturing young talent.
While studying advertising and
graphic design at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1949,
Vogele was invited by Ralph Eckerstrom to work at the University of Illinois
Press art department. In 1951, they attended the first International Design
Conference in Aspen, which proved to be a pivotal experience for Vogele. The
conference theme was “Design as a Function of Management,” and it profoundly
impacted him and the way he would think about and practice design throughout
In 1956, after serving in the
Korean War, he went to work at Latham, Tyler and Jensen (LTJ), a well-established
industrial design firm in Chicago. Mentored by Dick Latham, Vogele learned
about the importance of strategic design thinking. In his new role as the
director of graphics, packaging and corporate identity, Vogele was allowed to
be part of the strategy sessions with clients on the front end, asking
questions, researching problems and following up with strategic solutions. At
that time, it was practically unheard of for graphic designers to meet directly
with the decision makers on the client side, but because Vogele was part of a
larger industrial design collective he was given access. He saw a huge divide
in the way that business and design functioned, and he was determined to close
In 1958, he left LTJ to start
Robert Vogele Design, later called RVI, and in 1961 created a “communication
clinic,” with three separate business units operating within RVI. In this
capacity, his firm was able to offer full-service design capabilities—from
advertising and packaging and branding, to industrial design—to small and
mid-sized companies that would not otherwise be able to afford all those
services. This collaborative atmosphere enhanced the client’s experience and
was an early example of what a multidisciplinary design agency could be.
Designers managed their own
clients and business units, while Vogele looked at the bigger business of
design. He recognized talent and leadership qualities in the people he
hired—often before they saw it in themselves. Bart Crosby, who worked at RVI,
says, “He hired designers with the ability to run their own business so he
could focus on the finances and plan ahead. He didn’t often involve himself in
day-to-day design activities.”
IBM hired the agency in 1969,
essentially to create an advertising plan to lease office space in its new and
half-vacant building at One IBM Plaza. Vogele saw that as a waste of time and
instead hired an outside agency to do a study on the market. Using the
research—which showed an overbuilt real estate market and a less desirable
location some distance from the financial district—Vogele developed a business
plan. He proposed that IBM offer potential renters a turnkey deal where IBM
would amortize all the build-out expenses—design and furnish the spaces—and add
it to the rent. It was a risky proposal, but Vogele pushed IBM’s lawyers to
find a way to underwrite tenant build-outs. He presented his plan to three
levels of IBM management at three different times—a “horrible experience,” as
he recalls—and got approval at each level. His plan paid off tenfold, well
exceeding the expected lease income within the client’s targeted time goal.
“It was the first time we
[designers] were given the business problem and we had to come up with a
recommendation and manage the plan,” says Vogele. “If you can’t create the
business criteria, you won’t understand the assignment, and your solution won’t
His passion for design and the
role it could play in business was a major reason he became so involved in
local and national design organizations that helped establish Chicago as a
design capital. In 1975, he formed the Design Foundation with Patrick Whitney
to promote the role and value of design. Whitney’s primary role in the
foundation was to run the Icograda Congress to explore and develop other
programs to promote design. The resulting conference, “Design that Works!,” was
chaired by Vogele, and it was a huge success with more than 800 attendees from
37 countries participating. Vogele was also instrumental in establishing the
first Chicago chapter of AIGA, with Crosby, and served on its board of
“Bob was very creative, and
restless and impatient with the design field. He had a bigger picture for
design. Even though he ran the most successful corporate design office at the
time, he still had higher aspirations for the field,” says Whitney.
In 1982, Vogele wanted to start a
new kind of design agency. Along with his son Bruce and Ted Stoik, they formed
the Communication Design Group, which became Vogele, Stoik Associates, Inc.,
after Bruce left, and eventually VSA Partners in 1985, when Dana Arnett joined
the firm. Vogele again hired great talent to lead the design consultancy, while
he took more of a hands-off approach when it came to the creative aspects of
At VSA Partners he created
compensation models for the staff. Whether you were 22 and fresh out of design
school or a seasoned designer with 20 years under your belt, he wanted everyone
to feel ownership in the business and be rewarded for their billing and
performance. Vogele’s philosophy was based on the assumption that everyone
works hard and has goals they want to achieve. To keep good people from
leaving, he provided opportunities within the organization. “I wanted them to
grow and learn how the businesses were run. I spent a lot of time with all the
employees, because you never know who’s going to show that real spark that
makes the difference,” Vogele says. He built an environment where people felt empowered
to look at VSA as their own business.
Vogele was not averse to taking
risks by investing in a noncore leader or activity if he saw the potential
benefit to the greater good of the firm. He would say, “Let’s try it. It may be
out on a limb, but we may grow here.” Not many business leaders are willing to
take those kinds of risks, because they’re looking at the immediate pay-off,
not the investment down the road. “Bob would say, ‘If you’re worried about your
rent, you’re really in trouble,’” Arnett says with a laugh.
“He wanted us to think of the
collective and be proprietary for the greater good of the firm, not on whether
my book of business is better than yours,” Arnett continues. That takes a
special kind of group. Partnerships often fail because of ego. Vogele set up a
collective that could sustain itself, while constantly evolving and changing.
He retired in 2002, and today VSA Partners employs 179 employees with nine
partners who still follow the basic tenets that Vogele established.
He now splits his time between
Chicago and his home in Phoenix with Ruth, his wife of almost 60 years. They
are avid collectors of fine art and folk art, donating much of the work to
museums such as the Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary
Art, the Krannert Art Museum at the University of Illinois and the Milwaukee Art
Museum, among others. He and Ruth not only enjoy the artifacts—they befriend
many of the artists and encourage them in their creations. He hasn’t stopped
In a speech he gave in 1977 to the
first Design Michigan Assembly, he stated, “We must stop being satisfied with
just decorating the landscape. We must begin participating in the building of a
creative environment that truly respects man and his personhood—an environment
that places real value, social and economic, on human perfection and
achievement, that believes in the power of human creativity. This is our
greatest untapped resource.” Fast forward 35 years, and we’re still having the
same conversation, only now people are listening and acting on it.
“Bob is not a romantic designer
but he is a romantic idealist when it relates to what a designer can be,” says
Crosby. He is a man in constant motion, and perhaps misunderstood because he
didn’t acknowledge the “craft” of design as the primary function. His passion
was planning and writing and staying one step ahead of the game—not working in
Crosby adds, “I wouldn’t be where
I am without Bob, and even though our working relationship was push-and-pull
much of the time, he knew how to run a business. And he would do anything for
Vogele wants to be
remembered as a designer, but not in the traditional sense. In many respects,
he helped redefine what it means to be a designer. He pushed designers to think
beyond style choices and to consider the long-term value design can offer to
clients. Designers started listening to him and they sought his advice, which
he eagerly gave. Vogele likes to say that he didn’t need to be the smartest
person in the room, but we suspect that, more often than not, he was.
Robert Vogele will be presented with the AIGA Medal at “Bright Lights: The AIGA Awards” on April 19, 2012, in New York City. A video about Vogele’s life and work will be published then.
The distinguished AIGA Medal is awarded to individuals in recognition of their exceptional achievements in the field of design.
Section: Inspiration -
Robert Vogele was awarded the 2011 AIGA Medal in April 2012 at “Bright Lights: The AIGA Awards” in New York City.
Section: Inspiration -
AIGA Medal, interview
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