Recognized for setting new standards in the design of environments and experiences and leading the profession in the ever-expanding dimensions of communication, entrepreneurship and strategy.
Michael Donovan and Nancye Green’s design firm Donovan/Green takes an encyclopedic approach to strategic, big-picture brand design thinking for a broad list of clients, from drug giant Hoffman-La Roche to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library to American Girl Place. The pair has created exhibitions and environments, brand and business strategies, communications programs and expert systems for blue-chip companies including Herman Miller, Texas Instruments, 3M, IBM and P&G. (Donovan’s summary of their client list: “Here’s our world: drugs, cars, boys and girls. Sounds like a party, doesn’t it?”)
Between them, the ferociously hard-working designers have successfully developed the next iteration of a strategy-based communication agency and created four entrepreneurial start-up companies, including Donovan’s recently launched Outerplaces.com, a website that aggregates science and science fiction news.
Donovan has served on the AIGA board of directors and the board of governors of Parsons The New School for Design, and he is a National Endowment for the Arts Fellow. Green is a past president of AIGA and is president of the prestigious International Design Conference in Aspen. She serves on the board of directors for Hallmark Cards and, previously, for Waterworks, as well as the Procter & Gamble Global Design Board. Today she is chief design officer for The Medicines Company (MDCO), a fast-growing hospital-medicine business. Green was awarded an honorary doctorate from the Corcoran College of Art and Design in Washington, DC.
As the daughter of a career army officer, Green was exposed to an eclectic mix of cultures during childhood, living in Japan, Germany, Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas and Washington, DC. She attended high school in Alexandria, Virginia, and got her undergraduate degree in urban studies from Tulane University. Donovan was raised in a small town in Iowa and attended pre-veterinary school at nearby Iowa State University. After a stint in the military, he moved to New York City and enrolled at Parsons in the undergraduate environmental design program. Green studied in the same department, graduating a few years after Donovan.
In 1971 Donovan became the “Associates” in the brand-new three-person firm Vignelli and Associates. In a moment seemingly pulled from a B-movie script, he first met Green inside the Vignellis’ room-sized stat machine (still a student, she was working on a big project and had asked to borrow the equipment), and the two quickly fell in love. They began working together in 1973 on a grant-funded project for the New Jersey Council on the Arts. In the early days of Donovan’s career, he collaborated with Charles and Ray Eames, creating an exhibition for IBM, and by 1974 they had founded Donovan and Green.
The firm grew to more than 100 people and was bought by CKS, a start-up Internet firm, in 1997. Three years later, Donovan and Green left to devote their creative energies to entrepreneurial ventures and service on corporate and nonprofit boards. In 2008, they restarted their studio and now have about 20 employees working out of a loft in Manhattan’s Flatiron district.
Donovan and Green have a special talent for helping clients see the next big steps in a business strategy, which they present after careful research and development. They met with American Girl founder Pleasant Rowland in 1990, who wanted to grow her doll business beyond catalog sales, but wasn’t sure about her next steps. She and Green collaborated on a bold new plan, proposing a strategy that introduced retail locations providing a totally immersive American Girl experience. From a single flagship in Chicago, the stores have spread across the country to 15 other locations, and the business today includes a magazine, book publishing, clothing, accessories and apps.
The designers place a high value upon personal relationships, entering into decades-long partnerships with their clients. Both principals embrace a hands-on approach: When planning the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in the late 1980s, Green worked side by side with President and Mrs. Reagan three days a month for 18 months. The firm designed the space, created the narrative, selected the artifacts and wrote and produced media, including a three-screen video of the Berlin Wall coming down and an early interactive theater. At the time of its dedication in 1991, it was the largest of the presidential libraries, housing 50 million pages of documents and other archives. Green says, “It was a memorable experience to enter into a conversation with a president about his legacy and walk him through the finished exhibition on his life and presidency for the first time.”
By immersing themselves in the client’s world, Donovan and Green uncover connections that might otherwise be overlooked. For instance, while developing a revised brand identity for Texas Instruments, Donovan realized that the company’s 12 core competencies all contained an element of time: Everything they did was about squeezing nanoseconds out of computing. He proposed constructing one of the world’s largest sundials outside of the TI corporate headquarters in Dallas, noting, “We were thrilled that we could take this ancient form of timekeeping and use it as a metaphor for a computing company.”
Green adds, “People get engaged in many different ways. You have to understand them and their audiences, customers, guests or patients. If you’re designing anything from a content management system to an event, you have to connect to their natural curiosity, what they want to accomplish, what matters to them.”
Michael Donovan and Nancye Green will be presented with the AIGA Medal at The AIGA Centennial Gala on April 25, 2014, in New York City.