Benson Crane Revisited: Some Designers Are Not Born, But Made

Filed Under: Inspiration , Article , Voice

I have never created a design that was of much use, but I did once create a designer. He wasn’t of much use either, but he was never intended to have a long, productive life. His only raison d’être was to fill a hole in a single issue of Communication Arts magazine.

It was 1971 and designers Peter Bradford, Phil Gips and I had been invited to guest edit a special edition of the magazine. This probably seemed like a good idea at the time, although I don’t understand why the publisher, the late Richard Coyne, was willing to give the three of us temporary control of his publication. Maybe he thought it would be nice to relax while someone else took on the pressure of getting an issue out, though I doubt that relaxation was what he got.

After the three of us had agreed to take on the issue, and once Coyne had agreed to let us, it became clear that we had no notion of what we wanted to do with it. While pacing the sidewalks of New York, desperately searching for a theme, we passed an office building that appeared to be well-designed in every detail, yet its most conspicuous visual feature was a hand-scrawled, shirt-cardboard sign pleading, “Please close door.”

“That’s a sin!” one of us exclaimed, observing that the ungainly sign was a betrayal—by the client—of the architect’s elegant design. Another of us objected that it was the architect who had sinned by neglecting to provide doors that closed properly. We all three agreed that a sin had been committed, but one of the more theologically sophisticated among us pointed out that betrayal, as exemplified by Judas Iscariot, was a mortal sin, and that most design offenses were more likely to fall into the category venial sins.

From this poor excuse for an idea we came up with the notion of an issue devoted to sins that were all forgivable because of the resultant excellence of the particular designs they represented. Playing off the concept of the seven deadly sins, we envisioned an issue of CA about the putative “sins of graphic design,” each illustrated by first-rate designers. But were there really seven? Having eliminated betrayal, we were already regretting it because there were so many designs that betrayed the user. We called out all of the lesser sins we could think of. In the end, we came up with only six: Arrogance, Vulgarity, Pretension, Altruism, Specialization and Repetition. (Altruism obviously was a stretch, but there was a lively debate at the time about the value of doing pro bono work.)

Even without a seventh sin we had enough material to make up an issue, but in a rare gesture of responsibility toward the magazine’s regular readers, we decided that there ought to be something in the issue that would be faintly recognizable. Every normal issue of CA featured a profile of a designer. But would any designer worth profiling be willing to appear in this format? Having no designer to profile, I invented one. Benson Crane.

Armed with clichés that were in vogue at the time, plus some daffy statements of his (my) own, Crane had plenty to say when interviewed. The problem was that once he’d said it, he had no work to show. My colleagues Bradford and Gips, however, had done plenty of work that, for one reason or other, had never been used. They supplied it freely, and I wrote captions purporting to describe each example. The captions were ridiculous, but no more ridiculous than the opinions I had Crane utter, as in the following exchange:

CA:  Mr. Crane, your work has been called distinctive. Do you think it is distinctive?

Crane: Absolutely. I offer a Total Communications Program.

CA: Is that true?

Crane: Partially.

CA: Not to be offensive, but apart from seeing your name on credit lines and awards, I am not really familiar with your work.

Crane: I guess if there’s anything I’m known for, it’s corporate logos. Also I do a lot of book jackets. When I started out, that was something you did only because it was easy work to get. But I see now how important it is. I think book jackets are the only American contribution to poster art.

CA:Poster art?

Crane:  Sure. What’s a book jacket but a poster? The fact that there may be a few hundred pages of copy underneath it is beside the point. Of course you could say that, by the same token, every package is poster design; but a package is three-dimensional. So is a book, I admit, but not as far as the jacket designer is concerned.

Throughout the interview, Crane spoke candidly about his youth and early career development:

CA: Can you tell me a little about your background?

Crane: I was born in Cleveland in a neighborhood that later became known for its innovative graffiti. I missed all that. I was attracted to design because Art was the only course I passed in high school.

CA: So you were talented?

Crane: My mother thought so. I got no encouragement anywhere else. You know those ads that ask you to copy a drawing as part of a free talent test? Well, I flunked the test!

CA:  Oh, come on. That’s a scam. They tell everyone they have talent.

Crane: Not me. I never even got an answer. But I wanted to be a designer anyway, so I enrolled at the Cleveland Institute of Art and for the first time saw work by famous designers. Most of them seemed to be from the East, so I came to New York and moved into a cold-water flat in the Village. I got a job as a waiter at an Italian restaurant. That was the year flow pens came out, and I started drawing spaghetti on napkins. One day a customer asked me if I could draw cars. He turned out to have a Chrysler dealership in Queens and I went to work for him creating sale banners. Suddenly I was a designer!

I had no portfolio to speak of, but I figured if I could draw a car I could draw an eye, so I went to CBS to see Lou Dorfsman. When I finally got an appointment, he was up to his waist in plastic replicas of food for display on the cafeteria wall in the new CBS headquarters building. He held up one of the artifacts and barked, “What does this look like to you?” It was round and had a hole in it.

“A donut,” I said.

Dorfsman stood up and threw it across the room. “Damned right!” he said. “I told those idiots it looked like a donut.” Turning back to me he said, “You’re hired. I need someone around here who can tell a donut from a bagel.” I didn’t know a donut from a bagel. I had never even heard of a bagel. A few weeks later Dorfsman found that out and fired me.

 Well, you get the idea. But not everyone did. After the issue was published, Coyne told me that CA had received a letter from a reader who thought Crane was inane, and another from a reader who urged the editors to “publish more designers like Benson Crane” who “tell it like it is.”

The part about Dorfsman could be considered unfair, if not libelous, so I called Lou to make sure he was okay with the mockery. He didn’t seem all that interested, but said he didn’t mind. As soon as the magazine came out, though, he called me. “I don’t remember this guy Crane,” he said, “and neither does my secretary.”

I was stunned: “Lou, are you serious?”

“Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying he didn’t work here. A lot of schmucks pass through this department all the time. But I honestly don’t recall ever seeing him!”

“Of course you don’t,” I said. “It was a gag. Don’t you remember my telling you about it?” He did not. Lou was a good friend, but I knew that his perfectionism, and his demand that everyone else share it, made him difficult to work for. Benson Crane knew it, too.

CA: Did you enjoy working with Dorfsman?

Crane: Enjoy is hardly the word. But I learned a lot. Whatever success I’ve had is due largely to the focus on detail that Lou demanded...

CA: Was it hard to get started on your own?

Crane: I didn’t exactly start from scratch. I was already doing freelance work for the Syosset Valve Company. They hired me to do a specification catalog, but I convinced them that they needed a total program: stationery, business cards, brochures, even a wedding announcement, and shirts for the assembly division’s bowling team. That turned out to be a nightmare.

CA: They didn’t like the design?

Crane: They loved the design. What they didn’t like was my insistence that the bowling shirts be buttoned all the way up. But it was essential to design integrity. You have a bunch of guys with unbuttoned shirts and they look like Stanley Kowalski out for a beery night with the boys. It’s not the right image for a company that just won an award for precision flow control.

About the Author:

Ralph Caplan is the author of Cracking the Whip: Essays on Design and Its Side Effects and By Design. Caplan is the former editor of I.D. magazine, and has been a columnist for both I.D. and Print. He lectures widely, teaches in the graduate Design Criticism program at the School of Visual Arts, was awarded the 2010 “Design Mind” National Design Award by the Cooper-Hewitt and is the recipient of the 2011 AIGA Medal.