Charles S. Anderson: A design-centered life

Last night, Alex Rister and I had the privilege of attending a lecture delivered by design legend Charles S. Anderson of CSA Design, CSA Images, and the French Paper Company, the country’s oldest family-owned paper business. Not only did we end up with amazing swag, including my new favorite, the Mr. French Moustache, we, along with students, faculty, and fellow designers, were treated to 90 minutes inside the design-centered mind.

French Paper Company and CSA Design have a symbiotic relationship. FPC provides CSA with ample design opportunities; CSA provides FPC with impeccable branding and marketing materials.

One of the ideas I share with teachers and students about slide and presentation design is that the starting point to visual stories and not yet another bullet-riddled hot mess, as Nancy Duarte explains, is to think like a designer. The problem is that most of us are not designers by trade or by nature. Despite an attachment to notes that I see as more indicative of the sometimes introverted nature of many designers, listening to Anderson was a pleasure, and he treated us to over 200 slides of examples of beautiful design. It’s design that’s not exclusively driven by a particular client, besides French Paper Co. CSA does design for design’s sake. Anderson described his work, his passion for kitsch, camp, simple uses of silver and brown ink on French Paper Co.’s dynamic line of paper, his love of cheap plastic toys and figurines, his wife, Laura DeMartino‘s distinctly delicate, refined, design aesthetic, his love of the ribald and inappropriate, and the problematic and precarious place of design in the 21st century economy.

This set of soaps features DeMartino's design. Still retro, still kitschy.

So, what lessons can I draw from this excellent experience?

1. Design for your client; when there is no client, cultivate your own aesthetic.

Even when Anderson had no client besides French Paper Co., he continued to develop the now quintessential CSA aesthetic, a diverse, yet instantly recognizable. Design, for Anderson, is not about money or profit, though design is firmly at the intersection of art and commerce.

The Pop Ink line of products is indicative of the CSA Design aesthetic. Irreverent, eclectic, and beautifully crafted

Anderson and his team often design and develop ideas merely for the sake of exploring the aesthetic idea further. This is partly responsible for the prolific CSA Images, the largest royalty-free image source on the web.  The extensiveness of their brand has led to opportunities to work with clients like Target and Nike.

We believe that truly great design is about making something that adds richness to people’s lives; something inspiring, memorable, funny, abrasive, ironic, elegant, ugly, human – anything but uninteresting. –Charles S. Anderson Design

2. People matter; money doesn’t.

It was clear to everyone present that CSA is also French Paper Co. and that French Paper Co. is also CSA. But this doesn’t just mean that the two have a symbiotic business relationship or that the CSA design aesthetic has become the French Paper Co. brand. There is a sense that this is a family, in the best sense of the word. Anderson is truly a part of the French family. I was privileged enough to sit at the front of the room, and I found the rapport between Anderson and French Paper Co president Jerry French to be endearing. Anderson cares about this family-owned business, though he does not own it himself. He shared with us that French was green before green was cool (because French has always been about keeping costs low, they built their own hydro dam), and even took us on a visual tour of the French Paper mill.

The French Paper Accident Man

He is truly proud of French Paper’s commitment to quality, frugality, and community-driven business practices. In a world where the big guy steps on the little guy and the little guy thanks him for it, it’s refreshing to see a business who is more committed to its principles than it is to fleecing consumers and employees.

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