Joe Duffy On the Spot

The son of an Irish pub owner in Minneapolis, Duffy did his first design work as a teen, creating menu cards and table tents. For the past 19 years, Duffy, 54, has revamped everything from the look of Knob Creek bourbon to Kellogg’s SmartStart cereal as chairman of Fallon Worldwide’s Duffy Design. Along the way, the onetime fine-arts student has won D&AD and Cannes kudos and grown the Minneapolis-based shop into a global network with offices in New York, London, Singapore and Hong Kong. Duffy Design recently won design duties for a Sony flagship showroom set to open in Shanghai next spring.

Q. How do you define the role of design in advertising or vice versa?

A. The two are getting more and more blurred, which I think is a really good thing. When I look at some of the most interesting advertising today, whether it’s broadcast or print or outdoor, there seems to be a real design sensibility to it. And when I look at a lot of graphic design, it breaks out of the mold of typical design and is more conceptual, like a great ad used to be.

Which comes first, design or advertising?

In the best possible case, smart people from both disciplines get into a room and generate ideas that are large enough to accommodate all the ways the brand comes in contact with its audience. And those ideas aren’t narrowly focused on a TV spot or a packaging program or whatever—they’re great, big brand ideas, and they lend themselves to execution in every possible discipline.

Your first job was as a technical illustrator. How did you get into advertising?

I suppose more than anything else, I became somewhat frustrated taking art direction from art directors and designers, and decided to become one. This was before you were expected to have some sort of formal training in those disciplines. [Eventually], Pat Fallon, who was a friend of mine, called and said, “We’d like to start a design firm.” Pat knew my background was in both advertising and design, so he thought it would be a good idea to have a design offering that was as sensitive to advertising as it was design.

If you could change one thing about your job, what would it be?

The ratio of success to compensation. Even before that, figuring out a way to quantify how successful our work is. There’s so many things that come into play. There’s the product itself, there’s the service itself, there’s the advertising, there’s the design. If there was a way to quantify the way our work led to success or lack thereof, that would be great. And then if we were compensated based on how successful our work actually was, instead of a set fee.

And how would you change the industry?

We’d all be better off if we had a more active role in the ultimate marketplace success of what we do—actually playing a role in what the product is, the environment in which it’s sold, the packaging and all the draws to the product. The more we can be involved, the more exciting it is for our people and the more stake we’ll have in it being a success.

What would be a dream client for you?

I’d love to work on new products from Apple. That would be a dream. I so admire their product design.

What do you do outside of work?

I’m passionate about painting, and I’m doing more of it. I’m passionate about Nordic ski racing. I spend a lot of time with my kids and my wife—which probably should go to the top of the list.

Have you ever had a gallery show?

I’ve been working on portraits of friends and family members. I’m going to start arranging a show and probably do a little book.

Was there a moment in your career when you finally felt like you had arrived?

No. It’s like, when I first started in the business, I thought if someday I could win an award in the local creative competition, I would have arrived. Then you do that, and you think, “Wow, if I could get something in the New York Art Directors Club, that would be something.” And the older you get and the more advanced in your career, it becomes about something that is truly breakthrough and drives sales.

So what’s the next big thing on your list to signal that you’ve arrived?

We’re working on [growing] this Fallon Duffy global network. As far as I’m concerned, that’s the last thing I need to do or want to do in this business—to have anywhere from 8 to 12 great, small offices in all the key markets around the world, and to see those offices working on local brands as well as global brands and have them staffed like the four that we have now are staffed. I will not only have arrived, I’ll be ready to leave.

You trained as a fine artist. Now, kids go to art school to study graphic design. What are the advantages of that route?

In some respects, it’s too easy today to be a graphic designer. With a computer in particular. Everybody designs their own letterhead and whatnot. It’s as difficult as ever, if not more so, to do it well. From the outside, it seems like a glamorous and relatively easy profession, so an awful lot of people are getting into it who really don’t have the artistic abilities to be really good at it. People who aren’t good at math shouldn’t become mathematicians. If they’re not good at science, they shouldn’t be doctors. And if they’re not good at art, they shouldn’t become art directors or designers.