November 24, 2013

Bravery in design and advertising: Alisa Wolfson at Chicago CreativeMornings #24

Photo by Nate Burgos. View More.

November 2013: The eleventh Chicago CreativeMornings gathering featured Alisa Wolfson, who is SVP/Group Design Director at Leo Burnett. She founded and currently manages the advertising firm’s Department of Design.

November 2013’s CreativeMornings global theme was “Bravery.”


At the start of her talk, Wolfson took a visceral stand: to recognize and celebrate each other’s “human capital.” Working in such a multi/inter/intra/trans-disciplinary mode and manner is easier said than done. Wolfson is brave to nurture and advance this quality within legendary advertising agency Leo Burnett. Her practice coincides with the XXL inheritance of layered history and tenured thinking-and-doing that Leo Burnett (with its many tectonic plates of organization) possesses.

Since joining Leo Burnett in 2008, Wolfson’s revelations have shaped her journey within and contributions to its evolving workplace. To work without prejudice—whatever the creative discipline, medium, or school of thought—sets a foundation to keep building, and makes a professional promise to keep fulfilling. As Chicago-based interior architect and designer Eva Maddox said, “Design shapes the way we live. So it ought to serve everyone.” Design and designing are charged with humanity—therein lays the opportunity to share culture. Their practice and benefits are not beholden to a finite range of fields.

Wolfson’s demonstrated focus to choreograph and amplify the design sensibility and outlook within advertising exemplifies a persistent human activity: discover a need, and pursue a potential path to satisfy it.

Wolfson grounded her emphasis on collaboration, taking it from the overarching disciplinary level and applying it to group-based projects. Wolfson’s approach complements a question tweeted by Tina Roth Eisenberg, of Swissmiss, and inventor of CreativeMornings, who asked for “the perfect quote underlining the importance of collaboration.” This was for her talk to The Museum Computer Network in Toronto. One response came from designer Joshua Blankenship, who shared this by David Ogilvy, an advertising pioneer: “If it is something important, get a colleague to improve it.” Practical act, profound effects.

During the Q&A portion, I posed to Wolfson the question of who she believes is the “father of graphic design.” This question stemmed from a quote she displayed, earlier in her presentation, by author Steven Heller: “Advertising is the mother of graphic design.” Her answer of “The world” was spot-on and congruent with her talk’s grand themes of everyone and everything—as she put it, “The hugeness of it all.” But “hugeness” here is tempered with the same sensation found in small environments and objects. In his July 2013 CreativeMornings/Chicago talk, set to the CreativeMornings theme of “Space,” Chris Eichenseer, founder of brand-design studio Someoddpilot, drew attention to both the macro and micro, from the universe, which theoretical physicist Albert Einstein believed to be “infinite,” to our planet, which astronomer Carl Sagan perfectly described as a “pale blue dot.” This comparative awareness commands high maintenance. Wolfson’s adoption of the brave huge world of advertising and welcoming it to the brave huge world of designing advances a pattern: Inviting one world’s compatibility to the composition of another. The world, among its many permutations, is a romantic construct to notice, everywhere, whatever the scale and scope:
“To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.”
—William Blake, Poet

Consider—or reconsider—design’s role in advertising. Cultivate collaboration to help improve your choices. And:
“Be culturally literate, because if you don’t have any understanding of the world you live in and the culture you live in, you’re not going to express anything to anybody else.”
—Paula Scher, Designer and Principal, Pentagram
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Big thanks: to The Instituto Cervantes and The Nerdery for sponsoring Chicago CreativeMornings #24; to organizers Kim Knoll and Kyle Eertmoed of Knoed Creative, who spoke at Chicago CreativeMornings #7, and the Chicago CreativeMornings crew for their great work on making CreativeMornings happen in Chicago.

Especially big thanks: to Tina Roth Eisenberg—Swissmiss—for inventing CreativeMornings in 2008. The fifth chapter was launched in Chicago, June 2011—my write-up and photos.

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Typeface of quotes is Univers designed by Adrian Frutiger in 1954.

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Read more Chicago CreativeMornings coverage.

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2011 was Chicago CreativeMornings’ debut year. Download the entire collection of selected insights.

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