Looks matter more than ever. We’ve all heard critics and consumers wax poetic about iMacs, iPods, and even Target toilet brushes. Interior design has become a national pastime, and shows such as Trading Spaces, Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy enjoy a popularity that Bob Vila could only imagine. In her recent book, The Substance of Style, author Virginia Postrel argues that we increasingly make purchasing decisions based on how products make us feel. “In a crowded marketplace,” she writes, “aesthetics is often the only way to make a product stand out.” In other words, for more and more companies, design is becoming extremely important. It can sometimes be the difference between success and failure.
Paul Swenson’s company, Kortec, makes machines that make the plastic for beverage bottles. And while there’s nothing stylish or flashy about the business, Swenson is finding that he pays more attention to design than he ever thought he would.
Back in 1996, when his machines were still just prototypes, CEO Swenson decided to pay a visit to a creative consultant, Richard Emmanuel, and ask him to design Kortec’s logo and letterhead. Swenson recalls telling Emmanuel that he wanted something that looked big and strong: “Not some wispy willow tree.” He feared the logo would be expensive, and in fact, at $25,000, it wound up representing about 15% of the young company’s total expenses for the year. But Swenson was adamant about getting a good design.
Why? A major factor was the price tag on Kortec’s own machinery, which ranged from $500,000 to $1 million (today it sells for $2 million to $5 million). “People won’t want to spend $1 million on some podunk little company that’s never done this before,” he remembers thinking. “We knew we could go someplace else and get something for a couple thousand or we could try to make something on the computer, but when it came to making that first impression, we didn’t want to blow it.”
Emmanuel designed Kortec’s bold yellow-and-black K logo to reflect the “massiveness” of the machines that mold the plastic. “Simplicity,” he says, “is the keynote to beauty.” Swenson says he felt a return on his investment even in the confidence he was able to exude when presenting his business card for the first time to potential clients. Today, he says, “everyone in our industry recognizes that logo. People have always thought we were a bigger company than we actually are. It’s all about creating a positive impression in the minds of the clients, and it’s hard to do that with a stupid little thing you made yourself on Microsoft Word.