Graphic designer and founder of an influential corporate image consultancy
Walter Landor was a German graphic and industrial designer whose San Francisco-based eponymous firm became one of the largest and most influential branding, packaging, and corporate image consultancies of the twentieth century. Landor, known for his reliance on consumer research, was an emblem of the confluence of European aesthetics and social research methods in an American postwar context that demanded the mass transformation of consumer values with the rise of self-service retail. As an innovative package designer and branding specialist of great renown, Landor made a substantial contribution to objects and images that constitute the American commercial environment, from Bank of America to Miller Lite beer and Levi’s blue jeans.
Landor was born into a bourgeois, assimilated Jewish family called “Landauer” in Munich in 1913. He would later update his “image,” as it were, and assume the surname of the nineteenth-century English writer Walter Savage Landor. His father Fritz was an architect and industrial designer associated with the Bauhaus movement, but Landor claimed to have been particularly influenced by the ethos of the Werkbund movement and the idea of “form gabeln,” which held that design should be incorporated into mass-produced products in the everyday environment. Design was a part of Landor’s everyday life in Schwabing, Munich’s artists’ quarter, where his parents regularly took him to art galleries, and where the streets were filled with colorful posters – a newly expressive form of advertising. Landor’s uncle published art books and magazines, and regularly gave them to the artistically-inclined boy, who became fascinated by the work of the Swiss typographic designer Ian Tschichold and the illustrator Ludwig Hohlwein. There were indications, however, that modern art could be dangerous, particularly in Munich, where the “chief critic of decadent art,” Adolf Hitler, condemned it as degenerate. By the time of Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, however, Landor had already left Munich for London.
Landor first went to London in the early 1930s as an exchange student at the age of 17. He had the good fortune to work as an intern for six months at a leading advertising agency, W.S. Crawford Ltd., which was doing pioneering work in market research, then a new field. Landor worked mainly in the art department, led by Ashley Hevendon, but was also exposed to market researchers and copywriters who impressed him deeply. Landor had expressed an interest in package design, and his colleagues at Crawford directed him to Milner Gray, who taught an industrial design course at the Goldsmith College School of Art at London University. Gray was impressed by Landor and initially invited him to work at the design firm of a colleague, Misha Black. The three ultimately formed a new firm, Industrial Design Partnership, the first company of its kind in England, where Landor worked from 1932 to 1939.
As war loomed in Europe, Landor seized an opportunity to leave for the United States. His colleague Misha Black was commissioned to design interiors for sections of the British Pavilion at the1939 World’s Fair in New York City, and Landor decided to accompany him. By September of 1939 the war had begun in Europe and Landor found himself in San Francisco. Just as his visa was about to expire, he managed to secure a professorship in industrial design at the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland. There, he met his future wife Jo, with whom he would establish his own industrial design firm, Landor and Associates, in 1941.
At the time, most American industrial design firms were based in New York, so Landor was something of a pioneer out West. Landor knew how to market his business as well as his clients’ products. In 1964, Landor Associates set up its headquarters on a retired ferryboat docked in San Francisco harbor, which contributed to the Western mystique of his company. Much of Landor’s work was in the packaging of food, wine, beer, spirits, and cigarettes—goods for which brand identity became especially important for merchandising. His firm also offered a variety of design services, ranging from hotel interiors to airline identity programs, for an international roster of clients. For each project, Landor and his team applied their unique research-based method of design.
Landor distinguished himself through his dedication to consumer research at a time when few designers bothered to test their designs in the consumer marketplace. He was determined to understand the relationship of design to consumer motivations, and he encouraged his designers to intuit shifting mass tastes and anticipate them through design. He began in the 1940s with rudimentary tests, randomly asking supermarket customers to indicate which designs they preferred, but he eventually hired a psychologist to develop a more scientific method of pre-testing designs. By the late 1950s Landor had established in-house consumer research organizations, the Communications Research Center and the Institute for Design Analysis, which included a mock supermarket laboratory among their resources. Rather than segregate the researchers from the designers, Landor put them together on teams to conduct consumer research and evaluate design effectiveness in the context of purchasing decisions. He was also influenced by the psychoanalytic methods of innovative market researchers like Ernest Dichter, the Austrian émigré who became famous for his practice of motivational research, an effort to understand the unconscious drives that influence consumers. Dichter, who occasionally advised Landor, acknowledged that package design could be a subtler form of persuasion than advertising, against which consumers had erected defense mechanisms.
Like Dichter, Landor had an impressionistic, qualitative conception of the consumer experience that was informed by continental Gestalt psychology, which considered the impact of the total image of the package, not its isolated elements. For Landor, good design with emotional appeal could only be produced by designers who could translate the findings of holistic consumer research into powerful, affective forms and images. Those images became the symbols through which consumers identified with a product, the only “physical and tangible means of communication between the manufacturers and the consumer,” according to Landor. Moreover, they could fulfill not just known but also hidden desires, making life more enjoyable by creating a pleasant environment. Landor was unapologetic about his use of the power of packaging to influence consumers’ decisions, and he even celebrated it for increasing consumers’ enjoyment of the product and for engaging them in an exciting game of seduction that they actually enjoy. Landor believed that design injected a needed human, personal, and emotional element into the often homogenous realm of mass consumption and that “grim, gray mother Automation.” As massive, self-service supermarkets became the norm, consumers needed products differentiated on the basis of shape, surface design, and other criteria so that they could make a choice based on a product’s personality.
In this sense, Landor fulfilled the duty of “progress engineering” in the radically different cultural context of his adopted home. His qualitative, gestalt approach to marketing and design problems addressed the psychology of consumer culture in a manner unfamiliar to most American businessmen. He knew that marketers needed a psychoanalytical comprehension of unconscious, irrational consumer motivations, but he also understood that training in taste and ideological massaging were achievable goals, even on a mass scale. Landor was able to translate the knowledge produced by consumer research into a coherent marketing program that gave products personalities. For Landor, the well-designed consumer landscape made daily life more enjoyable and aesthetically pleasing. “Our job is to make the everyday environment as pleasant as possible,” boasted Landor in 1964. “It is in this sense that we are contributors to the public’s emotional well-being.”