Industry heroes: Walter Landor

Walter in front of the Klamath

It is difficult to imagine anyone that has had as much of an impact on the branding and design industry as Walter Landor. Of course, it is easy to romance the past and view events with a hazy, latent sense of objectivity. As the late Peter De Vries once remarked ‘Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be’. There are many ‘founders’ whose style or approach would not work in the 21st Century.

However, I simply can’t help but feeling that Walter’s way of branding would be just as relevant today.

Walter grew up in a time where his graphic style was influenced by the Bauhaus and Werkbund design movements. In 1941, he opened his own design firm, Landor Associates, in San Francisco. Today, such a venture would be referred to as a ‘start-up’. Over time, Landor Associates reputation grew and the influence of Walter’s design and thinking could be seen across brands such as Levi’s, Coca-Cola, Bank of America, Del Monte, Cathay Pacific, Tab and Kellogg’s.

By 1964 Landor Associates reputation had extended beyond North America. Not only was the company fielding enquiries from across the Atlantic, but the firm was starting to design brands for Japanese companies: the iconic Kikkoman soy sauce brand along with Sapporo beer both benefitting from the deft touch of Walter’s hand. With global renown, the company expanded and a new office was required.

Walter adopted an unorthodox approach to the location of his new headquarters, buying a retired ferry boat and setting up shop onboard the Klamath, moored in San Francisco Bay.

It was on the Klamath, in 1972, that Walter Landor met with Lim Chin Beng and some of his colleagues from the recently established republic of Singapore and created the Singapore Airlines brand.

In today’s lexicon, Walter would be referred to as a ‘unicorn’. Vision, courage, intuition and restlessness all fused with one another resulting in a creative entrepreneur the likes the world had not experienced before. Walter’s sheer passion for creating iconic brands left an indelible mark upon the industry.

By the time I commenced working at Landor in 2008, Walter had sadly moved on. The Klamath ferry boat was sold in the mid-80’s when the company outgrew it and needed a larger corporate HQ in San Francisco. Since then, the Landor brand has been left intact following not one, but two corporate takeovers. Young & Rubicam in 1989 followed by WPP in 2000. Many professional service firms cannot attest to such a legacy, with their founder’s name typically being merged into a corporate cacophony of acronyms, letters or substance-bereft symbols. Landor’s unadulterated approach to designing unique and appealing experiences bears all the hallmarks of a brand that has adapted to the changing needs of business.

We live in an age of unprecedented hyper-connectivity where getting a message out, quickly, can be judged to be more important than the message itself. One needs to look no further than the current tweeting habits of America’s 45th president to see this in action.

The core tenets of branding, many pioneered or evolved by Walter Landor, are just as useful today as they were when his branding and design firm was hitting its stride in the humdrum of the latter part of the 20th century. Walter clearly understood the difference between strategy and execution. He subscribed to the notion of brand lying at the heart of everything. This informed his view that brands were as much about the experience as they were about the physical design itself.

During my career I have had the good fortune to work for some talented people. Inspiration, creativity, charm, tenacity and single-mindedness are all table-stakes for those wishing to cut it in this industry. Walter Landor had these traits and many more. I continue to be inspired by Walter in all that I do at Landor, today.

By all accounts Walter always put the work, and the client, first. He ensured his personal design preference did not influence that of the brand he was working on. Furthermore, he knew the worth of a good story and understood how to subtly weave emotion into the DNA of a brand. His canny adage ‘Products are made in the factory, but brands are created in the mind’ has as much salience in the 21st Century as when he first made the remark in 1970. In this line of work, I am in little doubt that Walter Landor will always be remembered as one of the all-time greats of branding and design.

Nick Foley is the president of South East Asia Pacific and Japan for Landor