Success Ideas and Tips from Master Graphic Designer, Steff Geissbuhler


Success Secrets from Steff Geissbuhler:

  • Do a good job for somebody and word gets around, or people see it on your website and it helps you to get the next job.
  • When you get a good client, you’ll hold on to them by being a consultant in the best sense of the word.
  • Study the problem and come up with solutions that work rather than just looking pretty.
  • Let the client know that you are there to learn about their business and not to push design on them.


Early beginnings:

My story is very simple and not very glamorous.I grew up in Basel, Switzerland and attended the Design School there for six years and completed my diploma. Some of my teachers were Armin Hofmann and Emil Ruder. I applied for a job at Total Design in Amsterdam, Holland, which I didn’t get because they were looking for a typographer.

Then I applied to GEIGY Pharmaceuticals, which was a very big pharmaceutical company. They later merged with CIBA and became CIBA GEIGY and later merging with Sandoz, became today’s Novartis. The reason I applied there was because they had a very lively, young and interesting group of people doing very contemporary work in terms of design. I received my first National Swiss Award for Applied Art because of that work.


I had worked there for 3 1/2 years when an American colleague of mine, Ken Hiebert, came back to Switzerland to ask me to help him teaching at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.Ken is now retired, but used to be the chairman of the Graphic Design Department. I moved to Philly and taught there for 7 1/2 years, and in the end was the head of the department.

During that time I freelanced for people like George Nelson in New York, and in Philadelphia for Richard Saul Wurman of Access Travel Guide Books and TED Conference fame. Richard had an architectural office with two other partners, Murphy and Levy. We did quite a few publications with MIT Press and formed GEE!, the Group for Environmental Education.

First, I was attending probably the best school in the world at that time. Then I worked for a great Swiss company. While helping to start a new graphics department, I was teaching and freelancing. That’s how I started in graphic design.


Moving to New York:

At the end of this 7 1/2 year period in Philadelphia, I moved to New York and worked for one year for a firm called Anspach Grossman Portugal. Gene Grossman, Joel Portugal and I still get together once in a while, but the firm no longer exists under that name evolved into Enterprise IG.

Chermayeff & Geismar Associateswere right across the street. After a year of working at AGP, Ivan Chermayeff and Tom Geismar approached me and asked if I would join them, which I did enthusiastically in January of 1975 andquickly became a full partner. We worked together for 30 years with a staff of approximately 30 people.


At the end of 2004, Ivan and Tom announced that they would like to do something on a smaller scale.My two senior partners didn’t want to retire, even though they were in their mid 70’s. They simply wanted to be a smallerpartnership again and concentrate on graphic design, assisted by a very small staff.

I asked the three principals of the firm, Keith Helmetag, Jonathan Alger, both with architectural backgrounds, and graphic designer Emanuela Frigerio to join me in forming a new firm. We started C&G Partners in June of 2005.I had worked with my new partners at Chermayeff & Geismar Inc. and knew them well. We recruited 22 employees from the old firm, moved down to Union Square and started C&G Partners. We quickly swelled to over 35 people, but are now back to around 25 people, due to the economic climate. We are very active in branding and identity, web and interactive design, signage and architectural graphics and exhibit planning and design.


Business development at first:

We didn’t really have a business development program at Chermayeff & Geismar, Inc.When we split off and became C&G Partners, some work came in over the transom, but less and less so. We tried various things at times, and my partners, Keith Helmetag and Jonathan Alger especially, tried to drum up business on their own for the firm. But there was no new business strategy.

Now we have Leslie Sherr, who used to write for design magazines and handled new business development for other design firms. She runs that part of the equation. At the same time, the partners and associate partners are all pursuing new business opportunities.


Every once in a while we make a push toward a certain category of work.We’ve been lucky in getting involved in a variety of interesting projects, including the Museum of American Finance on Wall Street, which opened a year and a half ago, all the graphics for the new Yankee Stadium, some big financial companies, cultural institutions, and a bunch of media and television companies.

One thing usually begets the next, you know? (Laughter)You do a good job for somebody and word gets around or people see it on your website and it helps you to get the next job.


Thoughts on getting good clients:

You get a good client and hold on to them by being a consultant in the best sense of the word.You study the problem and you come up with solutions that work, rather than just look pretty.

The kind of work we’ve done over the years for the Crane Paper Company is a good example of this. Rather than just doing fancy paper promotions, we always created pieces that could be kept by the designers for reference and for specifying paper, such as information on postal regulations for envelopes; international stationery sizes and measures; and the making of 100% cotton and recycled paper.Whatever we did, we always tried to be informative, educational, while promoting the brand with interesting graphics.


That attitude is what made Crane stick with us for so long. They knew that we were delivering something, which actually put them on the designer’s map without spending a lot of money on looking fancy.

We do a lot of exhibit design, and at least the way we’ve been doing it, has always been educational and informative–It’s not just display.It’s story telling in an engaging way. The only way you can survive as a museum is if you offer something which truly engaging, where people learn something and interact with the subject matter. Of course it always has to look interesting, and appealing.


Steff’s favorite accomplishments:

Besides my successes in business, I’m happily married to my fabulous Elissa. I raised 4 sons. They all turned out good and I’m very proud of that.To me, that’s my major achievement.

As awards go, I’m proud of having received the AIGA Lifetime Achievement Award and a gold medal from the New York Art Directors’ Club and various other honors. In 2006 C&G Partners was a finalist in the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Award.

I’m very happy about those kinds of achievements. What I’m most proud of is that we’re still here, working and doing well. The whole transition to our new firm and starting all over again has paid off.


The key to Steff’s success:

Producing quality work is the essence of it all.Word gets around. When you do a good job for somebody, people who are usually in the same business category find out about you. Other potential clients are impressed by your body of work and experience.But often it is mainly chemistry and being at the right place, at the right time.

Bottom line, it’s all about being as good as you possibly can, trying to be as innovative as possible and avoiding run-of-the-mill work. When you do the unexpected and do it well eventually your work will be recognized. But it’s very important to keep at it, and never sit back and rest on your laurels.


Getting new clients:

In graphic design it’s a little bit difficult to foresee your future clients. You don’t know where to look.In building graphics and exhibit projects, there are RFQs and RFPs we are responding to and/or we team up with architects.

We don’t do any cold calling because that has not been very successful for us.But we try to cross-sell our capabilities. Whenever we do an exhibit we also like to do the identity for the exhibit and if there’s any print material, web or signage, we try to do that and vice versa.

When it comes to identity and the branding part of the firm, we often extend our service offering to websites and signage.Our associate partner, Maya Kopytman, is heading our web and interactive group. She’s doing a hell of agreat job. We’re doing some very interesting and important websites with that group.


Thoughts on doing things differently:

If I could start over, I probably would have had the guts to start my own firm earlier. I’ve always enjoyed partnerships and have been a team player all my life. I have an older brother who can attest to that. We always did things together.It was always and it’s still important for me to be able to bounce things off my partners, colleagues and employees.

Although having been a partner for 30 years with two famous designers has not always been easy.Often people would ask, “How come you’re not in the name?”


It was especially hard for me when the other partners received credit for work that I had done. It wasn’t intentional, but I think it happened simply because my name was not in the firm’s name.

Toughest challenge

Forming a new firm at 62 was probably the most difficult decision and undertaking for me at the time. I had a lot of sleepless nights, anxieties and financial worries before, during and after the transition.It was only with the tremendous support, help and guidance of my wife, new partners and new director of operations, that we made it happen.


Thoughts on seminars and conferences:

I’ve spoke at and participated in many design conferences. A lot of these are what I call incestuous behavior, where designers only talk to one another.It’s the same with design competitions and awards. We give each other awards and pat each other on the back. We feed on each other, rather than talking to the business world or stepping out to let other people in on what design is all about.Every profession has that to some extent.

Of course there are always younger people coming up who want to know how other designers got where they are.That will never go away. But, it should be a bit broader. Maybe we should talk more about the profession itself and how it relates to the rest of the world. I heard a lot of good speakers, but it was mostly people who are involved in areas other than graphic graphic design.


With regard to business conferences, our office manager and associate partner has attended some of these. I rely quite a bit on my partners who are much better at the business of design than I am. I’ve always been more on the creative side.

Tips for building and sustaining a career.

It’s important to lay a very good foundation, not just on the design end and the creative end but perhaps on the business end as well.

To be successful, you need a well-rounded education.That’s easier said than done.The best reason I can cite for still being around and doing good work is my education and my strong basic training in drawing, color and typography in Switzerland. For 6 years, with 50 hours every week, I learned a craft.


My education helped me learn to see, change things, and manipulate form and color based on a deep understanding of all the graphic elements, all the visual knowledge available at that time.

You can’t just succeed on talent most of the time; you have to understand things and be able to make the transition and keep up with modern technology. Hopefully, you can remain flexible and open to new things, and adapt without losing your creativity and sense of discovery.


Steff’s thoughts on inspiration:

My inspiration comes from many different pursuits. I go to the theater and the movies a lot. I listen to music. I go to a lot of exhibits and partake in all kinds of art related things. Life is interesting. My clients and projects are often inspiring.

Final thoughts for someone just starting out.

First of all, you need to let the client know that you are here to learn about their business and not to push design on them without a complete understanding of what they are doing. That’s first and foremost and builds trust.


If people see that you are really willing to study their business and learn what makes them tick and that your solution will solve their problem, you’ll be miles ahead of the competition.Rather than letting them get away with saying, “I need a new logo,” you have to really understand why it is that they need a new logo. Maybe it’s not a logo. Maybe it’s a website.Maybe it’s a better brochure.Maybe it’s their product that needs help.

If, to put it bluntly, you’re only executing what theclient or your boss is expecting, you’ll never go beyond the usual and what’s on the shelf already. You have to keep experimenting. I don’t mean that you have to fight with the client, but you have to be sure and believe in what to stand up for.


About Steff Geissbuhler:

Steff is among America’s most celebrated designers of integrated brand and corporate identity programs. His work for a broad spectrum of international and national clients includes identity systems for NBC,Merck, Time Warner cable, Telemundo, Voice of America, Toledo Museum of Art, National Parks of New York Harbor, Crane & Co. and Conrad Hotels.

Prior to forming C&G Partners, he served as partner and principal at Chermayeff & Geismar Inc. for 30 years.

Steff has designed architectural graphics for the IBM building in New York City; a complete sign system for the Universities of Pennsylvania and Connecticut; printed materials for the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater, Mobil, Philip Morris, Cummins Engines, Union Pacific and Morgan Stanley. Other commissions include graphics for the Smithsonian Institution’s Bicentennial exhibition; the “Sports Illustrated at the Olympics” exhibit; a new identity and graphics for the New York Public Library and the New Victory Theater, and a series of posters for New York City’s Department of Cultural Affairs.


In 2005 Mr. Geissbuhler’s work was honored with the American Institute of Graphic Arts Medal for his sustained contribution to design excellence and the development of the profession. He is also the recipient of the U.S. Federal Achievement Design Award, and several awards from the Art Director’s Clubs and the International Poster Biennales.

Steff served as the U.S. president of the Alliance Graphique Internationale and has been a member of the board of the American Institute of Graphic Arts. He is past president of AIGA’s New York chapter.


Steff Geissbuhler received his diploma in graphic design from the School of Art and Design, Basel, Switzerland. He has taught at the Philadelphia College of Art, Cooper Union and Yale University and lectures throu ghout the country.

This article is published by Will Sherwood | The Sherwood Group |Website Design | Graphic Design | Marketing Communications: The Sherwood Group has over 30 years of experience working with all sorts of companies, small and large. Our clients range from entrepreneurs to Fortune 500 firms, in nearly every business sector, from across the street to around the world (and yes, even Europe, China, and South America). Our goal is to create advertising,  graphic design, website design, and marketing communication that still looks fresh and relevant 10-15 years later. Our mission is to stir your imagination and leave your competition shaken and wondering,  Now what do we do?”  We are located in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.

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