President of the KDU, publisher of the The Royal Magazine and founder of SVSV, designer and brand strategist, David Gensler, is considered to be one of the top youth strategists in the world, today. Renowned for his work establishing, among others, Rocafella and The Human Brand in his 20s, Gensler has transitioned into working with more sustainable projects in an effort to develop not only brands, but humanity in general.
“In the future, I would rather be remembered as an activist or philosopher than a designer or business innovator.”
Format: Please introduce yourself.
David Gensler: Hello, David William Gensler or Baltimore, Maryland, then Los Angeles, then Philadelphia, now, New York. I am a strategist and designer, I also get my hands dirty lecturing and writing, doing product design. I started out in photography and then advertising and then expanded into industrial design and pretty much all forms of design I could get involved with. I then shifted hard into business and management and now I am shifting again to tackle larger social issues and beginning to focus on critical theory and economics. I think that it is critical that designers, artists, creators and business innovators begin to see the full picture and place an emphasis on social concerns: for example, the economy, the climate, energy crisis, hunger and war, not just creating things to consume. There needs to be more balance.
Format: How did you get into branding and strategy?
Gensler: I was always interested in being creative. I started out in college studying medicine, which turned out to be a huge disaster, since I am freaked out by blood. I shifted to study photography, which lead to studying film then advertising. I, eventually, settled on advertising and industrial design. I then entered the work force at just the right time and had an endless amount of opportunities to work on large accounts with great teams of people. I was lucky to always find myself in management rolls at very young ages. I look back now and can’t imagine how I pulled it off. I was a creative director of whole agencies from 22 on. I quickly understood the value of understanding the mechanics of business, management and ultimately strategy. After many years of winging it, I went back to business school and began to understand the true relationship between media, design and business. Now, I see no separation between them: innovation, creativity and the bottom line are all the same thing. It is all glued together by strategy.
Format: Your website, davidgensler.com currently links to the KDU website and the Hellovon website. Why is there no information about you specifically?
Gensler: Well by the time this goes live, I believe the new site will be live. I have been so busy I never had time to develop a proper site. Many of my fellow KDU members wanted me to put something up to better communicate what we were doing in the NYC headquarters, so I caved in and launched the new site. I plan on only focusing on news pertaining to strategy or KDU internal group movements. We have enough going on around the world to make the updates pretty frequent. I had the Von piece up for a long time, because the hand drawn type was truly inspiring to me, personally. Von’s work made me begin designing, again – I felt it represented where I was at personally.
Format: What is the Keystone Design Union?
Gensler: We are a design based fraternal collective. We have around 550 members spread across the globe. We consist mostly of designers and artists covering almost all disciplines: fine art, illustration, industrial design, fashion, architecture, footwear, typography, interactive. We also have members that focus more on the business side of things: MBAs, lawyers, agents and some writers, photographers, directors, business owners, editors, publishers and pretty much anyone that uses design as a tool to build themselves and their business. There really is no goal to be the biggest. Actually, I prefer the days when I knew everyone’s birthday and the names of their dogs, but the global design culture is growing larger and larger, so we simply grow organically with it. I think that 1000 members worldwide is a good number to cap it at. I want to make sure we are truly in all emerging markets so we can feed the entire group inspiration from all cultures and subcultures, not just the ones coming from the big cities.
Format: With so many members globally, how does the KDU keep organized, and not spread itself thin?
Gensler: It is a big world, 500 people are really not a lot. We have only around 50 members in NYC, 15 in London, 10 in France, 20 in Canada, two in Singapore. The members are spread all over. We organize everything through a private database and are about to launch a private community based site that will allow more organic growth inside the group. I have about 20 core members that help manage and maintain the other members.
Format: Please speak about the consultancy company you recently opened, and how it is different than what you’ve done in the past.
Gensler: We have always been consulting clients since leaving the ROC and forming the KDU, we just did it quietly. I reached a point about six months ago while crating the current SVSV campaign, where I realized that we moved much more efficiently than other models I had worked in or with in the past. Our flow was faster and the end product was as good if not better than past work, so I figured, why not see how outside brands respond to this. We began with some smaller projects for brands we interacted with, identities and promotional work, and then shifted to campaign development for 555 Soul and Subscript, and then some large design and strategy projects for Steve Stoute’s Translation marketing.
With Translation we developed solutions for Samsung, GM and Hershey’s and continue to work on other global projects. Steve built a new model for a global service company and the KDU model complimented it perfectly. Together we were able to produce innovative work at a faster pace than traditional models, it is work that is also rooted in design and thinking from the entire KDU organism, not just a room full of ad executives looking at the target culture through a microscope. With our model, the solutions are developed by the target demographic, and carefully guided by a core team. We had people collaborating on ideas from France, London, Singapore, Poland, Canada, New Zealand, Australia and the States. If you are targeting a global market you can’t be arrogant enough to think traditional New York thinking is enough to reach the entire globe anymore. We create solutions and drive innovation at a pace equal to the market. We have abandoned the traditions that have clogged the advertising and media industries. Our mousetrap works better.
Format: You’ve mentioned that you feel The Royal could achieve equal success to other design publications with a few minor tweaks. How do you define success for The Royal, and do you feel like you have reached the level of success you set out to?
Gensler: Well, I think that we can help define a new and broader definition of design. The other publications focus on a specific genre or industry, I want to find the threads that connect all things together – through design. The minor tweaks I was referring to are simply the time we invest in any of the projects. We shifted away from the Royal, because the industry was obsessed with blogs and I did not wish to participate in this movement. Now, the consumers are demanding more again. There are some online magazines that deliver a deeper experience, you guys do a great job, Inquiring Mind also does a great job, but there are clearly holes in the landscape. I want to now expand to cover more cultural issues and broader reaching design, a national geographic for modern global youth. In terms of defining the success, I guess recognition has to be a goal in media, but I have no intentions of being the biggest – I want to have the Royal have a unique voice that is authentic and original. I also will be happy when I see dedicated issues in London, Southern Asia, Germany, France, Italy, Africa, Dubai, and even Canada. I want the content to be global, but at the same time local and personal.
Format: The tenth issue of The Royal is coming out soon. What, if anything, are you doing special for this issue?
Gensler: We just launched the Summer Solstice Special Edition at The Retreat at Magic. This was a full size fine art book produced directly with our NYC partners Proof 7 and in collaboration with NYC based Newborn. We wanted to just strip everything away and focus on the artwork and the paper quality – as a time capsule for this summer. As for issue ten, I will produce it this year and it will serve as the last free issue we create. Then we will move to the news stands so we can reach more people globally, but before we go traditional, we will put out the largest and widest reaching Royal to date. I am aiming at 500 pages, if I find enough worthy content, and we will pull out all the stops on printing and quality. I want to create something that I can personally look at in 10 years and be proud of.
Format: Please speak about the Future Craft brand and the ideology behind it.
Gensler: This is a new project that has spun off the original ideology that was used to form SVSV Bespoke. I wanted to investigate where real value comes from, not manufactured marketing value but real value that is created organically. We accomplished this to an extent with SVSV, but due to the model, we can only reach so many people with Bepsoke. Future Craft will be initially rooted in Africa with two major partners, one partner, Otabo Footwear has 30 plus years experience in creating shoes and building factories, the other partner needs to remain unnamed for now, but they are responsible for helping to rebuild Africa. This is a project that will hopefully begin the practical transformation of my own career. I want to find a balance between making things and making people excited about design, but also I want to help people and the world we live in. Many people that focus on sustainability want to end consumerism, this is simply not going to happen – consumerism must be reworked and used as a tool to accelerate social progress and begin healing the damage the past half century has created. I can’t go into too much detail on this project until mid fall, but we will launch in February `08 and the first products will focus on footwear and fine crafted bags and accessories.
Format: You push members of your team to educate themselves in areas other than their core discipline, whereas many companies opt for specialization. Why do you feel your direction is beneficial?
Gensler: You have to develop total solutions to be relevant and competitive these days. Old ways of thinking not only do not work, they prevent and decay progress. I can only do so much myself and strongly believe in feeding off the minds and ambitions of those around me. I think that we need to put ourselves in a constant state of learning and absorbing knowledge to fuel personal and social growth. I try to intentionally challenge everything I think I know and believe in constantly and really push those around me to do the same. We are creators; we cannot allow ourselves to be seduced by consumerism and then be expected to create original ideas.
Format: How, if it all, has your definition of mash culture changed since you first conceived it?
Gensler: Man, who would have thought things would have grown so fast. First off, so many people confused the term mash culture as some form of style or trend; we, actually, defined it as an expanding behavior that was being adopted by all youth groups around the world, in some form and capacity. The main movement or action was and is the collision of different, seemingly unrelated cultures, subcultures and counter cultures through new technology, mostly media. These collisions form new groups and ultimately new behaviors.
Why is this important to brands, because it happens naturally and is now dominating the organic growth of trends, styles and fads. It is not something that can be replicated in a marketing boardroom, however, brands can understand why they happen and position themselves downstream of a movement or even help accelerate one. How it has changed over the years is the scale, technology is now so easy to obtain and the learning curve is so flat that almost every inch of the planet is being touched. I also think that the future of mash cultures will be uprooting the conventions that plague us today, racism, hunger, war. These larger issue will ultimately be solved collectively by a form of wiki action. I also think the brands of the future will participate more in wiki movements and become active social change agents versus just fuel for consumerism. Mash plus wiki equals new consumerism.
Format: What is your opinion of streetwear in 2007?
Gensler: I think the supply has overtaken the demand. The reason we don’t see it yet is the culture is so focused on its own closed circle media and retail channels. We are too busy numbing ourselves to look up and see we need to collectively figure out ways to grow the culture. There are simply too many brands, producing similar products and too few places to sell them all, matched with this weird non-competitive bro mentality that plagues most of the independent fashion and design culture. The entire culture fronts like they are all friends – this is both mildly good and extremely bad. On the good side, the culture tends to promote itself and grows from within, on the flip side, there are no checks and balances, no laws. Stealing designs and ideas is simply commonplace and is allowed. Could you imagine a world where Ford, BMW, GM, and all the others manufactures were all friends? The result would be stagnation in innovation and abuse of price to consumers. If you look close, this is already happening in streetwear. I think a stronger sense of competition is needed for the culture and industry to grow at the same rate it has over the last four years. We need to become hyper competitive or be absorbed into history.
Format: You’ve mentioned that you are trying to move away from streetwear with SVSV. What is the motivation behind this decision?
Gensler: Well, for the record, we never were true streetwear. We were inspired by streetwear and wanted to be a part of its evolution, but the brand has always been structured as a true designer brand. We pushed forward with bespoke garments that were cut directly for the individual consumer. Then, we watched as the majority of the market called us out as a fake brand, because we did not sell to their local streetwear boutique. I was initially upset that no one in the entire culture, especially a few people that run popular European street wear blogs, did not understand our model, but, eventually, I simply realized that our customer was someone that truly wanted special garments and objects that could not be obtained through traditional channels.
Our brand is the difference between something created for the individual and something created in a marketing meeting and positioned as limited. I am more than willing to take the negative feedback from people that don’t consume the products, as long as my customers are happy. What is strange to me is to see young people get so confused when something goes outside the normal paradigms. SVSV is my brand, it is my baby, I am going to do whatever I want to do with it. I don’t adhere to seasons or market trends or buying cycles, I rely on my gut and my heart. It has worked so far and I have no plans on stopping, so as all the other brands try to figure out how to expand their lines and grow, I am already crystal clear on what the SVSV brand will be doing in five years, ten years and when I hand it over to the next generation. Stay tuned.
Format: You’ve mentioned that you are interested in releasing two books, one on mash culture, and one on the KDU. Please discuss each of these books.
Gensler: The two books are already in development and will be released in early `08. The Mash Culture book, unlike other books on youth culture, will focus on the future, not the blueprint of what is, but rather what could be. The KDU book is going to be a monster bible of all the members and their actions around the world. It will also clearly set forth the agenda for the KDU moving forward – I am no longer interested in the right now or the near future, that creates a constant state of reaction, I would rather personally help define what the next ten years will bring. The KDU book will simply be a design guide to the future.
Format: What are the last few books you’ve enjoyed? Please speak a bit about each.
Gensler: My God, this could take forever, I am a total book junkie. I just read Infotopia, a great book on how information is created and distributed and consumed in the modern age. I have also been reading Hemingway’s the Snows of Kilimanjaro, and reviewing Peter Beard’s work, as I prepare to take on my biggest project to date in Africa. I read a lot of Clausewitz for traditional strategy, Jean Baudrillard for critical theory, Lao Tzu to help maintain some humanity, Yeats to remind me the world should and can be beautiful, not all filled with skulls and daggers and drugs and booty girls on shirts. I enjoy Rem Koolhaas on design and designs roll on the social whole. I just read the World is Flat and a book on random find-ability. I also read a lot about geometry and religion and most recently material on surface design and materials. It is almost like some weird sickness to continuously consume more and more data and then try to connect the dots.
Format: What are five books you would recommend to someone interested in pursuing the same career path as you?
Gensler: Blue Ocean Strategy, by W. Chan Kim, Renee A. Mauborgne. It is a great book about creating your own space inside of markets.
Clausewitz, On Strategy. Forget the Art of War’s, and The Book of Five Rings, Clausewitz is a more modern read that more directly applies to business.
Neil Postman, Building a Bridge to the Eighteenth Century. Everyone reads McLuhan but ignores the next generation of media critics. Postman is the next step, and this book is essential.
Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulations. I have recently re-read all the Baudrillard books in my library after his passing this year, Simulations is my personal favorite since it applies most directly to the current state of the marketplace. We are overwhelmed by faux realities and have become a bi-product of consumerism.
Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching. There is something to be said for wisdom that endures the centuries.
Format: You have played many positions throughout your life. What is something you do, or are into, that very few people know about?
Gensler: I love poetry and literature, pretty much language in general. I am also heavily involved in the study of the relationships between critical theory and the current state of decay plaguing the earth. I think the only true fertile soil remaining for designers is economics and politics. In the future, I would rather be remembered as an activist or philosopher than a designer or business innovator. I want to actually help the world, not just make personal money and pretend the world is fine. On a more happy note, I love fishing and the outdoors and wildlife, yet another reason I want to help develop solutions that help more than my wallet. I want to raise children in a world filled with beautiful places and animals, not just malls and brands. The future has to be about finding and creating balance.
Format: What is the biggest misconception about you?
Gensler: I am truly concerned with helping people, sometimes, my job positions me as only being concerned with being competitive. I know a lot of people forget I actually design and come from design. This is something that used to bother me, luckily I am over it. It is weird though, in business meeting I am the design guy and in design meetings I am the business guy. I guess I can live with that.
More Info: http://www.davidgensler.com