Carbone Smolan Agency: The Grown Up Designers

 “Luck is when preparation meets opportunity” – Seneca

Carbone Smolan Agency partners Ken Carbone, recent AIGA Medalist, and Paul Pierson met with us Thursday night at MassArt to share some pointers they’ve picked up over the past 39 years working at CSA. Beginning as a humble design agency of two in 1977, Ken and co-founder Leslie Smolan led the evolution of branding and design becoming an integral part of a business’s strategy.

In the early 90s, Ken presented a solution to Putnam Investments that included suggestions for new products and a more comprehensive strategy than expected. After the presentation the client remarked, “I hired a design company and here I got management consulting instead.” Having thrilled them with their thoroughness, Ken said this was the moment that it clicked for him; the company’s solutions could and should go beyond what was traditionally expected from a design agency.

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Carbone Smolan’s design for the BCG homepage. BCG is one of their many financial clients.

From there, CSA moved forward with a new understanding of how to work with clients. By speaking with clients in their language1, you’re able to gain more insight into how their business works, and gain respect from the client as someone who is completely in tune with their needs. Once they see you can stand on their level of intellect, they will trust your thoughts when it comes to typography and the other details of design.


Pattern made from Nizuc logo. The hotel sits on "Punta Nizuc" which translates from Mayan to "nose of the dog". Photo from CSA:

Pattern made from Nizuc logo. The logo was inspired by the translation of the Mayan name for the hotel’s beach, Punta Nizuc, which means “nose of the dog.” Photo from CSA.


Having learned to keep their “designer cards” in their back pockets, the CSA team transcended some of the pitfalls that inexperienced and presumptuous designers can fall into. Designers who fancy themselves geniuses often rub clients the wrong way, coming off as self-interested and out of touch with their needs.

CSA’s mature, straightforward take on the design process has made them masters of working with entrepreneurs, or companies with an entrepreneurial mindset. Over the last few decades they have learned that small wins can lead to bigger ones, and help drive support throughout an organization. They have built on the emotion that entrepreneurs have for their own products, leading to strong brands that excite users, too. Aether, Shuttersong, Nizuc and BCG have all been lucky enough to work with this deeply caring team, and conversely, Paul and Ken point out, they have been extremely fortunate to have such excited, passionate and open clients. Shuttersong founder William Agush, who was in attendance Thursday, felt the love first hand when the CSA partners prompted a round of applause from a room full of us designers who know the value of a great client.


Shuttersong logo evolution

Evolution of the Shuttersong logo ‘Melody’


The pair’s genuine, earnest attitudes were evident throughout their presentation, and it’s clear this is how they approach each project. We in the audience enjoyed a refreshing lack of pretension from the pair as they ping-ponged from one topic to the next to share their story. We’re thankful Ken and Paul came to share their story with us, and are excited to see what CSA will bring us in the future with Paul Pierson at the helm.


Paul Pierson uses his foot to push the buttons to direct the presentation

Paul navigates the presentation using a humble, stocking-clad foot in lieu of the finicky remote. Photo credit: Ken Carbone


This event was part of AIGA Boston’s Business + Design initiative which is an avenue to demonstrate the role of design in the broader context of solving business problems. Through a series of workshops, heralded speaker events, and other networking occasions, we strive to provide our audience an expansive sense of purpose and the resources to excel in their respective professions.


1It’s not the first time we’ve heard this advice at AIGA Boston. Last fall, Sarah Syah of Rue La La shared a similar approach for how she was able to get her in-house design team in step with the rest of the company.

Published March 24, 2016