To look at him, you probably wouldn’t peg Chris Hacker as a former flower child, especially if you caught him dressed head-to-toe in black, stepping into his glass-enclosed office at the recently completed New York branch of one of America’s most prominent Fortune 500 companies. Ask him to talk about his job as chief design officer of Johnson & Johnson, the $61 billion New Brunswick, New Jersey–based company, and he will begin by telling you, in the kind of corporate-speak no counterculturist would condone, about his goal of “creating transcendent consumer experience.” From anyone else the phrase might seem canned, but Hacker has an infectious energy that makes anything he says sound genuine. After an hour of conversation, you’ll walk away convinced he’s just the man to bring sustainable design to corporate America.
“It was a foregone conclusion that I would be a creative person,” says the 57-year-old Hacker, a cherubic bear of a man who grew up in Ohio and studied design at the University of Cincinnati. His father and grandfather were commercial artists, and he has two brothers who practice architecture. “I grew up a hippie,” says Hacker, who was inspired to choose a career in design after he got a taste of humanistic futurism at Expo ’67, in Montreal. But he set aside his interest in flower power in the 1970s, when he discovered “there wasn’t a real way to express that and also make money.”
Hacker built his career with stops at JC Penney, Steuben Glass, Dansk, and Henry Dreyfuss Associates. He finally got a chance to apply his interests in sustainability when he was hired in 2000 as the design director of Aveda, the eco-conscious cosmetics brand founded in 1978 by Horst Rechelbacher, affectionately described by Hacker as “a crazy hairdresser who wanted to build a brand that could save the planet.” An overambitious goal, perhaps, but during Hacker’s five years at Aveda—which uses anywhere from 80 to 95 percent postconsumer recycled materials in its packaging—the company’s sales tripled, he says.
By 2005, Hacker’s success at Aveda had caught the attention of Johnson & Johnson and had convinced its higher-ups that a new focus on sustainable design might be profitable. He was hired that year by consumer-products chairman Colleen A. Goggins. “The company was thinking through its strategy and realized there was a missing part of its competitive advantage. That part was design expertise,” Hacker says. Before he came to Johnson & Johnson, almost all of the company’s design was outsourced from its home base in the Jersey suburbs. Hacker changed that, establishing a 120-person think tank in a pristine office just a few floors above Martha Stewart’s in New York’s Starrett-Lehigh Building. “The notion really was that we needed to do this in a place where we could attract great designers,” he says.
Hacker has always had the support of management, but changing the company’s approach to design hasn’t been easy. “We’re bringing a problem-solving process to our marketing partners that they aren’t used to,” he says of his centralized approach. “It’s been a challenge.”
The experiment is already paying off. “We spent less on design in 2007 than in 2005, and we’ve increased the sales of the projects we’ve worked on,” says Hacker, citing as examples new packaging for the Aveeno brand of skin-care products, which uses 30 percent postconsumer materials, and a redesigned Clean & Clear acne kit. (He declined to provide sales figures for this story.) The key to growing sales, he adds, is not to load up the packaging with “marketing bullets,” but to “think about what motivates the consumer to take the product home.”
Hacker’s team handles most of J&J’s design work, but with the company’s enormous portfolio of brands, ranging from Acuvue to Wart-Off, he hasn’t been afraid to seek help from some of the field’s most creative practitioners. New York designer Harry Allen’s revamped First Aid kit, in streamlined white plastic, will soon be coming to a drug store near you. Also in the works: a new Tylenol bottle from Yves Béhar, a “skin-care analyzer” from Antenna Design, and new boxes by Stephen Doyle that Hacker hopes will “change the way people think about Band-Aid.”
Hacker also hopes to change the way designers and corporations think about sustainability. “Everything we do is as sustainable as we can make it,” he says. “It’s part of the process, but it’s not the definition. We’re designing to create positive consumer experience, and while we do that—by the way—we’re also making it sustainable. I’m on a mission to tell designers that sustainability has got to be a part of what they do.”
To that end, he’s implemented a phased design process, developed at Aveda, that begins with the investigation of new production and material technologies, specifies recycled and biodegradable materials wherever possible, and makes every effort to patronize facilities powered by renewable energy. “The logic is to establish a set of sustainable guidelines to let us work on the things we can work on,” he says.
That may not satisfy hard-core environmentalists, but it’s undeniably a new direction for consumer-goods companies like J&J, and a smart move as well, says Marc Gobé, president of New York–based think tank Emotional Branding. “Green has become an important aspect of consumer choice, and if your company already has strong brand values, like J&J does, this is what consumers are expecting,” Gobé says. For Hacker, the fight is more personal: “You can’t stay on the sidelines and not get involved,” he says. “As an activist for the cause of environmental sustainability, I believe that if I don’t come to big companies and try to help them become better, then it’s hard to complain.”
Mark Lamster is an editor-at-large at Princeton Architectural Press in New York. He is the author of Spalding’s World Tour and is currently at work on a political biography of the artist Peter Paul Rubens.
“A boring box, stuffed with additional boxes,” says Hacker of Band-Aid’s old cardboard bulk package. The hospital-supply-closet styling was so forbidding that retail giant Costco discontinued its order. Hacker’s new version is a set of three identical interlocking plastic cases shaped like the signature product inside. Open one up and you find a refillable cartridge that separates loose bandages by size and type. (It’s a major convenience, as is the color-coded diagram that explains just what you’ll find in each compartment.) The production expenses are slightly higher and the retail price is up from $10 to $14, but the case is reusable and it’s even back on the shelves at Costco.
+First Aid Kit
Hacker and designer Harry Allen have been regular collaborators since the early 1990s, when Allen invited Hacker to lecture at Pratt, where he was still a student. Their latest project is a redesign of Johnson & Johnson’s First Aid Kit. “Over the years it had been cost-engineered to death,” says Allen of the original clear plastic box with a flimsy handle and a slapped-on label. The new kit, a streamlined white plastic shell emblazoned with the iconic red cross, all but proclaims help is on the way. The top of the case is extruded to conform to the shape of the hand for easy carrying. The best part: It holds 30 more items than its predecessor.
+K-Y Intrigue Premium Personal Lubricant
Gone is the old surgical tube that had you fumbling uncomfortably at just the wrong moment. Johnson & Johnson management has come to terms with the fact that K-Y, created for doctors, is a product for the boudoir as well as the examination room. Hacker and his team packaged this “premium” version in a bullet-shaped plastic bottle ergonomically designed with “sensory points, so the consumer knows how to use it in the dark.” It comes in a box printed in metallic violet with gothic swirls intended to suggest “emotional warmth.”
+Johnson’s Baby Shampoo
“The most iconic thing is the teardrop,” Hacker says of the company’s flagship brand. In this apparently simple repackaging, that form is set off with a clear plastic label that also highlights the shampoo’s luminous color. (Bottles tinted in the same shade also help.) The typographic treatment is cleaner, and instructions are printed on the back so it’s no longer necessary to peer through the bottle, trying to read them. Many subtle changes, but still no tears.
Johnson & Johnson acquired the Rembrandt brand in 2005 thinking that a quick design upgrade could substantially improve its sales. For its release last May, Hacker and his team dispensed with the medicinal foil-stamped packaging and replaced it with a cosmetics-style white box with pastel tabs. “Your experience with the product doesn’t end when you take it off the shelf, but continues when you get it home,” says Hacker. “The tube is clean and simple and stands on its end, allowing it to look good on the bathroom counter.”