After 35 Years, Joe Duffy Passes The Baton

The 2018 Concordia Leaders of Design Series, “Duffy: Design To Enrich Everyday Life,” opens at Concordia University in Saint Paul, Minn. on October 18 to November 14. Duffy was launched in October 1984 when founder, Joe Duffy, joined forces with ad agency Fallon, McElligott & Rice, now known as Fallon Worldwide. “They were the hottest creative boutique in the world,” Duffy says. The partnership with Fallon represented something more than simply a joining of creative minds. The union pioneered the integration of design and advertising. “This was a revolutionary concept at the time,” Duffy says, who began his career as an illustrator and eventually found his way to advertising. At the time of his firm’s launch, Joe was eager to bring a sense of artistry to design. He started Duffy with the mission that still inspires and drives Duffy’s business today.The firm’s work has touched the lives of millions of people. It’s seen in stores, in the media, museums, at events, on the web and in retail, corporate, and hospitality environments. For Joe Duffy’s many contributions to design, he was awarded the Legacy Medal from the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) and the AIGA Fellow Award. I spoke to Joe about his legacy, present and future.
This exhibition continues and perpetuates the Concordia Leaders of Design Series.

You’ve been at it for some time now. In fact, Duffy Design was the epitome of the Midwest “postmodern” style of design in the eighties and nineties. I know that is not entirely what you want to be remembered for, but let’s start there. What was your motivating force when you began?
When I began Duffy in 1984 was to get back into “art” which had been missing in my earlier days in advertising as an art director. I honestly believed that there was a way to combine art and commerce that would appeal to the target audiences we would try to attract. Milton Glaser, Ivan Chermayeff and Woody Pirtle were creating design at the time that, to me, proved this point.

There are so many “icons” in your history. How does this retrospective exhibit reflect those early years?
By showcasing all the design we did back then. We established a design approach that influenced many young designers and broke some new ground in brand design. Honestly, it wasn’t our intent, it just happened. I wanted to get back into art and making it by hand. I thought that this approach could create brand design that people could relate to and would stand apart from all the brand design that was out there at the time.How would you say Charles Spencer Anderson played a role in Duffy?
Chuck Anderson was the first designer I hired and he had a huge impact on how we established ourselves as a design firm. We both believed in creating art for design with our hands and worked with pencils, ink, paint, collaged photocopies, cut paper, hand drawn type, etc. We didn’t have computers, so we really had fun “making shit”.

Joe and Chuck.

I learned so much from Chuck. He was so creative and so immersed in art from the past. He brought the “nostalgic” aesthetic to Duffy and it separated us from everyone we competed with at the time. He was also one of the hardest working designers I’ve ever known. He was passionate about everything he did and obviously maintains that passion to this day.

You grew out of an ad agency, how much did that experience define you?
After starting as a fine artist and illustrator, I became an advertising art director and then a partner in an advertising agency in Minneapolis. I became tired of the politics and creative compromise in advertising, so I left my agency to start a design firm – again, influenced by Milton, Ivan and Woody.

Ironically, my college room-mate, Pat Fallon, approached me at that time about starting a design firm in concert with his incredibly successful new agency in Minneapolis, Fallon McElligott Rice. He and Tom McElligott told me that every time their clients asked for design rather than advertising, their art directors would “fuck it up”. We talked about how it would be set up as a separate partnership from their agency that would combine forces to give clients an overall brand story, which no one was doing at the time. Half of our efforts would be this combined force and half would be directed at potential design clients we would deal with on our own.

Would you say that as time went on you became more of a global organization? And how did that manifest?
As time went on, as we grew, we decided that Fallon and Duffy needed a global presence. At that time, you needed troops on the ground wherever you wanted to do business. We opened new offices. First in NY, then in London and eventually in Singapore. Fallon also opened offices in Tokyo, Hong Kong and Sao Paulo where we helped but didn’t open Duffy offices. We tried to maintain our culture and creative approach but honestly, that was impossible. It was a wonderful learning experience, but didn’t work out the way we intended. Fortunately, needing troops on the ground went away because of technology and we closed offices and centered our efforts in Minneapolis.

The curious aspect of graphic design is that nexus between art and service or art and commerce. How did you remain you and serve your clients too?
The combination of art and commerce has always been my challenge and reward in design. I’m very proud to show all of the work that we have done over the past 34 years. Some I like more than others but I’m proud of all of it for the simple reason that we do not compromise our creative principals. We’ve said goodbye to many clients who wouldn’t allow us to do work that we would be proud of, from a creative perspective and a business perspective. The best design provides the best results for clients. If I didn’t believe that, I wouldn’t be involved in the business of design.

What is the most satisfying aspect of this exhibition and thus your career?
What people will see is almost everything we’ve done over 34 years and I’m most proud of that. There’s continuity and there’s diversity. There’s hand-made and there’s interactive. There’s brand ID, packaging, web, social and environments. From my perspective, it all hangs together, for our clients and for Duffy.

Nancy Kullas, Sara Myslajek, Bridget Duffy, Joseph Duffy, Joe Duffy.

Now you are handing the reins over to your son and daughter. First, are you surprised they joined “the family business?”
My dreams have come true in passing the reins of Duffy over to my daughter, Bridget, and son, Joseph. They experienced mine and their mother’s delight in doing what we were passionate about when they were little kids. They loved coming to the studio and experiencing design when they were small. Most of all, they knew how happy we were as a family based on how we looked forward to every day as a creative endeavor.

Second how have they made it “their” business?
Bridget, Joseph and our partner, Nancy Kullas, have made it “their business” because of their grasp on how design has transformed over the last 20 years. It’s hard to believe how long they’ve been instrumental in what Duffy is all about but they know so much more than I do about design in our world today. I’m there for them when they need my advice based on my experience over all these years but more importantly, they’re there for me to keep me connected to design in today’s worl

And finally how do you feel about passing the baton?
Duffy has become Bridget’s, Joseph’s and Nancy’s’ business because they have transformed it into a design resource that is appropriate for our business culture today. The business of design has changed so dramatically in the last ten years. I won’t even start on how because it would be a completely different story. Suffice it to say, they’ve adjusted in such an appropriate way. I’m very, very proud.

On the one hand, I’m thrilled to “pass the baton”. On the other, I’m thrilled about staying involved – that’s the beauty of a “family business”. I’m always there to contribute my thoughts and perspective but I don’t expect Bridget, Joseph or Nancy to do things my way. It is so cool to see what I’ve done over the years reflected in new work being done today that I’ve had nothing to do with. To say I’m a “proud papa” is an an understatement.

What is next? Is there “life” after building a formidable firm and then passing it on?
What’s next for me is a continuation of what I’ve been doing for some time. I’ve always combined my design life with my fine art life and I think that is evident in both. My belief is that design is art and art is design. I wake up every day and think about designing a painting and painting a design. Fortunately because of Bridget’s, Joseph’s and Nancy’s diligence on the design front, I’m spending a lot more time designing paintings. It’s a dream come true and the perfect combination of family, art and business.

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