• Steven Heller

Letter to a Divider

Sean Wolcott is chief design officer for San Francisco food company Hampton Creek. Most recently he was at Microsoft and spent most of his career in Seattle at a variety of independent, agency and corporate outlets. “Hampton Creek is different than your typical consumer packed goods company,” he tells me, “in that the food is crafted by Michelin star chefs with a mission that better food should be affordable for everyone. I think we are also quite anomalous in this space with our design forwardness. The craft of everything we do matters, even if seemingly insignificant. This is a belief that extends far past the bottom line and is most importantly shared by CEO Josh Tetrick, who placed the New York Times open letter which I designed.” The letter in question, timed to coincide with the Republican convention, is a plea to the Donald not to divide the country. I’m sure we all want to know what prompted this response to Trump’s candidacy, so I asked Wolcott to comment.


Times ads are very expensive. Why this investment? Josh felt it necessary to say what he said rather than remain silent, and I couldn’t agree more with the statement and stance. Regarding the format choice, digital is cheap and fades fast while the printed word remains special. The investment of time and resources reflects a stronger commitment to the message, and its presentation reflects the situation of urgency and tension.


What went into the making of the ad? Were there other iterations? It happened remarkably quick and there was only one iteration, with refinements being made within that. Josh mentioned the concept Wednesday afternoon and after briefly thinking through options I knew exactly how it should be designed. I immediately drafted the idea, and within 20–30 minutes it was all established. I showed it to Josh and he approved it on the spot. Over the next day he refined his letter and I prepared the final design, sending to print Friday morning.


When casually showing it to a few people before it went to press, I noticed many were jolted and perplexed by the starkness of its execution. I knew then even more that the approach was right on the mark.


In reflecting on its technique, I can’t help but think about other inspirational campaigns in the past with similar visual concepts, which play off the viewer’s perception. The emptiness of Politika ads in the 1920s, which you have featured before; Neue Grafik Design publication ads; Coldene cough syrup by George Lois; “Think Small” by Koenig, Krone and Bernbach; “Do This Or Die” by Levinson and DDB; “War is over! (If you want it)” by John Lennon and Yoko Ono.


When everyone is screaming for attention, silence can be heard.

Photo: Matthew Reamer/Hampton Creek


What is the hope both of you have for the ad’s impact? Our hope is that people will feel inspired to speak up, knowing that there are other voices on their side saying what needs to be said, no matter which party or position they come from.


Do you think this is the first of other salvos? I certainly imagine so. One always hopes for a client even more bold than you might consider yourself—a partner in the pursuit of something different, clear and uncompromising. Striving for permanence in a disposable world.

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About Steven Heller

Steven Heller is the co-chair of the SVA MFA Designer /Designer as Author + Entrepreneur program, writes frequently for Wired and Design Observer. He is also the author of over 170 books on design and visual culture. He received the 1999 AIGA Medal and is the 2011 recipient of the Smithsonian National Design Award.View all posts by Steven Heller →

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