Going alone to a Jasper Johns exhibit at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) is one thing. Going with three designers from Continuum is quite another. 

Johns is most famous for his work as a painter and visual artist: specifically, his variations on flags, targets, and maps. The American artist was born in 1930 and is still working today.

Continuum is a global design firm headquartered in the Boston area. It famously designed the Swiffer for Procter & Gamble and the Pump sneaker for Reebok. Today, its client list includes Allsteel, Bose, and Samsung. Its work for Preserve, a company whose signature product is a toothbrush made from recycled plastic, was recently on display at Design Museum Boston. 

After attending that design exhibit, I wondered: What perspective could Continuum's creatives offer during a more conventional museum visit? 

The MFA's Johns exhibit, which runs until January 4, 2015, offered the perfect opportunity to find out. After all, Johns is renowned for (among other things) his depictions of targets. His first target appeared in 1954. The one appearing at the top of this article debuted in 1974. Why does this matter to business readers? Mainly because Target, the retailer, adopted its red-and-white target logo in 1962, as part of a rebranding from its former life as the The Dayton Company. 

While Johns was eight years ahead of Target in terms of co-opting the bullseye, here was an interesting window in the intertwined worlds of art qua art and art in the (more blatantly) commercial form of a logo. Within a decade of each other, Johns, an artist, and Target, a corporation, had used the same symbol. Whether this was mere coincidence or a mark of sociocultural significance is a topic for professors to decide. For me, it was a plausible excuse to tour the Johns exhibit with three decorated designers--and to see if, in Johns' work, they found branding and design lessons that any entrepreneur or leader could appreciate. They did: 

1. To serve clients, you often have to "remove the fingerprints of authorship." Those last five words came from Continuum's Kord Brashear, as a practical takeaway from Johns' 1974 "Target." The idea is not so much that the hand of Johns is indiscernible. In fact, the closer you get to the screenprint, the more you see the drips and brush marks that all but scream, "artist's hand." But what's masterful about the 1974 "Target" is the way your eyes can simultaneously relax and ruminate on its familiar colors and geometries. Even when you're viewing the work in the midst of a well-labeled Johns exhibit, you can truly lose yourself in the textured, blue-and-yellow bullseye--and forget that it's a staple in a famous artist's ouevre. 

By contrast, in the view of Continuum's designers, Johns' identity was all too palpable in his untitled encaustic from 1984 (see below). From their perspective, it was almost impossible to surrender to the work itself, without feeling the heavy hand of Johns' imprimatur. For the designers, the 1974 "Target" was a compelling examplar of what they aim to do for clients: Leave their own authorship--or at least, the conspicuous fingerprints of it--at the doorstep.

"Brand strategy and authorship aren't the same thing," mused Continuum's Lee Moreau. His point was that Continuum's clients don't pay for a Moreau or a Brashear per se; rather, they pay for Continuum to create designs in which the brand itself--rather than the designer--appears to be the creative stimulus and taproot. 

Broaden the context, and this idea is really just Customer Service 101: Subordinating your own identity and ego to those of your customer. In the 1974 "Target," the designers felt as if Johns were effecting a comparable subordination for his viewers; whereas in the untitled 1984 encaustic, his identity and ego seemed to be at the forefront.  

2. Rethink the symbols and processes that everyday life makes us take for granted. If you point to a stop sign and ask an adult what it is, that adult is likely to say that it's a stop sign. If you point to the selfsame sign and ask a three-year-old what it is, that three-year-old might say to you that it's an octagon--or a red octagon. 

The lesson here is a classic one: Some signs and symbols are so much a part of our everyday lives, we forget that they are signs and symbols. Money, for example, can seem so tangible in its might, you can forget that--from a child's perspective--it's merely green rectangles of printed paper, its value highly dependent on the stenciled numerals in the corners.

For Continuum's Jason Lee, much of Johns' puissance lies in his ability to make viewers reconsider the signs and symbols in everyday visuals. After World War II, when American flags were flying high, Johns' artist-hand depictions of otherwise familiar flags and targets were his way of "reinterpreting a nascent iconography, and flipping it on its head," says Lee.

In Johns' "0 through 9," a lithograph from 1960 (see below), the concept is one any three-year-old could appreciate: All 10 single digits rest on top of each other. Which numbers do you see most clearly? And does the overlay make you rethink the basic shapes and geometries of the stenciled numerals we see and depend on everyday?

In the design process, the idea of rethinking and deconstructing what's taken-for-granted is crucial. For example, in its creation of the Swiffer, Continuum deconstructed the entire floor-cleaning experience, as if no mops or brooms had ever been invented. The aim was not to build a better mop or broom. It was to grasp how customers could quickly and easily get a dirty job done. Continuum founder Gianfranco Zaccai recalls:

When we designed the Swiffer, we conducted a microscopic analysis of the dirt on the floor before and after cleaning and discovered that most of the problem was dust, and that dust is best removed without water. We found that most people spent extra time sweeping the floor before they mopped it. Then, they spent more time cleaning the mop head than they did cleaning the floor. The Swiffer combined sweeping and mopping into a single mess-free act, ending up with a cleaner floor overall.

Zaccai describes this process as "Go Beyond The Obvious To What Cannot Be Seen." That description could just as easily apply to Johns' work. By stepping into Johns' world, you'll briefly step out of your own. Your perspective will never be the same.

I want to dedicate this article to my mother, who is a docent at Manhattan's Metropolitan Museum of Art and with whom I've spent countless joyous hours sharing opinions on Johns and other big names in the big world of visual arts. Also, mom provided the "stop sign" analogy I used in this article. Thanks, also, to Boston's Museum of Fine Arts for the images, and to the MFA's Taylor Poulin for her insights and kindness. 

Published on: Sep 9, 2014