You might think "Featherstone" is the perfect last name for a man who became famous for inventing the plastic pink flamingo. As it turns out, his first name--Donald--is also appropriate: Prior to the flamingo, he created a three-dimensional duck. 

That's just one of many memorable aspects of the life and career of Featherstone, who died Monday at age 79. He was, indeed, the designer of the plastic pink flamingos which seemed to spring up and pimple the nation's lawns, starting in the late 1950s.

To create anything of such lasting popularity--an invention that, literally, changed the landscape--would be a shrine-worthy legacy for most designers or creatives. Yet there was more to Featherstone's legacy than that.  

The flamingo was one of 650 designs he created, according to his obit in the Boston Globe. His other work includes the duck he did for the same company, Union Products of Leominster, Massachusetts (now the Cado Company of Fitchburg, Massachusetts). In addition, he designed swans and an ostrich, also intended for lawn decoration.

Here's what's interesting: When he created the flamingo, he had no intention of changing the landscape. He was just doing his job. Here's how the New York Times obit describes it: 

Mr. Featherstone had not contemplated creating an enduring emblem of kitsch in 1957, when his first flamingo sailed off the assembly line, or the next year, when the bird was brought to market. A recent art-school graduate, he was simply heeding career advice that would become a sardonic watchword for young people: Plastics.

Having graduated from the school of the Worcester Art Museum in 1957, he took the job with Union Products "to the chagrin of his professors and the gratification of his creditors," notes the Times.

In other words, the professors thought he was selling out. And yet, it was by doing his job--and designing the flamingos--that Featherstone sealed his immortality as a designer. Moreover, Featherstone wound up staying at Union Products for 43 years, rising to become the company president in 1996. He served as president until his retirement in 2000.

The Big Picture

What's the big lesson in his story? Mainly that great design often requires a meeting of the minds between designer and corporation. The best example of this is Paul Rand, who designed the IBM logo, in addition to logos for ABC, Westinghouse, UPS, and--tellingly--Steve Jobs' NeXT computers.

In a 1993 video interview with Doug Evans and Alan Pottasch, Jobs explained what he admired about Rand's work. It could just as easily be a riff about Jobs himself or Apple products:

Paul's a very interesting intertwining of a pure artist and somebody who is very astute about solving business problems....I actually think of Paul as much as a business problem-solver as I do an artist. And it's the marriage of those two things--the very, very practical and the artist--that is unique....His work for me is very emotional and yet when you study it it's very intellectual. If you scratch the surface, you find out the depth of the problem-solving that's taking place. But when you first see it, it's wonderfully emotional.

The point here is not to liken Rand's or Jobs' designs with the plastic pink flamingo. After all, they're Apples and oranges.

It's only to suggest that great design often occurs in the context of the designer doing his or her job: Solving a problem for a client.

Innovation With Borders

Featherstone's professors may have thought he was selling out, but in design reality, he was putting himself in a setting where he would be solving problems with a helpful set of creative constraints: Use plastics. Use birds. Create something that could be used on a lawn. Design them as a pair. And do it fast. 

How do we know he had to design them in pairs, and do it fast? Because he once told the Chicago Tribune all about it. First, he found flamingo photos in an issue of National Geographic. Here's what happened next, in Featherstone's words: 

I selected two images--one flamingo with its head up and the other with its head down--because I knew we'd sell them in pairs. Then I sculpted the bodies in clay. It took about two or three weeks.

Next thing you know, he had the hit of a lifetime on his hands. Not bad, for two or three weeks' work. 

Published on: Jun 24, 2015