Carbone Smolan Agency

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The Carbone Smolan Agency (CSA) is a graphic design and branding firm started in 1980 by Ken Carbone and Leslie Smolan.[1] It began in 1976 as a satellite office of Montreal-based Gottschalk + Ash International. In 1980 Carbone and Smolan bought out the interest of their Canadian partners and in 1985 the company was renamed Carbone Smolan Associates. Ken Carbone is the agency’s creative director. Leslie Smolan is the agency’s director of creative strategy.[2]

Carbone Smolan Agency has been responsible for creating visual systems and branding programs for some of the most recognizable brand names in the public and private sector. (See: Fast Company, Five Tips for Forging a Lasting Creative Partnership)[3]

CSA's work in corporate, consumer and cultural sectors, in particular, embodies the CSA philosophy: “unify, simplify and amplify.” (See: Mohawk Connects, Felt+Wire Interview with Tom Biederbeck and Business Insider, Three Words You Should Remember, by Mellisa Stanger)[4][5]

Design credits for clients include Canon, Morgan Stanley, Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group, Christies, Tiffany & Company, Herman Miller, Mohawk Paper, Architectural Record Magazine, Brooklyn Botanic Garden, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, The Jewish Museum, Musée du Louvre, The Woodruff Arts Center, The Morgan Library & Museum, MoMA, and Hartford Stage. (See: AIGA Design Archives, Carbone Smolan) [6][7] The company is located at 22 West 19th Street in New York.



The history of the Carbone Smolan Agency began when Ken Carbone graduated from the Philadelphia College Art (now University of the Arts Philadelphia) with the intention of becoming a professional musician but early advisors instead steered him towards the commercial arts, specifically graphic design. After graduating, Carbone set off for Europe, calling upon influential designers such as Tomas Gonda, Karl Gerstner, Armin Hoffmann, Wolfgang Weingart, and professors at Basel School of Design in Switzerland affiliated with his professors at Philadelphia College of Art. (See: Adweek Article, Six Questions with Ken Carbone)[8]

After his European sojourn, Carbone returned to New York in 1973 and landed his first professional design job at the office of Chermayeff & Geismar Associates, now Chermayeff & Geismar & Haviv. Carbone told Debbie Millman with Design Matters, a service of Design Observer Media Group, Design Observer Media Group, that his early exposure to such graphic masters as Alan Fletcher, Ivan Chermayeff and Thomas Geismar enabled him see design through a “broad lens” — as a two-dimensional, three-dimensional, aural, verbal, visual field of interdisciplinary practice that could, when applied properly, be a force for positive change. (See: Design Matters Interview with Debbie Millman)[9]

In 1976, Carbone was recruited from Chermayeff & Geismar by Montreal-based Gottschalk + Ash International to work on the design guidelines for the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal. When his Canadian visa expired in the fall of 1976, Fritz Gottschalk suggested to Carbone that he open a satellite office of Gottshalk + Ash in New York. Carbone, then 25, and with no business start-up experience, accepted Gottshalk’s challenge and opened a small design office in Midtown Manhattan in fall 1976. (See: Dialog from Pointed Leaf Press)[1] In 1977 Keith Godard referred Ken to Leslie Smolan, a recent graduate of the school. Carbone hired her. This marked the beginning of a collaborative partnership that endures today. (See: Design Matters Interview with Debbie Millman and Dialog from Pointed Leaf Press)[1][9]

In the interview with Debbie Millman of Design Matters,[9] Carbone recalls telling Leslie Smolan, “I am hiring you because you have a great portfolio, plus you can type and you know accounting.”[9] In fact, Leslie Smolan’s business sense and strategic planning skills were the complement Carbone needed — and helped build CSA into an enduring, respected design and branding enterprise. At start-up, Smolan later pointed out, neither of the two partners had any experience running a creative service agency — so they learned by doing, and they grew by learning from mistakes, accumulating clients and experience along the way. Said Smolan of those early years, “We were educated as designers, not businesspeople, salespeople, or diplomats. We made mistakes — but none fatal. We faced demanding situations and we had to rise to the occasion.” (See: Design Matters Interview)[1]

In 1980, Carbone and Smolan bought out Gottshalk’s interest in the New York office and renamed it Carbone Smolan Associates in 1985. Carbone told Tom Biederbeck, contributing editor at Mohawk Connect/Felt+Wire, “In some ways the first seven years were the hardest. As the business grew, we moved more into management roles, which changes the relationship with your partner. At 50 people, we added a CFO, assistants, a person to do marketing. We changed our name to the Carbone Smolan Agency and adopted an ad agency model.” (See: Mohawk Connect/Felt+Wire Interview with Tom Biederbeck)[5]


On December 19, 1985, Carbone Smolan received a telegram invitation to present CSA credentials for consideration for the “Signalétique de Grande Louvre” (way-finding/signage program of the Louvre). When Carbone made his presentation to Louvre officials months later, he delivered his presentation in French. He says his decision to do this startled and impressed his French audience —and helped CSA land the way-finding project. (See: Dialog from Pointed Leaf Press)[1]

On October 3, 1986, CSA was awarded the Musée du Louvre way-finding project. Working with architect I.M. Pei, designer of the Louvre Pyramid, which was completed in 1989 and serves as the main entrance to the museum, the first phase of the way-finding project was introduced in 1989. CSA's concept for the way-finding system was predicated upon the arrondissement Paris neighborhood plan and remains in place today. (See: New York Times 1993 Feature on Louvre and Dialog from Pointed Leaf Press)[1][10]

The Musée du Louvre project propelled Carbone Smolan into the first rank of international design agencies and led to its first feature profile in Communication Arts Magazine, one of the nation's preeminent design and advertising journals. (See: Communication Arts Magazine, Sep/Oct 1987, Print Edition)[11] In the ensuing years, CSA has created numerous assignments for other cultural institutions including MoMA (New York), Chicago Symphony Orchestra, The Jewish Museum (New York), Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, The High Museum (Atlanta) and the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. (See: Dialog from Pointed Leaf Press and See: Mohawk Connect/Felt+Wire Interview with Tom Biederbeck)[1][5]

2007 to Present

Over the last seven years CSA has evolved from a traditional design and branding studio into an agency modeled in the advertising structure with account service, strategic planning and creative departments. In 2010, CSA named design director Paul Pierson as its third partner, opening leadership to a new generation of leadership to carry the agency forward. Carbone and Smolan remain in place. Their 35+ year partnership was marked with the publication in 2012 of "Dialog" What Makes a Great Design Partnership from Pointed Leaf Press.[1]

Distinctive Nature of the Organization

Competitive Environment

The New York chapter of the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) currently lists 3,387 members, more than the combined memberships of the organization's Los Angeles (1,337) and San Francisco (1,740) chapters. (See: American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA), chapter information)[12] While designers and design agencies may come and go in New York, less common are partnerships that endure for decades. Among those that have are: Vignelli Associates, Chermayeff & Geismar & Haviv, Pentagram, Push-Pin Studios, Lippincott, and Landor Associates. Today, Carbone Smolan Agency is stands among them, a 35+ year old design partnership that continues to thrive and evolve in a competitive market where many good agencies arise, thrive then disappear. CSA’s founding partners believe shared values are the explanation for their long run. (See: Entrepreneur Online, When to Hire a Design Firm to Get Your Logo Just Right)[13]

Business Philosophy

In an interview with Business Insider in October 2012, Carbone and Smolan said the keys to their enduring relationship are their aligned ambition and trust, their complementary (but not necessarily identical) interests and skills, their respect for each other’s ideas and opinions, and, most notably, the forbearance to choose the right partner in the first place. They contend that “unified, simplified and amplified” brand identities, products, and systems communicate principles and convictions that can be shared by others such as customers and fans. Carbone later told Entrepreneur Online, "Branding is not a start-stop activity, it's a commitment over the life of a company. We like to guarantee each brand identity a minimum life span of 15 years." (See: Entrepreneur, When to Hire a Design Firm to Get Your Logo Just Right and Business Insider, October 23, 2012, Three Words You Should Remember When Designing Your Brand, by Mellisa Stanger)[4][13]

Retrospective: “Dialog”

Dialog was published in 2012,[1] in collaboration with design journalist Raul Barreneche and with essays by designer Massimo Vignelli and preface by design journalist, critic, and author Steven Heller, Dialog is a retrospective look at 35 years of Carbone and Smolan’s collaborative experience featuring 35 projects that shaped the company’s history. In his introduction to the book, designer Massimo Vignelli writes of the value a true partner brings to the creative process: (See: Dialog by Ken Carbone & Leslie Somolan with Raul Berreneche from Pointed Leaf Press.)[1](See: Dialog by Ken Carbone & Leslie Somolan with Raul Berreneche from Pointed Leaf Press.)


Design journalist Matt Porter, a contributing editor with Communications Arts, said in his review of the book in January 2013, “I did not know until reading this that Leslie’s knowledge of the arc of Ken’s life is applied judiciously to bring his lofty ideas and high expectations back to what is possible, what is appropriate and what is necessary. She is the ballast to his ship of dreams.” (See: Communication Arts March/April, Book Reviews, Print Edition)[14]

Clients & Scope

CSA has been involved with numerous projects over the years for a wide variety of corporations and organizations in finance, computers, consumer products, publishing, hospitality, fine paper, professional trade organizations, museums, government institutions, fine arts, photography, and auction houses. Among them, Citicorp Center, Morgan Stanley, IBM, Bideawee, W Hotels, Tropicalia Resort & Residences, Architectural Record, MOHAWK Paper, The Jewish Museum, San Francisco International Airport, The Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Corbis Images, and Christie’s. (See: American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA), Online Design Archives).[6][7]


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 1.7 1.8 1.9 [1], "Dialog" by Ken Carbone & Leslie Somolan with Raul Berreneche from Pointed Leaf Press.
  2. [2], CSA Website.
  3. [3], Fast Company, Five Tips for Forging a Lasting Creative Partnership.
  4. 4.0 4.1 [4], Business Insider, Three Words You Should Remember, by Mellisa Stanger.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 [5], Mohawk Connects, Felt+Wire Interview with Tom Biederbeck.
  6. 6.0 6.1 [6], AIGA Archive, Sixteen Case Studies.
  7. 7.0 7.1 [7], AIGA Archive, Four Case Studies.
  8. [8], Adweek Article, Six Questions with Ken Carbone.
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 9.3 [9], Design Matters Interview with Debbie Millman.
  10. [10], New York Times 1993 Louvre Pyramid Feature Article.
  11. , Communication Arts Magazine, Sep/Oct 1987, Print Edition Only, by Mill Roseman, pages 46-60, Available.
  12. [11], AIGA Chapter List.
  13. 13.0 13.1 [12], Entrepreneur, When to Hire a Design Firm to Get Your Logo Just Right.
  14. [13], Communication Arts, March/April 2013, Book Review, World’s First Coffee Table Relationship Manual.