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J&J Chief Design Officer Chris Hacker is a man with a mission: to bring sustainable design to corporate America
To look at him, you probably wouldn't peg Chris Hacker as a former flower child, especially if you caught him dressed head-to-toe in black, stepping into his glass-enclosed office at the recently completed New York branch of one of America's most prominent Fortune 500 companies. Ask him to talk about his job as chief design officer of Johnson & Johnson (JNJ), the $61 billion New Brunswick, New Jersey-based company, and he will begin by telling you, in the kind of corporate-speak no counter-culturist would condone, about his goal of "creating transcendent consumer experience." From anyone else the phrase might seem canned, but Hacker has an infectious energy that makes anything he says sound genuine. After an hour of conversation, you'll walk away convinced he's just the man to bring sustainable design to corporate America.
"It was a foregone conclusion that I would be a creative person," says the 57-year-old Hacker, a cherubic bear of a man who grew up in Ohio and studied design at the University of Cincinnati. His father and grandfather were commercial artists, and he has two brothers who practice architecture. "I grew up a hippie," says Hacker, who was inspired to choose a career in design after he got a taste of humanistic futurism at Expo '67, in Montreal. But he set aside his interest in flower power in the 1970s, when he discovered "there wasn't a real way to express that and also make money."
Hacker built his career with stops at JC Penney (JCP), Steuben Glass, Dansk, and Henry Dreyfuss Associates. He finally got a chance to apply his interests in sustainability when he was hired in 2000 as the design director of Aveda, the eco-conscious cosmetics brand founded in 1978 by Horst Rechelbacher, affectionately described by Hacker as "a crazy hairdresser who wanted to build a brand that could save the planet." An overambitious goal, perhaps, but during Hacker's five years at Aveda—which uses anywhere from 80 to 95 percent post-consumer recycled materials in its packaging—the company's sales tripled, he says.
By 2005, Hacker's success at Aveda had caught the attention of Johnson & Johnson and had convinced its higher-ups that a new focus on sustainable design might be profitable. He was hired that year by consumer products chairman Colleen A. Goggins. "The company was thinking through its strategy and realized there was a missing part of its competitive advantage. That part was design expertise," Hacker says. Before he came to Johnson & Johnson, almost all of the company's design was outsourced from its home base in the Jersey suburbs. Hacker changed that, establishing a 120-person think tank in a pristine office just a few floors above Martha Stewart's in New York's Starrett-Lehigh Building. "The notion really was that we needed to do this in a place where we could attract great designers," he says.
Hacker has always had the support of management, but changing the company's approach to design hasn't been easy. "We're bringing a problem-solving process to our marketing partners that they aren't used to," he says of his centralized approach. "It's been a challenge."
The experiment is already paying off. "We spent less on design in 2007 than in 2005, and we've increased the sales of the projects we've worked on," says Hacker, citing as examples new packaging for the Aveeno brand of skin-care products, which uses 30 percent post-consumer materials, and a redesigned Clean & Clear acne kit. (He declined to provide sales figures for this story.) The key to growing sales, he adds, is not to load up the packaging with "marketing bullets," but to "think about what motivates the consumer to take the product home."
Hacker's team handles most of J&J's design work, but with the company's enormous portfolio of brands, ranging from Acuvue to Wart-Off, he hasn't been afraid to seek help from some of the field's most creative practitioners. New York designer Harry Allen's revamped First Aid kit, in streamlined white plastic, will soon be coming to a drug store near you. Also in the works: a new Tylenol bottle from Yves Béhar, a "skin-care analyzer" from Antenna Design, and new boxes by Stephen Doyle that Hacker hopes will "change the way people think about Band-Aid."
Hacker also hopes to change the way designers and corporations think about sustainability. "Everything we do is as sustainable as we can make it," he says. "It's part of the process, but it's not the definition. We're designing to create positive consumer experience, and while we do that—by the way—we're also making it sustainable. I'm on a mission to tell designers that sustainability has got to be a part of what they do."
To that end, he's implemented a phased design process, developed at Aveda, that begins with the investigation of new production and material technologies, specifies recycled and biodegradable materials wherever possible, and makes every effort to patronize facilities powered by renewable energy. "The logic is to establish a set of sustainable guidelines to let us work on the things we can work on," he says.
That may not satisfy hard-core environmentalists, but it's undeniably a new direction for consumer-goods companies like J&J, and a smart move as well, says Marc Gobé, president of New York-based think tank Emotional Branding. "Green has become an important aspect of consumer choice, and if your company already has strong brand values, like J&J does, this is what consumers are expecting," Gobé says. For Hacker, the fight is more personal: "You can't stay on the sidelines and not get involved," he says. "As an activist for the cause of environmental sustainability, I believe that if I don't come to big companies and try to help them become better, then it's hard to complain."