Blog: Tom Rieke

Tom Rieke is president of Ann Arbor creative consultancy Q LTD. He is a Hawkeye expatriate who studied writing in Iowa City, then practiced the profession in radio, PR, the Peace Corps (Barbados), and academia before co-founding Q in 1981. Tom's past clients include SIGGRAPH, the University of Michigan, Gene Codes Corporation, Terumo Cardiovascular Systems, NuStep, Flint Group, SIGGRAPH Asia, and The Ark.

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It Isn't Easy Being Blur

Two years ago, while wandering around a huge display of pottery and antiques in Singapore with my friend YT Lee, Prof. of Mechanical Engineering at Nanyang Technological University, I saw a carved wooden plaque. It was a short Chinese poem, a deep thought, like the plaques that often appear above the doors of Chinese homes throughout southeast Asia.

The plaque wasn't old. It was probably mass-produced somewhere in Malaysia. But it caught my eye, so I asked YT to translate it. His parents were from Hainan, the tropical island off the coast of southern China that is now a booming resort destination, but they moved to Borneo, where he was born and grew up. He speaks flawless English, three or four Chinese dialects, and Bahasa Malaysia. He understands my American accent because he spent two years studying in the snowdrifts at the University of Rochester.

I was in Singapore to escape the snowdrifts in Ann Arbor, and work. In 2008, one of Q's major clients, the annual SIGGRAPH Conference on Computer Graphics and Interactive Techniques, created a new event: SIGGRAPH Asia. They asked Q to provide all the same services we deliver each year for the North American conference: graphic identity, advertising, web design and production, print design, and merchandise design. The first SIGGRAPH Asia was in Singapore, and YT was the conference chair.  

So I went to Singapore to work with YT and the local conference-management company. I also avoided North America's frigid season and explored Asia for the first time. From Singapore's 21st-century airport, I traveled to Malaysia (Melaka and Kuala Lumpur), the Phillippines (Manila), Vietnam (Ho Chi Minh City), Indonesia, Hong Kong, Macao, China (Beijing and Shanghai), and Japan (Tokyo).

I learned many important things about Asian history and culture and religion, especially Buddhism. But I did not learn to read or speak any of the amazing languages in that part of the world. Conveniently, English is the most understood of Singapore's four official languages. The others are Mandarin Chinese, Bahasa Malaysia, and Tamil.

In Singapore, casual spoken English mixes all four of the official languages. The result is called Singlish. It's one of my favorite languages.

When YT combined his linguistic skills to translate the plaque, he said:

"A rough translation for the title is: 'It isn't easy being blur.' The text says:

"Being wise is difficult. So is being blur. Moving from wise to blur is even more difficult. Step back and relax sometimes. Put your mind at ease. Good fortune can not be planned."

I liked this thought, so I bought the plaque and shipped it to Q North American Headquarters, where it's now hanging on my office wall.  

Later, YT told me that the poem was written by Zheng Banqiao, a very influential artist, poet, and philosopher who lived and worked in Yangzhou (about 200 miles northwest of Shanghai) during the early Qing Dynasty. Today, 400 years later, Singapore hipsters are preserving Zheng's meaning of "blur". It means: silly, goofy, oblivious, unhip.

For example, while enjoying some delicious fish-head soup and a Tiger beer at a Singapore food stand, and eavesdropping on a group of young professionals, you might hear one of them complain about a colleague:

"Ahhh. He so blur, lah!"

Usually, that's a critical comment. But in business and in life, it could (and should) also be a compliment.

The Next 30 Years

In recent months, since Q announced our 30th anniversary, we've received many congratulations. We've also received some good wishes for the future. One former client said: "I hope the next 30 years are equally rewarding!"

Time is deceptive. In its relentless reality, it moves ponderously onward, in a straight, undeviating line to the future. In retrospect, it moves very fast. From my perspective as an individual human being, 1981 seems like yesterday. In the long stretch of recorded human history, 30 years is barely significant. In the eons since the universe emerged from the most magnificent explosion imaginable, 30 years is meaningless.

Q's mission for the next 30 years, a little less than the time required for light from Gliese 208 in Orion to appear in our night sky, is simple: Total World Domination.

Of course, this is a classified mission, so we can't say much about it. The name alone is enough to set off waves of paranoia in "intelligence" agencies worldwide. If you're worried about your name and coordinates appearing in their databases, you should stop reading now and turn off your computer. But if you agree that those "intelligence" systems are incompetent relics of the 20th century, please proceed.

In observance of Q's 30th year, I have been authorized to reveal a few hints about our future:  

Q's mission is collaborative. We share it with our colleagues at Q GmbH in Wiesbaden and some other Qs around the world. We want to work with good people and good organizations on challenging projects that promote useful products, services, or causes. We are serious about our work and devoted to producing the highest quality, most effective communications in all media. But we prefer to collaborate with clients who enjoy their work and have a sense of humor. We do our best work when it includes a sense of fun and adventure.  

Our mission is not imposing or oppressive. We do not want to control the world. We want the world to be controlled by good people. People who care about other human beings. Thoughtful people who care about doing the right thing in business, political organizations, and international relations. Generous, fair people. People who live in peace.

We do not claim to fulfill all those criteria ourselves, but we're doing our best. And we know good people when we meet them. We have established a worldwide conspiracy of good clients, former colleagues, suppliers, partners, and friends who support our mission. The identities of these operatives can not be revealed, but their locations are strategic: Australia, China, Japan, Singapore, Thailand; Berlin, Paris, Sterzing, Wiesbaden, Zaragoza, Zürich; Argentina, Barbados, Brazil, México; Ann Arbor, Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, New York, Nashville, Ottawa, Palo Alto, Portland, San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle, Toronto, Washington, Vancouver.

Our mission also excludes collaboration with bad people. Mean people. People who want other people to live by their arbitrary rules. Vengeful, angry people. Selfish people. And people who practice and support violence to gain personal, political, or financial power.  

Unfortunately, that's a much longer list. Our uncompromising, inexorable goal is to reduce it to a tiny minority by 2041. People of good will everywhere are welcome to join us.

Planetary Coincidence

There are many powerful forces in the world. Some, like greed and guilt, are sad and destructive. Others (gravity and time, for example) are essential elements of existence. My favorite powerful force is coincidence.

Last year, Q's partner agency in Germany, Q GmbH, created a tribute to my favorite force: A Calendar of Coincidence (Zufallskalendar). The calendar was created for a paper company. Everything about it was produced by random chance: concepts, colors, design, typefaces, paper, printing, even the order in which the months appear. It's totally brilliant, and not just according to me. The Zufallskalendar has received several international design honors, including a 2011 European Design Award.

Of course, not all coincidences are happy. Some are dangerous, even deadly. We should all do what we can to avoid random catastrophes. That's why we have insurance. But we should also welcome the possibility that serendipity might blossom into good friendships, mutually beneficial business associations, surprising insights, or beautiful adventures.

Q's original name was Quorum. Thirty years ago, we decided that was the perfect name for a firm that offered design and editorial services, and we promoted ourselves as "the group without which business cannot be conducted". In the mid-1990s, after two of the three founders moved on to other pursuits, we decided it was time for a new name. Name creation was something we were good at. We had created successful names and graphic identities for several companies or products. But renaming ourselves was our biggest challenge yet. After months of brainstorming and debating and designing and testing, we threw out our long list of options and shortened our original name to a single, enticing letter: Q. The full name became Q LTD.  

Two years later, two young designers in Wiesbaden (on the Rhine, 40 kilometers west of Frankfurt), formed a new creative agency. Because their surnames, von Debschitz and Nielbock, did not offer attractive possibilities for their company name, and because it implied "quality" (Qualität), they adopted their favorite letter and became Q GmbH.  

They didn't know about us, and we didn't know about them, so this Q coincidence remained a quiet fact until 2003, when I received an email message, in excellent English, from a German designer who said that some work by his company, Q, was presented in a recent design publication, and he noticed that some work by another Q (ours) appeared on a nearby page.  

The message was a polite, respectful letter of introduction. But my first thought was typically American: "I suppose I need to sue this guy for using our name (trademarked in the US) in the same business." A few days later, I decided to remain calm, at least briefly, and send a polite, respectful response.  

As our email discussion continued, we learned that our two firms shared more than a name. The two companies were the same size (12 employees), they offered the same services to interesting clients, they did excellent work, and they shared a sense of adventure. We had a few congenial phone conversations. We agreed that we should think about working together, if possible. And then my new correspondent announced that he would be in New York soon. Maybe we could meet there.

His New York plan did not have a business purpose. He and his wife are Christo fans, so her anniversary present to both of them was a trip to New York to see The Gates, the Christo and Jeanne-Claude spectacle in Central Park. Since I am also a Christo fan, I bought a plane ticket and reserved a hotel room.

On a crisp, clear day in early February 2005, I met Thilo and Ute von Debschitz in person for the first time, in the lobby of their hotel on Central Park South. For three hours, we wandered through the vast arrangement of saffron-colored fabric billowing from large steel frames along the park's paths, telling stories, exchanging family histories, sharing business adventures, and discussing music, art, architecture, and life. When we got hungry, we met my friend Sally Rosenthal for brunch at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in the Time-Warner Center, where the restaurant provided a perfect view of The Gates in the park from the 35th floor.  

Since then, the Q families have nurtured a warm partnership. Later in 2005, I visited Wiesbaden for the first time, and Thilo introduced me to his uncle, who helped my daughter and me discover the small farm in northern Germany where my great-grandfather lived before he left for America in the 19th century. Since then, Wiesbaden has become my routine summer destination. Usually, I hear some of the best concerts I've ever heard, at the Rheingau Musik Festival, a summer-long series of classical, jazz, and world-music concerts in and near Wiesbaden. The festival is a Q GmbH client.  

The Qs exchange interns. We exchange music recommendations and professional tips. Whenever possible, we share projects. For example, when Flint Ink, headquartered in Ann Arbor, merged with a European company, Q+Q collaborated with the companies' executives in Europe and North America to create a name, graphic identity, branding system, and trade show booth for the new entity.  

Last year, Alissa Ampezzan, a young Q LTD designer with a big future, worked at Q Wiesbaden for three months, and Thilo and his partner, Laurenz Nielbock, joined us for our annual retreat at Cranbrook, northwest of Detroit. This year, Alissa and I went to Wiesbaden to join the Q GmbH annual retreat.

The two Qs have discovered a few other Qs in the design and communication business: in Melbourne (Australia) and Christchurch (New Zealand). We also collect Qs from all over the world. The gallery is huge and growing fast. You can see it at the link on the Q GmbH web site.

The Q+Q partnership developed from a fortuitous series of coincidental events. It's my favorite example of my favorite powerful force. But it would not exist if we had not stumped ourselves in our attempt to create a new name for our company, or if I had not abandoned my natural American paranoia about European intentions.