Blog: Tom Rieke

Good things come to those who believe in serendipity. Tom Rieke, president of Ann Arbor creative consultancy Q LTD, writes this week on a fortuitous international alignment of Qs and why being "blur" is good for business.

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.