Jessica Helfand | Essays

Donald Trump, Art Director: Not The Real Thing

It's been called refreshing, healthful, sparkling and delicious; scintillating, satisfying, and an aid to digestion. Over the past 106 years, its price has steadily risen to keep apace with economic growth, as has its logo evolved from whimsically stenciled to willfully streamlined — always sporting the classic colors of the flag of its parent country.

But not until now has Pepsi opened itself up to a public makeover on national television, a redesign in the hands of a smattering of aspiring capitalists, a group whose combined knowledge of design principles might be characterized as, dare I say it — negligible.

Of course, last week's Pepsi challenge had everything to do with boosting real ratings and little to do with portraying anything even remotely to do with real design. (And as far as a true reality check goes, let's not forget that it was Coke — not Pepsi — who brilliantly nabbed the slogan "It's The Real Thing" way back in 1970.) Nevertheless, The Apprentice — which is, alarmingly, tied with NBC's The West Wing as primetime television's most upscale program — chose the redesign of the Pepsi bottle as last week's Trumpian challenge. (In its debut season last year, an average of 20.7 million people watched The Apprentice each week and 40.1 million watched all or some of the finale.) Does this mean that design, as a variable in daily life, has gone public — and if so, shouldn't we be cheering?

Obviously, nothing about The Apprentice's redesign episode evoked even an iota of the design process, and why should it? Instead, the competitors took stabs at each other's personality flaws and presentation skills. The show routinely employs a technique of cutaway interviews, in which contestants gripe about not being heard, and complain about their teammates: such uncensored cattiness raises the notion of critique to a new form of dramatic caricature, particularly — and regrettably — when the women are featured.

Barrelling through with a true dose of reality, Pepsi's real designers were included in this episode — meek and monosyllabic, manning their workstations like little indentured elves. To "add incentive," one competitor paid each of them $100 — that's right, $100 — this, for their willingness to tolerate a host of design suggestions that included a globe-shaped bottle, a bottle with two bulbous ends and a narrow middle, and my personal favorite, a typographic rendition of the word "Edge," — yes, in molded plastic. In an online recap provided by the network, this little exercise in design futility was cited thus: "When Kelly asked about putting the hole in the bottle, the designers said it was really going to be a problem. Kelly insisted, calling the hole a "wow factor." The designers said they would give it their best shot."

There is a part of me, albeit a very small part, that wants my students to watch this episode. Might they witness an aspect of real-world social interaction that could provide a dose of useful reality, a wake-up call to the un-glamorous manner in which design is quite often approached and indeed, argued in the hands of non-designers? And isn't this a very basic aspect of professional practice, beyond the vicissitudes of critique and the formalities of consensus? On the other hand, if a student of mine used the term "wow factor" in a critique, I might have to get violent — this, on the assumption that I could hold my nausea at bay.

There is little so far to suggest that Reality TV, as a genre, purports to advance the social value of any one person or thing. On this score, The Apprentice may indeed deserve its present, somewhat exalted status in the dubious pantheon of reality programs — shows boasting such stunts as spider-eating and wife-swapping. (When a design challenge shows up on My Big Fat Fiancé you can be certain that this critic will have something to say about it.) In the meantime I'm all for an economic model that imports Donald Trump's financial genius into an equation that betters the world through good design. Maybe that's an idea for a reality program all its own: they could call it Really Massive Change.

Posted in: Graphic Design, Media

Comments [39]

I missed out on that episode (ok, and every other one this season), but of course I've found that generally the challenges have little basis in reality. The teams also had to design a toy this season - here's the winner.

Like you mention, the process is mostly left out. But I say go ahead and show this to your students. Even if it's a somewhat hyperbolic version of things, I think we all could tell stories where a client asks a designer to do something absurd. I know I've worked with many a marketing person who has used the term "wow factor". What better way to prepare students for the reality of what they might face?
Andrew Twigg

I don't know about this.

The industry will try as hard as it can to dampen spirits when you're out in the mix. Let's keep education alive & exciting when commercial pressures don't have to exist.
Kevin Cannon

As much as this is industrial design, this is the second Apprentice in a row to feature design work (as a primary - the bridal salon episode involved some graphic design a swell (especially a lesson in approving proofs)).

The first was the Levi's episode where they had to make instore take home collateral.

Not to say that this is not business work, but is this the best television? Is analyzing budgets or quarterly results too hard to bring across to a non-CNBC audience so they go after something easier?

The way they edit this also makes it alot more intense on the design (better computer shots) than the marketing that goes in behind it.

It's great exposure to the Marketing efforts at Levi's and Pepsi.
Rob Bergin

This episode is actually not the first design challenge for the series. In season one, the contestants worked with Deutsch Advertising, to create an ad campaign for a "rent-a-personal jet" service. This season, the show again used the same advertising agency as a battle ground, challenging the contestants to Then in episode 11, the teams are challenged to "design" an in-store catalogue for Levi's Jeans. As expected, none showed any kind of understanding of the markets, much less a hint of process.

What's amazing to me is that Donny Deutsch would choose to participate. The two episodes with his involvements showed the teams creating and executing "ad campaigns" within a day's time. No research, no explorations, and certainly no design. That create an expectation among the public and potential clients that this is how ad campaigns are done. How does one demand fees in the 100's of thousand or even millions, when you endorse an image that a bunch of people with no experience can create ads in 24 hours?
Nipith Ongwiseth

The complete focus on "design" the entire season of The Apprentice has been driving me nuts. And I suspect its more of a result of Trump needing to place special "paying" corporations within the context of each challenge. It just so happens that doing some kind of "design" project for companies like Levi's and Pepsi is much more interesting than to watch the contestants provide the services they would normally be qualified for.

This misrepresentation and public devaluation of design and its process is becoming pervasive. Just a couple posts ago on this very site was the subject of the public outcry over the $10,000 logo that looked like anybody could have done it. In actuality the city got a bargain but the profession got shafted.

At least the role of 'designer' was incorporated into the show. In a time where design templates and "desktop publishing" (I hate that term) make it so easy for Average Joe to put something out there, Trump could have simply left it up to them.
Lenny Naar

To the cast's credit, one of the teams for Levi Jeans came up with an appropriate design, with a decent amount of process for a one day project. The team actually asked themselves, "What do people think about when they buy jeans? Do people have trouble figuring out which type or fit to buy? Why? Could an in-store display or collateral system help them make this decision?" Yes, it was all based on intuition, but their reasoning was fairly solid, and the people at Levi's agreed.

The Pepsi Edge show was pretty sad. Both teams showed no intelligence at all. They never thought about how people purchase soda. Neither team's bottle would have fit in vending machines or racks at 7-11, making the bottle designs unusable for huge chunks of the market. I wasn't expecting great design - I was expecting, however, some kind of thought process. Unfortunately, people believe that design is about slapping crazy text on labels, not about thinking.

I was watching the show with a group of non-designer friends, and they were pretty unimpressed with the "designs." Someone mentioned the fact that the contestants didn't even think the project through before they started doing it.

So, maybe there is hope.
Ryan Nee

I agree with Ryan. I saw it as well with a group of (non-designer) friends. They had the same reaction to the designs as many of the Pepsi people who witnessed the presentations -- laughable.

There's no reasons to show this to your students. None whatsoever. What they can gain from it will not make up for the lost time spent watching it.

This certainly will not prepare them in any way for reality, just reality TV.
Steven Kapsinow

I admit: I love watching the Apprentice. Not for any design sensibility or business knowledge, but for the sheer entertainment of it. It's laughable that anyone could take this seriously. The Pepsi design competition did get my blood pumping, as well as the Levi's catalog, and the NYPD recruiting video. I always think of what a contestant with any sort of design sensibility would do; but unfortunately that's not what garners ratings. Ratings come from heated arguments and people that talk a lot but don't say anything. We live in a society where he who shouts the loudest is right. I thought the fact that Andy lost because he wasn't yelling proved that point. I thought he should have lost because he treated the designers like naughty ten year olds rather than professionals.

Maybe if the Donald took design and it's impact more seriously, his empire wouldn't be in bankruptcy? Of course, there are some serious management issues at hand as well, but that's just business.

I haven't seen any episodes recently, but maybe people will get the idea, from the poor work done, that design isn't as simple as people think it is and that there must be something more to it than just sitting down at a computer. We should be so lucky, yes?

Or why couldn't AIGA take these examples of how not to design and build a informational ad campaign around the process of design? Certainly one could look at this an opportunity to showcase the design process and why it's important. All the while taking advantage of the show's popularity to help promote the power of design and it's strategic role in business.


It makes me a little sad that the professional designers in this episode were so meek about what was being done. Maybe that is what they were supposed to do. I might be completely wrong here but my understanding of being a designer is not only to design but also to help others understand what good design is. In this case, I don't think the designers could really refute any of the ideas. Hopefully on a normal day the designers at Pepsi would deter these uneducated suggestions and lead the ideas of clients away from their uniformed opinions to something that is both functional and good looking.
David Bilbo

"I'm all for an economic model that imports Donald Trump's financial genius"

What financial genius? He started with an inheritance and started speculating. If he had just stuck his money into a diverse mutual fund portfolio and let it sit he'd actually be a richer man today.

I'm not saying he's not a savvy and canny businessman, but 'genius' implies you can at least beat the market.
Michael Bernstein

Oooh Jessica! Great topic! Some background: I was contacted prior to season one of The Apprentice to have Sterling Group be the "Donny Deutsch" agency for that episode. Mark Burnett's team spoke with us about doing that particular show in Sterling's offices (we are in the Empire State Building, so it was a shoe-in location). We were called because I know someone that worked on The Apprentice 1 & 2. They wanted to shoot the episode at Sterling, have Sterling provide all of the props, do all of the design "production" and have our staff involved. For this they were willing to pay...nothing. Not even our expenses. This was prior to the show going on the air, so no one knew how big the show was going to become. I have to admit that I wanted to do it, it seemed exciting and could be great pr for our firm. However, my partner Simon voted no, and ultimately we decided that all of the partners needed to be "for it" in order for us to do it. Ultimately, Simon thought it would be too cheesy and that we risked too much not having complete control of the outcome. I was really disappointed. When the show came out I was both appalled and relieved...though a part of me wished we could've done it and done it *right.*

I had all but forgotten about the show, until last week. I was in a blissful nap, half sleeping, half awake. The television was on and I vaguely heard in the background an Apprentice teaser boasting that Pepsi was going to have the show contestants redesign a can. I jumped up off of the sofa in shock. Unfortunately, or fortunately, I ended up missing the episode when it aired. I think NBC reruns it on CNBC...so I will try to see it. Provisionally, having not seen it yet...but since you asked: I would share it with your students. If only as a "what not to do when designing" lesson.

Now that I have read your post I would like to offer this: I have worked with most of the design team at Pepsi and I must tell you they are one of the few consumer brand companies that respect package designers, pay fair fees, respect the process of what we do and "get it." The design director there is an amazing, strong, really smart woman. I don't know if she was in the episode, but it horrifies me that The Apprentice folks made any of the Pepsi people look so bad.

Oh, here is a nice bit of gossip--after we turned our opportunity on The Apprentice down, we recommended that they call Mad Dogs and Englishmen and Futurebrand. Both of those companies turned them down as well. I would love to get Donny's perspective on what he thought of his company's portrayal on the show.

Wow! Thank you debbie for the background you provided. They really illustrate that you don't need to hire an ad agency to create a campaign. They have a bunch of ambitious interns throw something together in a day. Who needs designers? The show has also convinced an agency to let them use their facilities, resources and staff, without paying for any of it. Talk about devaluing design.
Nipith Ongwiseth

Thank you, Debbie, for sharing your experience here. To think that they offered no compensation! Shame on them. And I'd be interested to know more about the Pepsi perspective ... from what you write here, one can only imagine they held their heads high — and held their breath.
Jessica Helfand

I would love to get Donny's perspective on what he thought of his company's portrayal on the show.

I don't think it could have been too bad for Donny - he has his own show on CNBC now.

Michael Surtees

>What's amazing to me is that Donny Deutsch would choose to participate.

I wonder why. deutsch isn't committed to design excellence or creative ideas, they care about the mighty dollar and nothing else. compare their work for burger king or directv to the stuff that came out since those clients left that agency. look at old navy, california cheese or mitsubishi. deutsch himself is just another account manager with no respect for the creative process.

I find it interesting to see how trump calls deutsch his personal friend. wonder how he feels, considering he was only fourth to be called, if I understand debbie correctly.

being an (advertising) art director, I didn't know if I should laugh or cry upon watching the apprentice episode in question. but as michael mentioned, deutsch himself has a cable show, where btw he does nothing but talk to pectorally enhanced females. the show is aptly called 'the big idea'.


Admittely, I wasn't a big fan in the beginning of reality TV Understandably so, I understood, the craze began with the show on MTV with the young kids.

I jumped into the fray with The Apprentice and America's New Top Model. The Apprentice has been interesting this year. The first year I always wondered how creatives would fare on the show. This season two marketing executives are on the show. First episode, the Corporate Branding guy was fired. Understandable because he was too laid back. And not assertive enough. The other is a female. Don't know if she's still among the cast as I missed a few episodes. Haven't seen the re-runs of episodes missed. Missed the Pepsi Can redesign. There was another episode of the Apprentice. Where the cast had to Develop, Name, and Market ice cream. The following week, Crest toothpaste emulated the Apprentice with having a contest to Name and Develop a new flavor of toothpaste.

First season, I disagreed with Donny Deutche discision. The women Ad Campaign was more Risqué. Not the better Design. The women subliminal Corporate Ad Campaign of a man's Genitalia using Lear Jets wouldn't work in the Corporate World.

In comparison, I much prefer the shows on the Discovery Channel: Orange County Choppers, and Monster House. Because of collaboration with Craftsman and Designer(s) the interactions are more realistic.

For Critique, I look at America's New Top Model. The critique is realistic. Sometimes a little biased. I think Nigel Barker, noted photographer, lends an air of respectability to the critque.

Another of the shows on Reality TV. Showcasing Design Interaction is Extreme Makeover Home Edition. The best show was when the team Developed and Designed a new home for Deaf Parents. And a child that was Blind and Autistic. The letter written by the Family's eldest son. Even an Old Curmudgeon like myself couldn't help but cry in adulation.

I do not have the chance and time to watch T.V. I am a very busy individual and all I do is work. If I understand this completely in the reality T.V show "The Apprintice" the team had to design a new Pepsi logo. I think that is great. Now, that they can have some kind of appreciation of what us Graphic Designers do for life. I think that it was a good idea for them to challenge the people in the show to design a new logo for Pepsi. This can be an advantage for us up-coming Designers in the new world.
Kharlo Cortez

Come on. Everybody knows that reality TV isn't "real". There's nothing to be upset about.

It appears to me that the world of graphic design has just been added to the (long) list of cultural facets that have been, in my opinion, mocked and insulted by television and those that create it. Other long time members of the list include, common sense, intelligence, sexuality, and marriage.

Can anyone act surprised?
Nick Zdon

Pentagram was also approached to be the "Donny Deutsch" of an upcoming episode in which the contestants will be designing a brochure for Plymouth. In the end the producers decided to go with Plymouth's in-house department instead.

I'm a fan, but along with the product tie-ins, the heavy-handed structure and relentless, unrealistic pace of the show are getting a little stale. I would throw in a few long term projects (in 3-episode arcs?) that better capture the ups and downs of real campaigns. The Donald could still fire someone every week. The longer people work on a project, the more invested they become in it, and the resulting interpersonal drama would be worthy of the name Trump.

Please, everyone take a deep breadth and relax.

The latest Apprentice episode wasn't about design. It was a "realistic project" that was the vehicle to put relatively smart people together to work as a team. A designated person from the team directly manages selected support professionals (in this case Industrial and Graphic Designers) in a task/situation the contestants know nothing about. People had the choice to turn the television on and watch the resulting dynamics of humans under stress and crisis to see how they interact, overreact, misuse resources, and/or fumble in real-time. It was an entertainment show and not a documentry.

A real police officer will tell you that all cops and robbers shows don't depict what it's really like. A doctor will tell you that a hospital drama is not what the life of a doctor is really like, and so on and so forth. Perhaps we can all smile at the outcome of the Apprentice, and take-away any lessons that might be applicable to our lives, or not. Determining the value of the program on a comparison to the principals of design, process, and/or client relations is silly.

The people that were on the closed set know what went on, and no one else. Anyone else is merely watching it on television. Enjoy the show or watch something else.

Forgive me, J, but I actually disagree. My suspicion — and judging by some of the comments here, I am not alone in this — is that while those of us who work in the design professions may recognize the difference between real and fake, or real and staged, or even really redesigned and fictionally redesigned, we are hardly the majority. Of the viewing public that constitutes this show's target audience, there are probably few who know much about design. In this view, Trump's cursory appropriation of the design process becomes, to design, what burlesque is to theatre: it's a parody, which, in a world so besotted with visual culture, is also something of a tragedy.
Jessica Helfand

>worthy of the name Trump

are you implying trump is a good name? trump and pentagram?

and I always thought it meant 'tacky'.

What I found exceedingly curious is that in a show that's all about business there was no mention of budget or manufacturing costs at all. A great idea that would cost Pepsi $1 a bottle to execute is simply not a great idea. This factor was totally absent from the episode—which is frankly a bit bizarre considering how focused most episodes are on earning a penny more than the other team.

PS: Maven, America's Top Model is highly entertaining and I'm a champion of its honest, clear presentation of gay men without any reference to their gayness, they just happen to be there, as working experts. They are not gay men as cute clowns of pet friends but simply as extremely capable professionals ... a nice step for broadcast TV.
Tom Dolan

"Reality Television" is an oxymoron. As Seinfeld asks, "What's so realistic about eating bull anus?" But with regards to the Apprentice and all of these design tasks...., atleast during the fashion line episode, the designers worked AS designers. The pepsi designers simply acted as "hands" -that was the tragic part.

>interpesonal drama worthy of the name Trump

C, I still associate the Donald with the breathless tabloid coverage of the Ivana and Marla years. But now he's downright respectable! Except in his aesthetics. I suppose I've gotten use to his gilted, uh, extravagance as being an intrinsic part of New York. But I don't know if I can forgive him his replacement for The Chicago Sun-Times Building.


Clearly proof that designers are still the wizards behind the curtain.

Speaking of design on TV, has anyone else watched Taking Care Of Business on TLC? (Yeah, so what I am a TLC watching geek... wanna make something of it! ;D) While I do not always love the logos their designer comes up with, the show goes the furthest of any I have seen to highlight the importance of a graphic designer as more than just a production artist.
Nat Bolton

From what I know, burlesque has something to do with taking your clothes off in front of people, and theatre usually has a bit more dialogue. One isn't necessarily a parody of the other (although sometimes it is), thus I don't get the tragic comparison resulting from "Trump's cursory appropriation of the design process". I don't even know what that means, but it sure sounds angry and insecure.

Speaking as a designer and educator, lets get off our high-horses and take ourselves and our profession a little less serious. Remember, the inferred sanctity of the "design process" is based merely upon any individual's subjective opinion and/or interpretation, informed or otherwise. The true measure of any "design process" definition lies in its ability to be accepted and utilzed to create impact and effect change in the marketplace.

The Apprentice show merely enables Mr. Trump to make a somewhat theatrical judgement of a person's team-based performance from a business standpoint, which includes most prominently their people skills. Honestly, I really don't see how it could be considered an affront to the world of design or somehow negatively effects our culture. That is a really big leap. The unabridged verison of the abovementioned episode included many portions of a "design process', however it ended up on the cutting room floor. Why? It would have bored the pants off most people watching. Why do you think they don't make televison shows about accountants? It isn't intersting!

But beware, there could be someone out there spreading impurities about our profession. If that is the case, lets go after them and set them straight! Lets you and I tell them what the design really is.

In the mean time, relax and get back to work.

Well put J. I saw one of the fired contestants on the Today show who explained that the actual 'boardroom' is often an hour or more long, but that it's edited down to 3-5 minutes for the show, which I'm sure applies to the rest as well.
Tom Dolan

I liked the idea of starving the designers so they would work faster........................Here Pavlov, where's your dog!
Neil Schierstedt

Well, I'd never seen the show before, but I stumbled across it the other night and, with this weblog in mind, I actually watched it.

There's an hour of my life I'll never get back, thank you very much.

I happened to catch a recap episode, which suited me fine since I didn't have to sit through each painful night, only a series of vignettes.

How could we, as designers, feel threatened by that steaming pile? Perhaps I am giving the average viewer too much credit for intelligence, but seriously, The Apprentice is to design what Survivor is to the travel industry.

From a different perspective... the inclusion of an actual agency—whether it be Deutsch or Pentagram or Sterling—was about as real to me as watching the NFL. Few get to breathe that rarified air, and I'm not going to one of them. I'm pretty comfortable with that too.

Change the channel, folks. There are more important things to worry about. For that matter, turn off the TV and do something.
Andrew Montgomery

Well, I was one of those "meek" designers on the last Apprentice episode. I think watchers should understand that the show you see is exactly how the editors want you to see it. It is not reality. Our role in the show did not really turn out to be a designer, but a tool. We let the unexperienced guide us in developing a design, and we let them own it. We were not supposed to give our opinions. Real design is not done this way. In real life, designers guide. This show is purely for entertainment, not to base roles in design from.

Looking at that episode was real upsetting. I didn't like either of the bottles and i laughed at the fact that they both like their designs. That was the "wow factor" for me.

Coke = Coke

Pepsi = Fake Coke

The agency selected and featured in Apprentice 2 was One80 Design of New York City. Check them out at www.one80design.com.

Jim Warner

Yeah, That's probably why the designs sucked! :)
Rob Croft

This is all so depressing. Firstly that design is so undervalued and has been shown in TV as something that professional studios do for a few hundred dollars. I think the design profession needs all the help it can get.

People like Mr Trump, whose ego is so big he puts the word TRUMP on the side of his buildings (TRUMP means Fart in England) should steer clear of belittling our profession.
lee newham

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