In the fall of 2002, I received a cloak and dagger-type phone call from a high level executive at Kodak. He requested that I meet with him in a week’s time in New York City. When I inquired what the purpose of the meeting was he skirted the question and alluded that it would be revealed when we met. A few days later I received an email with the address of a small diner in Manhattan’s Garment District – time: 3 p.m. The week passed and I didn’t think much about it. The day we met I had a difficult time finding the coffee shop. It was raining and the hand-painted prewar sign on the coffee shop was small and worn out. I walked in and found he was easy to spot. The place was empty with the exception of us and a waitress. He was tall and thin and wearing a turtleneck sweater. Before I could speak he said, “Hello, Mr. Nuccio,” waving me over. He had a deep stack of papers on the table. Holding up a magazine clipping he said, “I recognize you from your photo.” I ordered a coffee, and for the next hour we sat and had a one-sided discussion about my background, my influences and my thoughts on contemporary design. It was rather like a job interview. Any questions I had were replied to with short vague answers. When it was over I didn’t know what was going on. He asked me for a list of references and then settled the tab. I recall he had 8 cups of coffee to my 3.
Over the next few weeks I received phone calls from everyone that I put on my reference list. Oddly enough I found that none of my references spoke with the same person I met with at Kodak. I was getting descriptions like “they had a Spanish accent”, “I spoke with a woman” and “I’m pretty sure this person was fat”. That aside, I found that Kodak had asked all my references the same questions; “Was Design Edge professional?”, “How is our reputation in the toy industry?” and “How fast can we work?” Weeks went by and then one day the phone rang. The person on the other end sounded younger than the man I met in the diner. He explained to me that Kodak was in trouble. They missed the boat on digital cameras and were now scrambling to pull a line together. He requested that I fly up to their Rochester, New York headquarters and meet their team.
Rochester was cold. It was late fall and already had a foot of snow on the ground. I was greeted at the airport by the young man who had called me a few days before. After a short drive, we arrived at “Kodak City”. Now I’ve been to some big corporate campuses before, but this took the cake. It was, as the name suggested, a city. We then drove to a mid-century modern building that differed from the rest of the campus I had seen thus far. When we entered the large lobby, there was a small glass case sitting alone in the center of the room. It was out of place standing like the monolith in Stanley Kubrick’s film,”2001: A Space Odyssey”. We shot right past it and headed into a large conference room which had the air of a war room. People were scrambling about with charts and graphs. I sat down and waited a few minutes. The person at the head of table paged several people to come to the conference room. When they entered the conference room moments later, the person at the end of the table signaled everyone else to leave. I was given a short introduction to the team and then given the reason why I was brought Kodak.
Kodak, the once monster of the photo industry, had lost its way in the digital age. Its’ expansive film business was slipping more and more each day. They knew that they needed to enter the digital camera business and had no time to waste. Their research found that the toy industry knew how to move fast and how to design a product to a price point. In scrambling to learn more about the toy industry they had read about me in an article in Advertising Age magazine. They had apparently contacted several other development studios also.
After four hours of briefing, I walked away with a massive project of designing a new look for the Easy Share camera line. Over the course of the next year Design Edge would design dozens and dozens of different packaging and body styles for focus group after focus group… some of it was crazy funky stuff, while other designs were as plain-Jane as it gets. During that year I would go up and down to Rochester multiple times, work with countless people and departments and be subjected to internal review after review. One day while exiting the modern looking building, I stopped and looked inside the glass case in the lobby. Inside it was a large blue box with a lens and cassette tape attached to it. Below it was a small plaque that read “Digital Camera”. I turned to the guy accompanying me and asked, “What’s this?” He explained to me that a Kodak engineer named Steven Sasson invented the digital camera in 1975 and then jokingly laughed… “And we did nothing with it”.
To this day the image of that camera haunts me. How did a company that did so much diligence on me miss such a golden opportunity? Is it possible for a company, an industry or even a nation to get so caught up in the successes of today that we can’t see a greater future when it’s right there in front of us? Is today’s smart phone or digital printer the digital camera of 1975? Are we so tied up with getting great costs of goods from China to realize what’s going on? Is it possible, that in a short time, much manufacturing will become an at-home experience with every home owning its’ own 3D printer and import-export will go the way of camera film developing? What other new technologies are over the horizon? How many will be exploited and how many will fail? How, as an industry, do the toy makers embrace and take hold of these opportunities? Who will be the “Kodak’s” of tomorrow? Do we need to look back to move forward?
About the Author: Matt Nuccio is passionate about conveying a clear message through design. His company, Design Edge, is an international, multi-award-winning design and sourcing agency. For over 25 years they have designed products and packaging across multiple product categories. From 2008 to 2011 Matt was co-chairman of the Toy Industry Association (TIA) associate panel. He currently sits on the Board of Directors for the United Inventors Association (UIA). Matt is a prolic guest speaker and author, and can be seen on the Science Channel’s show “All-American Makers” as thier toy design expert.