The news has been heartbreaking.
After shaping the 20th century with brilliant technology, Kodak is bankrupt.
Six years ago it wasn’t. But many executives there were in denial about how much trouble they were really in. Posters could be seen in the hallways asking employees to “Imagine New Ways To Work With Film!”
Kodak had let themselves slip badly in the digital camera battles. So, among other actions, at the 11th hour they asked how design could help them turn around a war they were losing. So, they invited my team at BIG to start the visual redesign of their company.
Working with their good people in Rochester, we went to work. Kodak’s lack of vision in their business strategy was reflected in their lack of vision in their design strategy. Decades of confusing, sloppy, meaningless branding, graphics, iconography, and cheesy imagery covered everything like diseased barnacles. These layers had to be stripped away. We worked to get Kodak back to what made the company and their products astounding in the first place: radical simplicity.
I am proud of what we did. And our team members, including Allan Hori, Weston Bingham, Christian Cervantes and David Hartman among others, were remarkable to work with.
At some point, I’ll explain our approach to that work. It’s a good, if ultimately sad design story.
But today is not that day.
A few hours ago I came across a heartfelt essay by Bob Lonsberry, a writer and talk show host and resident of Rochester, home to Kodak’s global headquarters.
In light of Kodak’s sad news, he provided a good reminder of just how important Kodak was.
My work is done.
Those words were some of the last penned by George Eastman. He included them in his suicide note.
They mark an ignoble end to a noble life, the leave taking of a truly great man.
The same words could now be said for the company he left behind.
My work is done.
For all intents and purposes, the Eastman Kodak Company is through. It has been mismanaged financially, technologically and competitively. For 20 years, its leaders have foolishly spent down the patrimony of a century’s prosperity. One of America’s bedrock brands is about to disappear, the Kodak moment has passed.
It is as wrong as suicide, and, like suicide, is the result of horrifically poor decisions, a fatal wound of self-infliction.
But George Eastman is not how he died, and the Eastman Kodak Company is not how it is being killed. Though the ends be needless and premature, they must not be allowed to overshadow the greatness that came before.
History testifies of the greatness of George Eastman.
It must also bear witness of the greatness of Kodak.
Few companies have done so much good for so many people, or defined and lifted so profoundly the spirit of a nation and perhaps the world. It is impossible to understand the 20th Century without recognizing the role of the Eastman Kodak Company.
Kodak served mankind through entertainment, science, national defense and the stockpiling of family memories.
Kodak took us to the top of Mount Suribachi and to the Sea of Tranquility. It introduced us to the merry old Land of Oz and to stars from Charlie Chaplin to John Wayne, and Elizabeth Taylor to Tom Hanks.
It showed us the shot that killed President Kennedy, and his brother bleeding out on a kitchen floor, and a fallen Martin Luther King Jr. on the hard balcony of a Memphis motel.
When that sailor kissed the nurse, and when the spy planes saw missiles in Cuba, Kodak was the eyes of a nation. From the deck of the Missouri to the grandeur of Monument Valley, Kodak took us there. Virtually every significant image of the 20th Century is a gift to posterity from the Eastman Kodak Company.
In an era of easy digital photography, when we can take a picture of anything at any time, we cannot imagine what life was like before George Eastman brought photography to people. Yes, there were photographers, and for relatively large sums of money they would take stilted pictures in studios and formal settings.
But most people couldn’t afford photographs, and so all they had to remember distant loved ones, or earlier times of their lives, was memory. Children could not know what their parents had looked like as young people, grandparents far away might never learn what their grandchildren looked like.
Eastman Kodak allowed memory to move from the uncertainty of recollection, to the permanence of a photograph.
But it wasn’t just people whose features were savable; it was events, the sacred and precious times that families cherish. The Kodak moment, was humanity’s moment. It was that place in time where there is joy, where life has its ultimate purpose.
From the earliest round Brownie pictures, to the squares of 126 and the rectangles of 35mm, Kodak let the fleeting moments of birthdays and weddings, picnics and parties, be preserved and saved. It allowed for the creation of the most egalitarian art form. Lovers could take one another’s pictures, children were photographed walking out the door on the first day of school, the person releasing the shutter decided what was worth recording, and hundreds of millions of such decisions were made.
And for centuries to come, those long dead will smile and dance and communicate to their unborn progeny. Family history will be not only names on paper, but smiles on faces. Thanks to Kodak.
The same Kodak that served is in space and on countless battlefields. This company went to war for the United States and played an important part in surveillance and reconnaissance. It also went to the moon and everywhere in between.
All while generating a cash flow that employed countless thousands of salt-of-the-earth people, and which allowed the company’s founder to engage in some of the most generous philanthropy in America’s history. Not just in Kodak’s home city of Rochester, New York, but in Tuskegee and London, and at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He bankrolled two historically black colleges, fixed the teeth of Europe’s poor, and quietly did good wherever he could. And Kodak made that possible.
While doing good, Kodak did very well.
And all the Kodakers over all the years are essential parts of that monumental legacy. They prospered a great company, but they – with that company – blessed the world.
That is what we should remember about the Eastman Kodak Company.
Like its founder, we should remember how it lived, not how it died.
My work is done.
Perhaps that is true of Kodak.
If it is, we should be grateful that such a company ever existed. We should rejoice in and show respect for that existence.
History will forget the small men who have scuttled this company.
But history will never forget Kodak.