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Karl Wiberg Photo Design Firm Spurs Community Collaboration

by Karl Wiberg, Karl Wiberg Creative

May 2010

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Look. Up in the air.

A bowl of fruit.

On a woman’s head.

No, you’re not having a fever dream about an airborne Carmen Miranda. The arresting image belongs to one of more than a dozen festive street banners that have blossomed throughout Rochester’s East End district. Each banner features a stylized photo of a local “East Ender” (16 in total) who lives or works in the district.

The project is the brainchild of The Philipson Group, a new strategic communications firm located above the Rochester Contemporary Art Center on East Avenue. The firm enlisted a group of forward-thinking merchants and non-profits to sponsor the banners as a way to promote and unify the East End district (see sponsor list at end). Noted photographer Walter Colley and stylist Kim Salley donated their considerable talents as well. The East End Marketing Committee, a volunteer association of business, entertainment and institutional leaders, was also instrumental to the project’s success.

East End Ribbon Cutting Ceremony
-- Ribbon-cutting Ceremony

"This is the type of project that brings pride and a sense of excitement to communities," Mayor Robert Duffy said at the May 13th ribbon-cutting ceremony. He added that the South Wedge, Maplewood and 19th Ward are neighborhoods where a similar effort might be effective.

“Putting banners up is not new,” said Michael Philipson, president of The Philipson Group. “But our twist on it was to use all local people in the images, and use all local talent in creating the design and photography.” The sponsored banners are appearing along East Avenue, from Alexander to Main Street, and adjacent side streets.

Banner Ceremony
-- Model Felecia (under umbrella), Lewis Stess, Walter Colley, Michael Philipson

Taxpayers will be happy to know that The City of Rochester didn’t have to spend a dime or devote any staff to the project. Everything was covered by sponsorships and in-kind donations: design, printing, installation, even insurance. City Hall had to approve it, but otherwise it was grassroots citizen effort.

“It’s a win-win for everyone involved,” added Jerry Serafine, restaurateur and President of the East End Business Association. “It designates the district as a destination for shopping, services, entertainment and living. It also promotes local businesses and, most importantly, the entire community reaps the benefit of the program’s success by creating a more vibrant and appealing neighborhood.”

Jerry Serafine
-- Carlos Carballada, Elaine Spaull, Jerry Serafine, Tim Tompkins

Tim Tompkins, chair of the East End Business Association's marketing committee, said the banners could lead to other projects in the East End, such as benches and trash receptacles.

"When this was first proposed, we didn't have a policy for the use of such banners,” said R. Carlos Carballada, the city’s Commissioner of Neighborhood and Business Development. “I see this as a test case for a broader policy for the rest of the city."

“Where many banner programs end up fading into the streetscape,” adds Philipson, “these banners have been designed to generate conversation, to reflect on our diversity as a community, and to add a whole lot of pizzazz to the neighborhood.”

“It’s a self-generating project,” explained Lewis Stess, also of The Philipson Group. “The sponsorship fee pays for the banners, but also creates a fund for further beautification of the East End.”

“The Thing We Do The Best”

As it happens, fostering community collaboration is second nature to the folks at The Philipson Group.

A case in point is their work for the University of Rochester’s 2009 United Way Campaign. The university wanted to take their campaign to a new level. So the design firm not only created a leadership brochure which encouraged giving and explained the impact of donations, they also created a networking program whereby high-end donors would receive a special ‘reward’—a reception at the home of prominent community members.

One such event was hosted by David and Julie Cornell of Cornell’s Jewelers. The result was a win-win all around. The donors represent the right market for Cornell’s; the university builds stronger relationships with the donors; and the donors feel appreciated. Best of all, more donations were raised than in previous years.

“That is a perfect example,” said Philipson, “why we say that the thing we do best is help bring about collaboration.”

Getting Banned

Although he was raised in the area (in the hamlet of Ionia, south of Mendon) Philipson had worked most of his career in Miami. There he owned and managed Cre8tiv Juice, a thriving design firm which had taken off along with the whole South Beach scene of swank hotels, major record labels, hot clubs and chic restaurants. In addition to graphic design, the firm designed and coordinated club openings, parties and themed events. “The design led naturally to special events,” he said, “because we were always on the edge with our design.”

They even managed to have some of their ads banned. A campaign for a nightclub featured “two men kissing, then two women, and then a man and a woman," said Philipson. "The idea being: You’re all welcome here. The ad was banned from the magazine's distribution in the Southwestern United States.”

Recounting the story, he smiles with evident pride, and for good reason. The ban generated massive news coverage and the club became an instant hit. According to Philipson, all the buzz was good for the agency too. “At one point, people would ask, “So what are they going to do next?”

However, in 2000 he needed a little less buzz in his life, so he sold his firm and went off on his own. That’s how he met Stess, who at the time was Chief Development Officer for the American Red Cross in south Florida.


“I hired Michael,” said Stess, “to develop new ideas, new campaigns, special events and design work.” Before long, the two were collaborating. “Lewis knew what it was like to work with non-profits,” said Philipson. “He understood the nature of those organizations, the boards, committees, and sponsorships. So we made a great team.”

Lewis Stess, Michael Philipson Photos
-- Lewis Stesss and Michael Philipson

The Internet was just taking off, so they began creating more and more Web work for the Red Cross and other clients. “Clients were asking for it, so I taught myself web design.” Just as he had taught himself traditional graphic design earlier in his career.

“I think it’s a benefit to be self-taught,” he said. “I had always been an artist, in high school and college. I bought one of the first Macintosh computers and discovered I had an eye for design.” In the beginning, he designed ads for real estate firms, and learned mostly while doing. “I think sometimes graphic designers are constrained by rules they’ve been taught. I feel like I was able to take greater risks, and make something experimental.”

Today he works to make sure that experimentation remains a key part of the firm’s DNA. “Experimenting is part of who are. We have to experiment—within reason—for our clients.”

“This Is A Great Place”

With its unforgiving summer sun, Miami could get a little too hot hot hot. So in 2008, Philipson and Stess left the sunny climes of southern Florida for our, ahem, less sunny clime.

Of course, there were other reasons. “Miami was certainly an exciting place to live and work,” Philipson said. “But ultimately it was too transient.” They wanted to live and work somewhere more grounded. “I had been coming back to visit all my adult life. My parents and my siblings, we’re all very close. I wanted to be able to see more of them.”

The tug of hometown proved irresistible. “This really is a great area, with so many assets,” Philipson said. “I thought it would be more than possible to start a new studio-based business in downtown Rochester—doing what we love to do.”

Stess actually moved here first. “I came for the lakes,” he said. “I love the Finger Lakes. But I also saw a lot of opportunity. I lived here for a summer and realized, you know what? This is a great place. I’m going to move here.”

Finding A Niche

After moving to Rochester, Philipson and Stess joined forces officially as The Philipson Group. “With my non-profit background and his creative background,” said Stess, “we felt we could create a special niche.”

“Non-profit organizations,” Philipson said, “always have to find new ways of raising money, garnering support, even finding new ways of running their businesses. They’re all going through a lot of struggle as they change, and as society changes.”

“In a way that’s good for us, because we were—and are—relatively small and lean, so we approach things with a different perspective. We’ve always been resourceful, and over time we’ve only gotten better at making the most out of less.”

Building Gardens In The Air

The latest example of their resourcefulness and penchant for collaboration is The Garden Aerial, a major project they’re spearheading to create a world-class green space over the Genesee River (www.gardenaerial.org). With a team of fellow conspirators, they’re already drawing up plans for a vibrant garden and arboreal path on the perimeter of the river near High Falls.

“We’ll start with the current pedestrian bridge, the Ponte de Rennes,” said Philipson, “and create a kind of floating arboretum complete with vines hanging into the gorge. It’ll be something that people will go out of their way to see.” Stess notes that it could be the first major new park in Rochester since Highland Park.

An offshoot project is Greentopia, a two-day “world’s fair” of environmental education, arts, music, activism and inspiration that will help create a more sustainable Greater Rochester. The event is slated for September 2011.

Given what The Philipson Group is doing to create positive change in Rochester, it’s obvious the team is glad to be here. “I think the quality of life is just really high,” said Philipson.

Something else that’s obvious: life in Rochester will only be getting better if The Philipson Group has any say in the matter.


This year’s banner sponsors include the following organizations and companies: ACT Rochester, ArtWalk Tile, Bausch + Lomb, Bernunzio Uptown Music, URMC Center for Community Health, City Newspaper, Chaintreuil Jensen Stark Architects, Chester F. Carlson MetroCenter YMCA, Dr. Brandon Comella, Eastman, School of Music, Flower City Management, Fusion Salon, Gar & Cindy Lowenguth/Remax Realty, Good Luck Restaurant, Grove Place Association, Hickey Freeman Factory Store, Huther Doyle, Insero & Company CPAs, Javas, Lawley Andolina Verdi, LLC, Memorial Art Gallery, Metro Salon, Midtown Athletic Club, Monty’s Korner, News 10 NBC, One Restaurant & Lounge, Patriot Companies, Planned Parenthood, Philipson Group, Restaurant 2-Vine, Rochester Area Community Foundation, Rochester Downtown Development Corporation, Jazz in June!, Rochester Philharmonic, Rochester Victory Alliance, Rochester Wealth Management, The Sagamore on East, Sector 5, Temple Bar & Grille, The Little Theater, The Old Toad, T.Y. Lin International, United Way of Greater Rochester, Walter Colley Photography, VisitRochester, Wegmans.



A one-time newspaper reporter, Karl Wiberg has worked as a copywriter and creative director in Rochester, Syracuse and Boston. This week, his favorite buzz words are "quant." and "infrastructure."

Email: karl.offleash@gmail.com
Company Profile: Karl Wiberg Creative
Company URL: http://www.offleash.typepad.com


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