Business of Design Summit 2015

The Next-Gen Design Practice: Lauren Kelly & Vijay Mathews

Lauren Kelly and Vijay Mathews are both 30-ish entrepreneurs. Both are designers with a geeky side. Both have found ways to innovate design processes with new digital tools. And both are riding the tidal wave of technology impacting design practice today. Join them at the SEGD Business of Design Summit Feb. 19 in Denver, where they'll be co-leading the session on Emerging Business Models & Platforms!

Lauren Kelly has been programming and consulting since she was 13, so it’s no surprise that the 30-year-old self-proclaimed “geek” would be a tech entrepreneur. After graduating from UC Davis in 2008 with a degree in design and managerial economics, she worked for EGD firms while creating a brand new business model that combines design and technology. She has helped site survey and develop web-based tools for clients such as Shutterstock, Gensler, Wells Fargo, HP, Intel, McAfee, Kaiser Permanente, Sutter Health, Thomas Jefferson University Hospitals, UC Berkeley, UC Davis, the University of Technology in Sydney, and Stanford.

Vijay Mathews is Principal of W&Co., the New York-based digital design and development studio that provides strategy, interface design, development, and innovation for mobile and web platforms. With a strong background in wayfinding strategy applied to the mobile domain, Mathews has led projects for the School of Visual Arts, Wolff Olins, Hines, Harvard University, the Mercer County Park Commission, AIGA, and many others. Prior to co-founding W&Co., Mathews was a senior designer at Two Twelve and held design positions at WGBH and Hatch Show Print.

Kelly and Mathews took the time to speak with SEGD recently about starting new companies, designing new business models, and taking advantage of the opportunities that digital technology is offering in the design space.

Lauren, you’ve worked as an environmental graphic designer at several design studios and as creative director at a web development startup. First, how did you get started in EGD?

I was first introduced to EGD in Tim McNeil’s introductory class at UC Davis. I really enjoyed the process of designing a person’s experience in the real world. The thought and planning that goes into navigating people through physical spaces is fascinating, especially working through their mindset when they will enter the space and trying to anticipate when they’ll need guidance or reassurance that they’re on the right track.

Vijay, tell us a little about your design background. Did you start as an environmental graphic designer?

EGD has only been a stop along the way in my design journey. Though I studied traditional graphic design, I have worked in disciplines that span the design spectrum. Upon graduation from Boston University, I worked at a large corporate design firm, a small traditional letterpress shop, a huge television broadcast company, a mid-size wayfinding firm, and now at a small interactive studio. That varied exposure has afforded me the opportunity to explore my interests.

Lauren, you founded Mustard Square more than a decade ago while still working as an environmental graphic designer. What inspired you to start your own company?

I’ve been working, consulting, and programming since I was 13 years old, so running my own company is something I’ve always been interested in. I enjoy meeting and working with a lot of people, and being a consultant allows me to do that. We can come in and help design firms execute projects by taking care of the development so they can concentrate on the design.

What is your business model for Mustard Square? What is the company mission?

Mustard Square’s mission is to leverage our technical and design expertise to build design-focused technology. We offer a multitude of digital services, from web and app development to social media content curation, and from project management to video production.

Our main goal is to help design and fabrication firms successfully execute their digital projects by assisting with planning, management, and development. We can plug into any project as needed, both from a production standpoint as well as training so the firms can do the projects in-house using our suite of tools.

Vijay, what drove you to co-found W&Co.? Was there a niche you saw that you felt needed filling?

Timing.

My business partner and I started playing around with apps in 2008. Apple had released the iPhone SDK (software development kit), which allowed third parties to create native applications for the iPhone. Although we were mostly creating novelty apps, we based our approach on the belief that apps should be a thoughtful balance of design and functionality. As a result, our apps were highly considered experiences coupled with intuitive interfaces and robust features. We were doing things no one else was doing at the time. We were creating a new language of interactions and functionality in the guise of novelty. It was thrilling.

About 18 months later, I came to realize that this side gig was far more fulfilling and far more exciting than my day job. So I put in my notice, and two weeks later I was committed to making W&Co. a full-time career. My co-founder, Christopher Auyeung, was already on board, and honestly this venture could not have happened without him. Not only did he provide a level of support with making an idea into a reality, but he was my counterpoint in our approach.

What is your business model for W&Co.?

We’re a young company. We’ve only been operating for five years now. As our business matures, our business models adapt to meet the changing environment. Early on we knew we wanted to have multiple sources of revenue. Before going full-time with the venture we solely focused on a product-based business model. We would build a tool and launch it into the marketplace. When we formalized the company in 2010, we maintained that model, but added a service-based business model—common to most folks in the design space. As we built up our client roster, we started building tools that these clients would continually use. We recognized an opportunity with that usage and added license-fee business model to the mix. With that model, clients using our tools would pay a monthly fee to support maintenance and improvements.

For us, the benefit of having multiple business models is that we can diversify our revenue streams. If there is a period of time we want to focus on product-development we can take on that additional overhead or if there is a period of time when one of those streams is underperforming we don’t have to worry about keeping the lights on. All that being said, aside from being able to pay the rent, we also believe in an “intellectual” business model. Running a small business is not solely about focusing on money. It’s important to stay “fresh.” So we set aside time just for internal projects. This allows us to experiment and try new things without worrying about deadlines or client approvals.

Lauren, how do you think digital technology is changing EGD/XGD?

Digital technology is putting the experience right into the users’ hands. This is true for larger experiences like touchscreen displays and exhibits, to smaller ones including interactive apps on mobile phones. Users want to feel in control of their surroundings by getting more information about their surroundings. For EGD/XGD firms, the main priority should be thinking of how to aid the user by giving them as much information as possible: information about their surroundings, the things around them, or services that will benefit them.

Vijay, what do you see as some of the biggest opportunities that technology is opening up in the design space?

In my opinion, it’s lowering the barrier to entry and expanding the meaning of what is possible. Tools have become so readily available that anyone with a computer and an interest can start “designing,” for better or for worse. Through the lens of EGD/XGD, a digital technology is just another tool that needs to be considered when designing spaces. Currently, the inclusion of digital technology in a built environment is for the most part an afterthought. I think in a couple years there will be less of a differentiation between the physical and the digital; it will all be part of the experience.

Are there ways that "traditional" environmental graphic designers could and should be leveraging the ongoing shifts in design and digital technology to grow their skillsets and/or businesses?

I think it needs to come from within and from the top. You need to have a personal interest to grow those skillsets and leadership needs to drive that growth. It doesn’t just happen. The question becomes, do your employees want to spend their time doing that, and do you as the business owner want to allow for that investment?
It’s important to never stop learning and to never stop being curious. Having an understanding of how the landscape is changing with the inclusion of digital tools can get the conversation started, but you don’t necessarily have to be the expert in it. Sometimes you just need to be able and willing to ask for help.

Lauren, what advice do you have for designers who want to start their own businesses?

The number one thing I would suggest is to learn how to code. It is unbelievably empowering being able to both design and execute your projects. It helps you quickly create proof-of-concepts for your ideas so you can rapidly iterate to find successful solutions. It also forces you to think in a different way about the design; your outlook changes when you have an idea of how it would be executed in code.

The second, and very important thing, is to get a good accountant. If you can outsource the billing and other day-to-day business pieces, you will be able to concentrate on designing and growing your business.

Meet Lauren and Vijay at the SEGD Business of Design Summit Feb. 19 and learn more about new models for design practice, new tech platforms, and leveraging the power of digital in your work!

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