The Future of Your Design Business

Today’s design landscape poses vastly different challenges than ever before, but also new and exciting possibilities for practitioners willing to be agile, adaptive, and opportunistic. SEGD’s first-ever Business of Design Summit—February 19 in Denver—focused on the hottest issues in design business and how innovative thinkers are shaping their practices for the future.

Leadership structures and transitions, new technology platforms, tech-based business models, attracting and retaining next-generation talent, and innovative ways of growing design business were just a few of the topics covered during the one-day workshop at the downtown Denver offices of Gensler. Design business leaders shared how they use design thinking to shape their practices and look to the future for new talent and opportunities. Videos of the day’s presentations will be available soon, but read on for a Business of Design Summit recap!

Leadership and Transition: Your Company after You

Two starkly different approaches to leadership transition were presented, including an acquisition and an internal transition to employee ownership. SEGD Fellows Henry Beer and Richard Foy, who co-founded pioneering EGD firm CommArts in 1973 (with Janet Martin), co-directed its award-winning work for 40 years. With the economic cataclysm of 2007-2008, the firm’s business declined and it was ripe for transition. In 2010, CommArts was acquired by Stantec, one of the world’s largest A/E firms. Today, Foy pursues his own practice and Beer remains a principal in one of Stantec’s most profitable sectors. The co-founders engineered a transition in which the Boulder, Colo.-based CommArts team transitioned, mostly intact, to the Canadian firm.

After working for Corbin Design (Traverse City, Mich.) for 10 years, in 2003 Mark VanderKlipp led his company through an internal leadership and ownership transition and continues to build the company’s legacy as president. VanderKlipp outlined the challenges and advantages of employee ownership and how former own Jeff Corbin planned the transition with intention and the desire to see the company survive and thrive beyond him.

“The one thing you need to know about leadership transition is that it’s not about you,” VanderKlipp noted. Beer agreed: “If practice is about self expression, it probably won’t endure. But if it’s about deep connections wit the culture and about sharing that connection with a team, it will survive beyond you.”

Beer and VanderKlipp described major cultural and operational transitions. The CommArts team, now known as Stantec ViBE, moved from a small company to a worldwide firm of 15,000. VanderKlipp’s colleagues learned to think like owners.

The importance of ownership and leadership transition can’t be overstated, says VanderKlipp. “You need to be preparing your successors to develop the company they want to inherit.” Beer agreed. “If you own a business, no matter how old you are, you should be planning for its next phase of evolution, beyond you.”

Recruiting Gen Y: Creating a Platform for Success

As Brand Design Director in Gensler’s Denver office, Harry Spetnagel is responsible for hiring the new talent in his group—so he understands the unique opportunities and challenges that Gen Y designers bring. Spetnagel prefaced his presentation saying that “generational categorization is a messy business,” and stereotypes are inherently limiting. But understanding the way next-gen designers see the world is helpful in creating ways that they can be successful in their work.

“The days of master and apprentice are long gone,” he said. In today’s frenetically paced business and design world, new designers are tech-savvy, agile, curious, and impatient for new opportunities. They aren’t oriented to a 9-5 workday, and their work and personal lives are much more integrated than past generations. They want to work on the “good stuff” immediately, which can pose a challenge. He offered some tips for attracting Gen Y and keeping them engaged:

• Acknowledge they are being put in roles that are aggressive versus their level of experience, and they will be in positions of responsibility faster than former generations
• Recognize that you hired Gen Y designers for the skill sets you don’t have, specifically digital. Appreciate that and leverage the business opportunities their skills can open up.
• Set up situations where they can hit home runs, and “decriminalize” failure
• Realize they don’t want to work in a strictly 9-5 model; they are not constrained by time of day or day of the week
• They want an information feedback loop to gauge how they are performing. Make yourself available for those check-ins.
• Let them work on the exciting projects
• Give them the authorship and recognition they crave
• Provide meaningful engagements in the work culture
• Keep information flowing so that leadership transitions are smooth

New Business Platforms

Digital technology is providing fertile ground for design entrepreneurs who find ways to solve problems and fill niches with new apps and other digital tools. Just ask Lauren Kelly, founder of Mustard Square, and Vijay Mathews, co-founder of W&Co.

After graduating from UC Davis in 2008 with a degree in design and managerial economics, Kelly worked for EGD firms while creating a new business model that combines design and technology. Through Mustard Square, she provides and new tools for streamlining and automating the documentation, management, and maintenance of assets and their physical locations. Vijay Mathews’s New York-based digital design and development studio W&Co. provides strategy, interface design, development, and innovation for mobile and web platforms.

Kelly shared new digital tools and opportunities that design practitioners should be exploring, and Mathews described the trajectory of his company’s development from part-time side job in 2008 to a product-based business model, evolving from software development to the software-as-service business model he bases the business on today. He emphasized the design aspects of running a s small business, noting he and his partner set aside time to pursue their own projects. “Staying fresh is really important.”

Both Kelly and Mathews’ experiences and business models accentuate the wealth of opportunities that digital technology is providing in design business today. And they depict how design thinking—particularly user-centered research and iterative prototyping, can be use to shape not only projects, but design businesses as well.

The Future of Your Practice

Kelly Kolar, founder of Cincinnati-based Kolar Design, and Kevin Budelmann, People Design (Grand Rapids, Mich.) presented their individual perspectives on innovating design practice for the future. Kolar’s practice has evolved from a design-and-execution model to a global consultancy that offers strategy as a key service offering.

The firm’s work for clients such as P&G and Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, one of the world’s most renowned research-based pediatric centers, has shown Kolar and her colleagues the power of aligning the built environment as a tool a help drive the organization forward. “If you’re designing a new environment for a business, you’d better know where they’re going.”

Making innovation a practice in her organization has been key to growth for both Kolar personally and for her company. She recounted how Robert Probst, FSEGD, Dean of the University of Cincinnati’s College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning told her, “Radical design is possible in Ohio!” and she based her practice on that core belief. Evolving the practice beyond her ownership has been a major focus for the past few years, with a new leadership team in place, guided by a carefully researched and executed strategic planning process. A focus on the local community is another current passion: “As a designer, you should be working actively to move your city forward and be one of its best cheerleaders.”

Design Thinking and Your Practice

The focus of Kevin Budelmann and his firm Peopledesign is on how design thinking can be used outside the typical design challenges to solve problems at the scale of governments and communities. Working at his first design job at Herman Miller in Grand Rapids, Budelmann was steeped in design thinking as espoused by the likes of Charles and Ray Eames, George Nelson, and the Herman Miller culture.

Thinking about the future of his own design practice, Budelmann and his partner renamed it Peopledesign to reflect two guiding principles: user-centeredness (“so obvious and yet always forgotten”) and collaboration and teamwork. Design thinking principles remind us to always ask how does the user think? What do they want? Budelmann compared the “old Model T” (Henry Ford’s design innovation) to the “new Model T,” of design skills:  “You must have both depth and breadth in terms of knowledge areas. The top part of the T is the generalist skills, the surface layer, can-I-talk-to-people-who-are-like-me skill set. The long part of the T is about deep knowledge.”

Collaboration requires recognition that clients are essentially “silos of specialists.” Connection is the goal, but collaboration is better yet. “People always talk about collaboration, but they’re actually talking about communication.” Collaboration and communication are made difficult by language, which is a tool, but also very limiting.
Designers who are good at making the connections are more holistic thinkers, and a lot of what we do in design is about making connections and looking for emerging patterns.”

He recommended: “Don’t be afraid to change  your definition of design,” and suggested identifying new specialties and categories of work, recognizing that getting bigger does not necessarily mean getting better, and “Always focus on how the customer engages with the brand.”

Watch the SEGDTalks videos of the Business of Design Summit and conversations!

Photos: Brittany Sparks

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