Read Time: 6 minutes
In this series, SEGD connects young designers with the design leaders they admire so they can ask their burning questions and find answers to help guide them on their career path. In this article, Daisy Corso, an SEGD award-winning designer at ArtHouse Design (Denver) interviews Virginia Gehshan, FSEGD, co-founder and principal of Cloud Gehshan Associates (Philadelphia).
Daisy Corsois an intrepid, personable young designer currently working for ArtHouse Design in Denver, Colorado, where she earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Communication Design—graduating magna cum laude—from Metropolitan State University of Denver. Corso’s student work, “We are HSI—MSU Denver Hispanic Serving Institution Interactive Installation”received a 2018 SEGD Global Design Awards Merit Award.
Corso consistently exhibits a strong sense of self and community, participating and volunteering in both SEGD and AIGA. She is currently serving a two-year term as AIGA Colorado’s Director of Membership and inaugural Diversity and Inclusion Co-Chair in addition to serving on the 2019 SEGD Global Design Awards jury. This dedication to serving her design community is something she shares in common with the designer she chose to interview, Virginia Gehshan,SEGD’s 2010 Fellow, 1995 Angel Award honoree, and President from 1992 through 1993.
Gehshan’s firm, Cloud Gehshan Associates, which she built with design partner Jerome Cloud, FSEGD, is one that has become renowned over two and a half decades for integrating identity, storytelling, signage and information systems in a process they call “placebranding.” CGA’s groundbreaking work on large, multi-component projects such as university campuses, medical centers and park systems has led to a number of design awards.
With a background in human factors and cognition, Gehshan leads wayfinding planning at CGA both in terms of conceptual strategies and detailed recommendations. She is also teaches at The University of the Arts in Philadelphia and lectures on design issues. While President, Gehshan authored many of SEGD's foundation documents, including its Standard Form of Agreement, Process Guide, Fee Guidelines and RFP.
Their conversation is at once thoughtful and easygoing, with many pearls of wisdom. Enjoy!
DC: Where do you think your interest in experiential graphic design stems from?
VG: I didn’t know about design in high school; I thought I would be a math major in college and also took a lot of psychology courses. I had an extra opening in my course load freshman year, saw this Design 101-type course and took it. I don’t know why, I just thought it looked interesting—and it turned out that I absolutely loved it!
The course touched on product design, interior design, exhibit design, graphic design and packaging. That’s where I was first introduced to three-dimensional communication. Sophomore year, I switched over completely to design with a concentration in product design. I enjoyed combining my study of psychology and child development with designing objects, like toys.
DC: What career advice would you give young designers based on your experiences?
VG: I have been very fortunate in my career, but my best suggestions are:
- Meet and get to know different people—constantly broaden your network.
- Take lots of courses—not just in design, but in business topics like marketing and finance, too.
- Join all kinds of design organizations—graphic design, interior design, architecture groups.
- Get good at asking questions—ask the client all the questions you can.
- It is possible to have a family and a good work-life balance—living close to work helps tremendously.
- Read newspapers every day—they are filled with important information about clients, history, local and current events.
DC: In your view, what role does networking play in a designer’s career?
VG: I can’t stress this enough: Networking plays a huge role in a designer’s career. Your friends, your clients, your colleagues—all those people combine to form your network. You never know when somebody will need your services, or vice versa.
DC: Bridging the gap between younger and seasoned designers I feel is an important part of broadening our networks. Did you have any mentors in your early career?
VG: A design professor of mine and my first two bosses—Noel Mayo whom I worked with for six years and Karen Daroff whom I worked with for three and a half—were definitely mentors to me. In a design sense and a business sense I learned a lot from them. Mayo and Daroff both started their own companies, so I think I absorbed a lot from them about how firms work and what’s necessary to sustain one, which was critical for me in starting my own business.
DC: Where do you find your greatest inspiration? Is it a place, a person or a state of mind?
VG: Every project is unique, requiring different kinds of inspiration. However, over the years, I have found inspiration from fellow practitioners, SEGD colleagues and the great things they’ve created—even the ones with whom I am in friendly competition. The camaraderie was positive as well; it was heartening to know I wasn’t just a voice in the wilderness.
DC: What have you learned from difficult projects or clients?
VG: What I’ve learned is that you need to have what I like to call a “sense of other,” meaning that you need to always, always think about the point of view of others you’re working alongside—particularly if they seem unhappy or difficult.
The key is to be empathic: Examine the contributing factors, exhibit patience, be analytical. Really try to understand where they’re coming from. If someone is problematic, perhaps they are in a position that isn’t a good fit for them. Maybe there’s a lot of pressure from their boss, or they don’t think they have the resources to do what they need to.
Additionally, we have to be educators and ambassadors. Almost always the client is going through the process for the first time, so we take on the position of teacher, educating them on the design process, which is mutually beneficial (because then they can understand all the different parameters we need to satisfy).
DC: Have you ever been creatively stuck? If so, how did you overcome that?
VG: The best way to overcome a creative block is to bear down on project limitations; in other words, every problem presents an opportunity. The solution is in the problem and the hardest problem is where the greatest opportunity is. That sounds a little corny, but it’s true.
Sometimes, I see designers wanting to avoid this hard part—but embracing it will help you create the most interesting and unique solution for that particular project. It’s also important to think long-term; signage is going to at be up for at least three to five years; it’s not like a printed piece or a website that will be updated six months from now. Therefore, if you don’t solve the problems of maintenance, wear and tear and make sure it still looks good into the future, then you didn’t do a good job.
DC: What are you working on that excites you?
VG: Oh, we have a number of things! One is a corporate branding project; the client is building a new headquarters in Nashville that will be a fun environment because it’s for a pet food manufacturer and they bring their dogs to work.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.