How did you get started in design? I was a little artist from day one. All I wanted to do as a kid was hang out in my arts-and-crafts corner in the basement. I did every art and craft imaginable. When it was time to choose a college, my parents took me to see the local art college, and I chose the graphic design program. After a year there, I got accepted into the communication design program at the Parsons School of Design in New York City. In my third year at school, I heard about a girl who got an internship at a design studio in California, and that’s when I approached April Greiman for an internship.
What impetus led you to work as a business consultant to design firms? I was working with design agency Dossier Creative in Vancouver, doing brand strategy, consumer insights and business development. This is where I was first introduced to design thinking methodology, the work of IDEO and Stanford Design Thinking. I became enlightened to the fact that design was so full of possibilities beyond fonts and colors. When the economic downturn of 2008 came, Dossier cut back my hours to half time, and I decided to start my own business. I had lots of clients right from the start, but they didn’t really get it and I was stuck in the fees-for-services model, working hard for not a lot of money. I wanted to create something that I could scale, and one day, a design firm contacted me to ask if I could teach them how to do business development. That changed my direction. I realized I knew this audience and the challenge with business development better than anything.
I created a program called the “Business Development Breakthrough” for design agencies. I launched it with a teleclass called “The 5 Questions to Ask Your Prospect Before You Even THINK of Meeting.” From my early business development days, I knew how design studio founders rush to meet potential clients without having sufficient information. I wasted so much time dragging principals to meetings until I figured out the important questions to ask first. I knew that this topic struck a chord when 1,000 people registered in a day. Suddenly, I had design firm clients and a following of 5,000 designers all over the world. I now had a business that I could scale and went on to teach that course many times over the next few years.
What needs in the industry inspired you to create the Design Leaders Mastermind program? The program began from a conversation with one of the design studio founders I know. For many years, she was a member of the Association for Professional Design Firms, and she was telling me how much she missed having a group of agency founders to bounce ideas off and talk about what’s going on—especially after all the changes of 2020–21. This inspired me to do my own research and learn that there was no forum for design leaders around the world to connect and discuss things happening in the industry on a more personal level.
At the same time, I was pondering the state of the world and wondering why there weren’t more design thinkers solving the big sticky problems. There seemed to be a lack of smart solutions. I thought about the contribution that design thinking methodology is to business and how the design community could come together in a way that would elevate the value of our work. The program came about from a need for a community of design leaders and helping them get included in important business conversations—a “seat at the table,” as many would put it.
My next step was to have some conversations with design leaders and influencers to see who would be interested in participating. Each one that I spoke to was more excited than the last, from Darrel Rhea, founder and chief executive officer (CEO) of Rhea Insight, to Julie Anixter, former executive director of AIGA. That gave me the confidence to keep going.
What does the program entail? I’ve been leading events on Zoom for ten years and attended a lot of online events during the pandemic, but most didn’t keep my attention. I knew I had to come up with something different. When It thought about the early conversations I’d had about Mastermind, I recalled people saying that they wanted to have real conversations with other design leaders. I decided I would make it about having game-changing conversations, up-close and personal between design thought leaders, business leaders and peers. There would be no recording, so people could feel free to be open with each other.
I’d like to take the program to real life eventually and do it in different spots around the world. The format would be a one-hour meeting monthly where I’d interview a thought leader for ten minutes before opening up the floor to conversations. As I said, there would be no recordings—we’d keep it honest and real. I’m including an ongoing Slack channel so people can stay connected between meetings. I would like this to spill out into the entire design community globally, so I may publish some white papers or do webinars to educate the bigger design population. I’m not sure yet. I know it’s altruistic, but I do believe we have the opportunity to change the world.
You mentioned the phrase “having a seat at the table” in regard to bringing good design to clients. How do you feel we can better explain design’s value? As a business development consultant to design firms all over the world, in my twelve years of experience, not many of the clients I’ve worked with have been well equipped to have the business conversations that demonstrate the strategic value of design. I’m talking about much more than visuals. Julie Anixter now leads a team at enterprise design and strategy firm Throughline that designs enterprises—meaning operations, marketing and customer journeys—all aspects of business. We need to think beyond graphics and start using our very smart and unique brains for solving the bigger problems.
Christine Mau, vice president of brand strategy at healthcare company Medline Industries, has a seat at the table with the chief executive officer of her company. She’s involved in discussions about materials, supply chains and pricing, among other things. Mau began as a graphic designer and learned that she could do so much more with a simple mindset shift.
Jon Bostock is founder and former CEO of Truman’s, a consumer products company that came up with a game-changing idea for household cleaners that reduce the use of plastic and packaging, changes the supply chain, and offers a nontoxic product. Truman’s was purchased by a big company because it’s smart and solves a number of business problems. This is design thinking, and when designers start to be this clever, they will earn a seat at the table talking to business decision makers.
I don’t think that most designers understand that it’s all about business. In my recent conversation with Jon, who’s now a private equity executive, he explained that there are three things on a CEO’s mind right now: material resources and costs, supply chains, and environmental social governance. Designers are now involved in advising on these kinds of issues. We need to explain the thinking process that brings about unique, uncharted solutions in relatin to current business problems. When designers can show up and speak to issues that CEOs care about, they will be heard.
What was it like interning for April Greiman right at the emergence of the computer as a graphic design tool? It was cool. I learned how to use the Mac when it had only been on the market for one year. It was the summer of 1986 when April created an issue of Design Quarterly, which was a fold-out poster of her naked body pixelated. She was incredible, and the things she figured out how to do with a Macintosh Plus (remember those?) were amazing. We are still friends today.
Which designer or design firm do you most admire, and why? One of my early inspirations when I was in art college was designer Massimo Vignelli. I created a series of posters promoting his work as a school project.
In the present day, I split my admiration into two categories: for the design work itself, and for the various business models and levels of entrepreneurship. For example, IDEO, an amazing design firm, has gone beyond design with IDEO University, which teaches design thinking methodologies. Marty Neumeier, author and director of CEO branding at design firm Liquid Agency, now focuses on branding education with Level C. I’m interested in different business models and those who have created revenue streams beyond fee-for-design services. I like to play in the realm of what other possibilities are.
Another big inspiration is Tina Roth Eisenberg, who began the community CreativeMornings with a small group in New York before growing it globally. I also admire Debbie Millman and her Design Matters podcast. In terms of design firms, I admire the work of Dossier Creative—where I worked for several years—Pearlfisher, COLLINS and my client Base Design. All are doing off-the-charts design work. Outside of graphic design, I’m inspired by Iris Apfel, the American businesswoman, interior designer and fashion icon who recently turned 100.
What advice would you give someone who’s just entering the profession? Learn about the design thinking process, and more importantly, get a basic understanding of business and how clients think. Maybe that’s something I could teach young designers! ca