Culture is everything people in a design business do that supports the process of making work happen. Culture can create joy for designers, while improvements in process can facilitate profit. A common misperception is that culture emerges organically based on the decisions of a business owner or CEO. But a design studio’s culture is not created solely by those at the top. For a design-led business, culture is generated from ongoing contributions and discoveries from both studio owners and employees.
In researching my recent book on how design businesses can be more successful, I began to see important building blocks that were present in the most successful studios. These building blocks are divided into two groups: hard building blocks and soft building blocks. Hard building blocks are realized through a budget, meaning that you can allocate money and time for them as part of business overhead. The soft building blocks can be created through the decisions employees make over the course of their daily work, life and play (with less material investment by the owners).
A healthy studio culture draws equally from both types of building blocks. They provide emotional and material stability to employees in the face of ongoing work challenges, and often clients, family and the general public perceive them as ingredients of the company’s brand. These building blocks are equally present within design firms and in-house design teams—though for the latter, the composition of some building blocks may be heavily influenced by the company's overall behavior and needs.
Let’s take a deep dive into these building blocks, with important questions to ask yourself (and your team) in order to create a strong studio culture.
As I read through his resume, the designer stared at me expectantly. He had a wealth of great design projects under his belt. He had been seeking out personal projects to build out his portfolio. He had internships with sterling businesses and design studios. But there was one thing that leapt out at me from the list of core skills he’d listed at the top of his resume: strategy.
Not brand strategy, content strategy, interactive strategy, media strategy, or the MBA-land of business strategy. Just plain ‘ol strategy.
This has been happening more and more frequently, for a few reasons. In the process of providing strong service to our clients, we increase the likelihood of becoming a strategic partner. We finally have a seat at the table when the client is talking strategy—and we can offer a range of strategic services that verge outside what may be considered a designer’s core area of expertise. This is a good thing. With the ongoing expansion of design’s role in business, today’s designers are helping to solve problems that transcend mere decoration and instead impact the core functions of a client’s business.
But in our haste to be strategic partners, I’ve discovered that many designers don’t fully grasp how strategic services fit into their client offerings. And when I ask designers out of sheer curiosity how they’re functioning as strategists—what experiences they directly bring to bear on being strategists rather than having a strategic orientation—they can’t easily answer the question.
If you’re going to run a design-led business, it’s inevitable that you will need to talk strategy with your clients. So let’s explore the types of strategies you might create as a design businessperson, as well as how they may support the efforts of your clients. It’s my hope that this information will open up some new paths for you to explore in your career as a designer.
The SCAD graduate students split up into teams and gathered around their copies of the Collective Action Toolkit (CAT), considering their homework assignment for their next class period. Their task: To pilot the first activity they would use with local high school students as their first introduction to working together in a group. In two days, they’d have to do a dry run with their classmates. As they looked over the toolkit’s action map, they began to where they should they begin? By having a “Knowledge Fest” or a “Skill Share?” By helping their group identify a goal right away, or by having fun and getting to know each other?
The CAT has been out for almost two months, and from the emails and conversations we’ve received since releasing the CAT, situations such as the above are happening more and more. The toolkit is being deployed far more broadly than expected, such as in our new Chinese language edition. People are finding new uses for it, from local education to entrepreneurship in global organizations. And we’ve embarked on our first educational pilot, working with SCAD’s Design for Sustainability program.
How did this happen? And in what ways can you use the CAT that you may not have considered?
Today, frog is pleased to release the Collective Action Toolkit (CAT). The CAT is a package of resources and activities that enable groups of people anywhere to organize, build trust, and collaboratively create solutions for problems impacting their community.
frog developed the CAT to help groups of people create positive change in their communities. Inspired by frog's collaboration with Girl Effect and the Nike Foundation, the toolkit provides a dynamic framework that integrates knowledge and action to solve challenges. Designed to harness the benefits of group action and the power of open sharing, the activities in the toolkit draw on each participant’s strengths and perspectives as the group works to accomplish a common goal.
At the recent HOW Interactive Design Conference in Washington DC, I gave a presentation called "Know Thy User: The Role of Research in Great Interactive Design." This 30-minute high-level talk was intended to provide conference attendees with repeatable processes that will help them integrate user research into their interactive projects. Other presenters at the conference went more in-depth into some of the methods mentioned in this talk, but I felt that it was important for attendees to understand the role of specific methods and activities within the research process on any design project.
This weekend, I participated in HOW Design Live, a U.S.-based conference intended to help designers, in-house design managers, and creative freelancers gain the information and inspiration they need to succeed with their design work. One of my contributions to the conference was a talk about facilitated collaborations with design clients.
I was recently invited to deliver a talk at Emily Carr University of Art and Design about what interaction designers do and how interaction design factors into the worlds of design and art.
My talk "The Language of Interaction" (slides above) was my attempt to summarize the critical role that language plays in our efforts as designers and artists. In doing so, I touched upon the three challenges that all designers and artists face in trying to craft interactions…
In mid-February, I was invited to speak at SCAD's Entreprenurial Forum 2011 in Savannah, Georgia. This event was presented by SCAD's Office for Career and Alumni Success, and was designed for students across all majors to gain perspectives on how they can become successful as design businesspeople in today's economic climate. The above presentation is my greatest hits album of major and minor business mistakes I made over my career before working at frog design, both as a freelancer and while working within creative agencies of all shapes and sizes.