09 January 2008
Linda Cooper Bowen
Linda Cooper Bowen

Career way-finding is about personal choice and fulfillment. Originally I planned to find designers who had made dramatic changes in their working life and moved on to entirely different occupations, but I found that there are often interesting detours or parallel routes. In the past, firms described themselves as either "specialists" or "generalists." Today's designers express themselves more broadly and feel free to explore directions off the traditional graphic design grid. A designer may chose to work in a variety of media, forms and materials either alone or in collaboration with related professions, building innovative, unlimited, multidisciplinary design practices by integrating creative talent with an adventurous business approach.

What were once considered personal projects or even hobbies may now be part of the extended practice, sometimes under the banner of a new company name or a separate Web site. By being receptive to new types of projects, the multidisciplinary practice expands the definition of "designer," to include initiating a salable service or mass-produced product line. Not since Charles and Ray Eames, Saul and Elaine Bass or Massimo and Leila Vignelli have designers been associated with such a variety of marketable endeavors. The benefits of this approach to a practice are many. Working on these types of projects requires new skills and often means working with a greater variety of designers, architects and fabricators. The learning experience is both challenging and liberating, no matter how long you have been practicing.

How does a firm develop a multidisciplinary business? Jason Wright is constantly open to unusual opportunities. "In my practice I've worked on, designed or consulted on interior, clothing, landscape, Web site and package design projects, software and UI development, information architecture, photography, cartoon/animation, music/voice-overs, advertising, marketing, teaching and lecturing, and been paid as a food stylist, personal chef and dog trainer. I have earned more this year with my photography than some professionals I know." All this while doing traditional branding and print work. "Having a diverse practice is purely intentional. My biggest fear as a designer and business owner is becoming obsolete: What if I become a genius Flash programmer and then an application is produced that can replace me? So every six months I evaluate where my business is headed, what my current skill set is and if I'm working on projects that I actually care about. If you can only solve one kind of problem your ability to grow is limited when markets change."

For Wright, sharing his personal passions like cooking and gardening has also improved the quality of his business. Recently he was commissioned by a chef client to create a virtual restaurant. "Using Second Life as a platform has forced me to learn 3-D rendering and modeling, animation design and scripting in a 3-D environment. My client will use this as a cross promotion for his real-life restaurant and for a lecture series. I will travel with him to Australia to present the concept and may wind up helping him to make pastries!"

Jesse Doquilo has been a graphic designer for 23 years but a few years ago he unexpectedly started a furniture business. It began while he and his wife, Laura Zeck, were renovating an old house in Seattle, and he decided to build some furniture for it. And when Laura, a printmaker, needed some chairs for her tradeshow booths in San Francisco and New York, he made a few, which resulted in such a positive response he began taking orders for the X-Lounge. Now a full-time business, Modern Object, "Furniture for the Modern Minded," has won Doquilo impressive awards for his minimalist design. Each handmade, limited-edition, signed, dated, numbered and registered piece is both a sculpture as well as a functional object. "Creating furniture with a minimalist aesthetic is straight from my heart - a culmination of all I love about art and design." What was the most difficult part of this new endeavor? "The learning curve in every aspect of the business from design to engineering, production and marketing was new. I thought it would be similar to having a graphic design firm for seventeen years, but it wasn't. Now I am dealing with products that represent a different set of circumstances." Doquilo suggested that additional courses be offered by design schools to prepare students for the business world, "A business class or two, like marketing or accounting, business writing and presentation techniques; learning how to sell and explain your work is a big key to success."

In Solvang, California, Mark Oliver has built an impressive reputation focused on innovative food and beverage package design, branding and product development. After years of advising clients, he decided to put his firm's advice to the test and, with new business partner, former Kashi marketing director Andrew Aussie, founded Honest Foods (makers of "darn good whole foods"), launching their first product line with Honest Country Squares, a healthy snack bar. Meanwhile the day-to-day design business continues. "We wanted to bring pure flavors and textures of whole-food ingredients to foods inspired by the fresh ingredients grown on the farm and found at farmer's markets. Other designers have been tempted to introduce a line of products, but I'm not sure I am a designer in the usual sense any more. I am more of a conceptualist," says Oliver. As a California-based company, Honest Foods is attuned to today's trend toward natural, organic, preservative-free, minimally-processed foods. "I think the best design relates to the human condition and in the food and beverage field that translates into creating an emotional relationship with the consumer. This experience has made us a more valuable partner to our clients."

"I believe graphic design to be a wonderful profession, whose limits can only be defined by us," says Vanessa Eckstein, of Blok Design based in Toronto, Canada, and Mexico City, Mexico. "I enjoy design the most when I have collaborated with individuals in other fields; this is when I have learned the most. Blok is more than a design studio, it is a space where we question and collaborate, a space for ideas influx." Eckstein is known for her provocative visual programs for Club Monaco, Nike and the Museo Tamayo. In fact it was a pre-Columbian vase encountered in a remote Mexican pueblo that inspired her dishware collection. Working with Davide Tonizzo of the industrial design firm D in Toronto, they have launched a "cross-cultural" dishware line, Intento 1. Manufactured in Mexico, the shapes and colors of the collection offer a sensual reaction to stark white minimalism. Recently intento 1 was exhibited at the Gardiner Museum of Ceramic Art in Toronto.

Expanding your database to include architects, craftsmen, manufacturers, musicians, entrepreneurs, chefs, restaurateurs, etc. allows you to travel beyond graphic design. The advantages are a deeper understanding of the world, new skills and the prospect of challenging future work. Partnering and team building are entryways to large, complex design projects, and having access to this knowledge provides you with the necessary support to experiment with your own new directions.

These creative individuals show how varied the pathways are within the design environment. By establishing an additional dimension to their core business of visual communication, designers are attempting to control their market by becoming both creator and client. Rather than working on a one-time project for a single client, they are now able to apply their knowledge and experience in manufacturing and distributing and market their own products. Designers have an approach to business that is nontraditional and deeply personal, but usually they do not begin their careers with a business in mind.

Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD)
Can entrepreneurship be taught? What if product design and development as well as bringing the product to market was an integral part of a student's educational experience? Two years ago the Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia initiated a unique program, the Working Class Studio, a small-business-within-an-art-school, undoubtedly the only one like it in this country. The program's co-director Sari Gunderson says, "The beauty of our program is that we accept intern applicants from all the academic departments of the college. I believe our success is due to the fact that we are putting all those different minds together on one project. We may have a graphic designer, a textiles student, an illustration major and an industrial designer working together on developing a product, often something they have never experienced before." "Student interns not only have an opportunity to design great things," says co-director Andrea Messina, "they are also involved in market research, order fulfillment and the manufacturing and production process. Seeing the challenges we face as a rapidly growing business, they learn how to solve complex problems."

A not-for-profit enterprise, WCS proceeds are returned to the program. Their contemporary home accessory and lifestyle products include pillows, dinnerware and stationery. Sold to museum shops, Anthropologie, online ( and at the WCS shop in Savannah, a back-to-campus line in partnership with Barnes & Noble launched in July. A critical element in the program is the dedicated staff of eight who work solely on product development and market placement. Parents of applying and incoming freshman are excited and reassured that SCAD is teaching the artists to be smart about business, making their passions a way to make a living.

Laura Davis, a second-year graduate student working on her MFA in furniture design, describes her internship enthusiastically, "The WCS experience taught me more than I expected. Our internship and faculty advisors met with us regularly to ensure that we were gaining the maximum from the program. We were included in every aspect of product design from the initial concept development through researching manufacturing techniques to writing business plans. I now feel confident that my own design firm is a real possibility."

Needless to say internships at the WCS are most sought after and very competitive. For Jonathan Nagle, the advantage of working side-by-side with SCAD's cream of the crop was irresistible. "It was a great experience to tap into the minds of a fashion designer, an architect, a painter or industrial designer while working as a team to develop a product. Unlike most internships, you are considered a top-level designer from day one. All of our products come from concepts initiated by the students with only slight guidance from the directors and staff. Interns are encouraged to introduce their own style into the designs produced while fitting into the color palette and aesthetic of the line. The WCS offered me instant professional experience." The popularity of his designs for the Studio's melamine plate collection encouraged Nagle to open his own studio Auchen Design with partner Sean Dallaskidd.

Fibers major Karin Sonderholm believes that wcs is a really unique place because what happens in school is theoretical. "I love that. It's the reason I came back to school. Unlike being considered extra help in the business world, here we are the actual design team. I discovered that I am much better as a team member than working on my own and I learned to write a business plan. There is a need to collaborate in art or design, and with the continuing progression of technology, it is easier than ever."

Previous attempts by designers to create their own products often resulted in disappointment and often failure due to production and marketing na vet . Rather than risk learning by trial and error, young designers now can be prepared to hit the ground running. Business and art can coexist successfully. The potential for college internship programs like SCAD's remarkable undertaking is certainly exciting and one that I enthusiastically encourage other schools to adopt.

Reprinted with permission by Communication Arts 2007 Coyne & Blanchard,
Inc. All rights reserved. This article first appeared in the September/October 2007 Interactive Annual.

About the author
Linda Cooper Bowen is a marketing and business consultant to designers. A former graphic designer herself she knows the perspective of the creative as well as the client. "I think that designers need a more compelling rationale than aesthetics to be totally credible. This means learning a new language and accepting new challenges."