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'If you're a designer... You're much closer to a plumber than an artist' - Business vs design, no longer the battle it once was

By all accounts, the body of work from Joe Stewart, founding partner of Work and Co, is impressive. Brands such as Apple, Target, Facebook, Google, YouTube, Twitter, Chase, Showtime and The Metropolitan Opera fill the agency’s roster. But one particular project – the design for the site and app of Virgin America – is particularly representative of hard work and dedication in the design trade.

The travel category is notoriously challenging. Arcane and clunky systems and their associated “isms” need to integrate and, in theory, don’t necessarily match up with the aesthetic and Stewart and Work and Co create. But in their hands, it is, simply put, some of the most important work that has been done in the category in recent memory. In many ways, it took the pain and friction of booking flights away. The architecture is amazing in it’s simplicity and logic. The design with Felipe Memoria is a stunning example of what is truly possible in marrying “beautiful” and “functional.” But the project, like design in general, was not without its struggles.

“Design is a process of getting it wrong a billion times in order to, hopefully, get it right one time,” said Stewart, after his presentation at Design Week Portland in Oregon. “Most of your life is going to be failing, and it's very humbling. It's extremely humbling to just fail over and over and over and over and over again. It smashes your ego. I think anyone who's designed enough stuff has just failed so much. I think it brings you down, so you are grateful when it works. Something actually succeeds, and it looks and feels in a way that you feel good, it's a celebration.”

Stewart, who made the decision to open a Portland office, ironically, without any Portland-based clients, is the unique elite-level design professional who embraces the importance of understanding the business side of design, a theme that he shared with a packed crowd at the Design Week Portland main stage. As a general rule, designers are averse to industry “business,” preferring to focus their energy and attention to the design craft. However, that sensibility could have been self-inflicted.

“I think, fundamentally, designers are taught that money is bad and that business is bad — that salespeople are horrible people — and there's an idea that they're the opposite side, and they're at war,” said Stewart. “The war is the business versus the beautiful design. You have these horrible, evil vampires on one side that just want to make money, and they're these saints with shields (designers) on the other side. I think that's just how business is portrayed with design. I don't think it's that true anymore. It does exist, for sure, but I think designers are taught to fight business, actually, and not try to embrace it or even know that it could be a good thing.”

In his talk, Stewart shared a great deal of candor and personal experiences, intended to open up more meaningful insight to how design and business are, in fact, inextricably linked — and how it’s actually very productive. Early in his talk, he mentioned how he’s “never been happier” and that learning and understanding business has made him a better designer. According to his talk, it took him 20 years to get to where he is today, but he felt strongly that he wanted people “to be able to get there faster” with advice that was highly practical and real such as getting a lawyer (you’ll need one), understanding the power of PR, getting good at email and really good at phone calls — traits that are not necessarily natural for designers.

“One of the reasons that there aren't more design-led businesses is that a lot of the personality traits that successful business people have are not the same personality traits as a successful designer has,” noted Stewart.

Being nice goes a long way

One key theme that Stewart hammered home, and is passionate about, is the idea of the importance of reputation and simply “being nice.” The latter is continually evolving and may have some basis in what has, unfortunately, been accepted practice in the advertising community.

“I think this goes back in history to advertising agencies, and the idea of the creative director being this genius and this lightning in a bottle idea,” said Stewart. “Advertising is really, really different from design, and it is much more subjective and from the gut. But if you're a designer, you're just doing really basic problem solving stuff. You're much closer to a plumber than an artist. I think this old idea of a creative director being this guy who is just bowed down to all the time does end up creating these enormous egos, and I think the harsh world of being a dick has been a huge part of advertising culture, and then it's trickled into design culture.”

He points to some of the most successful designers and how their bedside manners are a real source of strength and a competitive advantage.

“All the really good people are, actually, super, super, super nice, and I think you can just start that way,” said Stewart. “Even if you're a kid, if you're younger, and you're not good yet — because you can't be — just start off being nice. Because when you get good, you’ll have that and you’ll be known as nice. You’re going to need these relationships that you have, your work will get better, and people are going to want to collaborate and work with you more often. The idea of being a diva is just dead. It's just so old. It's antique.”

Reputation, according to Stewart, is also hard work. In his talk, he pointed out that, when a designer starts a business, their portfolio “is reset to zero” and that being looked upon favorably is valuable.

“You have to work hard to make sure that you're controlling (your reputation), so what they’re (potential clients) seeing is good — and what they're seeing is something that you believe in and you think is an accurate representation of yourself,” said Stewart.

“That can be a combination of a lot of things, the stuff that you put out into the world, talking with reporters, doing press, writing articles, Twitter, Instagram, all of it. Your reputation is what you have as a business person, because all of your clients are going to immediately Google you, and they’d better like what they see. That's a really unnatural thing for a designer to have to think about, because it feels fake, that's why designers, I think, pride themselves on authenticity.”

Developing greater understanding between design and business

The advent, and success, of design-led businesses perks up the ears of both designers and business — with a greater understanding of both becoming more common.

“I think there are two streams that have happened that have led to design being embraced by the business community more so than ever. I think one is the rise of successful digital products. First, businesspeople have seen that good user experiences, good interfaces, good graphic design will help your business products succeed, where I don't they were really thinking about that before,” said Stewart. “Then, I think, there is sort of the acceptance of the god that is Apple being the biggest, most valuable company in history — and a huge part of that is that they are religious about design, and you can no longer doubt that it matters. For all intents and purposes, their computers are pretty much the same as their competitors’ computers, but people want to buy their computers, because, I think, design is a really big part of it. You have to be an idiot not to agree with that in 2016.”

For all of that, though, the basics of the work and, effectively, the job of a designer offers true opportunity for joy and happiness.

“I thought I had to sacrifice and be in pain constantly in order to be any good,” admitted Stewart. “That you have to, actually, actively seek misery in order to be any good at what you do, because you hear all these stories about tortured artists and that shit, and the best music coming from pain and misery — I think that's just how I thought life was. You can be happy, but you've got to choose it, and you've got to work towards it.”

But, in his experience over 20 years of work, Stewart sees that it can be the polar opposite of pain.

“I've come to realize that design is a really fucking amazing part of life,” said Stewart. “It’s a really good way to spend time and I think the goal of design for me, after thinking about it for so long is sitting at your desk and enjoying what you're doing. What's worth something is the act itself, so enjoy designing and don't worry about anything else and concentrate on that and focus on that and everything else will work itself out.”

But it never hurts to learn some of the business ropes along the way.

Doug Zanger

I am the Americas editor for The Drum. A geographic mutt, I was born in Minnesota (lived outside of Minneapolis until I was 12), lived in suburban Philadelphia, attended college in Denver and London — and have proudly called Portland, Oregon (and the Pacific Northwest) my home for 25 years. Sadly, I love Philadelphia/Portland/Oregon sports and Arsenal. I am deeply committed to telling the best stories possible, to not only legitimately engage, but to contribute something meaningful to the industry as well. Yes, marketing can change the world, and we will always do our best to ensure we are doing our part.

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