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Nobody stages a design conference like AIGA, and the recent Gain Conference on Design and Business in New York City was no exception. With the mesmerizing MoMA design curator, Paola Antonelli as moderator and an A-list of talent parading across the stage, the design cred of this event was as towering as the nearby Empire State Building—a fitting capstone to a week that was bursting with design events in the Big Apple. Unfortunately, with a few exceptions the same cannot be said about the business side of this dual-themed, bi-annual gathering. With the tagline “Design (Re)Invents,” my hope was that designers would tell their transformational business tales with a level of detail, depth, and openness that would begin to illuminate the path forward for their peers. Instead, the content and dialogue focused mostly on creative inspiration and outcomes.

Larry Keeley of the consultancy Doblin, was a refreshing exception when he uttered the most essential line of the conference for me, “clients always disappoint,” during his engaging talk entitled Design That Matters: Finding Fresh Frontiers. “The highest, best use of design is not design products per se but embedding (design) into a bigger challenge,” Keeley continued. But this explicit connection between design inspiration and business goals was rare at Gain. While Antonelli’s fluency with the language of design was breathtaking (especially in her awesome Italian accent), the same cannot be said for her understanding of the business world; at one point having to ask Foodspotting co-founder Soraya Darabi to clarify the meaning of the term “ROI.” Several speakers seemed eager to push their post-presentation Q&A with Antonelli in a substantive business direction, but she was either unable or uninterested in taking the bait.

For me, the highlight of the conference came during the fast-paced “(Re)Invention Ten,” during which ten designers were given two minutes each to tell their story of transforming their design business. Half of the ten actually delivered on the premise with stories that struck the balance between inspiration and content that I wish would have been present throughout the conference. Here’s a highlight reel of those entrepreneurial “(Re)Invention Five.”

Bill Grant, The Store at Grant Design Collaborative
I wrote about The Store at Grant Design Collaborative in a Merge post in August of 2009. The Store, which was the result of a series of business set-backs (a lost tenant, and sluggish client work), continues to thrive and grow in surprising and impressive ways. Most interesting to me is the effect this visionary project appears to be having on the traditional GDC business.

Julie Hirschfeld, Adeline Adeline
A New York based designer with an impressive history working with top brands like VH1, Nike, and Conde Nast, Julie Hirschfeld noticed a hole in the market for bike shops: a retail experience that appeals to women (and those of us not interested in the off-putting blend of macho-hipster-arrogance that is so common in that category). The result: Adeline Adeline, a bicycle sales, service, and accessories boutique in TriBeCa. Here’s a link to a Well+GoodNYC post about the shop.

Zia Khan, Kenari
Founder and principal of Atlanta-based creative agency, Lucid Partners, Zia Khan has ventured into unknown, but extremely relevant, territory with the Kenari Neighborhood Food System. The Kenari vision combines small farms based in suburban neighborhoods, with a support network that includes retail locations and commercial community kitchens. The pilot program for Kenari is underway in Roswell, Georgia.

Laura Shore, Mohawk Fine Paper’s Pinhole Press
What does a business do when their product becomes optional? With the traditional market for fine papers evaporating (who actually prints their annual report any more?), Mohawk has been forced to encounter this daunting reality. With the launch of Pinhole Press, their new online service for upscale, design-sensitive, on-demand photo books and postcards, Mohawk is now a player in this new booming category.

Cliff Sloan, Phil & Co
After a successful career leading creative agencies, Cliff Sloan found himself craving the meaning and passion that can be so evasive for mid-career designers. Founded in 2008, Phil & Co specializes in bringing together non-profits in need of visibility and support, with businesses looking to fulfill their mission to give back to the community.

I had the pleasure of co-leading a workshop at the recent AIGA Gain Conference in NYC along with the amazing Mateo Neri. As promised, here are some references related to the remarkably rich and dynamic discussion we had that day—special thanks to all in attendance for your great contributions!

3 Books:

  1. The Art of the Start by Guy Kawasaki
  2. The Design Entrepreneur by Steven Heller and Lita Talarico
  3. Making Ideas Happen by Scott Belsky

3 Blogs:

  1. AVC: Musings of a VC in NYC by Fred Wilson
  2. 30 Second MBA on FastCompany.com
  3. The New Entrepreneur on BusinessWeek.com

3 Twitter “Follows:”

  1. @VentureHacks
  2. @HelenWalters
  3. @ProjectM

3 Random Resources

  1. Startup Weekend
  2. Kickstarter.com
  3. BPC: Biz Plan Competitions

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