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In the final installment of this three-part series, Michele Ronsen and I discuss the complexities of the entrepreneurial process, including the adjustments designers can make to our business model.

In the second of this three part discussion on emerging trends in design, I discuss Design for Good, the AIGA initiative to activate design-driven social change with Michelle Ronsen of Academy of Art University in San Francisco.

Academy of Art University interview, part 2 from Doug Powell on Vimeo.

The Alabama Design Summit in Birmingham last week brought together designers and local community leaders for a three day workshop to explore the power of design to address complex social problems. The designers each represented local AIGA chapters from around the country and were attending the Summit as part of a new AIGA program called Design for Good which will officially launch in October at the AIGA Pivot conference in Phoenix. Design for Good will activate the members of AIGA as catalysts for social change by linking them to a national network of tools and resources.

Thanks to my friends Wendy Ruyle and Diana Lillicrap at 5by5 Design for inviting me to guest-blog on their site—check out my post here for more on Birmingham and Design for Good. And for more from Birmingham, here’s a link to the Flickr site for the Summit.

I must admit, my heart skipped a beat when I clicked on the AIGA board of directors web page this morning and saw my name and pic next to the word “President.” Despite this minor cardiac episode, I am thrilled and humbled beyond belief to be assuming the position of National President of AIGA, the professional association for design. After years of involvement with AIGA at the local and national levels, this is an organization that has meant a tremendous amount to me personally and professionally, and I am fully aware of the central place it occupies in the design community. While I struggled at first with the decision to accept this position, it was the experience I’ve had writing this blog and exploring the new ways designers are (and should be) working that illuminated for me the immense opportunity present with AIGA. With more than 22,000 members in 66 local chapters, AIGA is the largest design organization in the country (and growing), and as it approaches its centennial in 2014 with a solid fiscal foundation, it is also the oldest and strongest.

Despite these undeniable assets, AIGA as an institution is a macrocosm of the professional experience many designers are currently facing. Filled with creativity, energy, intelligence, and potential, AIGA must find a way to adapt to an environment that is evolving before our very eyes. Unless it remains relevant to designers and to the broader community AIGA will fizzle and fade. It is this challenge—and massive opportunity—that fuels me as I look ahead over the next two years.

I want to pay special respect to the outgoing AIGA board members during this transition, your leadership has been exemplary. To outgoing president Debbie Millman, I am in awe of your energy and passion—you are a gift to our community. To the incoming and returning board, chapter leadership, and national office staff, I am eager to collaborate with you as we seize this amazing opportunity!

Below is an excerpt from the comments I made at the AIGA Leadership Retreat in Minneapolis last month.

“This is an amazing time to be a designer. The pace of change in business, and culture is blinding, but for people with the right skills and creativity and vision, that wild change can mean an awesome opportunity to change the world around us. Designers have that skill, creativity and vision. But we cannot assume that we can seize this opportunity by working in the same way we have always worked. This is true as we build our individual careers and design practices but it’s also true as we build AIGA as an organization.  With AIGA approaching its 100th anniversary we have a rare opportunity—actually I’m going to rephrase that—we have an imperative to rethink what AIGA can be in this new and exciting time. To reconnect with our traditional audiences, but also to envision what new audiences we can attract. And to reposition AIGA to be a relevant, essential, and central player in this amazing time.

The work we’ve done in the last few days has been incredible but this…is the easy part. The challenge comes Monday morning when we start making these ideas happen on the ground in our communities. I am so psyched to take on that challenge with you all. Let’s have a blast together tonight, and then let’s get to work and make this thing happen.”

I had a great experience as a judge for the 2010 Sappi Ideas That Matter program last summer. Along with my fellow jurists, Casey Caplowe, Armin Vit, Jessica Helfand and Matt Rollins, I reviewed 170 proposals for design-driven social change ideas vying for grant awards between $5,000-50,000 out of a total pot of $400,000 pledged from Sappi for the North American ITM program. The ideas ranged from simple but impactful communication design concepts like informational materials about a Pit Bull rescue program (submitted by Jessi MacNamara), to wide-ranging global ecology programs like the BP oil spill program undertaken by the Ocean Conservancy (submitted by Imaginary Office). Some of the ideas were, quite frankly, underwhelming, but a staggering number were very strong and our panel struggled mightily to select 27 recipients. Click here to view the 2010 recipient proposals.

The application deadline for the 2011 ITM program is July 15. The application process is remarkably simple and streamlined, hence it’s a great opportunity for designers new to social change space to test the waters. One of the requirements of the program is that designers partner with an established non-profit organization on their proposal.

Here’s a link to a “behind the scenes” video from the 2010 judging, produced by Arvi Raquel-Santos of Weymouth Design.

I’ve had the pleasure over the last year to contribute to the excellent Parse blog published by F&W. My posts on Parse tend to be a bit different than here on Merge—more instructional and journalistic, less personal and opinionated. I’ve covered a lot of rich territory on these posts from business planning to licensing, to intellectual property. My latest post examines strong business categories for startup businesses.

Check out all of my Parse posts here.

I had the pleasure of moderating a lively panel discussion on Saturday, April 9 as part of the Faculty Forum portion of AIGA Minnesota’s Portfolio 1-on-1—one of the largest and longest-running student design events in the country. 210 design students from around the upper midwest converged on downtown Minneapolis for two days of workshops, studio tours, and (as the name suggests) one-on-one portfolio reviews. The speed at which the event sold out this year is an indication of the robust state of design education in this region.

The Faculty Forum—attended by more than 30 design educators from a variety of public, private, traditional, and for-profit institutions—was kicked off with an invigorating and provocative keynote presentation by Tom Fisher, Dean of the College of Design at the University of Minnesota. Tom took us on a fascinating tour of the challenges and opportunities of design education in a time of change, in part by reflecting on a previous time of change—the invention of the printing press in the mid-1400s. Fisher emphasized this challenge by pointing out how most design students now are digital natives, “it’s almost as if our students are natives in a different land.”

AIGA Minnesota President Seth Johnson picked up on this thread of Tom Fisher’s remarks by elaborating on the significant challenges present for design educators, “The 30,000-foot view provided by Tom Fischer was inspiring and right on target. But I still struggle with comprehending how old-world educational models will respond to the quandary of implementing the changes he’s describing. That’s where the real conversation is — and the real work, too. I’d argue that, unfortunately, most academic programs (and the institutions that own them) simply aren’t set up to quickly adapt to the fast and changing pace upon which our society is now based. What incentive, for example, is there for a non-digitally-native tenured professor to completely adapt her skills and methodologies to meet today’s demands, especially when she needs to continue to teach yesterday’s curriculum to students currently in the antiquated program?”

Tom Fisher’s remarks were followed by a lively panel discussion and Q&A featuring veteran local designers Bill Moran of Blinc Publishing and Bill Thorburn of The Thorburn Group, as well as educators Paul Bruski of Iowa State University, and Alex DeArmond of University of Wisconsin-Stout. Surprisingly (or perhaps not), the panel brought the conversation from the stratosphere down to ground level with a strong focus on the importance of the tangible elements of graphic design like typography. For me, the interesting tension of the session was drawing connections between Tom Fisher’s big vision and the reality of what is happening in the classroom.

Keith Christiansen of St. Cloud State University followed up by email with this comment: “I had the impression you left one question dangling…how do we as design faculty teach social media? It’s definitely important to factor in. I bring it up in my classes and have sited the Geek Girls (Twin Cities-based bloggers and social media gurus, Nancy Lyons and Meghan Wilker) who view it as a new paradigm for communication. The analogy is like in a party where you meet with people in short exchanges and the rule is you can’t be a bastard, over hype or be obnoxious or the Facebook/Twitter crowd will freeze you out. If a client lies or misrepresents, the news will be spread immediately. In other words one has to be empathetic, somewhat cool, useful, provide value and above all reliable, trustworthy. This is a simplistic view of course but I am attracted to the virtues of it as a new communication model. I share that with students and Integrate it with problems posed to them in terms of their projects-how they come to their solutions matters.”

University of Minnesota professor Steven McCarthy followed up by email with this comment: “We didn’t touch on the role of research in design education.” Here’s a link to a recent Eye magazine blog post by Steven on the topic.

Special thanks to Jennifer Price and John Vorwald of AIGA Minnesota for organizing the Faculty Forum. There was definitely an interest on the part of the educators in attendance to continue the conversation!

The Insights lecture series, presented by the Walker Art Center and AIGA Minnesota, wrapped up its 25th anniversary season last week, and once again it proved to be an inspiring blend of mind-blowing creativity and stunning beauty. The series, which is held on Tuesday evenings every March, consistently goes beyond the standard designer slide show with thoughtful, often challenging presentations by designers from an array of disciplines and backgrounds. One thing I love about the series is that the lineup of speakers often includes established icons followed by edgy newcomers.

I had the pleasure of introducing Casey Caplowe, co-founder and creative director of GOOD at the finale of the series. I met Casey last summer when we were both on the jury for the 2010 Sappi Ideas That Matter competition. Read the rest of this entry »

Photo credit: Phong Tran

Merge Mashup, my grand experiment in taking the themes of this blog into the live setting happened last Tuesday night. More than 80 designers and creative professionals packed into the Pizza Lucé Second Avenue Room in downtown Minneapolis to hear and participate in the stories of two dynamic young businesses: interactive agency Sevnthsin, and start-up micro-brewery Fulton Brewing Company. The atmosphere was casual and lively, the business stories were fresh and inspiring, and the crowd was engaged and insightful.

Jamey Erickson, founder of Sevnthsin, led off the evening with his story of the agency’s very cool “Distance Makes No Difference” experiment where their entire staff hit the road for a two-week period. They traveled the country, visited clients and potential clients, and mixed up the rhythm of the workplace—tracking the whole experience online as they went. For Sevnthsin, DMND proved on one hand that the traditional notion of a workplace can be stretched to new limits, and on the other that face-to-face contact still has a powerful impact.

Brian Hoffman, Ryan Petz, and Pete Grande, three of the four founders of Minneapolis-based Fulton Brewing Company, shared their classic entrepreneurial tale (“gosh, maybe we should trying selling this stuff…”). It’s a “bootstraps” story filled with surprising insights that any aspiring entrepreneur would find inspiration in. Despite their “aw shucks” demeanor, these guys are smart businessmen who are building Fulton in a steady and methodical way. The next step in that growth will be the opening of their new brewery in the Minneapolis Warehouse district this coming summer.

Here is a sampling of some of the Twitter commentary from the evening:

@t_embretson What can you build a business without? Great quote from #mergemashup

@AllieFairbanks #mergemashup Creative-business insight: In the absence of answers and money, there is creativity. Take the leap and figure it out.

@ljfeder Is naivete a strength in a business startup? #mergemashup

@iJones Approachability and complexity do not have to be mutually exclusive #fultonbeer #mergemashup #craftbrewing

@chasporter “You’re not working with our mission statement. You’re working with us.” Jamey Erickson, Sevnthsin #mergemashup

@ArielleWeiler “When you have partners, you don’t always win, and sometimes that’s a good thing.” -Pete of @fultonbeer #mergemashup

@aigamn “It’s been 2+ years and all of still have day jobs. (& wives.) Growth is expensive.” -Fulton Beer #mergemashup

@wendy5by5 The Fulton boys have really cute shirts. #want #mergemashup

(also, thanks to everyone who tweeted—#mergemashup was a trending topic in Minneapolis that night!)

So, I had an absolute blast—the event exceeded my expectations, and proved my suspicion that a live event would be a great companion to the “pixeled” word. Special thanks to Jeremy Jones and The Foundation, along with AIGA Minnesota for their strong support of this event.

Mashup #2 is already percolating—stay tuned.


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Announcing Merge Mashup: A Surprising Collision of Design and Business Ideas, a lo-fi, high-energy event that will blend an inspirational design story with a breakthrough business story to explore the new ways creative professionals can thrive in the current business environment.

The inaugural Mashup will feature boundary-breaking Minneapolis interactive firm, Sevnthsin, paired with start-up microbrewery Fulton Brewing Company. Each guest will give a brief presentation, then the two will come together for an audience Q&A and discussion. Doug Powell, designer and curator of Merge, will serve as emcee and moderator of the evening.

Merge Mashup is presented by The Foundation and AIGA Minnesota.

Date: Tuesday February 22
Time: 6:30 PM
Location: Pizza Lucé Second Avenue Event Room, 486 2nd Ave N, Minneapolis

Click here to register:
$20 General public
$10 AIGA members
$10 Students

Appetizers and a cash bar will be available. Space is limited; walk-up registration is not guaranteed. Advance registration is strongly encouraged.

Follow Doug Powell on Twitter

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