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AIGA/NY Smart Models

This past Saturday the AIGA New York chapter presented Smart Models, a full-day conference focusing on the business of design, represented by the organizational models of five distinct design firms, ranging in size from 1 to 25 employees — making the content graspable, feasible and realistic to the majority of attendees, who collectively amounted to an admiringly young group of professionals heading their own design firms, or at least thinking about it. Until recently, I had rarely given much consideration to attending business-focused conferences, but now that we are rookies in running an independent design firm, the roster of speakers drew me to the conference to compare, contrast and consider how we operate. And it was well worth the sacrifice of a sunny Saturday. Following is a summary of the conference, and I will then be posting separate reviews of each speaker, as I have plenty of material and I don’t want to make this an extra long post that no one reads.

Hosted at the sparklingly new TheTimesCenter at the Renzo Piano-designed headquarters of The New York Times, Smart Models brought together Brooklyn-based Athletics, a collective of seven multidisciplinary designers; über New Yorker Douglas Riccardi who runs Memo, a one-person operation; Joe Duffy and his business counterpart Eric Block from Duffy & Partners, the celebrated Minneapolis-based package and branding powerhouse; Jason Fried, from Chicago’s 37 Signals; and Sylvia Harris, an independent consultant to complex, public institutions.

The conference was kicked off by Drew Hodges — who worked for Koppel and Scher when he graduated from SVA, something I didn’t know — president and creative director of SpotCo, the advertising agency responsible for all the awesome work done on behalf of the theater industry in New York. As a way to set up the tone of the conference, Drew told the story of how he transformed from a design firm to an advertising agency. In 1996 he was hired to do the branding for the Broadway musical Rent and shortly after was hired to do the graphics for Chicago, both projects done through an advertising agency, who weren’t too thrilled to see this small firm meddling in their business. After those two projects, in a conversation with his client, Drew was asked to sum the fees he had charged for the projects, which amounted to a respectable $48,000 — the advertising agency in charge of the media placement had charged a million dollars for the same two projects. “Thus,” said Drew, “I became an ad agency.”

From there the conference was moderated by Emily Ruth Cohen, business consultant to designers, who provided a chipper thread of commentary connecting the whole conference. Before starting, Emily mentioned a few strands of recurring themes that the speakers took into consideration for their business models: How they leverage their past experiences into informing what they do now; their core beliefs as it relates to professional and personal goals; the kind of relationships they want to establish with their clients and employees; and questioning the feasibility of their current business model for growth. Throughout the day, each got a chance to tell their story and, at the end of the day, they reconvened for a discussion panel.

Smart Models was flawlessly run. There were no technical glitches and the pacing was right on cue for a one-day affair. The scope of the conference was what made it so enthralling, it provided insight into how a one-person firm works to how to run a 25-person firm, allowing the attendees to see how a firm grows, what it takes to bring it to the next level, as well as considering whether growth is indeed the right path. I really enjoyed the conference, and I hope that AIGA NY would consider making this a recurring event like Fresh Dialogues, as there are dozens of inspiring business models that we could all learn from, and in an ever increasing complex marketplace where talent and typesetting skills are not nearly enough to gain designers an advantage, learning how to operate a business may be the most important thing to keep us afloat and doing what we love.

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PUBLISHED ON May.22.2008 BY Armin
Tom’s comment is:

Great review Armin, can't wait to read more about the conference speakers.

Soon to be going freelance full-time as a designer and illustrator, I can imagine how extremely beneficial a conference about the business-side of things would be. Sometimes all it takes is a little inspiration and guidance from working pros to know it's possible to start from the ground up.

On May.22.2008 at 02:18 PM