Notes from AIGA NY’s Smart/Models Event

Having had the benefit of time to go over my notes and consider all that I took in on Saturday at AIGA NY’s Smart/Models Event – I was impressed how each of the presenters had a unique approach to what they did. If there’s anything to take from that, there’s many different ways to be successful – there isn’t just one way. With the contrasts in approaches there were also some ideas that they all seemed to seek out. Happiness, such a simple concept that can be hard to attain. I also heard the phrase “bullshit” more than once during the day.

Drew Hodges opened the all day event with some interesting news. He will be the incoming president of the New York chapter of the AIGA. He also set the tone to some degree but planting a couple question to consider as the day unfolded. “How do you do that?” and “what’s the structure” as the invited guests shared their experiences. He also left everyone considering a story he related to when he first started doing design work to promote Broadway productions. One year his studio made $48,000 while the agency side that did the media buy made over $1.1 million – that got a lot of people’s attention.

AIGA NY Smart Models at Ten15am: EMILY RUTH COHEN

Emily Ruth Cohen kicked off the introductions and moderated the day’s talks. Some underlying themes that she picked up ahead of time from speaking to the presenters was leveraging past business experience, have a set of core beliefs, decide what type of relationships you want to have (with both clients and employees, what kind of work you want to be known for), and what does the future look like?


The first speakers was the collective Athletic. The first thing that stood out from their talk was the innovative and playful diagrams. As cool looking as they were, what it showed was a focused understanding of their strategy in relationship to their business model. What came out after in the moderated panel discussion was that all three partners at the end of the day invoice separately for projects (if I heard that wrong, someone please correct me). It was emphasized that each of the people that are partners bring separate skills to the table so that they each compliment the others. They can each defer to the expert. They also seemed to have a smart attitude in when they bring in business, they’re each willing to pass the project on to the most appropriate person as opposed to keeping if for themselves. That’s more impressive after hearing how they invoice afterwards.

They also spoke to having clear understanding of project management from the start of the project to then end which helps in the flow of work. Other notes that I jotted down from their conversations:
· on the collective: “I hope we made it sound nice”
· trust good people
· on finding their studio that used to be a boxing gym “it smelled of dude”
· on building desks for their studio “I’d recommend doing that”
· questions they through out for consideration “what is your perspective”, “what is the methodolgie”
· expose yourself to all sorts of different worlds
· be a good self manager, don’t take anything too personally
· be successful, excited, happy and creative


While I didn’t know of Douglas Riccard before yesterday, I had experienced a lot of his work first hand between the stuff he’s done for Hale & Hearty to Florent. He framed his talk via his past experiences gained elsewhere. From the skills he learned of presenting his work at a corporate place to his days at M&Co. where he couldn’t wait to get in to work. As time passed he described how the different jobs were not perfect for him and that when he did know it was time for him to start on his own. His personality became his firm. He joked that he doubled his firms size when it went from one to two people. The workspace environment is place to conduct business – he finds it difficult to work in different environments like the home where other things can be distracting. One smart idea that he shared in terms of people requesting projects that you don’t do, but instead of flatly saying no try another approach. Mention what you are good at and talk about the potential of working on other projects together that might be a better fit.

Some of the other things that I noted:
· consider the LTR’s (long term relationships)
· no matter how small, you still need to manage
· what does growth mean to you?
· the elevator pitch – market yourself, what do I bring to the table?
· who to keep, who to kill
· surprise yourself


I’ve never had a lot of success using Basecamp though I’m a huge supporter of what 37 Signals represents. The app wasn’t bad, I just couldn’t get others to buy into the system the first time I tried to introduced it to others while the second time I think people relied on it too much. But I digress – of all the people speaking at Smart/Models I think Jason Fried had the most to offer in terms of what the future looks like. The questions he’s asking out loud and the philosophy he shares was quite different from everyone else that day. More offensive then defensive approach – willing to take risks, fix it later if needed. Granted Jason in the moderated discussion afterwards described the distinction between clients and customers. A single customer isn’t going to be able to push a company around as much as a single client working with a firm that may only have a couple projects on the go. I think your turning design into a commodity if you treat people as customers, but the scale is quite large if you’re selling a product vs a service. In the past designers have been selling more paper products to supplement their design ideas – what 37 Signals is doing is much more true to solving a problem that others can buy.

It’s a cliche to suggest that designers are surprised when their not inundated with slides and images to look at in presentations, so I won’t go on about the one slide that he kept up. It supported his talk, not a big deal. What was interesting about his diagram is that he prefers a lot of quick updates vs one long project. It follows the idea of not being locked into a long term plan. While in theory that’s a great idea I wonder how you can keep focused if you can change directions on a whim? As I write this I kind of wished I had asked that.

I’m not going to do a play by play of everything that was mentioned but here’s a couple other notes that stood out.
· scratch your own itch
· he spent three years as the tech support guy responding to all the emails
· how can we share our experiences – workshops
· blog -> workshop -> book
· if something is good and you put a price on it, others will buy it
· optimize business for happiness
· willing to support employees interests, but they expect them to share that knowldge back to the company
· 2 week projects, no meetings
· sell to the user, not the buyer
· walmart’s prices end with an 8 or 6
· part of the team works remotely, they all get together three times a year
· if you need a pm, scale down the scope
· managers of 1


Joe Duffy’s stage presence was quite apparent before the first slide went up. The idea of change and to a less extent battles were themes through out his conversation. Whether it was about deciding to leave the last partnership, getting clients to buy into the concept or legal battles – this was a guy that had gone through a lot. While obvious after seeing the slide on filtering devices (tivo, satellite radio, ipod, ripping music), it was an interesting m.o. to know what we have to deal with. It built up the idea that we’re at a stage of “Being it”, in the past it was growing it, building it, and telling it. From being it evolved the idea of needing to be reborn and his need to change what he was doing.

Those ideas were emphasized via these points.
· surround yourself w/ people that have skill sets that you don’t have
· reflect the people behind the beliefs
· how can design enrich life?
· what are the core beliefs before day one?
· know what you don’t want to do
· size of firm no larger than 25
· know who we wanted to be
· when he showed a photo of his employees he had a story about almost all of them
· after the project is over – ask what we could have done better, would we want to work with them again
· design business is defined by the company it keeps
· we our are most important client
· looking to work with more clients where they have a stake in the royalties
· process: imagine -> design -> activate
· don’t settle with the clients brief, language before design
· reinvent yourself early and often


Sylvia’s approach wasn’t via the typical client designer partnership. She’s involved more with large institutions like hospitals and education institutes. Again, great stage presence – really spoke with the audience as opposed to at the audience. I liked how she set the tone with the phrase “we build the road by walking”. She was very process orientated which was interesting b/c on one side she mentioned that themes are more important than sequence while on the other hand she talked in great detail about process like assess -> manage -> model -> design -> integrate. One model that she carries in her head in the balance between work, family and civic time. If what she’s doing doesn’t fit into one of those themes she tries not to proceed with it.

More points to her process.
· what are the right problems?
· what did we do right/wrong
· where are the touch points
· the need for speed and clarity
· the role of the advisor
· after you learn the answers to your question, the questions have already changed
· follow the lead afterwards

AIGA NY Smart/Models: Panel Discussion

· on collective – each person is incorporated
· ask the tough questions first
· emulate chefs – they’re sharing the ideas via books and shows – they share
· on competition: easier to out teach than to out spend
· speak at clients industry events – learn about their world
· be careful to be thinking about others as opposed to “me”
· customers can’t boss the process that clients can
· optimism vs happiness
· what do you want to take on?
· if a design feature doesn’t work, the designer has to answer the tech support questions
· err on the side of simplicity
· don’t compare yourself with others

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  • marcrapp

    Great stuff. Great notes!

  • el_daviddo

    thanks for the recap. really wish i could have been there.

  • JonSel

    Nice recap, Michael. I've been letting all of the various thoughts and statements sink in over the past few days. The big challenge for me is to take things from each of the speakers and sort out what's appropriate for my business. I was mumbling “bullshit” a fair amount as well during the presentations, but there's still insights that are valid. For example, I'd love to spend some time on Jason Fried's planet to see if it rotates the same way as ours. But he's got an amazing approach and a clarity that I wish I had.

  • michaelsurtees

    I agree jonathan, it's important to put things in context for yourself. One thing I noticed myself asking during each of the presenters talks was the “what would it take to build up to where they are?” question. It's not that I want to be a carbon copy of any of them, but it helps to create steps to compliment where I want to go. Btw, have you checked out Getting Real – great book