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trophybThanks to Gaby Brink at Tomorrow Partners in San Francisco for forwarding this link to the DiabetesMine Design Challenge. DiabetesMine is a respected blog and online community for people living with diabetes. This brings up a topic that I’ve touched on a few times previously in Merge: business competitions.

I wrote in an earlier post about the experience Lisa and I had in the Minnesota Cup, a business competition here in our home state, which was a pivotal experience in the development of HealthSimple. We submitted our business plan in the inaugural Cup in 2005 and were thrilled to be selected as a finalist among 607 business plans that were entered that year—eventually we took the third place prize.

I think these competitions can be a huge opportunity for entrepreneurs, but only in part because of the potential for financial reward. For Lisa and me, the Minnesota Cup introduced us to a network of people in the business world whom we would not otherwise have been exposed to. Among them, lawyers, bankers, publicists and successful entrepreneurs, many of whom became valued advisors as we built our business. Our finalist status also added credibility to HealthSimple as we were trying to establish key partnerships. Additionally, our participation in the Cup forced us to hunker down and write our first formal business plan for HealthSimple—a task we had been avoiding, but which proved to be of undeniable value for us.

(note to Minnesota designers: the 2009 Minnesota Cup is just getting underway—it would be great to see a wave of design-driven business plans in the competition this year)

One important note about business competitions with a design focus: the issue of communication designers providing services on a speculative basis is a very sensitive and complex one in our profession. AIGA has played a strong role in clarifying this issue and providing resources for designers to use in discussing the issue. For the record, I don’t consider the DiabetesMine contest to be a conflict in this way. DiabetesMine is not soliciting designs to be implemented by them for business gain (the way an organization might with a logo competition)—they are merely trying to support and nurture innovation in this important area.

Please send me links to other business competitions and I will post them on Merge.

logo-large-betaI couldn’t ignore this story in the NY Times yesterday about a new magazine printing service that Hewlett Packard has launched charging a mere 20 cents per page for full-color magazine printing—with no minimum order. The service, called MagCloud, appears to be targeting narrow, niche markets that would not otherwise be able to afford to produce a printed publication. Customers simply upload a PDF to the MagCloud server and HP fulfills individual orders to the end reader directly as they come in.

I find myself at once excited by the possibilities this could offer for small-scale self publishing and content development, and bristling at the thought of the designer-less garbage that will likely be churned out by MagCloud. I liken this to the reaction many of us had with the advent of desktop publishing back in the early 1990’s, “oh sure, now even the secretary will think she’s a graphic designer.”

Of course, I also have a twinge of sympathy for our cousins in the printing industry (remember them?) whose heads must be spinning every time the game changes in their industry.

In the end I come down on the side of opportunity: smart designers will always find a way to take advantage of a great new service like this by using it in an innovative way…rather than just griping about it.

If you’ve tried MagCloud, please chime in. I’d love to get an assessment of the print quality (cringe).

kiva_logoI first learned about Kiva, the microfinancing organization shortly after their site was launched in 2004. The premise behind microfinancing is that donors can loan as little as $25 directly to an individual entrepreneur in the developing world. A seamstress in Tanzania, for instance, can apply for a loan of up to $1,200—not much by “first world” standards, but enough to launch a successful business in Tanzania. The recipient then repays the loan when they have met their financial goals and contributors are given the chance to reinvest their money with another Kiva recipient.

Microfinancing has been touted as an innovative alternative to large-scale government aid that often never reaches the people most in need. Kiva has been wildly successful, generating nearly $65 million in loans in four years (not to mention a mountain of media coverage). Notably, Kiva reports that the current economic slump has not slowed the pace of contributions to their program; a sign that the microfinancing formula might be sustainable even in the bleakest times.

Now, Kiva has announced plans to loan up to $10,000 apiece to entrepreneurs in the U.S., a risky move that will test the core of the microfinancing concept. Will the model work at this larger scale? Will donors be enticed by businesses in their own backyard the way they have been with those halfway around the world?

I find myself wondering if microfinancing provides a model than can help designers build entrepreneurial businesses. So many great ideas die on the shelf simply because there is no access to the seed money necessary to move them forward. Often times the seed money that is needed is relatively modest and traditional forms of venture funding: bank loans, venture capital, and angel investors can be overkill.

Business Plan competitions like the Minnesota Cup, here in my home state, can offer an option for seed funding, but they’re not a sure thing and the rigid timing doesn’t always favor a time-sensitive concept. Although, I should point out that our participation in the 2005 Minnesota Cup was a pivotal point for Lisa and me in the development of HealthSimple.

I hope to see some design-driven ventures test this new domestic version of Kiva. And perhaps the success of microfinancing will inspire other organizations to develop a model of funding for start-up ventures that is more community-based, participatory, accessible—and design focused.

newyorktimes_image This New York Times article is about D.Lite which produces solar-powered lamps to replace the dangerous and inefficient kerosene lamps that have been the primary source of light for many people in the third world. The D.Lite story is fascinating and inspiring and traces the classic journey of a visionary entrepreneur who experiences a critical social problem and develops a brilliant solution. But, the article goes beyond this story to sketch the outline of a new class of “social entrepreneurs,” AND importantly, to discuss how they build their ideas into viable businesses.

The article focuses on that pivotal point in the process of developing a business: figuring out how to fund it. There are many factors and forces at play here including time, control, amount of money, and level of risk. In the D.Lite article, there is an emphasis on the choice between the for-profit and non-profit models.

I hope to write more about this funding dilemma in the future—it is a critically important issue for new business ventures. In the meantime, read on and, please, post your comments.

And thanks again to Susan Bernstein for linking me to this great story (keep them coming, Susan).

sad-logoThanks to Marcia Lausen and the students in her Design Colloquium class at University of Illinois Chicago for a great session this morning. Marcia is an old friend through the AIGA leadership and is the director of the School of Art & Design at UIC (as well as the founder and principal of the firm StudioLab in Chicago).

I was invited to speak about our experiences building the HealthSimple business and, as often happens at these presentations, it was during the Q&A discussion with the students that we really got to the good stuff. These students have a great feel for how design and designers can play a strong role in solving complex social problems—they may not fully understand what it will take to deliver on that potential but they’re on a great track. In our discussion we examined that gaping hole in the healthcare experience that exists between the clinic and the home—why are healthcare compliance rates so abysmally low? This is a classic design problem—and one that communication designers are uniquely suited to solve. The healthcare industry in general is phenomenally void of smart design, which stinks—but it also means there is a huge opportunity for designers to make an impact.

I’m continually impressed with the program at UIC which, as long as I’ve know it, has been infused with a strong component of entrepreneurship. There seems to be an effort to break down the walls between academic departments, which can be a real key to teaching the skills of collaboration and can expose designers to some of the smart people who will help get their ideas off the ground.

Marcia is also the author and designer of Design for Democracy an excellent book on election design that initially was a response to the ballot design fiasco of the 2000 presidential election, and has grown into a national movement as part of the broader AIGA Design for Democracy program. As if that weren’t enough, she also chaired the recent AIGA Future History design education conference in Chicago.

I share a lot of common ground with Marcia and I always feel like my time with her is too short. I hope to reconnect with her soon and bring some of her ideas to merge.

For the students in the session this morning, here’s a link to a PDF of my presentation (the video won’t be included). Enter the temporary password vrutu4ikw when prompted.


Thanks to Susan Bernstein for turning me on to the great work of Hilary Cottam and her London firm, Participle. Hilary Cottam seems to have a really clear vision of how design thinking and methodology can be used—by designers and others—to solve a variety of social problems. Here’s a link to an excellent FastCompany profile.

What I love about this story is that, in addition to having a remarkably fresh notion of how a design business can operate, Hilary also believes that designers must work in collaboration with other smart people to solve complex problems. In her setting, those other smart people include anthropologists, economists, entrepreneurs, psychologists, social scientists, among others. In the experience Lisa and I had growing HealthSimple, we relied heavily on a similar network of experts. It was the strength of this network and our willingness to collaborate that allowed us to navigate some really challenging situations.

Here’s a link to Hilary Cottam’s website. Merge will be all about seeking out people like Hilary who are challenging the conventions of design business.

logoWere I living in New York (and not about to put my own kids through college), I would love to enroll in the SVA MFA Designer as Author program. Steven Heller (who really needs to pick up the pace a bit) and Lita Talarico co-chair the program. The duo also recently published The Design Entrepreneur (which features a section on Type1Tools and HealthSimple).book22

In the meantime, you can “sit in” on SVA lectures by some of the great designers of our time via their excellent podcast series.

For most designers and creative thinkers, the idea of writing a formal business plan is about as exciting as root canal. I believe this resistance to doing the “heavy lifting” is a big reason why designers struggle to move their entrepreneurial business ideas forward—I know it was a huge task for Lisa and me to hunker down and write our first business plan for HealthSimple.

Ironically—and not surprisingly—that business plan became one of the most valuable tools we had as we grew the business. A detailed and thorough business plan will contain the answers to many questions you will encounter on the journey to grow your business. And of course, business plans are the “language” that is spoken by the business community—the many advisors, collaborators, and funders you will depend on.

I will be using this blog as a repository for great resources on business plan writing. The problem is, most of the resources out there really stink—they’re confusing, redundant, overly detailed (or not detailed enough), and just plain ugly!!!

One exception that I’ve found is the blog written by Guy Kawasaki. Guy is a venture capitalist and one of the original Apple employees in the mid-80’s. He’s become a guru in the world of entrepreneurship and has written many books on the subject. He’s direct, fresh, and inspiring.

More on business plans to come, but in the meantime, check out this post on Guy Kawasaki’s blog .

Please send me your links to great business plan resources.


Designers—especially communication designers—love to talk about “getting a seat at the table,” which has become a favorite buzz phrase at design/business conferences in recent years. After decades of being tacked on to the end of the business process, designers believe that by being involved in business at a deeper level—when strategy is being developed, not just when it’s being implemented—they could have a strong positive influence.

I am a designer and I agree completely with this premise. We are creative thinkers with a set of skills that are desperately lacking within large corporations and institutions. I disagree, however, that designers should be striving only for a seat at the table. In order for designers to truly make change, I believe more of us must sit at the head of the table, not just at the crowded edges. By sitting at the head of the table, designers will lead, we will set the agenda, and we will build organizations in which design methodology and creative problem solving are a vital part of the DNA, not just a clever afterthought.pullquote1

So why are examples of designers leading businesses (other than design firms) so rare? This is a complex question with many possible answers.

My wife Lisa and I had been operating Schwartz Powell Design, a successful small design firm in Minneapolis, for more than 15 years when we created a second business called HealthSimple® to bring a smarter, more intuitive, and better designed approach to the daily experience of living with diabetes. Our journey along the winding road of entrepreneurship was fraught with crushing frustrations, unexpected thrills, torturous delays, and just enough success to keep us going. Ultimately, HealthSimple was acquired in 2007 by McNeil Nutritionals, a division of Johnson & Johnson.

As I reflect on our experience with HealthSimple, I begin to understand why so few designers find themselves leading non-design businesses. The entrepreneurial process is enormously challenging and risky, and most designers—despite our abundance of vision and creativity—simply do not have the information, skills, network, and resources to successfully go from a promising idea to a viable business.

To me the topic of designers and entrepreneurship is a fascinating one that is layered with big dramatic themes and subtle nuances. So, I’ve created Merge as a space to explore the topic further; to collect information, resources, ideas, and bits of inspiration; and to examine design businesses that are having success by doing things differently—all with the hope that  the entrepreneurial road will be a little brighter for more designers to travel.

To be clear, I am NOT an expert in this area and I won’t be playing the role of a guru doling out morsels of wisdom. Instead, think of me as the curator, facilitator, and occasional referee.

Currently the content of Merge is sparse, but it’s growing every day, and with the help of YOU—my friends and colleagues in the business—adding comments and sending me stories, links and contacts, I hope Merge will grow quickly to become a rich and practical resource for design business leaders.

Please join the conversation and tell your friends about Merge!

—Doug Powell

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