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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.

Picture 10I had the pleasure of presenting a series of workshops on design and entrepreneurship last weekend at AIGA Minnesota’s Design Camp. Held on the shores of Gull Lake in central Minnesota, Design Camp is a hidden gem among design conferences featuring internationally known speakers and a wide range of breakout content. Special thanks to AIGA MN for the invitation and the hospitality.

I always begin my workshop sessions by asking attendees what their reasons are for not pursuing a great business idea, and inevitably the top three are: money, time, and know-how. Essentially what I’m hearing is that the process is simply too daunting and complicated. So, I was intrigued and excited when Laura Shore, Senior VP of Communications and Innovation Strategy at Mohawk Fine Paper sent me an email announcing the launch of a new Mohawk project called the Felt & Wire Shop. Felt & Wire is a curated online marketplace showcasing products designed mostly by communication designers.

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Moonbeam Clock by Pie Bird Press

The products on Felt & Wire all have a paper connection of some sort (not surprisingly), but the range is impressive. Stationery and gift cards, invitations, wrapping paper, posters, prints, and calendars by some of the top names in communication design: AdamsMorioka, Chen Design, and Grant Design Collaborative among many others. Some of my favorite pieces are from Pie Bird Press in Albany, CA, which features bold, graphic imagery with a blend of pop art sass and retro silkscreen charm.

Importantly, the submission and review process is streamlined and user-friendly. A simple online upload of jpegs and/or video and some background info and designers are one big step closer to bringing their ideas to market.

While curated online marketplaces for gift items are not a new phenomenon (Etsy, which launched in 2005, is one of the most prominent), Felt & Wire is unique in its clear focus on communication designers. I see a strong correlation between the Felt & Wire Shop and the machine that Apple has developed for the iPhone app development process. In both cases, the part of business development that intimidates most designers becomes so simple that it’s almost a non-issue. This highlights a big need—and opportunity—in the area of designer-driven entrepreneurship: I would love to see more venues like Felt & Wire that would allow designers working in other media to have this same speedy route to market. Along this line, I hope Mohawk will recognize how wide open this space is right now and expand the vision for Felt & Wire (nudge, nudge, Laura).

For those of you heading to Memphis this weekend for the AIGA Make/Think conference, check out the Felt & Wire booth. In the meantime, here is an excerpt from an email exchange Laura Shore and I had discussing the launch of Felt & Wire.

How did the idea for the Felt & Wire Shop come about?
Two years ago, I visited the New York Stationery Show for the first time and was blown away by the smaller, more creative booths. First of all, the work was fantastic. Second, as we spoke with exhibitors it was clear that many were using our paper for their products. How could we find a way to capture that energy and recommunicate it back out to the world? How could we help promote these micro-enterprises through our network of connections? As the idea percolated down, I started thinking of all the cool things I’ve received over the years from designers we’ve worked with. Every graphic designer I know is a closet product designer. They just don’t have a means of distributing their products. The retail market for someone in manufacturing and communications design seems byzantine. Quantities are tiny. I’ve never figured out how anyone could make money at it!

About that time I got an e-mail from Josh Chen, a great designer in San Francisco, who was selling product on a marketplace site. I discovered Etsy and started thinking about ways to connect the dots.

Were there models out there that you were emulating?
There are a number of marketplace sites out there that we took hints from.

How are products chosen to be in the shop?
The site is curated by a panel who manage the balance of content and also ensure that all the work meets our high standards.
You sign up on the site and submit your candidates. It’s very straightforward and intuitive. We want this to be a place where the press comes to see what’s best in paper-based design. And where the best designers will feel comfortable showing their work.

What about the type of products you’ll accept—is it just paper-driven?
We’ll consider anything that’s paper driven—or services that support paper-driven design. I’m still looking for lampshades, wallpaper!

Are there any sales trends you’ve been able to spot so far?
Still way too soon to tell but if my credit card is any indication, I think it will do very well.

What are the long term goals for the site?
Every day we have new ideas. We’re working on ways to support AIGA chapters and other non-profit design-driven organizations. We’d also like to find ways to connect designers to digital printers so that they don’t have to inventory everything they sell. I would like see posters and prints from my design heroes (and heroines). And if designers are true to form, I will be continually amazed by what product ideas come forward as candidates.

It seems like Mohawk may be positioning itself as a leader in designer-driven entrepreneurship, am I right?
We want to be a leader in a number of areas. I agree with you, there’s a huge void here!

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