What Business Does Design Have … With Business?

This is the next installment of a new bi-monthly column about local architecture and design by Scott Lankford of Lankford Design Group in Traverse City.

In 1980, Business Week magazine opened the eyes for many in business to the value in design. The ROI when investing in design. Its International Design Excellence Awards (IDEA) showed many subscribers how good design was giving companies a leg up. Today, we are well schooled in the benefits of “good design” to companies, their shareholders and their industries. Forget the “leg up.” Steve Jobs and Apple have showed us that good design is a reason for being. Or as my Mother would say, “Do it right or don’t do it at all.”

One of my mantras to interns and students interested in design is this: as designers, their number one job is leadership – leading their clients into enlightened choices and decisions that bring much more than was originally asked for. Good design is leadership. Owners of companies who look around them foresee the needs, research alternatives, clarify and develop a product or solution for their market – those that invest in that process and make it their ongoing behavior are the leaders.

Though I am a designer and work in a “visual” realm, I believe good design leadership is not just visual. Creativity and design should inform your thinking, your processes, your spreadsheets and your relationships. Creativity and design extends into manufacture and delivery innovations, refinements that respond to your target market, and development of new markets and offerings.

Throughout our region we find excellent examples of design leadership. Some well known and some well hidden. I want to acknowledge some of those “change” leaders who truly led (or lead). This is a top of mind list and in no particular order nor complete by any measure.

Let’s start in 1984 when Chef Pete Peterson created and maintained design leadership in every aspect of his famous restaurant Tapawingo. The location, the interior and the table top, the menu, the plates, the service. The reverberations of his efforts and leadership continue to influence and enhance. For newbies, look him up. You missed it.

The rest of us can and should remember the price of those meals. There is no free lunch (another mantra) and there was a huge price to pay for “farm to table” before it was such a common phrase. Each plate arrived at such an incredible cost and you savored every aspect.

The aforementioned Apple computer company certainly receives a princely sum for their products, no? Who knew I needed a mouse, or needed to carry all my music with me wherever I went or a phone that took photos? Not me. And who knew I would be so excited to pay so much for my first iPhone like a meal at Tapawingo?

The artful, design-driven leadership of Steve jobs and the teams he assembled have been written large. I would recommend Walter Issacson’s biography of Jobs to anyone as a great story. A local story that should be told is that of the local architects who came here in the 50s and brought their passion, brains and vision to an area that was not the Traverse City we see today. Graduating from architectural school and charged with the influence of Frank Lloyd Wright, these young guys arrived seeing opportunity.

Myfriend and colleague Robert L. Holdeman (or Bob) brought to ourIf area all of his energy, artistry and hope for a better world with his wife and family 50 some years ago. In 1975, Bob teamed up with fellow architect Robert J. Sommerville to start their architecture and interior design firm AAI. Beside designing many of our beloved public buildings, the “Two Bobs” employed and mentored so many of the architects and designers we have around us now.

Like Chef Peterson practiced “farm to table” before there were “foodies,” Holdeman began applying innovative building methods (modern or pre-fab) while designing and building his own home up in The Bluffs on Old Mission, decades before Dwell magazine told us it was cool.

To contrast the accompanying bombast and pain that Steve Jobs was legendary for, Holdeman offers a grace and composure in office, on site with the construction team and with clients that has become his “way.” I have witnessed firsthand his quiet but steady angst and displeasure of the current “undeveloped ideas” knowing that he would, in time, take up that challenge – blowing up the preconceived ideas and moving well beyond the initial client request.

The owner, the CEO, the chairperson, the investor, the developer with that winning idea would do well to form a relationship with one of our many talented local designers – not just architects but our graphic designers, landscape architects, photographers, filmmakers and digital wizards.

Now for one more mantra. This one is mine, not Holdeman’s: “The customer is not always right.”

Holdeman would never say that but instead he realized his calling in life; he understood he was seeing more than the client could – a wider vision – and he deftly led countless individuals, couples, families, owners and board members (think Dennos Museum, Radio Centre, Crystal Mountain) into new worlds, new ways of seeing and gave them the tools to be brave and build a legacy, not just another building.