Saturday, October 16, 2010

Small By Design: Entrepreneur-Designer Stuart Karten Talks Shop

For those that follow the design consulting field, Stuart Karten Design feels like a larger firm than it is.  With only around 28 employees, it's like the little munchkin stepchild to the larger design consultancies of the world -- size-wise at least.
But the firm, and its namesake and founder Stuart Karten, have been at it for almost 27 years.  Success has been building slowly but steadily for the company, which is transitioning to the name SKD.  Says Stuart about that move:  "I mean, Stuart Karten Design could be two people, and it’s much bigger than me at this point."
Much bigger, and much more successful.  In 2008, Stuart and team won their first National Design Award for innovations in the hearing aid market.  
I recently talked with Stuart about his firm, his "Dear Stuart" column in Fast Company, and how he's become one of a truly rare breed -- a successful designer and entrepreneur.  Edited excerpts of our conversation follow:  

ThinkingDesign:  Are you small by design?  And if so, why?
SK:  Yes.  For a number of reasons.  For one, I’m still pretty involved with most of the work.  So, I like to be involved with projects.  I’m also a big believer in providing high-level service.  The way I tell it to potential clients is that we don’t have a "B" Team.  You don’t come in and meet me and a couple of other people, and then we introduce you to the people who are going to do the work.   Lately we’ve been taking work from firms that are three and four times our size. 
Another reason is that I like to work with people that I like and projects that I like, so I can be selective.

ThinkingDesign:  Sounds like a good philosophy.  What gives you the most satisfaction?
SK:  From a project standpoint, it’s the work we’ve been doing with Starkey with hearing aids.  I’m very proud of the work from multiple perspectives.  One is that I believe we’ve done some great work in terms of functional innovation for them, and using all the dimensions of my business – the research, design, and engineering.  We really brought it all.  We did great research, and it led to very good short-term solutions and very innovative long-term solutions. 
For more about that project, take a look at the talk I recently gave on the topic:
User-driven Innovation from Kicker Studio on Vimeo.

I’m very proud of what we’ve done for Starkey and the partnership that we developed.  Also, the work we did led to nice recognition and it allowed me to go to the White House to meet Michelle Obama, so that was a real career high.  We won a National Design Award for it.  

Sexiest hearing aid out there...
ThinkingDesign:  Congrats!  Tell me about your “Dear Stu” column in Fast Company.  Were you trying to create some notoriety for yourself?
SK:  Well, I was asked to be an expert design blogger by Fast Company, and I didn’t want to do the same kind of blah blah blah about products or complain about design thinking, like the stuff that’s going on right now.  And I thought that no one had played the humor card, so I decided to play the humor card. 
I had some fun with it, and now I’m posting more traditional blogs and have kind of steered away from it, but it was fun.  

Dear Stu -- Can you help me be more innovative?
ThinkingDesign:  Playing on that theme, I’m an MBA graduate from a year ago.  I’m looking to get into the design field.  How do I get a second look from a company like yours?    
SK:  What do you do?  You call people up and invite them to be on your blog and make friends that way.  That kind of stuff.

ThinkingDesign:  Thanks for that... In the world of design for social impact and humanitarian design, how do you stand on design’s ability to save the world?
SK:  I don’t think I or my firm can personally save the world.  But we can be responsible about the kind of clients and the kind of work we take on.  We’ve always had about 30-40% of our work focused on the healthcare and medical world, and that gives us a lot of psychic income and makes us feel better about the work we do day to day.
In terms of the other question about using design and design thinking as a way to solve bigger problems, I think it’s great and there’s potential there.  I think what we’re really talking about is just looking at problems more creatively.  And that’s what designers do, and we have a process for doing it, which allows people to accept it more easily. 

ThinkingDesign:  What kinds of jobs won’t you take on?
SK:  One filter is just understanding that what we’re going to be working on is something that people want and need.  Inherently, you know what categories you’re in and what’s going to be the outcome. 
We won’t do things that hurt people – guns or weapons or things that will hurt people or affect people negatively.

ThinkingDesign:  You’re one of the well-known design shops around, but you’re also an entrepreneur.  To what extent are the skills that make you a good entrepreneur the same that make you a good designer?
SK:  You learn lessons.  I’ve been through three recessions.  The first one I was totally blindsided and the business almost went under as a result.  The second I was a little smarter about it and got us through it.  But this time, we’re actually thriving.   
There are also external forces that lined up that allowed us to be more successful this time.  Design is in a much better place.  But we’ve also engaged in a lot more PR this time.  We used to get most of our work through referrals, but I amped up the promotion this time. 
I also recognized that engineering and that level of production was going to be outsourced and be done for free, so we really amped up the front end of the business and invested in research and understanding how research worked in conjunction with design.  We’ve always done it, but we never spoke about it, formalized it, and had people that specialized in it. 

ThinkingDesign:  How do you approach research?
SK:  Our tool is called “mode mapping”.  It’s a tool that allows you to visually represent ethnographic research so that designers can get engaged, and the benefit is that you can explain to clients where you found your unmet needs and where you found your potential new solutions. 

The Y axis represents emotional states and the X axis represents time. 
Mode Mapping 101
We birthed it here on one project, then started using it on other projects and it’s really started to take on a life of its own. 

Mode Mapping 202
ThinkingDesign:  What else has affected your ability to be successful as a small firm in a space of growing gorillas?
SK:  One of the things that lined up for us is that we’ve always been a hardcore product design firm, but with added value because of our ability to do high-level research and use it to get to really good solutions.  On the spectrum of other industrial design firms, a lot of them haven’t embraced or raised their level of research capability, at least in our sized firms. 
The bigger firms were strong in that area.  Then, because a lot of hardcore industrial design was able to get farmed out and be produced for free.  If you need an MP3 player, you can get someone in Asia to, not only make it, but also design it for your for free in exchange for making it.
So, the big firms went for greener pastures.  They created the term "design thinking" and started applying it to service design and these larger humanitarian efforts.  And as a result, it left a gap.  We were able to slip right in there and give people, in essence, somewhat of the same quality level of what they were receiving from these larger firms, but with a singular focus, which was to get to a product.

ThinkingDesign:  Tell me about your concept designs.  Why do you do them?
SK:  The broad stroke is to flex the studio’s creative muscles, without the constraints of a client or budget.  Then, in essence, it becomes a PR tool for us, and we’ve had a lot of success with it.  One of the projects is in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art.

That's right -- you can find this beauty at the MOMA, forever...
The projects are really fun.  Did you see the chandeliers?  We have people calling all the time wanting to buy them.  I wish I could make them.

I mean, I guess we could make them.  They’re durable and all, but that’s not really the business we’re in.  I tell people that we would make them one, but they would have to supply the bills, and $10,000 on top of that.  No one has taken me up on that yet. 

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