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Success Secrets From Steve Wedeen:

  • What is your measure of success? It’s important to be clear and articulate rather than just having vague ideas.
  • Putting together a plan and really thinking through a vision for what you want to accomplish is crucial.
  • Setting high standards for yourself, being honest with yourself, pushing yourself, learning from others, and listening to others so you can grow your abilities are important keys to success.
  • Passion goes a long way.

Steve’s thoughts on going into business:

I never thought that I would go into business for myself. It just sort of happened. When I came out to Albuquerque, I played for the first eight months. I was thinking that my life savings of $1,600.00 would allow me to never have to work again. (Laughter) I figured that $1,600.00 should last maybe 40 or 50 years. But when my funds got down to $800.00, I realized it was time to get a job. So, I got a job with a computer company, and it turned out to be an incredible gift. When that shut down I found a job at a little ad agency, which was really boring. At one point, I proposed that I do their work on a contractual basis. So, they paid me a monthly fee, and I transitioned my job into a retainer. I guaranteed that they would get their work done, and I gave them a little savings on my monthly salary. This way, I just kind of started on my own. It was a pretty easy transition.

On self-confidence:

I think the key to my success is that I believed in myself. I have a real drive to do work that inspires me. I have a great passion and that’s what drives me. My father and grand father were both printers. I had worked in print shops as a child, and my mother was incredibly encouraging. She always told me to do whatever I liked. She believed in me. I had great role models, and I never really doubted myself.

There were times that I stared at a blank sheet of paper, not sure what I was going to do, but I knew it I could figure out something. And after all these years, it’s getting harder to come up with something new, but my creativity never fails me. Thank God I’m determined and embrace the idea that design creativity is constantly growing and evolving.

On finding creative balance:

Design and creativity are a combination of new thought and classic thought. You don’t have to keep on top of everything that is new, but you shouldn’t be stuck in the past either. To me, to keep yourself fresh and vibrant, just embrace the classic principles of design creativity and originality. And then learn to rely on a creative community that provides a collective vision and inspiration. That’s really what we’re doing now. We’re working a creative community of young folks who have less experience. There’s freshness and vitality there.

Steve’s views on personal accomplishments:

My greatest satisfaction and my biggest frustration is this Firm. Our team of 17 great people is a wonderful group, with spirit and talent and synergy. Somehow we figured out how to walk the line of encouraging people to tap into their own deep creativity, and be really imaginative and original, while solving client problems at the same time. I am very proud of that.

On challenges, victories, and defeats:

We strive to give the client what they need and do work they’re proud of. We’ve been around for 25 years and have survived adversity, challenges, and victories, with both joyful moments and defeats. We’ve had a couple bruises here and there, but overall, we’ve had great accomplishments. I am very grateful. I know very few people can say that.

Thoughts on business:

After 25 years, I would say that having a partner with strong business sense is very important. That wasn’t the case for us in the beginning. Had it been the case, we would have used our capital differently, maybe invested differently. It might have allowed us to accomplish more, or we might have developed differently. This is not really a regret, but I certainly can see the benefit of it now.

I have learned a lot in the last 25 years. I now belong to a business peer group.
We meet once month and I learn a lot from them. I still think it would be nice to have an COO-type who would manage the business for us. Not that we’ve done such a bad job, it’s just not what fuels our passions or interests.

Steve’s thoughts on creating a team vision:

About six months ago, we started something new. We’re calling it “DreamWork.” We began with a brain-storming session with all of our creatives. I asked them “What do you really want to be doing? What kinds of projects and clients do you think we should be pursuing? ” The criteria were personal interest, passion, and financial potential, and we tied it in with building the strength of the business, what would be good for the company, good for the person, and good for the client.

It was a great project. Of course, at first the question was, “Why we are doing this?” But once the initial resistance broke down, the team understood the intent. It’s turned out to be a tremendous project. We had weekly sessions for about 6 weeks, each person had to come up with their own presentation in terms of what their vision was. We made a presentation to the account executive team. It really opened their eyes. They began to understand what the creatives were saying they wanted to do. They took the ideas, and about a month or two later, they responded with a marketing plan. We have been implementing it for about 6 months now.

It’s the first time we’ve really have a focused and directed, pro-active business development project that has the creative input. It is great. Everybody is into it. It’s really kind of unified us. Because during the last 25 years, it was just Richard (Kuhn) my business partner and rainmaker, going out, doing things, bringing business in, and we never asked him, “Why did you bring us this?” (Laughter) Now we’re more synergistic, and it is really cool.

Steve’s views on personal balance:

You need to balance work with an other-life. Although I’m always thinking about design and creativity, I make sure I have a personal life that has nothing to do with my life’s work. I’ve been riding motorcycles since I was 17. My wife, Linda and I both have Harleys and New Mexico is a great place to get out on the road. Riding bikes combines camaraderie and socializing with personal solitude and reflection. A bunch of us go out on the weekend, take a ride, have breakfast, and just hang out together. I’ve become obsessed with wine, which is a catalyst for friends and get-togethers and a good excuse to drink. I also read voraciously: predominantly non-fiction, personal and professional development. And my wife and I love to travel. My daughter, Lissa is the love of my life and she has been my beacon of balance since the day she was born.

On working with consultants and business trainers:

I’m part of an executives group. We meet once a month, so there are twelve sessions yearly, eight have a guest speaker and four don’t. It’s very effective because we are a small group of about 14 individuals. When we have a guest speaker, it is like a small seminar. I’ve experienced a lot of personal and professional growth through that. I’ve been doing this for about 4 years now, and it has been very helpful. It has taught me how to be a better businessperson, a better leader, and a better person in some ways. I have learned how to empower others, how to trust others, and let the business grow.

Thoughts on getting started:

I would suggest that putting together a plan and really thinking through a vision for what you want is crucial. What is your measure of success? It’s important to be clear and articulate rather than just having vague ideas that are not thought through. For years, the partners had a mission statement that we never ever questioned: “Do great work for great clients who will appreciate it and benefit from it.”

Then about 8 years ago we had a session where finally we articulated what a great client and what great work was. We realized we all had very different ideas, even though we had a unified vision. We had very different interpretations, and looking back, we realized that worked against us.

Advice for people just starting out:

Love what you do. And be aspirational. Be honest with yourself. Don’t fool yourself. I think some people set their “carrot” way too far out, and that is a good way to set yourself up for failure, because you can never grab it. However, if the carrot is set too close, you are fooling yourself into accomplishing less. Maybe that is the reason that so many people do mediocre work. Setting high standards for yourself, being honest with yourself, pushing yourself, learning from others, and listening to others so you can grow your abilities are important keys to success.

We have a communications business. It’s about acting on behalf of other people to connect with others. Listening, really listening is very, very important. It is not hard to do, but it requires a real conscious effort. I think most people listen to others through the filter of what they want to hear, as supposed to what the others are really saying.

I am a big believer in establishing a thorough strategy at the onset of a project. Once you get your strategy and purpose articulated, once you have a deep understanding of your audience, along with a variety of other factors, you will be really well-grounded and well on your way to achieving your objectives.

Have fun. Dammit.

About Steve Wedeen:

Steve Wedeen is a principal of Vaughn Wedeen. Born and raised in New York City (da Bronx), Steve grew up in a printing family surrounded by metal type, rivers of fresh ink and mountains of paper. His formal creative training began at the age of five by attending a summer art program at MOMA. He worked two years as a senior designer for the company that invented the first home computer, which was also the birthplace of Microsoft (which subsequently became one his first freelance clients when he went out on his own.) Four years in advertising agencies and freelancing followed as a designer and writer, and then he hooked up with Rick Vaughn, his Texan partner, in 1980. Richard Kuhn joined the firm in 1986 and has been a full partner for the last 18 years.

With a passion for excellence and originality and a compelling need to be recognized on the national design scene, Rick and Steve set out to put Albuquerque, New Mexico on the design map. Steve’s unparalleled strategic thinking, holistic approach to problem solving and his commitment to being authentic and ingenious with every client have propelled Vaughn Wedeen into the fast lane of design.

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Success Secrets from Tim Girvin:

  • Work on what you can personally relate to, work with those that you can personally connect with, explore that which makes you happiest. Clients will appear.
  • Look at design as being holistic — not just where you live, creatively speaking, but nearly everywhere, in context. Explore it beyond your chosen medium.
  • It’s easy enough to hire a consultant — but from the beginning, are you really doing everything that you can to strategically — and tactically? Focus on outcomes and implementations.

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The 15 questions:

1. How did you get your start?

My start? Raw curiosity for one. That’s where it all started, that drove, and drives everything that I am made of. I am one that is easily enchanted by content. I can be ignited in a moment, if the right spark is there. A love of the exploration of many things. Many, many things — so much so that my real beginning was as a biologist, a naturalist, with a leaning marine natural sciences . And from there, my professor suggested that I take the lab journals and drawings that I’d done, and explore art, history, writing, culture — and merge them somehow. So in the beginning, my work was about fine printing, papermaking, press work, book design and customized typography and type design. That was, literally, the design of typefaces — the art of conceiving the letter form as an object of potent scrutiny. But doing that meant that I could also do signwriting and truck lettering, painting on boats. Windows. Retail and shopfronts. And from there, that love combined to emerge in a grouping of ways for working with my clients (friends) to take all of those things, like printing, calligraphy and the fine arts, and make them into something that could be retooled and remade as a kind of specialist designing and consulting service. The beginning, alone, later, to small teams — and finally out to nearly 90 employees. Then back to a more manageable size. Something better, that would be my goal, in strategy and scale: 40 people — more capable of visioning and surveilling the work — as a creative leader.

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2. What were the deciding factors about going into business for yourself?

Deciding factors? I like to work alone. That’s how I started. And while I can still work alone, there’s greater pleasure working in partnership with the minds of others. But I never had a job, interestingly enough. I never, ever, worked for anyone. I started alone, but the practice, the size of the team, then evolved. The real issue was, for one, proving to myself that I could do it, make the business from what one might deem an artful formalism. And two, that I could find the clients to do that with. What I learned was that in maintaining the discipline of focused marketing, I could find the right relationships by being clear in my offering. The work that I did, in the beginning, was really about what one might define as classical design — letterpress printing, custom packaging, bookbinding, broadsides, typographic and book design, silkscreened posters, limited edition folios, porcelain enamel signing, hand lettering and calligraphy, complexly printed stationery. That tradition, in a way, expanded to much more conventional design, partnering with architecture firms, advertising agencies, even other strategy or design firms (big ones), but the character of the handmade still is at the heart of the work. The listening, the observing, the mind, the hand, the craft, the made. That’s where I started; that’s where I still live.

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3. Are there any influential figures from design that have had an effect on your work? And if so, how?

Spheres of Influence: Early on, I worked in college — the college that I went to, among others, was The Evergreen State College. There, it was possible for students to literally plan and create their own programs. So, in exploring that, I could find the options to work with the faculty leadership to study what I wanted. Asian, Medieval Western and Middle Eastern art history, architecture, type design, calligraphy — and the cultural elements that influenced them. That formed the basis of my education in design, creative development, writing and the notion of strategic illustration of intention. Cultural expressions are like the explication of branding. They’re both human orientations of character and fulfillment. My approach, therefore, is more about listening and learning from people, from the inside, to catalyze manifestations on the outside. So too, my connections with influencers and visitations, study, travel and learning. In the 70s, during the times in college, I met, worked with, studied or connected with these people. Hermann Zapf, Lloyd Reynolds, David Kindersley, Will and Sebastian Carter, Villu Toots, Maxim Zhukov, Herb Lubalin, Milton Glaser, Ed Benguiat, Massimo Vignelli. Others. While learning from them, I was exposed to, connected with Steve Jobs, Paul Brainerd, Richard Meier, Ivan Chermayeff, Annemarie Schimmel, Pir Vilayat Khan, James Turrell, Joseph Campbell, Mircea Eliade, Richard Sapper, Mihaly Cskiszentmihalyi. Others. There are layers of study. And you get what you came for. And you are what you make. You make what you are.

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4. How did you acquire new business when you first started out?

Business relationships. Getting business is never easy. For some, it might seem to be that way. But for me, getting business is always, seemingly, about curiosity. Being curious, explorations emerge, paths are uncovered, potentials unearthed. Sure, there are relationships that spool to other relationships. People connect with you, they connect you with others. But my world is seemingly more about finding people to partner with — from the hunger of curiosity in learning more about people, how they think, what they are doing, what they are working on. So linking with Steve Jobs, for example, was never about that just happening. It was more about getting to a point where I had a story to tell that he was interested in. And it’s all about story telling — new business is based on a layering of stories, the leveraging of experience and expertise that filters to new things that are, in a way, catapulting to others. It’s all about that. One story leads to another. But you have to have the capacity to examine the story in the context of relevance, resonance, connectedness. The story that is told has to have a connection to be reflectively cognizant — your story is meaningful. People relate, because they are facing similar challenges. They’ve been there. And there you are.

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5. How do you currently acquire new business?

And now, business development? The same. I’m still out there looking for connections that link to my sense of the curiosity, as well as leveraging the relationships that come into play. Finding relationships, still, is about resonance. In all things.

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6. What one thing are you most gratified that you’ve accomplished?

Living gratifications. While there might be awards, gifts from community, celebrations, life passages of significance, there’s real satisfaction in doing the work that I do — which is, fundamentally, about helping people emerge in their dreams and visions. And in a way, my vision is about that. So any string of potentials to accomplishment is about doing just that — helping people emerge and evolve in the visualizations of their dreams. And that’s a beautiful thing. And there are some dreams to the notion of human brands that is about more levels of potency than others, in their contributions to humanity. So working with Richard Gere on the Gere Foundation, working with the Kranzler’s on the creation of the Seeds of Compassion, Heifer International and finally, perhaps most personally powerful, working with my brother, Matthew Girvin, on the creation of the elimination of iodine deficiency disease (IDD) with Unicef and the Chinese Ministry of Health, Beijing. Matthew was killed in a helicopter crash, on a rescue mission, in Mongolia in 2001, one year after achieving that very goal. So that’s the most powerful legacy that contributed to the sense of powerful meaning in my life. That was, that is, a blessing to have experienced. A grand and memorable consortium of amazing people, clients, friends, employees, have emboldened the enrichment of my path. I hold those close to heart.

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7. Is there anything that you can identify as a particular key to your success?

Curiosity. A willingness to risk. Listening. Learning. Observing. Savoring. Creative evolution. Enthusiasm. Passion. Commitment. Stamina. Drive. Attention.

And finally, a point of view. Any vision to leading, or partnering in, a relationship to a constructive advancement and outcome is about having a sense of principle to stand on. What do you stand for might be the query to a client — but to ask that question, first, you must have the vantage that suggests you know the vista from where you look

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8. What would you do differently if you had it to do all over?

A change in life path. I think that I’d like to keep going to school. I’d like to keep on the path of exploring culture and expression — how art, literature and civilisation intertwine — and what is the meaning of that layered weaving.

I think that I’d like to live in more foreign cities. I’ve spent plenty of time in Paris, in Tokyo, some in Seoul, Jakarta, Hong Kong, Beijing. But I’ve not lived there, digging into the culture and the language to the degree that I would desire.

And I’d like to learn more languages. So far, my exposures have been to Latin, German, Japanese, French — with some explorations of Arabic, Turkish, Indonesian. Fluency in anything but English — but exploring language and words is deep in my psyche.

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9. Have you ever worked with business coaches or consultants?

Consultants and counsel. My experience with consultants has been broad. And in a way, it’s a matter of learning what you might already know, but having someone help redefine or more deeply embed answers to the challenges that you face. So you can embrace them, and advance. So while I’ve not worked with coaches for performance, per se, I have consulted with talent in exploring Girvin positioning and marketing, examining strategic direction, exploring internal relationships and dynamics, revisiting textual and visual context of the Girvin brand, and studying operational or acquisition considerations. There’s some learning in virtually everything. But, to deepening the impact of the engagement, the point is that you need to consider how the learning — how that exposure — can be vitalized. It’s easy enough to hire a consultant — but from the beginning, are you really doing everything that you can to strategically — and tactically — focus on their outcomes and implementations.

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10. Have you attended business seminars or workshops to sharpen your business skills?

Learning communities. I’ve been exposed to an extraordinary array of learning opportunities. And I keep searching for more. I would say, however, that there are many learning exposures that simply sit in front of us, that are underutilized. Like seeking inspiration from doing something that is, perhaps, unrelated to the immediate creative solutions at hand. I look for these. Museums. Musical explorations. Study of history. Film. There are threads there that underlie the basics of what we do, but seen in the context of the passage of time, you find just that — the threads and movements that conform creative expression. And sometimes, simply going to conferences doesn’t get you there. But there are surely events that, by the nature of their exposition, teach you. I’m a member of the TED community, for example. That’s an incessant learning proposition — and the lessons and exposures are far-reaching. To conventional outlets, the notion of the Design Management Institute, strategic and trend forums, connections with learning communities — like the University of Washington, for example, help me explore and expand my creative consciousness. And another component is the reflective character there — teaching is perhaps an even more intense form of learning. That’s what I seek. Expansion of context in the framing of creative action. And I find that examining these explorations is helpful — no, deeply meaningful.

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11. Do you have any activities or hobbies that you use to help you stay balanced? (Exercise, meditation, etc.) If so, what are they?

Seeking balance. I look at practice as a mix of balancing components. And surely meditation and reflection are among them. As well, as a Buddhist, I’m exploring the dimensions of that world, the art, the spirituality, interleaved. The power of a spiritual sense drives everything that I do — for every thing that I am involved with inherently links an essential spirit with articulation; it is, in a way, the lustration of ideas. I’m also a squash and tennis player, I box, run, train, hike. Writing and photography, interlaced with drawing is another layering to meditation on creative action. By weaving them, it’s a way of exploring contentment. And I mean content and containment. In a manner, that gestures to fullness. But the sleeves of meaning resonate to other parts of that — something contained, forms of expression, significance and profundity, an object of perception, holding capacity, the sum of attributes, volume. As a designer, being content can obviously characterize tints of meaning. If you speak content, are you?

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12. If someone new to the industry were to ask you how to build and sustain a career, what would you say to them?

Direction. Look at design as being holistic — not just where you live, creatively speaking, but nearly everywhere, in context. Explore it beyond your chosen medium.

Be fluent. Be willing to flow from one range of direction to another; design will always be about your interpretation, your illustration, but be ready to tell a story in a manner that actually relates to who you are speaking to.

What patterning is there, to the range of design, culture, people and history? Rather than merely familiarize yourself with the hippest present, what consciousness of the past is there? Rather than conforming to trends of the last ten minutes, what of the last 4,000 years, or more? For me, it’s like building a vocabulary — your fluency becomes expansive, rather than merely focused on developments of the last 20 years. Or less.

13. If someone new to the industry were to ask you how to get good clients, how would you respond?

Openings. I’d offer: go where you want to work. Work on what you can personally relate to, work with those that you can personally connect with, explore that which makes you happiest. Clients will appear.

14. Is there any additional advice you might give to someone just starting out?

Beginnings. My phrasing, to beginning is: be intense. There are linguistic connections to that this word that are largely forgotten, or misused. Think of it in this new light. It’s a word that began 2000 years ago. And it’s tied to the concept of intent and intention. Set a path, form a principle of intention and action. What path, mapmaker?Consider this, the movement of the word in the last 700 years. 1350–1400; Middle English < L inténsus, var. of intentus intent, ptp. of intendere to intend. Look back, several hundred years to the source phrasing — 1175–1225; Middle English < Late Latin intentus an aim, purpose, Latin: a stretching out (inten(dere) to intend + -tus suffix of v. action); r. Middle English entent(e) < Old French < Late Latin. And finally, tense, the later iteration of the branching of this word. 1660–70; < L ténsus ptp. of tendere to stretch. Why do I continuously reference this etymological sequence? Because to be intense, is about having intention in action; aim and purpose, and finally it’s about tension — the tensile character of stretching. All profoundly meaningful.

About Tim Girvin:

Tim Girvin is the Principal of GIRVIN | Creative Intelligence, a strategically focused design and communications group based in NYC and Seattle, with an alliance in Tokyo. GIRVIN is privately held and has been in practice, operating world wide, continuously for more than 30 years. Tim Girvin acts as the Chief Creative Officer for both offices, that are supervised by Creative Directors managing the design solutions and teams of each location. The firm works from the premise of storytelling as a vehicle to enhance the portals of connection with people. The forum for creative is based on collaborative workshops that it has been honing for nearly 20 years, formalizing tactics and robust business strategies in aligned visualizations that form naming, message, identity, packaging, print, interactive and built scenarios to embrace culture and image, coupled in community, to reach one to one, or one to one billion. Their clients include Microsoft and Paramount Studios, Wynn and MGM MIRAGE, Kerzner and Boyd, Procter & Gamble and Johnson & Johnson in brand innovations, product development, retail design and interactive communications.

Their corporate site is girvin.com

Tim’s personal site is tim.girvin.com and their blogs are at blog.girvin.com/ and tim.girvin.com/Entries/index.php.

Tim Girvin can be reached at girvin@girvin.com.


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