Q&A with Fred Cisneros

This Q&A is part of “Defining the Studio of 2015,” an initiative by AIGA and Adobe that seeks the insights of visionary design thought leaders who are poised for the future. In this series, these leaders share an inside look at their plans, predictions and aspirations for the studio of 2015 and beyond.

To get us started, tell us a little bit about your studio and your role.

I am the president and creative director at Cisneros Design. We were formed in 1994 in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Santa Fe is a relatively small market, and we are the largest firm of our kind in the area. In comparison to ad agencies and others, we’re unique in that we only do about five percent of our work in New Mexico. Most of our work is actually in New York, St. Louis and Phoenix. We’re able to sustain the size of our studio by not focusing exclusively on the local market.

In terms of business development, what steps are you taking to position yourself for the future?

Strategically, we’re working to recognize the degree of specialization that we can handle as a firm. What do we do well? And who out there in the market does other things well? Who can we approach about partnering, when appropriate? We’re having to bridge a lot more collaborations or partnerships with firms that specialize in specific areas. We remain very involved in concept development, but we’re farming out the execution.

The partners we work with are largely in New Mexico, but we do have professional agreements with firms in other states that expand our deliverables. These partners don’t generally interact with our clients, as communications are still managed by our firm. All of this is a challenge, given the trend toward specialization I just mentioned. In order to specialize, you have to let some things go from your repertoire.

How would you describe the client of 2015?

I think the future client is harder to maintain a close relationship with because everybody’s under budget pressures. More and more, we’re seeing two types of clients. There’s a current group of clients that are very loyal and dedicated. They are true partners in the process and they’re good communicators; they tell us what it is they want from us.

On the other hand, I see many clients or potential clients—clients that have been referred to us or even found us on their own—and they’re coming at us with a very different perspective. They want to set the tone. They want to drive creative. They want to drive the cost. And I’m finding that this new group of clients is not as sophisticated, and they aren’t business savvy. They’re very aggressive. And it’s not simply about age difference. It seems to be a different style—a different way of dealing with people. This can be very frustrating, as with this type of client, you’re constantly trying to gauge your position with them. Many of these clients want your design and then they want to go away and manage it or implement it themselves. I think this attitude is mostly driven by cost or perceived cost.

There’s also a short attention span with these clients. I think many of them just want the latest fad. They’re not necessarily willing to pay for it, but they want stuff that they’ve just read about or seen on the news. This creates a lot of pressure, because we have a limited degree of control over outcomes. It’s going to change how business is done in 2015 and beyond.

The topic of collaboration has come up a few times. Why is it so important?

I think collaboration is huge. Now more than ever, studios are in need of skills that they don’t have internally. To be successful, we have to reach outside, to reach beyond and find resources and partners we can trust. We have to be able to present a product to the client and have the client trust that we can deliver it.

From the client perspective, what we find is that we’re working with their marketing directors or contacts, but we’re also strategizing to help them learn how to present our work to their manager, or to their board, or to whomever has to sign off. Part of our role is to help them and be a back-up resource. That’s been a really interesting piece of the puzzle because we are forced to second guess the goals of the project beyond the customer reach and battle the management response.

I know that my clients are called on by other firms, so building a high degree of trust, where clients feel they can call me whenever they want to call me—and they can ask me questions that aren’t directly related to the work I’m doing—is critical. If there is trust, they start to seek advice or support beyond what it is I deliver.

What changes do you envision for your studio space?

Interestingly enough, we recently completed a remodel. We can’t expand the footprint of the building but we’re working to optimize the design of the workstations and the workspace. We’ve nearly doubled the number of work areas. The scary part is that it’s not unrealistic that we could fill the new spaces, and then we’d have to look at relocating or doing something different.

From a design perspective, the space has two distinct sides: the account administration/operations side and the design side, or “bullpen.” As you can imagine, operations tends to be a little bit more orderly, while design tends to look more freeform. We take a lot of pride in making the workplace fun and playful, so we have a foosball table, dartboards, games and a lot of toys. And there’s no hesitance to put them into play.

Our clients really like visiting because the studio is like a playground. Our building is in a fairly conservative and typical Santa Fe office park, but once you come through the door, we’re not all that typical.

In terms of technology, what’s most important for a successful studio in 2015?

Many of my peers in the Santa Fe area are not quite as technologically adept as we are. They’re not rushing to be the first adopters of software or hardware. In general, I’m seeing small studios becoming more and more nervous about growth or change. Maybe they bought old machines or used machines in an attempt to take the next steps, but they’re still too many generations behind. I don’t think that approach is going to be a viable option in the future.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges that your studio will face in 2015 and beyond?

A challenge—not new by any means—is the investment in staff. You’re investing in their training; you’re bringing them along. In firms like ours, staff can be transient. They may not have ties to our market, or they may eventually seek a place closer to their family. So they can leave with little notice. Developing a staff member is costly and each time one doesn’t work out or chooses to leave, we take a hit. We’re not large enough to absorb or lose people without impact.

In conclusion, what are the most exciting new developments you foresee for your studio in the future?

I get excited about the ability to expand communication by walking clients through a video or interactive presentation. Because we can’t take all of our team to the client to present, this has allowed us to bring an identity, perhaps even some “notoriety,” to some of the individuals that work in the studio. I want our clients to know who we are and what we do.

Some of the new technologies emerging today get clients really excited. Even though the technology may not be new in general, it’s new to them and their audience. For example, a client discovers they could have an app developed for their organization. And for the longest time it seemed like clients weren’t very excitable, so this change in attitude is terrific. Clients are starting to open their minds to new opportunities. For us, it’s wonderful to be able to bring what we see as fairly modest offerings to the table and watch our clients respond in such a positive way.