Q&A with Sharon Werner

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, if you would briefly describe your studio and your role.

Werner Design Werks is a small design studio. There are just two of us, Sarah Forss and myself, and it’s been that way for quite some time. We do both large and small projects, including large-scale brand development design, as well as packaging for new brands for large companies and startup companies. And then we also do smaller artist projects. The size of our studio is what gives us the flexibility to take on projects that we feel confident about, where we personally like the people who are involved or know we’ll be challenged in some way. So we don’t have a huge machine to fuel. We can pick and choose the kind of projects that we want to work on.

Regarding our roles, they really haven’t changed all that drastically over the years. I’m more in charge of the business aspect of things for clients, and I also act as a designer and creative director. However, because there are only two of us, our roles sometimes fluctuate depending on who’s working on which project. The client can talk to either one of us, and we have an open environment so we both know pretty much everything that’s going on with each project. It’s fairly open and flexible in that way.

What skill sets will be required of the studio of 2015? And what competencies should a studio develop now in order to remain competitive for the future?

I think the most important competency—although I feel like we’ve been doing this all along because we’re only two people—is that we must be flexible and open to collaboration, whether with other graphic designers who at some point in their careers may have been our competitors or specific people that offer a competency that we don’t have. It’s crucial that we’re open to working with other people who bring in new skill sets. Every project that we work on seems to require a skill set that we may be okay at, but there is often this one person out there who’s really, really great at it or might bring in a different point of view. So lately, more than ever, we’ve been collaborating as much as the budget allows, as much as timing allows. These collaborations bring inspiration as well as expertise to our projects. And I think that’s going to become even more important as we move into the future.

It’s possible to get too isolated even though there is so much going on out there in the world. As a studio, we need to be able to capture the best people to work with and the best thinkers. These individuals aren’t always on your staff because you can’t inspire them or utilize their skills on a daily basis. I think collaboration is huge, and I also think managing these collaborative efforts will probably be my biggest challenge, personally, going forward.

Any advice or thoughts that you might share on how you’ll take what you’ve learned about using this approach and apply it to 2015 and beyond?

Well, I think a big part of it is to learn not to think of other people as “the competition.” For the past 25 years, there have been moments where we’ve said, “We’re too busy to work on your project, but we feel like this other design firm would be amazing for you; they’d be a great fit. They’re going to get what you’re talking about.” 

To be that sort of matchmaker, even if it doesn’t seem to serve you any purpose when it’s happening, studios need to recognize that somewhere down the line that recommendation will come back to benefit you. If we think of ourselves as a community, whether a local community or a national or international community, A, it makes a better world, and B, it also elevates our industry, our business and the way in which we present to clients.

Werner Design Werks seeks to collaborate with those who are truly our peers: not someone we aspire to be like or someone that may be up-and-coming in the ranks, but someone who is on an equal level with us. We’ve learned how to say, “Let’s merge our brains and see what we can come up with. You bring your ideas to the table, and we’ll bring our ideas, and we’ll pick and choose the best way to approach the project.” I’m referring not only to the expert in an area that we know nothing about—that, of course, is a given—but designers who are our peers.

What role will technology play in the studio of 2015? What technologies must a studio master to remain competitive in the future?

Technology—obviously it’s not going away! I do feel pretty confident that we’re finally beyond the “cool” of technology, and we’ve now collectively entered the phase of making technology actually work for us. So it’s no longer about, “Ooh, that’s the cool newest thing, and those are the cool new features.” Now it’s actually about finding ways to use technology to make our lives better. Because no one needs another cool thing. I think people are coming around to the perspective of, “Oh, yeah, that’s a cool thing. But so what? Let’s make it actually work or make it do something that benefits us—as a people or a society or the world—even if it just makes our life a little bit more pleasant.” 

An example: Does everyone need to be an expert at Google Glass to do something great with it? No. But designers must have a basic understanding of the technology and its potential. Do you have to be an expert at how to make a program work? No. But I think you do need to know that it exists. Going forward, studios must have enough breadth of knowledge to understand what possibilities a technology offers, as well as the ability to find out who can help them make it happen.

Of course, I love print and the experiential quality that print brings to a brand story—which is different than the digital experience. But print has to work harder than ever to remain a viable method of delivering a client’s message. Print has to be smart, strategic, beautiful, memorable and covetable. It has to do more than simply communicate the message, which a website does really well.

In terms of business development, what steps should studios begin to take now to best position themselves for the future?

I wish I had the answer. You know, I think it’s becoming both increasingly harder and easier. There used to be just a few sources that clients could go to and find out who’s who and what’s going on. Now there’s just so much information out there—it’s easy for clients to find who did what and what’s going on—that it’s almost become too much. The client may not have the right tools to assess who’s the right fit for them. So I think from our standpoint, again, it’s a bit of a networking issue. Will it change that much in the next two years? Probably not.

How does a studio of your size and scale handle the workload? How will the studio team be structured in 2015?

Well, I think someone definitely has to lead or guide each project, though it doesn’t necessarily have to be me just because my name is on the door. But there has to be someone who is making sure that the work gets done or I think people end up running in circles. In my opinion, there has to be a guiding view—a direction—that everyone has agreed upon. Otherwise things will run amuck, where everyone involved keeps adding ideas but nothing ever actually happens.

However, I don’t necessarily think that person has to be the creative director or the lead designer. I think it can be whoever chooses that role. That’s the working structure that we’ve developed, and that’s the structure we will use moving forward. Sarah and I both work on projects when they initially come in the door. We’ll both be in contact with the client, and we will both add ideas. No matter if it’s a small project or a big project, we’ll both contribute. And if we bring in a third party to work with us, we’ll get their input on the concept. That way we’ll all be putting ideas on the table.

Then we ruthlessly pick through those ideas and determine, “That’s good. That’s not good.” And it might be that the third party brings in all of the ideas that we feel are the best—or none of them. But we try to be very open about the process and say, “Okay, here are the best ideas,” and not get too personal or too protective of concepts. We then proceed with taking select ideas to the next level, and the next level after that, before they’re shared with the client. That’s how we’ll work going forward, too.

You just shared some thoughts on internal idea generation and development, but what about the client? How will studios work with their clients in 2015 and beyond?

Well, I think the client definitely wants to be more involved than ever. It used to be that clients just wanted to be wowed. They wanted the “dog and pony show.” Today, clients definitely want to be a part of the process. They want to see things along the way, which is a little bit challenging because you don’t want to show them half-formed ideas. You also don’t want to become too attached to your ideas and waste time, only to find you have to start over.

So I think the challenge going forward is to find that “right time” to share your thoughts and ideas. Because I think many clients, at least our clients, a lot of them still need an education on what design is. They feel like they know it because they’ve read about it. They’ve read why Starbucks is successful, and they’ve read why Target is successful. They’ve read all these stories about why people are successful, and they want to apply those rules to themselves. To that end, they often want to make design a linear process—step one, step two, step three. So part of what we do is providing clients a bit of an education—that design is a fluid process. Sometimes it goes this way, and sometimes it goes that way, depending on the project or the people involved.

In the past, clients used to think design was sort of like magic, that things just happened. And I think that was also wrong. It isn’t magic; it doesn’t just happen. Clients aren’t designers. They are consumers of design. They see design everywhere, and they’re being taught how to assess design. So they want to be a part of the process.

So it’s all about finding the right point of involvement with individual clients. Sometimes it’s further along in the process; sometimes it’s really upfront. Sometimes they want to know every dirty detail—every obstacle you’re confronting—and sometimes they don’t want to know any of that. As a studio, we have to read clients to figure out what they’re thinking. There’s a lot of psychology to that, too.

What’s the ideal physical layout of the studio of the future? What type of workspace design best accommodates the way you’ll work in 2015 and beyond?

Well, our studio space is pretty raw. You come into our space and we’re right there. We’re not hidden behind the façade of a receptionist or even a receptionist’s desk. If you walk in our door, it’s just us. And that’s for better and for worse. It’s been that way for the past 21 years. Sarah and I, even though we have quite a large space, 1,700 square feet, we end up sitting in about 300 square feet of the space. So if we look around our monitors we can see each other. That said, we have distance from each other but we still have privacy. We can shut out everything around us, if need be, and still have our own thinking space, which is really critical.

I’ve walked into so many studios where everyone is sitting at long tables and they’re all sitting on top of each other. No one has his or her space. And that’s fine for some people but personally I could not work that way because I need my space. I need to know that I can come here and think. I can’t just think anywhere. It takes me quite a long time to get into a place where I can actually say, “Okay, now I can think.” We try to create that perfect environment, where you’re still around people but you have your own space. We don’t have walls but we have distance.

Clearly this is a model that has worked for you. I’m sure you’ve had opportunities to expand the size or staff of your studio, but you’ve chosen not to do that. Why did you made that choice?

Well, I love to work with a lot of different people. Sometimes I think when you’re in an office environment, there can be a lot of petty “officeness.” No matter what the agency, no matter what the environment, there’s just this stuff that happens that’s peripheral to the actual work. Sometimes the morning chitchat you have with colleagues is really nice and fun, but when it happens all day long, it’s crazy. I think having a smaller studio, we can avoid that, and then we can bring in people to work on very specific tasks and specific things. Then we can move on and bring in new people. You don’t get caught up in everyone’s personal issues. Another reason I’ve decided to keep the studio small is that I like to stay involved with the actual work and process. As an owner, it’s difficult to do that with more people. You tend to get caught up in the management of people.

Keeping the studio small allows us to stay more focused. We don’t need to sit down and have staff meetings. We know the status of everything that’s going on all the time. I personally like that, though I don’t know if that’s right for everyone. That’s just my personality. I don’t want to sit in a staff meeting. I just want to do the work and I want to brainstorm.

What must studios do to prepare themselves to address issues surrounding sustainability and the increasingly global context in which we all live and work?

I pondered that question for quite a long time because I feel like sustainability is an overused word. Sustainability is not a buzzword; it’s a way of life. Maybe it’s my Midwestern background, and Sarah’s, too. It’s so much a part of who we are. We just don’t need all this stuff in the world. If we’re going to reduce the amount of products and things in the world, I’d want whatever’s left to somehow make our lives better, to make our lives easier, to solve a current problem. I think we need to stop producing things “just because.” Why do we make everything disposable? Disposable electric toothbrushes where you can’t replace the batteries! Use your common sense.

And does that inform the projects that you are, or are not, willing to work on?

It does, yes. It definitely does. We’re always trying to find ways that people can reuse the package that we’re designing. Maybe that just means that kids can cut it apart and use the pieces for something else. We can’t change the whole entire world, but we can make something that people will actually hold onto instead of throwing away. Clamshell packaging—can it go away now unless we can make it functional in some way? That, to me, is a big part of the sustainability issue. Stop producing things that we don’t need.

What are some of the biggest challenges design studios will face in 2015? And what steps should studios begin taking to prepare for what lies ahead?

One of the biggest challenges for us will be convincing potential clients that while we may not have a technology or capability right here in our office sitting in a chair at the moment, that we are collaborative and that that’s the best model for them. We bring in the right people at the right time. Fortunately, I do think that will become less and less challenging because clients don’t want the stickiness of paying for a lot of stuff they don’t need every day. But it is still a challenge, and I think it will continue to be a challenge. We have to find a way to say, “We don’t develop apps and we don’t develop these kind of things, but we know people who do and we’ll collaborate with them. Our ideas, from a branding perspective, will inform how that happens. And then we’ll have a cohesive message.” And that way, we don’t have to be experts at everything. Besides, anyone who says they’re an expert at everything is probably not really an expert at anything.

Going forward, we also need to remember humanity in our designs—and not the touchy feely part. I think people are at the point with Facebook and Twitter where they feel like they’re engaging with other people, but on some level they’re not really engaging at all. It’s not personal, not face-to-face. Perhaps design could help facilitate those social interactions a little bit more: real relationships and real social interactions. For that reason, I think experiential design is going to be big. I think clients have a tendency to say, “Oh, we need a Facebook page. We need to do this. We need to do that.” That’s all well and good, but we need to create some real interactions, too.

In your opinion, what are the most exciting developments that the future holds for your studio? What creative possibilities do you think will exist in 2015 and beyond?

For me, it’s the experience of how we create a brand. We make it. We package it. We do this and that to it. But how does it get introduced to the world? And how do we actually get people to interact with the brand and help them understand how it is—or could be—an important part of their lives? How can we solve a problem? How can we make one evening more enjoyable? How do we do that? How can we be a part of that? I think it’s a challenge to convince clients that a two-person studio can actually help with that.

In conclusion, there’s one final thing I didn’t yet touch on that I’d like to mention. Now more than ever, studios have to be strategic. We’ve all known that for quite some time. It’s not anything new or earth shattering. On the other hand, sites like Pinterest and Designspiration have introduced us to amazingly talented designers who do really beautiful work but often it’s not for clients. It’s for art’s sake, and it’s not strategic. I’m concerned that younger designers might not learn to see the difference. I think if we can continue to combine beautiful work and strategic elements, that’s what is going to bring about the best results: design that’s smart, serves a purpose and looks great. That’s design of the future.