Evolve Symposium—My Commitment to the Business of Graphic Design

DSC_5248-copy2When Marc and I first started MSLK back in 1998, I was armed and ready with lots of training as graphic designer. However, like almost every other design business owner before me, I’d never received any training on how to run a business, much less a graphic design business, which has its own unique challenges.

My formal training had shown me how to translate the spoken and unspoken needs of a business into compelling visuals. I could simplify messaging, choose the right typeface, colors, and imagery, but I barely knew how to guide a client through that process. After all, I wasn’t pulling a prefabricated design off the shelf, but rather creating something unique for each client and starting from scratch each time.

So that’s how I sold creative. We are going to create something unique and custom-tailored just for you. It will never have been done before because it’s just for you. Then I’d show them all the beautiful visuals in my portfolio of lovely artifacts I had created for other clients. If I was lucky there was a solution in there that was similar to a challenge the prospective client was experiencing. Then I could talk about that similarity; but mostly what I was selling was style alone. I was also inadvertently selling risk. Take a chance with us because we are so innovative and creative we don’t have a set process.

It was around this time that some colleagues, Marc, and I started the group Spark. Spark is a group of design business owners who get together each month to talk about the issues relevant to running a design firm. Instantly, I saw a few themes emerge:
1. Every design business owner felt exactly the same as we did, and were experiencing the same challenges.
2. All of them were trained as graphic design practitioners with little to no experience running a business.
3. Each designer was inventing his or her own solutions, akin to silently working on reinventing the wheel without even knowing that a wheel exists.
4. Everyone was lonely and sought more camaraderie and support.

Many of the toughest issues the Spark group faced centered around business issues which are truly unique to a graphic design firm. From proposal writing, to process setting, to pricing, there are few to no places a graphic designer can turn for answers. There are no written rules for how things can be done, there’s no standardization in the industry, and there’s little to no formal education on these topics. You can’t find these answers in books, and graphic design is part art, part science. Don’t even bother reading a traditional business book; those rules simply don’t apply.

Seeing a true need in the market, we transformed our monthly Spark meetings from an unstructured social gathering into a structured conversation. Each month we’d pick a specific topic such as long-term business planning, proposal writing, setting a budget, etc. and invite an industry professional to speak to us. The professionals we selected always had expertise working with graphic design professionals, so they came with insights into our specific needs and challenges. The meetings have proven to be very informative, and, since 2002, Spark has produced over 145 events.

Through Spark, I’ve developed quite a passion and wealth of knowledge on the business side of design. Marc and I have conducted and hosted many Spark events ourselves over the years and I consider myself a bit of an industry curator. I understand the trends I see happening in the industry and work hard to adopt the best practices for codifying and selling design services. As a result, our agency is no longer in the business of selling risk. Instead, we use a clear process rooted in transforming the inherently subjective design process into a comforting and clearly objective process.

Back in 2007, my relationship with Spark led me to meet the renowned design business consultant, Emily Cohen. A former graphic designer herself, Emily works with only the top design agencies nationwide. I was drawn to her initially because of this. If she advised the superstar design firms we looked up to, I imagined what she could do to help us reach that next level of business acumen and authority. We’ve been working together with Emily since 2007, and we consider her to be a crucial part of our business advisory board.

In 2011, I approached Emily and suggested that we collaborate on something bigger and truly give back to the design community. She mentioned that she’d always wanted to organize a conference and she valued my event-planning expertise through Spark. Thus, Evolve Symposium was born.


Evolve is a two-day business symposium dedicated to facilitating top-level design business conversations on the issues most relevant to graphic design firms. The event is a mixture of expert presentations and peer-to-peer sharing. We explore the best practices trending in the industry. We dig deep and speak candidly. A practitioner myself, I know that too often design business conversations merely skim the surface. At Evolve, we aren’t afraid to share real numbers, statistics, successes, and failures, all in the spirit of knowing that whatever we do affects the industry as a whole. We also realize that we, as a community, are only as strong as our weakest link in upholding industry best practices.

The results have been transformative. Through Evolve I’ve met colleagues who now call me when they are looking for business advice on a variety of tough subjects. I appreciate the knowledge that other designers have similar problems, and we are not alone. Whenever I make a suggestion to a client, I feel more confident knowing that our best practices are shared and practiced by other top agencies in our field.

We have found that sharing our experiences with others in the field has helped us understand the business of graphic design.