Adventures in Venture Land

Steven Heller and Lita Talarico, co-founders and co-chairs of SVA's MFA Design programme, tell us why today's designers need to also think like entrepreneurs.

From the Series

Steven Heller and Lita Talarico, co-founders and co-chairs of SVA's MFA Design programme.
Steven Heller and Lita Talarico, co-founders and co-chairs of SVA's MFA Design programme.

The words “designer and entrepreneur” were rarely uttered together in the late 1990s when we added the word “entrepreneur” to the Designer as Author currriculum in the Master of Fine Art (MFA) Design programme at the School of Visual Arts (SVA). Now, one cannot discuss design’s present and future without using the words.

Designers make things. Design entrepreneurs make, invent and market things. Exercising control of the start, middle and end of the creative process is the intent. Contributing something of value to the world is the promise. Building a sustainable enterprise is the goal.

Entrepreneurship is risky yet empowering. Taking ownership of one’s ideas and fabrications, either alone or in collaboration with others, is an opportunity worth pursuing. Even failure has its benefits.

Entrepreneurship is a learning process. The designer must learn through trial and error how to balance design talent with business skill to ensure a viable venture. With luck, the venture – whatever it may be – is an experience that will produce better design and designers.  

Although design entrepreneurship began a century ago with William Morris, back in 1998, when we co-founded the SVA MFA Designer as Author + Entrepreneur programme it was both an old and new idea. The logical, next evolutionary step for graphic designers was to become “content producers”, just like our designer ancestors from the Arts & Crafts, Werkbund and Bauhaus movements, as well as Charles and Ray Eames and other design schools and studios from the late 19th and early to mid 20th centuries.

The brief period from the late 1980s through the 1990s, when graphic design was promoted in media as a cultural force, was losing steam. The computer, which had shone its bright screen on flamboyant and experimental design that gave rise to designers with household name recognition, would eventually marginalise graphic designers in the bargain.

It was time for a pre-emptive radical shift, transforming endangered graphic designers from service providers to idea “conceptualisers” to makers of the ideas they conceived.

The design entrepreneur, therefore, applied conventional skill and talent to conceiving and producing new products.

Initially the term “author” described the concept because design authorship had a loftier ring than entrepreneur. “Author” implied the freedom to conceptualise anything that was not client-driven – as long as it wasn’t art for art sake.

“Entrepreneur”, conversely was as much about business as creativity. Despite an increase in professionalism during the 1970s and 80s, the “b-word” (business) threatened some design artistes – we were such innocents then. As a design author, business strategies and plans were rejected or embraced, but weren’t a prerequisite.

Being a design entrepreneur, however, demanded considerably more rigour in terms of financial sustainability; the balance of art and commerce was paramount.

Design entrepreneurship shifted into a higher gear during the early 2000s when technology provided the engines for making stuff and opportunities for various commercial outcomes. While a lot of what’s made doesn’t necessarily require high technology, it enables makers to prototype, promote and even sell their products directly to consumers. Crowdfunding sites such as Kickstarter have made small investment more democratic – and entrepreneurship is more people-centric too.

Currently, Internet entrepreneurs are developing more systems and structures that enable design entrepreneurs to benefit from new markets. The ability to produce and market has helped to re-establish graphic design in the new entrepreneurial eco-system. Graphic design services are more necessary than ever to brand, promote and package a venture. Graphic designers are, furthermore, wellsprings of socially innovative and commercially unique ideas.

We are wagering that every designer harbours at least one viable venture.

What’s more, designers do not devote their efforts to profit-making. They can be social “innovators”, creating campaigns or events that serve a greater good. Using a distinct creative skill-set, graphic designers are easily thrust into being entrepreneurial (individually or collaboratively).

Many designers are currently producing and distributing their own “bespoke” (custom or limited edition) products and are searching for their rightful audiences. Many products are finding space in the virtual world, but the ideas are concrete, if sometimes ethereal at first glance. The overarching concern is not whether it will make money, but will it bring pleasure or do good or change attitudes. If not, then why bother? Everyone wants a hit, but a very smart miss will do. 

Watch the Talk with Steven Heller