1. When did you realise you wanted to be a designer?
I would have to give my parents credit for recognizing my creative talent at a very young age. They encouraged me to express myself to the point of me winning every contest my work was submitted in. When I went to undergraduate school, I chose graphic design as my field of study. But it truly wasn’t until I was invited to an American Advertising Awards, formerly the ADDYs when I saw the true depth of the world of design. The excitement and variety of topics covered really confirmed my passion and chosen direction.
It was much later before I found my niche as a service designer within the creative community. I tip my hat off to the Savannah College of Art and Design for that. I received a double masters there.
2. How did you get started and what was the biggest hurdle you overcame?
I got started with my design career after I graduated with a BFA in graphic design from Alabama State University. I interned at the Reid/O’Donahue, now the Stamp Idea Group, where I learned the ins and outs of the advertising industry. Shortly after I worked for Xerox and Wells Printing, where I learned digital and print production. As my career was budding, it was extremely challenging to keep jobs because of the recession and the beginning of what we now the Gig Economy. I ended up jobless because of corporate downsizing. What I noticed though was I had worked for either founders or industry leaders. It inspired me to start my own design practice because I felt I had what it took.
It was very challenging trying to grow a firm in the financial crisis going across the U.S., but I did. I contracted out interns and hired a couple of people from my graduating class. I wiped through my savings. At the time I was not happy about that, but I can say now it was totally worth it. The biggest hurdle in my design practice was financial stability. I made the decision to relocate and relaunch in Atlanta, GA which had a more stable market. I was crushed to have to let my team and interns go at the time, but it was definitely what needed to happen for the advancement of the practice. I made mention of this when I was interviewed on MSNBC concerning what should do in an economy that is downsizings. I really don’t think they knew much I was living what I suggested at the time.
3. What’s been your most successful way of getting clients?
I have never spent much money on marketing, but rather used relationship and doing good work to grow the firm. While I understood marketing techniques such as inbound marketing, I choose to take a more human-centered approach. I’d go around and ask people what their problems were. I’d also sit in their establishments to learn more. That shocked many business owners that I spent so much upfront time with them. This made me and my new team unique. It also made us stand out. While everybody was moving to emails to market, we were maximizing on empathy and ethnography to connect.
4. How do you get clients to stay with you and use you for more work?
The way we get our clients is the way we kept them. Empathy, ethnography and excellent work. It took us a while to land the big clients, but we got there. When contacted for the Weather Channel and Voya Financial, we spent more time asking questions to solve the right problem rather than just trying to show how creative we could be with Adobe Suite. Our client’s excitement then and now comes from us digging for the bigger problem.
They may ask for branding solution, but we’d come up with a fully redesigned service that is much more viable to their market. This business design mentality has served us well. In my mind design is value and business owners should know the value of design. We help our clients see the value of design as the best problem-solving methodology.
5. Do you ever have issues with clients paying late? How do you manage that?
When I first started the firm, I was going broke waiting for clients. I wore too many hats and when looking back was very prideful because I didn’t see the power of help. Now, that is not the case. I have an amazing account manager. He encourages the client that our value should be paid as any other service they might receive to be successful in their endeavors.
We keep a very personal approach. We say happy birthday, bring surprise meals to meetings and just pick up the phone and have genuine conversations with those who we call our clients. This is our normal. We are not the rigid firm. Now when it comes to the collection we chose the phase method. 50% up front for the first two phases. We slit the final phases up equally for the rest of the project. Those sometimes vary depending on the brief.
6. What does your typical work day look like?
My time now is split between my design practice and being a college professor where I teach design and media technology. I still manage my team and client expectations. I also spend time with founders and businesses like I did when I first started my career. You can find me always checking my email signing off on final design directions for projects. I spend the rest of my time researching and writing books.
7. Any piece of advice/wisdom that you’d like to give the readers at This Design Life?
I would say trust the process. The design process that is! Whether you work for somebody or for yourself, value the design process and innovative outcomes it brings to the table. It is introduced to every client as a part of their success with our team. This moment of design education has served us well. Whether it be our largest client, the Annie Casey Foundation or the new start-up, we ensure our process is praised.
Michael Edward Lowe is the founder of Moko, a service design practice in Atlanta, GA, resident business mentor at Tech Square Labs, Design professor at Atlanta Technical College, published author and speaker. As a strategist, designer and educator, Michael champions the interdisciplinary multi-faceted nature of design. He has worked with many iconic brands including Xerox, The Weather Channel, Voya Financial and Bloomingdales. He currently is managing brands decisions for Pittsburgh Yards, a development along the Atlanta Beltline spearheaded by the Annie Casey Foundation.