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Design firm marks 20 years of change

Peopledesign’s co-owners who got their start at Herman Miller now assist clients all over the world with brand strategy.

November 3, 2017
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Peopledesign
Kevin Budelmann (right) with employee Devon Carlson in the Peopledesign offices at 168 Campau Promenade NW, Suite 200 in Grand Rapids. Courtesy Peopledesign

Kevin Budelmann and Yang Kim have built an award-winning design consultancy by viewing good design as a vehicle to help customers.

The married partners and co-owners of Peopledesign met while studying as undergraduates at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. After graduation, they landed one-year internships at Herman Miller — Kim from 1991-92 and Budelmann from 1992-93.

Although neither was from the Midwest, Budelmann said the prospect of working for a company like Herman Miller, known for its excellence in design, was too good to pass up.

“Neither of us had family here, and I’d never even been to Grand Rapids before,” Budelmann said. “But when you go to design school, you learn about Herman Miller, so it was an aspirational job.”

They continued working at Herman Miller until 1996. At that time, the office furniture manufacturer downsized its workforce, and among those let go was a colleague named Michael Barile, who had formerly owned a design company in San Francisco in the ’80s.

Barile invited them to start a new venture with him, even though as Budelmann describes it, he and Kim “were low enough on the totem pole not to get chopped” from their stable jobs at Herman Miller.

“We were mid-20s and had everything to gain and nothing to lose,” Budelmann said. Just like that, BBK (Barile, Budelmann and Kim) Studio was born, officially opening in January 1997.

In 2001, the duo bought out Barile, got married and moved to a new office in the Brass Works Building right above where Founders Brewing Co. was located — all while navigating the post-9/11, post-dot-com world that was changing the face of design, marketing and brand strategy.

Their early clients included Herman Miller, Steelcase and Knoll. They soon snagged Haworth, Whirlpool, Dow, izzydesign, Jaguar Cars, X-Rite, Grand Rapids Art Museum, Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts and ArtPrize, along with clients in higher education, health care, technology and startups.

In 2007, Budelmann and Kim changed the firm’s name to Peopledesign to reflect a growing emphasis on user-centered design, and they celebrated with a 10th-anniversary party that was the first event hosted in the new LEED-certified GRAM.

“One of the things that was quite noticeable is we had hosted the event at GRAM, the brand-new GRAM, in 2007, and we had done the brand identity for the museum. That was a small event with mostly local clients,” Budelmann said.

By contrast, earlier this month, the firm marked its 20th anniversary and threw a much larger party with many out-of-state and international clients in the firm’s current office, at 168 Campau Promenade, Suite 200, in downtown Grand Rapids, where it moved in 2013.

“Between the (Gerald R. Ford International) airport having more flights and the internet and technology changing, we serve clients all over,” Budelmann said.

The firm has seven employees in addition to the two co-owners, and while Budelmann and Kim do not disclose sales revenue, they said Peopledesign is growing between 10 and 20 percent each year.

Some of the firm’s most recognizable work includes logo designs for ArtPrize, UICA, GRAM and X-Rite.

“They’re not always the most significant pieces of work, but the most publicly visible,” Budelmann said.

Kim said the logo is “the tip of the iceberg,” and the actual work of branding runs much deeper. The pair published a book in 2010 called “Brand Identity Essentials” that tackles the topic.

“The logo, it never stands by itself,” Kim said. “It’s always seen in context of something else.”

That is, if a company wants to make a change, it doesn’t start with the logo, Budelmann said.

“The logo is not the change; it’s a symbol of the change,” he said. “We help with value propositions, which is understanding the value a company has to offer and how to communicate it.

“It can be at the company level: Who is this brand and what does it represent to customers? What are they seeking and what do they get out of a relationship with the company? But it can also happen on a product level or service offering. How you position them, price them, package them — it all has to do with whether a company remains relevant with its customers.”

Peopledesign now focuses on designing effective strategies for change in those arenas.

“We still do a lot of marketing work, but our point of view on brand development is that the way a company may innovate today is through carving out new value propositions in the marketplace,” Budelmann said. “Our work has moved from helping to promote an offering a company may have to helping them try to figure out a more relevant value proposition.”

Kim said the firm also helps clients think more deeply about the customer experience. She cites Comcast/Xfinity as an example of how what a company says can contradict what it does.

“(The Comcast/Xfinity) front end, their commercials, it looks really cool, and it creates features you might want, but then it all falls apart when the technicians come,” she said. “‘We can only give you a four-hour window, you have to be there when we come, and it takes a lot of time.’

“We help people look at that experience and try to understand the whole thing: operations, customer service, everything.”

She cites Apple products as an example of a company paying attention to details.

“It’s the little touches, like how your iPhone comes charged,” she said. “Previously, things didn’t come charged. You would have to charge your new phone for a full day. All those little things are appreciated by customers, and it keeps them loyal.”

Budelmann said that loyalty is paramount in the digital age.

“If you think of a brand as a promise, these days, with social media, you have to really keep your promises,” he said. “As soon as a company breaks their promise, everybody’s all over them. As soon as you break a brand promise, you lose customers.”

Peopledesign is keeping those principles in mind when serving clients, and its co-owners have been rewarded for it, earning design and excellence in business accolades from the American Institute of Graphic Arts, American Center for Design, CMYK Magazine, HOW, Inc. 5000, REBRAND and Webby Awards, among many others.

Budelmann said the work they do plumbs behavioral psychology and behavioral science, as it helps companies understand their customers.

“People are not as logical as we think we are,” he said. “We make emotional choices, choices for avoiding embarrassment, choices for convenience.

“The organizational choices that simplify our lives win us over.”

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