Living design as a part of everyday life

August 2, 2010
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Even when he was a young boy, John O’Neil knew he wanted to be an artist, but not just any kind of artist.

“I’ve known since I was a little kid that I wanted to be a graphic designer, which is kind of odd. Maybe kids want to be an artist, but I wanted to be a graphic artist,” he said. “I loved graph paper and the grid, and even as a kid … I was interested in fonts and stuff like that.”

That interest in graphic design stuck with him, and in 1997, he enrolled at Kendall College of Art & Design. While a student, he earned money doing freelance graphic work for local companies. Pursuing contract work came naturally.

“My dad has always owned his own business and I think, along the way, my family just instilled that in me — that I’d work for myself,” he said.

Most of his work at that time centered around interactive and website design. “When I was freelancing, that was primarily what I was doing. I did a few print things, but 90 percent was interactive.”

“The first big client I had was Schuler Books & Music. I was doing it while I was a freshman in college. They put a lot of trust in me. They had a committee working on it, and it was a really interesting experience because it taught me about how to manage a project.”

At the time, company websites were not all that common.

“It seems like now everyone has a website. It’s just a given. But in 1997, there were still a lot of businesses that didn’t have websites, and so there was a lot of opportunity out there,” he said.

During his years at Kendall, interactive design hadn’t yet fully infiltrated the school’s curriculum. Nevertheless, O’Neil’s passion for the field drove him to seek out such projects on top of his school work.

“Even though I wasn’t getting graded, I wanted to put my all into it and make sure they were portfolio pieces. I didn’t view what I was doing as a business right then. … I definitely knew it was a learning experience, and I was putting a lot more into it than maybe I was getting paid for — hoping that the next person would see it and say, ‘Wow.’”

Taking that all-in approach, O’Neil was able to show prospective clients what he was capable of. Eventually, it helped him contract for more complicated websites with companies that had more money to spend.

“It helped you work up the budgets, because clients would say, ‘Oh, you can do that.’ It’s not like you can just go to a client and say, ‘Give me a ton of money and I have absolutely no proof that I can handle it or do anything with it.’”

In 2000, between his junior and senior year at Kendall, O’Neil took advantage of an opportunity to study abroad in London at Central Saint Martins College of Art & Design.

“It is primarily known for fashion, but it’s also a really great graphic design school.

“That was an invaluable experience. I came back with a much stronger understanding of design.”

In his senior year at Kendall, O’Neil began working under the name Conduit Studios. When he graduated in 2001, he had to make a decision about whether to continue on his own or try to find work with an established company.

“Do I get a job? Do I just keep doing what I’m doing? I decided to keep freelancing,” he said. “I worked out of my apartment in Heritage Hill and had meetings with clients at Kava House.”

It was a year or two later that O’Neil met his current business partner, Tim Carpenter.

“He had a print focus, but our aesthetics meshed really well and the way we thought about design. We had a really strong connection,” said O’Neil. “We began to work together and got our first office about a year later.”

Conduit Studios, now run by O’Neil and Carpenter, continued to grow.

“Word of mouth has really been our only form of advertising. We just try to keep our clients happy, and as they move through their career, they tend to bring us along,” he said.

There have been many times, O’Neil said, when a local client moved out of town, sometimes across the country or even abroad, and continued working with Conduit Studios. In this way, the firm’s loyal clients have brought its work into markets such as New York, San Francisco and London.

Conduit Studios’ first big break came when it landed a job for Steelcase.

“We were hired on a NeoCon project with about a three-week timeline. It was our first project for Steelcase, so we wanted to really make sure they were thrilled — and it came together,” O’Neil said.

“It was a great little NeoCon tour site. (Steelcase) got some good kudos and we were really proud of it, and over the course of time, we began doing more and more work with Steelcase.

“Then some people from Steelcase moved over to Hush Puppies and hired us there.”

Because of its work with Hush Puppies — a division of Rockford-based Wolverine World Wide — Conduit Studios was hired to do work for other brands in the international WWW family, including Merrell and Sebago.

Today, O’Neil is heavily involved with the local design community. He sits on the boards of both AIGA West Michigan — the local chapter of the national “professional association of design” — and Design West Michigan, a local nonprofit that explores and promotes the use of design thinking as an economic building block for the region.

O’Neil was part of the original group of designers who got together to form AIGA West Michigan in January 2009.

“Kevin Budelmann at People Design put out something on Facebook that he was interested in starting a group. The first few people that responded, we just got together and started talking about it and whether there was enough interest in the area for a local chapter. (AIGA) requires that you at least have 20 professional members in the area to get your chapter off the ground,” he said.

“Almost immediately … we had over 100 members. Our first meeting, just to gather interest, had over 200 people there. So we could tell there is a critical mass of people who are interested in this here in town.”

AIGA West Michigan recently concluded a student portfolio review workshop, which matched design students with professionals who interviewed the students and gave feedback on their work.

“We did a speed-dating metaphor, which worked out very well. You have five minutes with a professional and a student, and they were to talk about one project. It is meant to get (students) in the routine of talking about their work, but also in a short amount of time,” he said.

“Often when you go on an interview, you need to get to the point. You’re not going to have two hours to go over every piece in your portfolio.”

O’Neil sees design as more than just making something look good. For him, it is a way of thinking and a part of his everyday life.

“It’s a little hard for me to say the way I think about design, because it’s such a part of my life that it’s hard to differentiate. It’s something I’m really passionate about — from going shopping for a coffeepot to going to work and designing a website for a client. Design is everywhere,” he said.

He believes that design can play an integral role in business.

“It’s not just the physical design of the object. It’s about how it works and how it operates. I think that the companies that get it, they do see financial rewards from it.”

As an example, he compared a phone released last year by Microsoft, which soon was discontinued due to a lack of sales, to Apple’s iPhone phenomenon.

“I think consumers are becoming more and more educated about design. It’s something they look for and even are willing to pay more for,” said O’Neil.

“Design isn’t just about a physical object anymore. It’s applying these ideas into different parts of the business world.

“If you take a banker, their goal is to minimize risk. They want to make sure that what they’re doing is as safe as possible. Design is a completely different metaphor. Our metaphor is about exploring and failing fast and learning from that. You can go much further than you can if you just minimize risk.

“If you apply that thinking to other parts of your life, great things can happen.”

Even when O’Neil isn’t in the office, he still finds himself dabbling in design-related hobbies.

“Design is a big part of my life even outside of work. My hobbies are things like painting, but when I’m not doing design, I like to completely unplug from the computer,” he said. “In the summer, I like going to the beach. I love gardening and taking care of the lawn.”

Conduit Studios is located at 7 Ionia Ave. SW in the heart of downtown Grand Rapids, where it employs four people. Growing the business is a priority for O’Neil, though he hopes to keep the company relatively small.

“We’ve been slowing growing over the past nine years and I’d like to continue growing. I don’t ever want to get huge, because I think there’s a certain amount of flexibility and intimacy with a smaller design studio, which I like. Six or seven people seems like the ideal size where you can get a lot of work done but still have a family environment. You’re not too wrapped up in the business; you can still design.”

Despite the recent economic downturn, the company has stayed busy.

“We’ve had some of our busiest years ever. I think part of that is that we’ve kept the business slim. We’ve stayed away from debt and we were in a good financial place when the recession hit,” he said. “We’ve also kind of lucked out that Steelcase was launching some projects that were in about a three-year launch.”

O’Neil noted that Conduit Studios wasn’t alone in sailing through the bad economy.

“Honestly, I’ve seen a lot of smaller design firms weather the recession really well,” he said. “It was fortunate to see that.”

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