Design Revolutionary: David Baker

It’s hard to be a professional in design without knowing the name David C. Baker. For someone who doesn’t practice design, David has had a significant deal of influence on the field over the past decade plus. He hasn’t shaped creative trends or fostered a particular aesthetic, but rather guided (or perhaps goaded) designers to sharpen their business, management and client-relations skills.

As a consultant to creative agencies, David takes an objective view of what’s working in a design firm, and then delivers a prescription to fix what isn’t working. It can sometimes be difficult medicine for the principal to take. (Relinquish control. Stop doing design work and start running your business. Find creative fulfillment elsewhere.) In his 18 years of running ReCourses, his Nashville, TN-based consultancy, he’s helped more than 650 design studios revamp their operations, hone their positioning, improve staffing and become more successful.

I recently had a conversation with David (who’s also the co-founder of HOW’s Mind Your Own Business Conference) about his most revolutionary ideas about the business of design—and about the artistic side of him that you may not know. First, I asked him what trends he’s seeing now, and he shared two provocative observations:

  1. The tight economy since 2008 has squeezed creative firms—and it’s not going to improve. “Don’t hold your breath and expect things to get better than they are,” David says. “Go ahead and make the changes you need to do now in order to survive.”
  2. Are you frustrated that you care more about your work than clients do? Do you end up spending more time perfecting a project than you actually charge them for? Are you investing so much of yourself in your work that you can’t get away from the office? Then, David says, it’s time to change your expectations of your work. “Every time designers care more than the client, they’re putting a little more of themselves into the work—and that doesn’t regenerate. When I say something like, ‘You can lower your standards and make more money,’ it provokes such an outcry. But when work starts to interfere with your personal life, it ought to make you mad, so mad that you make changes.”

So, what should creative agencies be doing—right now—to ensure success? “It has to do with getting all the important components right, but it’s more about getting them in the right order,” David says. “It starts with, ‘What is the gap in the marketplace that we think we can fill?’ Second, ‘What are the products—packaged services—that we can offer that would be cost-effective and repeatable and scalable and move the needle on the client’s behalf’? Third, ‘What people do we need in order to make that happen?’ Finally, ‘What processes do we need?’”

Our conversation turned to the creative side of design, and to David’s own creative work. Since he was a kid living with his missionary parents among a community of Mayan Indians in Guatemala, he’s been fascinated by photography. You can find a portfolio of his images at ReTake.com. “As I’ve aged, it’s become more and more important as a means of self-expression,” he says. “When I owned an agency for six years, I was the staff photographer and I didn’t enjoy it. I decided that I loved photography but I hated mixing commerce and photography, and I do it for free now. I’ve developed a reputation throughout the country—I capture historic buildings before they’re razed, and I catalog them historically.” Here’s a peek at his work:

The abandoned Seaholm Power Plant, Austin, TX © David C Baker

Rusted chain on the shore in Bermuda © David C Baker

Abandoned Tennessee state prison, part of the Death Row series © David C Baker

You’ll have two chances to hear more of David’s revolutionary ideas about the business practice of design when he speaks at the InHOWse Managers Conference and the Creative Freelancer Conference. If you run a design firm, you’ll want to mark your calendar for Mind Your Own Business, which returns this fall. And stay tuned for info on David’s upcoming DesignCast slated for later this month.

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