Career Makeover: Business Style

by Doug Powell

One of the biggest reasons that graphic designers don’t pursue entrepreneurial business ideas is that most of us don’t have the fundamental business skills to bring our ideas to market—and as we get deeper into our career, it seems to get progressively more difficult to find the time, energy, and resources to effectively augment our skill set.

Topics such as finance, business strategy, operations, leadership, and even ethics don’t get much airtime in the typical design curriculum. A full-time MBA program usually takes two years or more to complete, and although many schools are packaging their programs to fit the schedules of working professionals by offering part-time, accelerated, and even “distance learning” options, this still poses a huge challenge to mid-career designers interested in updating their professional proficiency. Here are three areas to consider if you are looking to redirect your design career in an entrepreneurial direction.

Certificate Programs
If the full MBA experience is not a possibility for you, many graduate business schools offer a “Mini MBA” program, which awards a certificate rather than a degree. These programs are a compressed and abbreviated version of the MBA curriculum, requiring less than 100 hours of learning, usually over a span of several months. Most classes will be scheduled on weekends or evenings to accommodate working professionals. While you will miss the depth and rigor of the full MBA experience, certificate programs will provide a strong overview of the core MBA curriculum areas.

Executive Education Programs
One of the hottest trends in graduate education are weeklong residential experiences commonly known as an executive education program. Many of the top graduate business schools are investing heavily to develop state-of-the-art facilities to host these programs, including classrooms, upscale dormitories and dining facilities. Programs might cover a general overview of business topics, or they might focus on a specific subject, or industry. Executive education programs can be expensive, often running $5,000-10,000/week, but the trade-off is that you are able to compress a lot of learning into a short period.

Conferences, Workshops and Seminars
Many schools and professional associations offer quick-hit experiences ranging from individual guest speakers to full conference events lasting several days and covering a variety of topics. The content of these events is usually delivered by guest speakers, so it tends not to be as deep as you will get in an academic program, but they can certainly be a valuable way to test the waters of business education.

Providing continuing education opportunities for mid-career professionals, including designers, is a business category that is absolutely exploding. In addition to the basic areas listed here, there are myriad other programs and hybrid learning formats emerging all the time. Be sure to keep your antenna up for new options in your area.

numerous continuing education options exist, including on-line, in person, and short term

Providing continuing education opportunities for mid-career professionals, including designers, is a business category that is absolutely exploding. Be sure to keep your antenna up for new options in your area.

Quick Tips
1. Many graduate business schools are getting smart about design—but for the most part this is an academic category untouched by designers. Before committing to a program, be sure to examine whether and how design methodology is discussed.

2. One of the by-products of any of these educational opportunities is that you will be studying with other professionals from different disciplines, which means this can be a great way to expand your professional network.

3. Continuing education as a category is evolving at a rapid pace, and there is a wide range of quality to the offerings. Be sure to do due diligence as you evaluate the best fit for you—check the accreditation of any program you are considering and, if possible, speak to people who have taken the program previously.

Dig Deeper!
1. Stanford University’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design, and the Product Design Engineering Program—also known as the “D” School—was an early leader in integrating design into the traditional graduate business curriculum. Here are some other business programs that “get” design:
Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business (There, MBAs more accustomed to financial analysis and bottom-line issues are pushed to think more creatively)
Northwestern University’s Kellogg and McCormick Schools (One of their top employers is design-friendly Harley-Davidson)
Haas School of Business at the University of California at Berkeley (Partnering with IDEO, Berkeley’s School of Engineering, and California College of the Arts)

2. Here are some graduate design schools that “get” business:
School of Visual Arts (Co-chaired by Steven Heller and Lita Talarico, the SVA Design as Author MFA program has business partnerships with Adobe and Target)
California College of Art( Partnerships with UC-Berkeley Haas School of Business, and Köln International School of Design in Germany)
Art Center College of Design (GE, Nike, Honda, and Whirlpool sponsor projects)
Arizona State University, College of Design (Intel and Herman Miller sponsor projects)
North Carolina State University College of Design (GlaxoSmithKline, Nortel, John Deere, and IBM sponsor projects)

3. One of the most popular Executive Education programs for business-minded designers is the week-long AIGA Business Perspectives for Design Leaders at the Yale School of Management.

4. Doug Powell is co-facilitating a pre-conference workshop entitled New Revenue Streams for Designers at the AIGA Gain Design and Business Conference, which will discuss business planning, funding, and current trends in design and entrepreneurship (workshop on October 14, conference October 15-16).

5. Also in New York preceding the GAIN Conference is the HOW Mind Your Own Business Conference (October 12-14).

7 thoughts on “Career Makeover: Business Style

  1. Nancy Bradham

    I love parse. ! It’s so fun and helpful.

    I did finally take the leap from designer to design entrepreneur this year. One tip that helped me was I hired a consultant, Dyana Valentine, I think that people who know you/love you may worry if your taking any type of financial risk so they will hesitate encourage new ideas. I needed a non-family or non-friend influence to push me along and say “you can do this!”. So far so good. Check out

    Nancy Ide Bradham

  2. Karl Schweikart

    Thanks, Doug, that’s a great list of resources. A few years ago, I attended the “Mini MBA” program at the College of St. Thomas here in the Twin Cities, and found the experience to be a huge help, both for my own business, and in relating to clients in our role as consultants. My partner and I have been moving our business from a more tactical consultancy to one focusing on Organizational Identity and more fundamental strategic concerns for our clients, and I’ve been doing some toe-dipping into online resources like blogs, newsletters and webcasts. They can be really good resources for improving business skills and knowledge. Business publications like the Harvard Business Review and Forbes have lots of content available for free, and Recourses and the Design Management Institute, among others, have some valuable online presentations.

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