Dana Arnett is known for overcoming challenges triumphantly throughout his design career. What kind of challenges, do you ask? Well, for starters, his portfolio was rejected in art school.
But failure spurred him to try harder. Not only did he bounce back from rejection, he did so with a different degree, with new influential mentors and partners who believed in him, and with the tenacity to launch a business, while maintaining a broad view on the area of design and its designers. Now, he is a founding partner and CEO of VSA Partners, an AIGA Fellow, board member of the Architecture and Design Society of the Art Institute of Chicago, the Chicago Children’s Theater, and Project &.
While we eagerly wait for May to approach to listen to his HOW Design Live discussion, we were able to snag an opportunity to talk with Arnett. Read on to see Arnett’s career progression and his thoughts on design.
What kept you going after your design portfolio was rejected in art school?
Failure can be just as much a catalyst as it can be a deflator. Most importantly, I wasn’t about to give up on design. After all, the journey was just starting for me. I was also lucky enough to have a few mentors and advocates who knew I was capable of overcoming a short-term setback. Sure, there were lessons and learnings in that defeat. But in the end, I really think it came down to my passion for design.
That experience also opened the door and revealed the broader spectrum of design. I had enrolled in a program that was primarily centered around visual communication, which I suppose is a fancy word for graphic design. As a result of being ousted from that program, I was able to enroll in another program in the school of art which was more comprehensive—a design degree which required taking classes in interior design, product design, and an emerging program called computer-aided design. As a result of becoming involved in these new courses, I was able to explore the greater capacity and multidisciplinary idea of design. It was transformative in the sense that I learned how the many different facets of design could work in harmony. If you fast forward to today, my design career has become a mirror of that early experience. Obviously, I didn’t know at the time this multi-disciplinary view of design would become such an important prelude to my career.
If you go back to the late 70’s and early 80’s when I was in college, design education was more compartmentalized and that’s because the industry was more narrowly segmented. You chose a distinct major and the courses were very focused on becoming good at one distinct discipline. But skip a generation and go back further to the work and philosophies of Charles and Ray Eames, and you’ll see a broader view of design—a view that painted a much more vivid picture of design. Their work inspired me during my time in college because it crossed over many mediums including film, environmental design, graphic design, and product design. I began to look at practitioners who pushed the traditional boundaries of design. And ultimately, I brought this view into play when I began thinking about the kind of firm VSA could become.
You mentioned that part of your roadmap to success was having good mentors, having a comprehensive learning of design, and exploring the boundaries of design. Would those be components to designers trying to break into the field? Or what advice would you give?
Yes, I think those are the basic components or considerations that any young designer breaking into the field would want to be aware of. There are a couple of overarching thoughts I can add.
I’ve always believed that design is more than just an aesthetic exercise. It’s in service of business and in some cases society and mankind. History tells us the best designers influence change, accelerate processes and drive great outcomes. This is a philosophy that my greatest mentor, Bob Vogele, impressed upon me.
It’s also important that young practitioners understand that design should have a solutions orientation. This is so essential given we’re being asked to solve problems for a complex and changing world. Whether you’re challenged to help an organization figure out its DNA or presented the task of differentiating a brand in the marketplace, the best designers solve problems with an end game in mind. It’s our job to encourage this kind of thinking with young designers.
One of the big issues that helps substantiate my view is the rapid convergence of mediums and media. With media being consumed in so many ways, designers need to have a multi-disciplinary view. Designers touch the construction and packaging of an idea, the storytelling of an idea, and the way an idea translates across multiple mediums. The best designers know how to distill, direct and exquisitely connect these dots. Put more simply, this is the richer meaning behind the moniker, “Big D.”
Any trends in 2016 that you are looking forward to?
Regardless of trends, we have to continue to reinforce the fundamentals that are so important to our profession — great thinking, form and function, great writing, great typography, great composition, etc. With the mass proliferation of media and content, these fundamentals are becoming increasingly important and precious commodities.
At the larger level, I continue to see the blurring of lines between design and advertising. Clients want integrated thinking and solutions, so the best designers will be asked to do more, not less. And as a result, I believe it’s essential that designers become more adept at executing across multiple mediums. As mediums and channels continue to rapidly evolve, designers must openly adapt and embrace new technologies and new ways of thinking.
But in the end, great ideas win — far outlasting trends and fads.
Let’s circle back to Generation D. At HOW Design Live in Atlanta, could you give us a little preview of your talk?
I plan to share how we built VSA and what we are doing. I’m really excited to take people through this journey and I’ll touch on the power and virtues of design. I think people are excited to hear and see the work, but I also believe I have a certain obligation as a design leader to provide a unique insight into how we built our organization. So that’s what I’ll focus on.
When you’re managing a group of creatives and growing your business, do you have advice for other creative leaders when it comes to successfully directing and managing your teams?
I’ll give the same advice that I got early-on from my mentor and partner, Robert Vogele. People support what they help create. Broadly speaking, design practices are human capital businesses and you can never discount the thinking and creativity of your people. Most of my advice to other leaders focuses on the design of a successful organization versus the design of great things. It’s one thing to surround yourself with talent, but it’s quite another to nurture and sustain a creative culture.
What was your biggest hurdle when you started your career and how did you overcome it?
In college, your primary focus is on honing and developing your skill, getting the right training, understanding the core tenants of design, studying design history. But those things don’t necessarily prepare you for the working world.
What I wasn’t prepared for was navigating the realities of running a design business. I was really lucky to have Robert Vogele as a partner and a mentor who believed you could do world-class work and run a business in a world-class way. Design is a professional activity, and for me, it took a few years to appreciate how essential it is to run a business. One of my biggest challenges has been designing an organizational structure that will provide a platform for people to do great work.
What designers have influenced you and your work?
There were certainly the local heroes here in Chicago. So many established designers were instrumental to how I got my footing and start —most notably Robert Vogele, Rick Valicenti, Bart Crosby and Greg and Pat Samata. They took a special interest in me early on. I also gravitated towards creative people outside the design profession. I was fortunate to meet a lot of filmmakers and fine artists who inspired and helped me.
Then there are the other icons like George Nelson, Paul Rand, Milton Glaser, Michael Vanderbyl, Paula Scher and Michael Bierut. I’ve always been influenced by highly gifted designers who can beautifully manifest and express their thinking. These are just a few folks that come to mind. Not to say there’s not a host of people here at VSA that inspires me every day.
What are you looking forward to the most at HOW Design Live this year?
Whenever I go to a design conference, it’s about getting a beat on what’s happening in the industry. For me, it’s one part listening and one part participating in that conversation. Inspiration may come from something as simple and beautiful as a case study, or I can be just as stimulated by a provocative discussion!
Hear Dana Arnett talk in at Chicago this May at the HOW Design Live Conference. Register here.