Michael Donovan: Carrying the Vignelli and Eames Legacy

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It’s no surprise that Michael Donovan counts his time working with Massimo and Lella Vignelli and Charles and Ray Eames as the most influential experience of his career.

Throughout his years in the design profession, Donovan has paid that experience forward. Along with his wife and business partner Nancye Green, Donovan is a founding partner of Donovan/Green, a marketing communication and design consultancy that’s in its second iteration (having been re-established in 2008 after a hiatus). The firm provides integrated, all-media solutions in exclusive relationships with select clients. The two principals don’t simply engage in creative execution; they lead strategy—and in several cases have formed business partnerships with their clients.

Donovan continues to evolve as an active, creative entrepreneur. With Green (who was recently featured in an interview here), he’ll be presenting a session titled “A Designed Life: What Were We Thinking?” at the HOW Leadership Conference in Boston. We asked him about the most memorable projects and experiences from his lengthy and influential design career.

Looking back at your path as a design professional, what influential experience stand out for you?

Two experiences shaped my career: One, my first design position was working with Massimo and Lella Vignelli at Unimark International, one of the only integrated marketing communication and design firms in the world, of which they were founders.That was followed by an invitation to help them form Vignelli Associates. I became the “associates,” as I’m fond of saying.

The second experience, shortly after starting my own practice, was an invitation to design a major exhibition for IBM, with the condition that I collaborate with Charles and Ray Eames. Spending time with them in Venice, California, experiencing how they integrated living and working—like the Vignellis did—established a model that Nancye Green and I have replicated.

HOW Leadership Conference

With Donovan/Green, you’ve created a new way for designers to collaborate with clients. Can you talk about how you approach those client engagements?

Our model is based on having relationships, not clients. In that context we have a few deep relationships that enable us to utilize our design, marketing communication and story-telling resources in a very focused way.

We have a relationship with an automotive company that has five brands; Mercedes-Benz, Jaguar, Land Rover, Lexus and Toyota. We have another with a leading pharmaceutical company whose drugs are not consumer products. For both, we provide complete marketing communication, branding and outreach services across all channels. We design and execute events, tradeshows, exhibitions, new forms of online marketing, new product launches and education programs.

We have large teams of creative people, each built around the relationship—it’s really fun, challenging and rewarding to be so vital to the success of the businesses we support.

Tell us about a project you’re working on lately that has you really excited.

We’re developing an online destination called Outer Places: Where Science Meets Science Fiction. This site is a community for all things—UFO, sightings, science fiction, science and space exploration. Outer Places features curated videos, entertainment, information, social engagement, branded merchandise, news, fan generated and original Outer Places created content. Currently the site has over 1,600 videos and adds new content every day.

What advice or information are you most excited to share during your presentation at the HOW Leadership Conference?

Designers have all the problem-solving, organizational, communication and creative skills that are prerequisites for an entrepreneur.

Designers should avail themselves of those skill sets, utilize their abilities, take risks and create new businesses. Most entrepreneurs have the well-founded concern that they won’t find the appropriate creative resources to assist them in inventing, branding and launching a new enterprise. Designers don’t have that problem—they should take advantage of their experience and create new, important adventures.

Michael Donovan and Nancye Green are making their HOW debut at the first-ever HOW Leadership Conference. They’re among the experts from across the design, media and branding landscape who will be sharing their thoughts on all facets of leadership.

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