Douglas Davis on Successfully Balancing Creative + Business

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As someone who consistently strives to balance my creative sensibilities with the more “business” side of my brain, I’m always eager to hear how other professionals straddle the proverbial fence. Brooklyn-based designer-entrepeneur Douglas Davis seems to have struck this delicate balance with great design and good business – embracing the complimentary forces of right and left-brained thinking for ultimate outcomes.

Good news for us: He’s bringing his repertoire of strategies to share at the largest creative event in the world. In preparation for HOW Design Live, I caught up with Douglas to get some insights into his success … and find out his secrets to steering clear of creative ruts.

HOW Design Live Speaker Douglas Davis on Balancing Creative + Business

Douglas Davis

Photo credit: Matt Rodriguez,

Okay, Douglas: Can you tell me about an all-time favorite project? Hands down if we are talking execution: I fell in love when I was brought in on the HSBC Corporate, Investment, Banking and Markets. The “Tangram” campaign was all about perception and everyone seeing the individual parts but only the wisdom of HSBC being able to see all the different configurations the Tangram could make. This global launch had everything I love, witty lines, multiple channels and an amazing group of people to work with. Conceptual Bliss.

Hands down if we are talking strategy: It would have to be the Subway Digital business. Seven years ago I stumbled into a strategy meeting and realized that becoming the “creative” who understood business would differentiate me. It was that point on that I began to inject creativity into solving business problems vs. restricting creativity to the execution. I walked into that room and learned just how important the words behind the pictures are. We walked out of the pitch with the business.

Wow, I think you had me at conceptual bliss! So what’s the most influential thing that’s happened to you during your career as a designer?The recession. I had been working for this digital advertising shop since 1999 and had just graduated with my masters from Pratt in 2000. It took a year and nine months for the digital design world to come back. During that time I learned three things: 1) Your first day after school is called “commencement” because you now have to take what you learned in school and pay your bills; 2) My education didn’t prepare me for a job. It prepared me for when there were no jobs; 3) You better love this enough to do it when there’s no one to pay you because when it gets tough you may have to fold sweaters at the Gap in addition to finding freelance to make ends meet. This time of volatility forged my entrepreneurial spirit and would be the experience I would build my career on.


I’ve yet to meet anyone who’s cultivated a strategy for your own “creative harmony!” How about that one person who’s impacted you?

Typographer and Distinguished Professor Tony Dispigna has been a mentor and role model from the time I met him. As a former partner of Herb Lubalin’s and master typographer, I aspire toward his level of polish and creativity. As a professor, he continues to show me how to give to my students through the way he continues to give to me going on 14 years after I’ve graduated. I am inspired by how he never gets distracted from his focus on helping students through sharing his experience.

On the strategic side, Direct Marketing Association Hall of Fame inductee, Dr. Marjorie Kalter has had a profound influence on what I do. Her distinguished agency career, strategic business insights and ability to articulate these concepts to integrated marketing students at New York University challenged me to the core. I am relevant to clients in a whole new way as a result of her confidence in my potential, and it was rewarding to have her invitation to become a part of the faculty upon graduation. She serves as my strategic example and showed me what’s possible when you apply strategic thinking to inform design decisions.

Speaking of sharing what you’ve learned, is there a story behind your conference session at the upcoming HOW Design Live?

Creative Strategy and The Business of Design came about as a response to the way our field continues to evolve.I realized that I lost creative battles in my career because I was ignorant of the larger business or marketing considerations that trumped aesthetics. There were also points were I felt that the client came in asking for a design item but really needed a marketing or business strategy first. I see an opportunity for smart designers to become partners with business and marketing in order to maximize our potential to participate in strategy and minimize the time executing in a vacuum.

Sounds like just the session I’m looking for, Douglas!

Don’t miss Douglas Davis at HOW Design Live. There’s still time to register ….