There’s my literal tool belt, which I still wear all the time, and which is invaluable to my creativity. But there’s also my tool belt of resources, which contains advice, books, and the presence of mentors. Next week I’ll share my favorite and most valued picks from my metaphoric tool belt, and how they’ve guided me as a designer – but also as a businessperson.
Almost every designer is particular about their tools and apparatuses. Most designers I know use a specific kind of pencil and a specific kind of pen; they have their tool brands and design programs they’re loyal to, and their practice is dependent on those loyalties. My golden utensil is the Paper Mate mechanical pencil with #2 lead. I sketch with it, write with it, do calculations with it. It’s smooth and well designed and reliable and a total partner in design crime.
I may not be wearing around an actual tool belt as much as I did back in the day, when I was knocking down walls and building stuff out, but my tools have, in a sense, become more precise – and I’m just as particular about them.
Beyond the utensils critical to my day-to-day as a designer-retailer, I also have a “tool kit,” so to speak, of literature I grew up depending on. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m indebted to the Time Life books, a series of handbooks that directly addresses all the fundamentals of DIY life in detail, for the dummies and the smarties: plumbing, wiring, masonry, roofing, woodworking, weatherproofing, and more. In a different way, medium, subject matter, and focus – but in the same conceptual vein – I hope for these Design Talks to be a literary resource just as specific and helpful to a broader understanding of the business of retail and design.
One resource I credit, too, is the great pool of thinking that design retail and independent business industry players are bringing to the table in regards to survival in the digital age. The idea of space shares, operated on platforms like Guesst; shorter-term leases, which we’re witnessing being offered, sometimes in the form of pop-up spaces; “scrappier” or independent brand partnerships, which Canal Street Market is a really interesting case study of; niche councils and coalitions, like the Female Design Council; and other creative retail and business strategies are really setting a new tone, pace, and standard for innovation in the small, especially creative, business sector.
Back in October, the Times published a piece by Adam Bryant, who writes the “Corner Office” section on leadership and management. Bryant compiled what he’s learned over the years from over 500 of the C-suite managers he’s spoken with. One thing he says is this:
They share a habit of mind that is best described as ‘applied curiosity.’ They tend to question everything. They want to know how things work, and wonder how they can be made to work better. They’re curious about people…
The ethos of creativity finds itself at home in both corporate and creative business management models. One of the reasons, for example, I’ve become a small business and a tenant’s rights advocate is because I got curious. Why are people and businesses being pushed out of their neighborhoods, beyond the context of ever-problematic gentrification? Why are rents going up, paradoxically, just when retail is struggling the most? What power do I or we have to change these trends? How can we get in front of these problems and craft how we want the future to look?
Asking questions is important. Getting to know people, histories, communities, and contexts is important. Another thing I carry with me is the mentorship I received at Parsons, and the tools that that education provided me with. There, I was constantly supported in my curiosity. I was lucky and privileged to have that schooling, and I do not take it for granted. A random experience I learned from, separate from my classroom training, was Tim Gunn’s amazing ability to recognize potential talent. When I was at Parsons, Tim was the Director or Admissions. He was very involved in the selection of every student and had a special talent, which I remember to this day, for recognizing potential in a seemingly unsophisticated shell. The kids that would show up without the same caliber of technical skill as some of the rest of us often ended up the shining stars by the end of the first semester. They were the ones who were most in need of the resources and materials the institution provided them, but it was the real gift of Tim’s discerning insight to admit them into Parsons that allowed them to flourish into design and art stars.
Now famous for his strict mentorship, he saw the unexpected potential in so many students who went on to excellent careers. Extending this notion to the potential of small businesses and independent companies, we must not overlook their capacity for economic contribution. These entrepreneurial companies are major players in driving local, regional, and even national economies. According to the mayor’s 2017 jobs report, New York City has more creative jobs than anywhere else in the country, and that sector sees a consistent 15% growth year after year. We need to participate in nurturing that industry, making sure there are opportunities and access to enter into it and contribute to it. We need to be both conscious consumers and conscious employees, or business people. We need to love our city, love its unique industry, and love and nurture the upcoming generations of people entering into creative fields, with creative business approaches.
We are not only participants in our communities’ economies, we are their main resource, their source of existence, their life force. We are the apparatuses by which they operate and survive. With our own crowd sourced and cooperative resources, ideas, artistic input, and coping strategies for the evolution of business and retail, we can use our individual tools to collaborate and contribute to continued, thriving creative marketplaces.
As told to Emily R. Pellerin