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When is a design firm more than a design firm?

When Is a Design Firm More than a Design Firm?

Guy Schum and Clare Stober are members of an independent meeting of Conservative Quakers. Back in 1981, their meeting wanted to publish the writings of early Friends, and Schum and Stober agreed to produce some free-lance design work to finance the project. That volunteer project became Schum & Stober. Their first offices were in the basement of Schum's house, along with a daycare center run by his wife. During their first years, the designers doubled their volume of business every year.

"About three years ago," says Stober "We realized that we were past the growth-for-growth's sake phase. We had proved we could be a success. It was time to decide what kind of company we wanted to be and to take responsibility for becoming that company.

"In the '80s we began to see a trend in the communication service industry as becoming fragmented. We saw firms that produced design, agencies that would just buy ad space or place press releases, novelty companies that put a corporate logo on T-shirts and so on."

Stober adds, "I think clients--especially smaller, growing companies, have always been frustrated by having to find and manage so many vendors.

"We felt we could offer a more efficient way for a client company to get its message across--and that is when we decided that our design firm would be more than just a design firm."

As a result of that decision, Schum and Stober developed into a full-service advertising, marketing as well as graphic design firm.

Both partners feel that the firm produces far more effective work today than it did when the focus was confined to design. "Designers are taught in school that good design is a process, a problem-solving process," says Schum. "It's not some inspiration that just pops out of your head. But how can you solve client's problems if you don't understand their business? If you don't understand their market? By broadening our scope to include market research and strategy, we are doing a much better job of producing designs that really solve problems."

Schum adds, "We are communicators. So why can't we take care of the communication needs of our clients and let them get back to doing what they do?"

In creating the multidisciplinary firm, Schum and Stober face a big challenge in meeting their clients' broader communication needs. Yet the firm only has 10 full time employees, and no ambitions for enormousness. How does the small staff do it? "We assembled a select group of subcontractors and freelancers in market research, copywriting, media placement and publicity. Many of them had struck out on their own after successful careers with large national agencies. Because we work with our consultants on an on-going basis, they are familiar with our approach and philosophy. But becase they are not on our payroll, they help us keep costs competitive."

Schum and Stober's clients range from Citicorp and The Washington Post to a local residential real estate developer. Projects cover all facets of business communication. However, Stober points to corporate annual reports as a typical example of business communications that have been produced with more emphasis on pure design than on audience impact. "When some companies start work on an annual report, all they tell the designer is, 'Well, here's what our company did this year." An annual report may be the most costly publication produced by a company, and it is often designed without identifying the audience, and without clarifying what action the company needs that audience to take.

When assessing the portfolio of a design firm that presents itself as a multidisciplinary company, Schum and Stober suggest some clues that may help you gauge its capability:

* Do the firm's representatives demonstrate an interest in your company and its communication objectives? Do they ask about your needs, or do they only talk about their own company? When presenting the portfolio, is the firm's representative talking primarily about design styles or about the client's objectives and the concept developed to meet them?

* The firm's portfolio pieces should not all have the same look. The design employed for each client should reflect the needs of the client, not just the style of the designer.

* Is the design of each piece appropriate for its audience?

"You need a firm that can work with you on a partnership basis," says Schum, "Not one that is going to shove its ideas down your throat so it can win awards. Design awards are small consolation for a marketing campaign that failed to meet your goals."

Schum cautions, "Many clients still call us in and say, 'We want you to design a sales brochure.' They don't have a clear picture of their market or why customers buy, or don't buy, their product or service. They think they are saving money by producing the brochure without market research but, if they are misreading their market, the money they are spending can be a complete waste. It's like throwing darts while wearing a blindfold, and given today's printing costs, they are throwing very expensive darts."
COPYRIGHT 1989 International Association of Business Communicators
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1989, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:Schum and Strober
Publication:Communication World
Article Type:company profile
Date:Oct 1, 1989
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