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On Record 04/02/2009
Will Sherwood

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» Success Secrets of the Graphic Design Superstar
Success Secrets from Clement Mok:

Think constantly. Be curious about the world.
Realize that you don't know what you don't know, and that you're on a quest to figure those things out.
Never burn your bridges, and if you do have to burn your bridges, try to end things nicely.
A career is really what you make of it, so follow your heart; follow your passion.

Early Beginnings:

I was trained as a graphic designer in the late 70's at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California. At that time New York City was the design capital, and it was almost mandatory to work there if one was serious about their career — so like many of my fellow classmates, I made a trek to New York.

I was fortunate enough to land my first job at CBS's advertising and marketing department. The fact I was around design giants like Lou Dorfsman and Paula Scher, physically or by proximity, meant a great deal to a young and impressionable designer.

After a brief stint at CBS, I went to work for Donovan and Green (D&G), a firm working in exhibit design, advertising design, multi-image shows, as well as traditional graphic design. Working in a studio environment like that altered my perspective and opened my eyes to the different arenas and the kinds of design a designer can be involved with. I no longer felt constrained or pigeonholed as any ONE type of designer.

The experience at D+G allowed me to think more broadly about my design career. I didn't have to be a subject expert; design thinking was a way of solving problems applicable to all kinds of endeavors.

A job offer from Apple:

My job offer at Apple came about by accident. I was visiting a friend during a vacation on the West Coast. She has just gotten a job at Apple in Silicon Valley. At that point Apple, Atari and Commodore were all the same to me. I didn't know the difference. I joked to my friend that, "The fact these companies have video games in their lobby sounds interesting to me." So I showed up at Apple and met Tom Suiter the creative director at the time. He offered me a job on the spot. And I said, "But you haven't even seen my portfolio." They were desperate and wanted people who had some experience in reputable places and would be interested in working in this new field called personal computers.

I said, "No thank you. I love NY."

It wasn't until I came back to NY that I realized that the company, Apple, had a founder who was on the front cover of Time magazine. I realized then that I couldn't refuse that offer.

It was a circuitous situation that brought me the job at Apple. I was in the right place at the right time, and I realized that this was the opportunity of a lifetime.

Real-world postgraduate experience:

Apple was very much a postgraduate course in marketing and business for me. It also tested my design beliefs about what's good and what's bad. Steve Jobs challenged anyone who worked for him, and if I didn't believe in or have conviction about my work, he would know it.

More than anything else, I acquired an appreciation of how to design for the viewer, the customer and the user. Design for usability was a relatively new field and I learned this sensibility by hanging around industrial designers and software engineers.

During my tenure at Apple, I learned a great deal about software design too. I looked at every project and every challenge from the perspective of what I could learn, even though it might have been kind of boring. For me, it's always been about learning and being curious.

After 5 plus years, I realized that the most interesting and exciting things going on in Silicon Valley were happening the software industry — not in hardware and computers. So I thought to myself, "It's now or never if I'm going to start a business. I might as well follow my heart."

Starting a design consultancy: the deciding factors

There were three factors that led me to starting my own firm. I had just spent ten years as an in-house designer as well as a client, and I felt it was time to play a different role. Change for the sake of change was certainly the first of the driving factors. The second was the growing software industry in the Silicon Valley. The smartest and the brightest were leaving computers for start-ups, and I wanted to be part of that growing trend.

Also, not too many designers wanted to practice in the tech marketplace at the time, and I knew that if I started a business specializing in high-tech, I could establish myself very quickly. That was the final and main driving factor that led me to start my firm in 1988.

Developing new business at the beginning

At first I acquired business through the Apple network — through people I had worked with at Apple who were now players in this new software industry. It didn't take long for the word to get around that I had left Apple, and soon friends and colleagues began calling me.

One thing I'd learned at Apple and by working in a corporate environment was the understanding of the client's perspective. At Apple, "us and them" didn't exist. We were all colleagues. At the end of the day, Apple still paid my salary, and these people, as much as I called them clients, were really my peers; our goals — change the way people work, learn and play — were the same.

The whole concept of the client being a partner was ingrained in me early on in my career. There was no sense of being victimized by clients or any notion of clients as evildoers. At the end of the day, clients want things that work and that are effective and connect with their customers.

New business development now

Business today mostly comes to me through my network of friends and their clients, and by word of mouth. I've never burned bridges, but if I do have to burn a bridge, I try to end things nicely. (Laughter) I work solo or collaborate with a team my client might assemble. Most gigs are design planning and consulting initiatives which are not about designing things, but instead designing offerings, processes or organizations. I'm still designing, but not in the sense that most designers would recognize.

Planning for the future

The one thing that I've done consistently over the course of my career is to perform an assessment every 2 or 3 years to review my situation. I've always had a mental image or picture of what I want to be doing over the coming 5 years. I say to myself, "Okay, am I doing what I said I would be doing. Am I happy?" And if not, "What are the causes."

Self-assessment has served me well. It drove my decision to start creating software products. This came to light when I realized that I was developing the identity and software packaging for a few of my ex-Apple colleagues' new ventures. They had hired me to design and market their products and company.

The process involved in launching a product is relatively simple, and I thought, "Why shouldn't I do it? "As I worked with more and more software engineers, I realized, "They don't know how to do this." I understood the pitfalls, and by around '92, '93, I'd gone through the drill of putting all of the pieces together enough times that I decided to start my own software company. My assessment exercise proved once again to be been an invaluable tool for me.

Favorite accomplishments

I still consider myself a designer, and the fact that I don't create or make artifacts might turn a few heads. A media-agnostic designer would be the best way to describe the career stage that I'm in. I'm very proud of the fact that I am comfortable in my own skin, whether I'm being called a designer or a management consultant.

For me it doesn't matter what kind of design I do. I will figure my way through any problem using my design skills, whether it's a product design, the design of an organization, a process problem, or a complex technology issue.

The pigeonholing of a designer in any medium is an idea that I have consistently fought against. I have always looked at Charles and Ray Eames as role models. I admire the scope of design disciplines they practiced and I aspire to be like them. In the broadest sense of the word, they DESIGN. I've not reached their stature, but the fact that I'm comfortable being a media agnostic is a big personal accomplishment.

What would I do differently?

I wish I had listened to my clients more. I've recently built a house, and I played the client role to an architect. Being a designer myself, I cut the architect some slack. But looking back, I was way too generous as an art director by not playing the real role of a client.

I saw how the architects, like designers, sometimes don't listen and just design for their portfolio. This architect's behavior was similar to how I behaved as a young practitioner many years ago.

Throughout the design development process I would say, "I see how this is elegant and fits a certain esthetic framework, but I don't think it's appropriate for me. It doesn't work, and here are the reasons." The architect would come back with 3 solutions that were a slight variation of the same idea! "Hey," I would say, "I know this trick! Don't pull this on me!"

After a while, I wondered why the architect was behaving that way, and I came to the realization that it was all about having a great photo for their portfolio—a shot to enter into contests and competitions.

We've all been there. And, I was furious about the process that had gotten me there. Had he listened carefully, and tried different things and listened to my needs, he would have made the process much more enjoyable. And this situation was not about aesthetics. It was about functionality. I needed things to work and be usable! This is where my HCI (Human Computer Interface) and usability issue sensibility came into play.

As much as young designers are good at creating compelling imagery for today's cultural currency, they still don't have the life experience in understanding how to make things usable. They can make them desirable, but mastery requires a lifetime of learning.

Major influences on Clement's career:

My design heroes and role models are Charles and Ray Eames. They were curious about the world around them and explored new technologies via their work for clients and for themselves.

I want to be known as a designer not only in the world of print but also in the digital domain. To accomplish this means I take on projects that are on the bleeding edge. This also means the projects may go over budget and the business will have to absorb the difference.

What might be good for a PR profile might not be good for the business's financial bottom line. My business almost went under in 1993 because I funded a software business using the profits of my design service and consulting business. I ended up selling the distribution and management rights of my software business to competitor just to keep my design consulting business afloat.

On business wants and needs:

My goal is to build a design business that's well respected and considered a thought leader. As an example, for Studio Archetype to grow and keep up with the pace of Internet e-commerce design consulting services in 1996, I needed to grow the depth and reach of the organization. That meant hiring people that knew more than I did and giving them an equity stake to help expand the business. It also meant rethinking the way I go about capitalization the business. I had to be disciplined about managing projects, and to walk away from low margin work during this growth period, even if they were high profile or highly creative.

On personal wants and needs:

I believe it's not too much to ask for a life that's balanced between work, friends, and family. Sometimes, though, it seems as if business and career goals are at odds with each another.

How do I reconcile this? I am fortunate to have a business and life mentor who guides me through a series of questions using the Viable Living System model — a cybernetics model of organization. It has helped me see my shortcomings and identified the things that I should let others help me do. Doing this has been an eye-opener, and I continue to use this diagnostic tool when I consult with my clients.

Tips for people just starting out

Think constantly. Be curious about the world. Realize that you don't know what you don't know, and that you're on a quest to figure those things out.

Clement's thoughts on business coaches and seminars

When I had just turned 30, I started my business. I was very fortunate to have a mentor who was in the cybernetics field. The gentleman has since passed away, but the life lessons that he taught me are still important guiding principles.

As far as keeping up with current business issues, I'm not unlike many of the business wonks in Silicon Valley. I keep a portfolio of trade journals and attend business conferences. So in that regard, I do have multiple networks of friends and peers. That's how I keep up.

Thoughts on personal balance

For personal balance, I enjoy cooking and my pets. I have 2 large dogs, a Golden Doodle and a Rottweiler. A Golden Doodle is a cross between a Golden Retriever and a Standard Poodle. It's very much of a California designer dog thing.

When I took a leave of absence during the post-Internet-bubble period, I decided I needed a rest and I also needed something to ground myself. Working in the IT and the Internet field, my work almost exclusively dealt with abstractions of one kind or another. I design things that people don't see most of the time, and the only visualization comes about when it's on the web.

I needed something to ground myself. Cooking is both a set of skills and an art form that is very much akin to design. All kinds of cooking intrigue me, from the classic to the ethnic.

Thoughts on building and sustaining a career.

A career is really what you make of it. It depends. There are no rules these days. I would suggest that you follow your heart; follow your passion. Be constantly curious about the world around you.

Clement's thoughts on getting good clients:

When it comes to getting good clients, the most important thing I would suggest is "Ask good questions."

Clients want someone who will bring new insights. The client wants you to think, not merely decorate. If you behave like a decorator, they will treat you like a decorator, and they will become the client from hell. But if you behave like a thinker and ask questions and provide good insights, they will see you as valuable.

Asking the right questions:

Most clients will come to me with a project that they are convinced requires a software or hardware solution. Very often that's not the case.

For example, a client asked me if I would help develop the user experience for an internet portal that would be a mash up between Second Life, a virtual world site, and, a dating site.

I read the business plan and reviewed the features of the product along with the financial models. During a follow-up meeting, they asked me, "What do you think the user interface should be?" I said, "Whoa. Back up. It looks like a guy wrote your business plan. There's no point-of-view and perspective from the other half of your audience — the women. Do you think it's safe to ignore the drivers and needs of that segment of your market?"

This question had nothing with the interface design. It was about something that most designers assume lay outside the realms of design, when in fact, that's exactly what a designer should be paying attention to. As designers, we need to be sure we're solving the right problem.

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