Home People Forecasting the Business Climate is by Design for Karl Bischoff

Forecasting the Business Climate is by Design for Karl Bischoff

In the current edition of Communication Arts, Karl Bischoff takes up the question of economic recovery, analyzing the key economic indicators (“the ones that never lie”) that are influencing the national business climate as a whole and the design industry in particular. The affable Vice President/Director of Interactive Communication for Phinney Bischoff Design House (PBDH.com), Karl has been an enduring figure on the Seattle scene for some time. His roots are here, like the Victorian house on Queen Anne that is the home of the respected Seattle design and marketing communications firm that bears his name. (Speaking of traditions, wife Leslie Phinney is a descendant of the historic Seattle family.)

What’s an Interactive Director doing writing about economic theory? Karl is also president of APDF, the 34-year old Association of Professional Design Firms. “The whole point of the organization is the business side of design,” explains Bischoff. “I talked with CA about putting some business articles together that we’ve covered at APDF forums and conferences. There will probably be a series of topics in the future. APDF’s membership consists of around 100 firms which represent about 3500 people. In recent years, the organization relocated to Bellevue, WA.

“As association president, I talk to a lot of different firms around the country and get a good sense of what’s going on. I’m hearing that the firms in Philadelphia, Cleveland, and now New York are definitely seeing a lot of activity. They are jammed.” How long before the trend heads west? “When we first got into this malaise, everything on the east coast just dropped off a cliff , and six months later it happened here. So if they’re getting jammed now, I think the wave will come this way again. Like fashion, it starts in Paris, London, New York and then us…it’s definitely an east to west kind of flow.”

Seattle24x7: Your observations in CA indicate that you are cautiously optimistic about an economic recovery?
Bischoff: Yes, these are indicators that the prognosticators have been using since 1880. The signs are there that [a recovery] is happening again this time. Of course if war breaks out, all bets are off (but they said that last year too, right before September 11). As we watch different processes happen, as purchasing agents start to order things again, as manufacturing picks up, and as jobs pick up, I’m optimistic, although it’s going to be slow. It will likely take a full year to get back to where we should be.

In the meantime, I just heard today that the jobless rate is going down but that the longevity of joblessness is 50% higher. That tells me that people are not taking their old jobs because they’re not paying them the same or giving them the same benefits. We need to understand that, in many ways, those days are gone.

Seattle24x7: How do you compare Seattle to other markets?
Bischoff: On the one hand, we have a lot more knowledgeable people here, clients who are pretty savvy about interactive possibilities and marketing. So less education is necessary. But because of their expertise, many clients also think they can do it themselves, and quite often they do, with mixed results.

Seattle24x7: Phinney-Bischoff Design House has had a number of high profile projects in the news lately. What can you tell us about them?
Bischoff: Not long ago we launched Margaret Thatcher’s Website. It wasn’t a big design project, per say, but it was certainly a big back end project, with hundreds of thousands of articles. We had named and branded the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Website. They [the Thatcher people] liked what we had done and called the Gates Foundation and asked who did your work? Although our client was in London, they flew out here to meet with us and stayed here for a while while we worked on the project. From that referral, we also did Nelson Mandela’s Global Project for Children. That Web project came to us out of South Africa. That’s the beauty of the Web. It really doesn’t matter where you are.

Locally, we just finished a large Flash screen presentation for Frank Russell Company in the lobby of their skyscraper in Tacoma. We’re also working on branding the Tacoma campus of the University of Washington.

Seattle24x7: Back to your advice in Communication Arts, how would you advise firms these days to plan for the coming recovery?
Bischoff: Firms have to be very well prepared and be looking for new services to offer. They should also beef up their capabilities for the services they offer now. And keep an eye out for good employees. Start talking to them now. You need to have resources and people that can step right in instead of having this huge ramp up that will take six months to a year.

Seattle24x7: What about freelancers? Can a design firm “go virtual,” let their staffers go and rely solely on freelancers?
Bischoff: That discussion is timeless. You have to understand that deadlines wait for no organization to handle them.You really have to already be set up to handle the business. Your client is going to say,okay, I know we waited six months, but we’ve got to move right now and we need it in three days. Well, your freelancers may not be available. So what do you do? If you have to go out and assign someone who doesn’t know the client, who is brand new to the project, then the customer suffers.

Things happen so quickly now. And it’s because of Email and because of Interactive. Remember when you used to wait a week to get type back from the typesetter? The type would come back, you’d make some corrections, and then send it out again. Now, it’s like if you can’t change it within a minute then that’s ridiculous. Clients have changed their expectations accordingly. [24×7]

Karl Bischoff presides over the Association of Professional Design Firms while he directs Interactive Communications for Phinney-Bischoff Design House.