Hunt Design Associates Profile: HOW magazine, November 2000

It's OK to produce Mickey Mouse design work when you're doing work for Disney. In fact, Hunt Design Associates' story reads a little like a fairy tale for designers. More than 20 years ago, the firm started out as a full-service marketing design firm with modest ambitions of, well, staying in business long enough to make a profit. When they refined their focus to environmental graphic design (EGD), business took off. Today, they are a premier international design firm specializing in environmental graphic design for high-profile clients domestically and internationally, including The Walt Disney Company, the MGM Grand, Paris Las Vegas, Samsung, and the World Trade Center with projected profits this year of more than $2 million.

EVOLUTION AND SPECIALIZATION
"Specializing in environmental graphic design wasn't a conscious decision," says Wayne Hunt, Principal and founder of the Pasadena, Calif. firm. "It was just the evolutionary flow of business. We're fortunate that we're able to get the work that interests the most„graphic design for buildings, places, and spaces. I'm most drawn to the durable physical world, verses the ephermeral marketing world."

But this general migration to EGD projects ended up being a smart move. It was the creative environmental graphics work that attracted the high-profile clients. And since the projects Hunt Design was handling were so specialized„entertainment-oriented environments„they quickly became known as one of the leaders in their field.

"I absolutely credit specialization for our firm's growth," Hunt says. "We completed a project for the MGM Grand Casino. Now we've done projects for almost all the other major gaming casions. They know we know their language and the learning curve is much shorter. Other firms could handle the project, but our clients often choose us because they know we already understand their customer and their needs."

Specialization is a concept that tends to fight against the natural inclination of graphic designers. "Creative people pride themselves on being generalists," Hunt says. "We tend to know a little about lot about a lot of things, and want to work that way, too, experimenting with different design disciplines. At the other end of the seesaw is the marketplace. If you want to get your Alfa Romeo fixed, you don't go to a place that handles all makes, all models. You go to an Alfa Romeo shop."

All this doesn't mean the death of the cross-discipline design office. It often means a refinement of talents to suit the designer and the marketplace. "There are plenty of successful full-service design firms, but many of them are full of specialists," Hunt says. "You don't find a lot of people who are good at a lot of things.

THE EGD AWAKENING
Fortunately for Hunt, his passion for designing physical spaces coincided with a widespread awakening to the potential benefits of environmental design. Although environmental graphic design (EGD) had always existed, everywhere from airports to retail stores were suddenly hiring designers to do more than just create signs. Clients were now looking to designers to add context, meaning, and interest to their entire physical spaces.

"The firms creating environmental design today are pioneers, helping to define this medium, and determining how graphics and other media can transform spaces," Hunt says. "Twenty-five years ago, environmental design was mostly done for hospitals and airports, and were very function-driven. In the mid-80s, opportunities grew into retail, theme parks, museums, and hybrid environments. We're fortunate that our interests coincided with the market opportunity."

ART DIRECTORS NEED NOT APPLY
With its focus on EGD, Hunt Design's 17-employee firm is constructed more like an architecture firm than a design firm. Instead of hiring art directors and production artists, Hunt Design hires space programmers, designers, and model makers. Using an architectural model as an archetype was more of a practical statement than it was a creative one.

"To be honest, our work most closely parallels architecture," Hunt says. "Since we work so closely with architects on our projects, we structure our contracts and schedule phasing in the same language they do. The people who hire us are used to working with architects, and this is also the language they use."

Although Hunt does not have a background in architecture, he says learning the architectural jargon wasn't challenging. "It's an acquired business language that's really not all that complicated," Hunt says.

You would think a firm with nine international clients on its roster, would require an office full of multilingual designers, but this isn't the case. "We've found that, for better or for worse, the dominant international business language is English," Hunt says. "It's unlikely that I, or anyone else on staff, will know another language so accurately that it can be used as a business tool. Our clients forgive us for speaking English and for stumbling through the cultural differences. When we're hired, our clients know that they are hiring English-speaking Americans, so they expect just that."

THE GUEST EXPERIENCE
The most important goal an EGD design must achieve is a connection with the visitor or user. More and more, entertainment is being used as a provacative design element, and EGD is no exception. Consider the emerging consumer group has been raised on Sony Playstation. Quite a rapid change for a world where design for spaces once served a strictly functional purpose. Environments are expected to delight the eye and engage the imagination.

"Since we now have the technology to enrich any environment, it's become expected," Hunt says. "During the design process, everyone's always talking about the guest experience. We want them to have immersive, rich experiences in our environments. We want them to tell people and come back."

 

Since traditionally "undesigned" spaces like hospitals and airports are trying to enliven their areas with more engaging design, it goes without saying that the bar is raised for entertainment-intensive places like theme parks, casinos, and retail spaces. During the design process, Hunt continually puts himself in the visitor's shoes, then imagines how the space can be improved. As Hunt says, "Science museums are no longer about a fossil in a box. These environments are more and more interactive, both electronically and physically. Today's 11-year-old is a pretty sophisticated consumer."

"Everything we do is about how people get to, access, or interact with a space or experience," Hunt says. "To me, it's a given that everything is scaled for people and designed for the people who are likely to visit the space. Users are so different depending on spaces. You treat an airport visitor different than a retail visitor. The airport visitor is interested in finding the right gate, or baggage claim. They are always in a hurry and need a lot of information fast. But if you're designing a museum environment, you have a much more passive consumer who is passing through slowly„who will stop, pause, and move on. In the end, it's about making spaces."

As Hunt's firms materials state, they grudging call this science "edutainment„an awful word, but descriptive." Simply put, Hunt Design Associates' work is bringing entertainment and engagement to what used to be called museums and visitor centers.

GOING INTERNATIONAL
It seems glamorous and desireable to have international clients, especially when you consider expense-able travel abroad. But according to Hunt, the glamour is overrated and the trips are often short. In fact, Hunt Design's international client list had more to do with the projects themselves than an international business strategy. Hunt Design's expansion into the international marketplace was also driven by the simple fact that there are few worldwide competitors.

"We never sat down and said, ŚLet's go international.' It just kind of evolved," Hunt says. "Our work is about places, and places are all over. We've found that if a design trend is successful in this country, it will tend to be attempted or emulated in other cultures. If we create a successful retail concept for an American client, you can be sure that it will be in Tokyo or London next year. And chances are, international companies will come to us to do the project."

With the glamour and prestige of international projects also come a certain amount of headaches. Everything from the cost of travel to language barriers and time zones become obstacles. This is not to mention the complexity of international contracts, and keeping the regulatory, procedular, insurance and documentation ducks in a row. "Things don't go wrong more frequently with international clients than they do with domestic ones," Hunt says. "But problems are just harder to fix when they do."

Hunt advises designers seeking international work to forgo the community college foreign business class to determine how to do business. "There are foreign business classes that thell you how to cross your legs and what kind of gum to chew. Forget that," Hunt says. "Your clients don't want you to act like them„they want you to be yourself. The best advice is just to sit still and listen„don't talk too much. If you just sit still you're ahead of half the Americans."

Obviously, Hunt Design also relies more on phone conferences, faxing, emailing, and overnighting documents with its international clients than domestic ones. But regular meetings still happen every 6-8 weeks, which usually involves designers going for the meeting and returning shortly afterward. All the actual design work is done in Hunt Design's Pasadena office.

A LOYAL STAFF
Hunt Design would enjoy none of the successes if it didn't have a talented, loyal staff devoted to pulling together these projects. In fact, Hunt Design has the remarkable„if not somewhat shocking distinction, given the current economy„of having virtually a nonexistent employee turnover rate.

"I want to make Hunt Design a place whee people want to be," Hunt says. "I think people want interesting work, and we have a lot of that. We try to keep the individual stress levels down. I give people time off, and staff are pretty much allowed to set their own hours. It's a we're-all-grownups kind of attitude."

An experienced, loyal staff has proven to be a good selling point for the firm. "The best sales strategy is to say during a pitch that here's a great project we did five years ago and the people who worked on it are sitting in the room," Hunt says. "I take a great deal of pride in that."

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