Shortly after Neocon, I contacted John O'Neill of Conduit Studios to get his thoughts on this year’s showrooms. He was kind enough to share with me his story, his studio, and his thoughts on many subjects; including the importance and relevance design has in West Michigan; his process of integrating both business and creative; and his thoughts on pro bono work.
I learned a great deal about his process and have decided to write a piece about what I had learned. First, I'd like to share how he and I first met.I first became aware of John when he was a freshman, which would have been in 1997 or '98. I happened to see a student walking into the College, carrying a work that I assumed was for his 3-D class. Because I thought the work was interesting, I wondered if whoever this student was might consider selling it. So I did some checking, found out John’s name, learned from the faculty that he was a highly respected student even then (which is a good thing, because it is always awkward if I “latch on to” a student who is about to be dismissed from Kendall), and I asked someone to ask John if he might want to sell the work, which he agreed to do. It was the first student work I bought at Kendall, and it hangs in my office. Where I was wrong was in assuming that it was created for his 3-D class. It turns out that John created the work for his psychology class and that, from what he told me, the work represents his mind.
John has made some milestones since that psychology class. Upon graduation in 2001, he co-founded Conduit. This year happens to be the design studio's tenth anniversary. I am both proud and happy to hear of this achievement. I am also glad to say that, along the way, I have become a friend of John's.
I'd like to point out that John went directly from college to Conduit; upon graduation from Kendall, he stayed busy freelancing for various businesses. He worked in what I call "the coffee shop circuit." (It's remarkable - and fitting - that so many creatives, artists, and even musicians have gotten their start in cafes.) One day, at a Kava House in East Town, John ran into Tim Carpenter who shared a similar situation, creating print design while baristas served espresso. The two began to work together, and in a sense, Conduit was formed. The studio now has 5 full-time employees who create for some of the biggest companies in the area. The studio is housed in a beautiful space in downtown Grand Rapids. I hope to write about more about it in subsequent post, as I feel it deserves one.
From the discussion, I learned that John is no stranger to small business; his father, and several uncles owned and operated their own businesses. It seems the entrepreneurial spirit is strong among his lineage, which may explain, to some degree, his level of success for someone his age. That and a passion for design, which seemed to develop early. He said of his design interest: "It's not like I chose design; it kind of felt like design chose me. Even when I was a kid. It seems like it was always there."
John is passionate about the design community in West Michigan. He is a board member of both Design West Michigan and AIGA West Michigan. He promoted the idea that West Michigan is design-centric because designers in the area are asked to perform many different roles. He expressed that designers do more than design; they also consult more regularly with clients. And maybe this role of consultant is becoming more prominent because, as John puts it, design "doesn't always have an aesthetic outcome." John said of design in West Michigan: "It just seems like there's a lot of us." While putting together the new AIGA West Michigan chapter, John was excited to see the amount of interest designers displayed to join. "There's a real critical mass of people here," he said.
If you visit Conduit online, you can see that they have designed and consulted for a wide (and long) list of reputable clients. I was especially interested in his pro bono work, particularly curious of his studio's process working with pro bono clients. He shared his thoughts, using his work with the UICA as an example.
In 2004, he volunteered to help the UICA promote the first annual Live Coverage event. Conduit has helped out every year since, designing all the of the event materials. He says of the work, "[we] use it as a chance to express our creativity." He expressed that pro bono work offers more flexibility. He said of doing pro bono work: "If we can fit it into our schedule, we'd love to."