1. How did you get your start?
My start? Raw curiosity for one. That’s where it all started, that drove, and drives everything that I am made of. I am one that is easily enchanted by content. I can be ignited in a moment, if the right spark is there. A love of the exploration of many things. Many, many things — so much so that my real beginning was as a biologist, a naturalist, with a leaning marine natural sciences . And from there, my professor suggested that I take the lab journals and drawings that I’d done, and explore art, history, writing, culture — and merge them somehow. So in the beginning, my work was about fine printing, papermaking, press work, book design and customized typography and type design. That was, literally, the design of typefaces — the art of conceiving the letter form as an object of potent scrutiny. But doing that meant that I could also do signwriting and truck lettering, painting on boats. Windows. Retail and shopfronts. And from there, that love combined to emerge in a grouping of ways for working with my clients (friends) to take all of those things, like printing, calligraphy and the fine arts, and make them into something that could be retooled and remade as a kind of specialist designing and consulting service. The beginning, alone, later, to small teams — and finally out to nearly 90 employees. Then back to a more manageable size. Something better, that would be my goal, in strategy and scale: 40 people — more capable of visioning and surveilling the work — as a creative leader.
2. What were the deciding factors about going into business for yourself?
Deciding factors? I like to work alone. That’s how I started. And while I can still work alone, there’s greater pleasure working in partnership with the minds of others. But I never had a job, interestingly enough. I never, ever, worked for anyone. I started alone, but the practice, the size of the team, then evolved. The real issue was, for one, proving to myself that I could do it, make the business from what one might deem an artful formalism. And two, that I could find the clients to do that with. What I learned was that in maintaining the discipline of focused marketing, I could find the right relationships by being clear in my offering. The work that I did, in the beginning, was really about what one might define as classical design — letterpress printing, custom packaging, bookbinding, broadsides, typographic and book design, silkscreened posters, limited edition folios, porcelain enamel signing, hand lettering and calligraphy, complexly printed stationery. That tradition, in a way, expanded to much more conventional design, partnering with architecture firms, advertising agencies, even other strategy or design firms (big ones), but the character of the handmade still is at the heart of the work. The listening, the observing, the mind, the hand, the craft, the made. That’s where I started; that’s where I still live.
3. Are there any influential figures from design that have had an effect on your work? And if so, how
Spheres of Influence: Early on, I worked in college — the college that I went to, among others, was The Evergreen State College. There, it was possible for students to literally plan and create their own programs. So, in exploring that, I could find the options to work with the faculty leadership to study what I wanted. Asian, Medieval Western and Middle Eastern art history, architecture, type design, calligraphy — and the cultural elements that influenced them. That formed the basis of my education in design, creative development, writing and the notion of strategic illustration of intention. Cultural expressions are like the explication of branding. They’re both human orientations of character and fulfillment. My approach, therefore, is more about listening and learning from people, from the inside, to catalyze manifestations on the outside. So too, my connections with influencers and visitations, study, travel and learning. In the 70s, during the times in college, I met, worked with, studied or connected with these people. Hermann Zapf, Lloyd Reynolds, David Kindersley, Will and Sebastian Carter, Villu Toots, Maxim Zhukov, Herb Lubalin, Milton Glaser, Ed Benguiat, Massimo Vignelli. Others. While learning from them, I was exposed to, connected with Steve Jobs, Paul Brainerd, Richard Meier, Ivan Chermayeff, Annemarie Schimmel, Pir Vilayat Khan, James Turrell, Joseph Campbell, Mircea Eliade, Richard Sapper, Mihaly Cskiszentmihalyi. Others. There are layers of study. And you get what you came for. And you are what you make. You make what you are.
4. How did you acquire new business when you first started out?
Business relationships. Getting business is never easy. For some, it might seem to be that way. But for me, getting business is always, seemingly, about curiosity. Being curious, explorations emerge, paths are uncovered, potentials unearthed. Sure, there are relationships that spool to other relationships. People connect with you, they connect you with others. But my world is seemingly more about finding people to partner with — from the hunger of curiosity in learning more about people, how they think, what they are doing, what they are working on. So linking with Steve Jobs, for example, was never about that just happening. It was more about getting to a point where I had a story to tell that he was interested in. And it’s all about story telling — new business is based on a layering of stories, the leveraging of experience and expertise that filters to new things that are, in a way, catapulting to others. It’s all about that. One story leads to another. But you have to have the capacity to examine the story in the context of relevance, resonance, connectedness. The story that is told has to have a connection to be reflectively cognizant — your story is meaningful. People relate, because they are facing similar challenges. They’ve been there. And there you are.
5. How do you currently acquire new business?
And now, business development? The same. I’m still out there looking for connections that link to my sense of the curiosity, as well as leveraging the relationships that come into play. Finding relationships, still, is about resonance. In all things.
6. What one thing are you most gratified that you’ve accomplished?
Living gratifications. While there might be awards, gifts from community, celebrations, life passages of significance, there’s real satisfaction in doing the work that I do — which is, fundamentally, about helping people emerge in their dreams and visions. And in a way, my vision is about that. So any string of potentials to accomplishment is about doing just that — helping people emerge and evolve in the visualizations of their dreams. And that’s a beautiful thing. And there are some dreams to the notion of human brands that is about more levels of potency than others, in their contributions to humanity. So working with Richard Gere on the Gere Foundation (http://www.gerefoundation.org), working with the Kranzler’s on the creation of the Seeds of Compassion (http://www.seedofcompassion.net/involved/), Heifer International (http://www.heifer.org) and finally, perhaps most personally powerful, working with my brother, Matthew Girvin, on the creation of the elimination of iodine deficiency disease (IDD) with Unicef and the Chinese Ministry of Health, Beijing. Matthew was killed in a helicopter crash, on a rescue mission, in Mongolia in 2001, one year after achieving that very goal. So that’s the most powerful legacy that contributed to the sense of powerful meaning in my life. That was, that is, a blessing to have experienced. A grand and memorable consortium of amazing people, clients, friends, employees, have emboldened the enrichment of my path. I hold those close to heart.
7. Is there anything that you can identify as a particular key to your success?
Curiosity. A willingness to risk. Listening. Learning. Observing. Savoring. Creative evolution. Enthusiasm. Passion. Commitment. Stamina. Drive. Attention.
And finally, a point of view. Any vision to leading, or partnering in, a relationship to a constructive advancement and outcome is about having a sense of principle to stand on. What do you stand for might be the query to a client — but to ask that question, first, you must have the vantage that suggests you know the vista from where you look
8. What would you do differently if you had it to do all over?
A change in life path.
I think that I’d like to keep going to school. I’d like to keep on the path of exploring culture and expression — how art, literature and civilisation intertwine — and what is the meaning of that layered weaving.
I think that I’d like to live in more foreign cities. I’ve spent plenty of time in Paris, in Tokyo, some in Seoul, Jakarta, Hong Kong, Beijing. But I’ve not lived there, digging into the culture and the language to the degree that I would desire.
And I’d like to learn more languages. So far, my exposures have been to Latin, German, Japanese, French — with some explorations of Arabic, Turkish, Indonesian. Fluency in anything but English — but exploring language and words is deep in my psyche.
9. Have you ever worked with business coaches or consultants?
Consultants and counsel. My experience with consultants has been broad. And in a way, it’s a matter of learning what you might already know, but having someone help redefine or more deeply embed answers to the challenges that you face. So you can embrace them, and advance. So while I’ve not worked with coaches for performance, per se, I have consulted with talent in exploring Girvin positioning and marketing, examining strategic direction, exploring internal relationships and dynamics, revisiting textual and visual context of the Girvin brand, and studying operational or acquisition considerations. There’s some learning in virtually everything. But, to deepening the impact of the engagement, the point is that you need to consider how the learning – how that exposure — can be vitalized. It’s easy enough to hire a consultant — but from the beginning, are you really doing everything that you can to strategically — and tactically — focus on their outcomes and implementations.
10. Have you attended business seminars or workshops to sharpen your business skills?
Learning communities. I’ve been exposed to an extraordinary array of learning opportunities. And I keep searching for more. I would say, however, that there are many learning exposures that simply sit in front of us, that are underutilized. Like seeking inspiration from doing something that is, perhaps, unrelated to the immediate creative solutions at hand. I look for these. Museums. Musical explorations. Study of history. Film. There are threads there that underlie the basics of what we do, but seen in the context of the passage of time, you find just that — the threads and movements that conform creative expression. And sometimes, simply going to conferences doesn’t get you there. But there are surely events that, by the nature of their exposition, teach you. I’m a member of the TED community, for example. That’s an incessant learning proposition — and the lessons and exposures are far-reaching. To conventional outlets, the notion of the Design Management Institute, strategic and trend forums, connections with learning communities — like the University of Washington, for example, help me explore and expand my creative consciousness. And another component is the reflective character there — teaching is perhaps an even more intense form of learning. That’s what I seek. Expansion of context in the framing of creative action. And I find that examining these explorations is helpful — no, deeply meaningful.
11. Do you have any activities or hobbies that you use to help you stay balanced? (Exercise, meditation, etc.) If so, what are they?
Seeking balance. I look practice a mix of balancing components. And surely meditation and reflection are among them. As well, as a Buddhist, I’m exploring the dimensions of that world, the art, the spirituality, interleaved. The power of a spiritual sense drives everything that I do — for every thing that I am involved with inherently links an essential spirit with articulation; it is, in a way, the lustration of ideas. I’m also a squash and tennis player, I box, run, train, hike. Writing and photography, interlaced with drawing is another layering to meditation on creative action. By weaving them, it’s a way of exploring contentment. And I mean content and containment. In a manner, that gestures to fullness. But the sleeves of meaning resonate to other parts of that — something contained, forms of expression, significance and profundity, an object of perception, holding capacity, the sum of attributes, volume. As a designer, being content can obviously characterize tints of meaning. If you speak content, are you?
12. If someone new to the industry were to ask you how to build and sustain a career, what would you say to them?
Look at design as being holistic — not just where you live, creatively speaking, but nearly everywhere, in context. Explore it beyond your chosen medium.
Be fluent. Be willing to flow from one range of direction to another; design will always be about your interpretation, your illustration, but be ready to tell a story in a manner that actually relates to who you are speaking to.
What patterning is there, to the range of design, culture, people and history? Rather than merely familiarize yourself with the hippest present, what consciousness of the past is there? Rather than conforming to trends of the last ten minutes, what of the last 4,000 years, or more? For me, it’s like building a vocabulary — your fluency becomes expansive, rather than merely focused on developments of the last 20 years. Or less.
13. If someone new to the industry were to ask you how to get good clients, how would you respond?
Openings. I’d offer: go where you want to work. Work on what you can personally relate to, work with those that you can personally connect with, explore that which makes you happiest. Clients will appear.
14. Is there any additional advice you might give to someone just starting out?
Beginnings. My phrasing, to beginning is: be intense. There are linguistic connections to that this word that are largely forgotten, or misused. Think of it in this new light. It’s a word that began 2000 years ago. And it’s tied to the concept of intent and intention. Set a path, form a principle of intention and action. What path, mapmaker?Consider this, the movement of the word in the last 700 years. 1350–1400; Middle English inténsus, var. of intentus intent, ptp. of intendere to intend. Look back, several hundred years to the source phrasing — 1175–1225; Middle English intentus an aim, purpose, Latin: a stretching out (inten(dere) to intend + -tus suffix of v. action); r. Middle English entent(e) ténsus ptp. of tendere to stretch. Why do I continuously reference this etymological sequence? Because to be intense, is about having intention in action; aim and purpose, and finally it’s about tension — the tensile character of stretching. All profoundly meaningful.
15. Is there anyone that you would suggest that I contact for an interview?
My mother. My father. My lover. My creative directors. My children. My clients.
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excerpts from questions by Will Sherwood