Designers will become more necessary than ever as leaders of a world of constant change and information overload.

I have just finished re-writing a proposal for the fourth time in less than two weeks, and it occurs to me that the world really has changed. Not that I didn’t listen with tears in my eyes to president-elect Barack Obama’s acceptance speech upon winning the election, not that I haven’t been reading about GM, GGP, AIG, Lehman, Freddie and Fannie, and all the rest of them in the New York Times as I sip my Starbucks. Change has been proclaimed and even given an official birth date of Nov. 5, 2008.

But change comes in many forms, and the truth is told in the familiar. In my case, it’s the proposal.

I’ve been writing, creating, editing, and critiquing proposals for 25 years or more at Communication Arts Inc. I know the forms — mega-collaborative, formal, 254-255, chatty, creative, emotional, overreaching, and inspiring. I know that clients want a demonstrated understanding of their project. They want ideas, commitment, clarity, brevity. They want unique, special, magic, and seamless. They want it as soon as possible, and then they delay. Further, I know that they don’t really read the proposals. They immediately skip to the number, the fee, the bottom line. If they’re interested in your services, they’ll call and discuss scope. They’ll negotiate the fee, whine about reimbursables, and squirm about the schedule. They’ll make a decision. Or you’ll never hear from them again until you run into them at the next trade show gathering and vow to work together. This is how it’s always been.

Now it’s changed.

Clients are paying attention as never before. They have turned into your constant mentors and coaches. They suggest edits from the fractured world of BlackBerry typos. They have more questions. They want more process charts and better graphics. They need language tweaked and toned. They need the fee broken into tiny little bits of work that can be more easily explained, sold, and swallowed by their board. They need it finalized and presented. They need it in PowerPoint. Then they need it reconstituted and amplified. Last but not least, they need to have the fee reduced because after all, your competitors are offering to work for next to nothing. And, after all that, after the noise of anxious pencil sharpening dies down, a decision is still not made.

This is the difference.

We are now in a business shadow world where decisions aren’t really being made. We’re all waiting — waiting for the stock market to calm, waiting for the inauguration, waiting for the beginning or the end of the first quarter of 2009, waiting for the cry of olly olly oxen free. No one knows where the bottom is, what’s around the next corner. We are cautious; we are fearful. We are paralyzed. We hold quiet conversations where we ask one another “How’s business?” and we look for truth. We receive e-mails from friends telling us about their next round of staff layoffs, and we commiserate. We try to be positive and look for silver linings. The daily diet of news confirms our fears. It looks like it’s the same, we’re going through the motions, we’re all delivering the work in the same old way, but our reality has irrevocably changed.

So how does all this breathtaking change affect our business plans and strategies? How do we keep up with the change that swirls with a ferocious velocity? How do you keep up, how do you stay balanced so that you have the strength and clarity to make the tough decisions to sustain a healthy business? What is the definition of a healthy business these days?

For the last few years, the business plans and strategies of architecture and design firms have been crafted on the theory of incremental change. We could improve our gross revenues between 5 percent and 10 percent by doing X, Y, and Z. Our net profit could be improved by cutting general and administrative expenses and becoming more efficient. Engaged employees could improve our bottom line. More dollars devoted to training would improve retention and morale. Every January we had a new budget and business plan. These were things we knew.

Now we have discontinuous change. This is change that cannot be predicted, and it threatens traditional authority and power structures. This is where the disasters and the opportunities lurk. Discontinuous changes do not live in the strictures of a typical business plan. Discontinuous changes are the future. But if you think that changes in your business will be just incremental, then you assume the following:

  • Your profit margins will hold up.
  • You will always be able find, recruit, and retain critical professionals and leaders.
  • Your clients will be indifferent to value.
  • Your competition will remain the same.
  • You will always be able to meet changes in demand and volume.
  • The world will continue to want what you offer.

Given this environment, how does one plan, communicate, and execute business strategies? If an old business plan used to be two-dimensional, then the new way of thinking is three-dimensional. It’s less like a spreadsheet of action tracks and line items and more like a classic Rubik’s Cube. Let me explain how I see it.

Part I: The Quick Fix

This is the weekly (sometimes daily or even hourly) part of the plan. These are your dashboard metrics that are updated weekly and that you practically carry in your head. These are the basics for making day-to-day decisions. This is what we include on our sheet:

  • Current backlog
  • Weighted marketing log
  • Current monthly invoice amount
  • Work in progress amount
  • Overall project profitability
  • Aged accounts receivable
  • Average days for collection
  • Target utilization sheet by person and by month
  • Number of people under the target rate
  • Cash on hand

This is where the (relatively) easy decisions live. If your backlog can’t sustain the number of people on staff, then you have to cut staff. If your staff can’t keep up with the amount of work that needs to be delivered, then you’re burning them out and you can anticipate morale problems. You know the drill. This is where most of us live these days. Each time a project gets put on terminal hold, each time a client can’t get financing or files for bankruptcy, we have to recalibrate the equation.

Part II: The Middle Distance

The middle ground requires discipline, organization, and fitness. This is the place that requires you to adhere to the basics described above while keeping your antennae tuned to the infinite possibilities. This is the world where you know your core competencies and you’re alert to new business development and opportunities. This is a networking paradise. You have to focus on your strengths, and you need to think differently about them. This is where you are cutting budgets, looking into the crystal ball, predicting the future, and planning for it. In this middle place you are thinking about and acting on the following:

  • Annual budget plan
  • Business development plan
    • What more can you be doing?
    • Are the databases in place?
  • Marketing plans
    • Does your staff have the proper tools?
    • When did you last update the Web site?
    • What’s the content of the corporate blog? 
    • How do you turn every person into a marketer? 
  • Public relations plans
  • Financial statements
  • Balance sheet
  • Income statement
  • Cash flow statement
  • Project plans
  • Six-month schedules
  • Technology plan
  • Facility plan
  • Human resources plan

It’s easy to get stuck here. This is a nether world between what you said you were going to accomplish, and what’s really possible with the world turned upside down. The Zen of the middle requires you to be absolutely realistic and resolutely positive. It requires you to see beyond the fray, to construct the plans so that people can follow with confidence, and to deconstruct all those actions at a moment’s notice. This is grace under pressure.

For CommArts, right now, there is too much to do at the marketing level, too few resources, and not nearly enough time. This is where the mid-term questions live: Is it time to restructure? What if Project A doesn’t come in? Do we let the lease expire on the annexed space? Should we turn into a virtual office?

Part III: The Future World

This is the fun part, and this is where you spend the least amount of time because you’re busy with Parts I and II. This is where you imagine what the world will look like in two to five years. (Remember when it used to be 10 years?) These are your best hunches for creating and capitalizing on opportunity. These are what authors James Collins and Jerry Porras call your “Big Hairy Audacious Goals.” This is where you re-invent the business, the process, the people, and the product. This is the scary adrenaline-inducing bit that requires great confidence, optimism, creativity, and mindfulness.

The future world is chock-full of dualities, which is, by the way, where I think many of the answers lie. These might be some areas to explore:

  •  Reinvention of cultural institutions
  • Global sustainability and local actions
  • Relevance of community
  • Education that matters
  • Scientific revolutions
  • Technology insights
  • Alternative energy and big oil
  • 21st-century mixed-use projects
  • Health and wellness
  • Medical tourism
  • New capitalism
  • Discretionary time and attitudes
  • Rebuilding the infrastructure
  • Rethinking the office environment
  • Food fare

The New Reality

The quick fix, the middle distance, the future world — these are the three faces of business reality, cubed. If we make the right moves in the right sequences, we can solve the Rubik’s Cube business puzzle — at least for the moment. We can get all six of the faces to exhibit a solid, unified color, and we have the stated, desired, harmonious solution. We can work in all three dimensions: the past, the present, and the future.

Yet as soon as we’ve solved this conundrum, we are ready to seek more complicated challenges. We’re ready to start creating anew our own maps to predict the future opportunities and challenges facing each one of our businesses. We need to be bold enough to ask the real questions of ourselves and our colleagues. We need to trust.

At CommArts, we often say that we mirror the culture and reflect it back to our clients and customers. This new world will require our most prodigious talents constantly to imbibe incredible amounts of information and conscientiously edit and style. Designers are problem-solvers, and the problems have gotten more complicated. We need to hone our political and communication skills and tune up our effectiveness. We need to create and recruit new problem-solvers because there are not enough people with these skills.

There is a need for greater transparency, for greater truth-telling. Designers will be the outside observers, the scouts for the new frontier of imagination. They will return from the edges with the illustrations and narratives, telling people what they are seeing. Design fluency and literacy will become the newest highly desirable business skill to connect disparate disciplines for maximum effectiveness. Designers will become more necessary than ever as leaders of a world of constant change and information overload. Designers will take the data and turn it into information infused with sweeping vistas and viewpoints.

The future will look like the past, but the past will not predict the future. The future will be both exciting and boring. It will exhibit all the dualities we have now but with underlines and highlights. We’ll need to stay focused and gain perspective. We are well positioned to shape the future. And after a crisis of confidence that will spur innovation and creativity, the design profession will lead the way.

In the meantime, there are proposals to write, approaches to be described, and estimates to be revised.

Janet Martin is the president of Communication Arts Inc., the Boulder, Colorado-based design firm founded by Henry Beer and Richard Foy in 1973. Her education includes a B.A. in art history from Colorado College and an M.B.A from the University of Denver. Martin is a past president of the Association of Professional Design Firms and a Senior Fellow of the Design Futures Council.