AIGA SF Fellow Interview Shel Perkins

Some of us design web sites. Some of us design graphics. Shel Perkins designs the way creative businesses run. All the things that most designers avoid like the plague—contracts, lawyers, bankers, HR—Perkins has embraced, studied, learned from, taught about, written up, and turned into a decades-long career as an operations consultant to design companies around the world. It’s a career that has taken him from Silicon Valley upstarts like Clement Mok Designs, to motion graphics powerhouse Pittard Sullivan’s London office, the San Francisco office of Berlin’s MetaDesign, and the New York studio of wayfinding leader Two Twelve Associates.

At every step in this process Perkins has made sure to share his expertise with the members of AIGA. Starting in the 80s, when he was a student at the Academy of Art, Shel became a member of the San Francisco chapter of AIGA. His day job after graduation was working for Clement Mok, whose firm was beginning to explore the marketing possibilities of HyperCard in what eventually would be called interactive multimedia.

Surfing by Moonlight
In the 90s, designers and clients discovered the World Wide Web and suddenly San Francisco felt like the epicenter of a massive, industry-changing paradigm shift. Interaction Design became a new discipline. To ensure AIGA SF could help its members understand and take advantage of this medium, Shel began to put together a series of events that captured the zeitgeist. He ran a series of successful after-hours events he called “Surfing by Moonlight.” One memorable panel discussion booked into a space on Townsend Street convened the founders of up-and-coming digital agencies like Organic Online and Vivid Studios. The result: an SRO crowd and an invitation to Shel to join the chapter board of directors. (He later served as president of the San Francisco chapter, and eventually joined the national board in New York.)

At that time Shel was working in business operations at Clement Mok Designs. While the studio was taking on cutting-edge projects like the touch screen ATM for Wells Fargo, Shel was taking classes at UC Berkeley’s MBA program. Formally trained as a designer, he had always been interested in the business side of running a design firm. His aptitude, and his willingness to learn, combined with serious design chops gave him the credibility he needed to step into the role of VP of Operations.

As Perkins recalls, “I thought of myself as the operating system and the staff designers were the applications. Working in the background, I had to allocate resources and provide the bandwidth necessary for everyone else to stay up and running and producing good work. If I was doing my job right, it would not be visible.”

There’s a book in that!
Perkins would go on to help other design firms including MetaDesign extend their operational skill sets before opening his own consultancy, Shel Perkins & Associates. Colleagues teaching at design schools would often ask him to sit in on senior-level portfolio classes to offer “real-world” advice.

As Perkins recalls, “New graduates from design degree programs would hit the streets with a pretty good portfolio and a lot of enthusiasm, but they had no idea which end was up. The students were shocked by how studios were structured as businesses, how they planned budgets and schedules, negotiated contracts and made money. They knew more about Victorian typography than they did about proposal writing.”

It wasn’t long before Perkins realized there were certain key issues that came up again and again. Project management, studio organization, client contracts, HR, financial management, long-range planning. To address these, he developed a slew of consulting and teaching materials.

“Eventually I realized I had all this content I was sitting on,” Perkins says. And then at Seybold a friend introduced him to an editor who said, “There’s a book in that!”

The result was Talent is Not Enough: Business Secrets for Designers. Intended as a textbook for students in design schools about to make their way into the world of business, the work is now in its third edition, which is available as an e-book from Peachpit.

A Tradition of Giving Back
In the early years of a career, Perkins says, “You build skills and gather information. Eventually, you reach a tipping point. And you want to give back.” As part of that impulse Perkins continues to be involved with AIGA. Today, in 2020, Perkins chairs the Center for Practice Management, a position he’s held for the last dozen years. He’s proudest of the instructional material he’s created for the creative community on contract terms, copyright basics, and business practices. For example, the model contract that he has co-authored, the AIGA Standard Form of Agreement for Design Services, is now in its fifth edition. And designers all across the country—both students and working professionals—have benefitted greatly from these resources. “That” Perkins says “makes me really happy.”

By Sam McMillan