Bill Grant, mayor of Canton, Georgia, and president and chief creative officer of the award-winning Grant Design Collaborative, shares insight into how the skills that designers possess can drive advocacy.
Bill Grant, the 2020 IIDA Advocacy Symposium keynote speaker, has a career that is a testament of his commitment to exemplary design, as well as his dedication to service, both in the design and public sector. He is the founder, president, and chief creative officer of the award-winning Grant Design Collaborative, as well as halfway through the first of his four-year term of Canton, Georgia.
Grant is a leader and influential designer whose firm’s cross-discipline work includes communication design, brand strategy, advertising, product development, branded interiors, and experience design; and he has recently been named One of the 50 Most Influential Designers Working Today by Graphic Design Magazine.
His work earned him the honor of being named AIGA Fellow in 2005 and AIGA National President from 2005-2007, and his expertise saw him assist in curriculum development for the Harvard Business School’s program “Business Perspectives for Design Leaders.” Bill is also an advocate for public service—he was elected to Canton City Council in 2013 and 2017, served as Mayor Pro Tempore from 2014-2019, and was elected to a four-year term as the City of Canton Mayor from 2020-2024.
IIDA: Why did you pursue a career in design and what has kept you in design?
Bill Grant: I began my career at Shaw Industries as a copywriter in 1984 after graduating from Berry College, a liberal arts school, with a BA in both English and Psychology. Within a year, Shaw started their contract division, and I was promoted to marketing manager for the commercial division where I built an in-house design team. I left Shaw in 1989 and started my own multi-disciplinary design firm—over the years, a lot of my clients have been in the commercial furnishings sector including Interface, Mohawk Group, Herman Miller, Steelcase, CF Stinson, Association for Contract Textiles (ACT), Contract Magazine, Decca, and others.
My design education has been a work in progress, developing with the needs of my clients—everything from brand strategy, marketing, and identity, to showroom design and product development. I have had my own design firm for over 30 years because I keep learning and growing as a designer and individual. There is no other profession that offers such a creative outlet for personal growth.
IIDA: How did serving in leadership positions at a professional organization change your career and perspective?
Bill Grant: When I attended my first AIGA Design Conference over 30 years ago, my recently departed mentor, Milton Glaser, closed the event by saying, “Never underestimate the power of design to change the world.” From that moment on, I knew clearly that design was the profession for me, and I wanted to surround myself with the brightest minds in the industry. Without a formal design education, I took the opportunity to learn and grow as much as possible while also striving to maintain my unique perspective. I was asked to join the AIGA Atlanta Chapter Board in 1994 and was elected president in 1997. Through various national leadership events and programs, I was asked to join the AIGA National Board in 2001. While serving as a board member, I co-authored and launched the first Design and Business Ethics Guide, chaired the 2002 GAIN Business Design Conference, and assisted in the curriculum development for the inaugural AIGA Harvard Business School program, “Business Perspectives for Design Professionals.”
After my board term ended in 2004, I received a call from Michael Bierut at Pentagram asking me if I would serve as the AIGA National President. I was extremely honored to be trusted by the designers I admired most to lead and advance our profession. My tenure as national president gave me new confidence that my atypical career path was justified and respected. While serving, I visited and spoke at over 38 chapters across the country, and gave lectures internationally in China and Taiwan, as well as other countries. I also championed for change within the industry and organization with AIGA’s first diversity initiative, something I am very proud of. My experience changed me in dramatic ways, allowing me again to grow, gain added confidence as a designer and leader and, most of all taught me the value of not only serving to advance your career but to give back and serve to increase the value of the entire profession.
IIDA: What’s your town of Canton like? Why did you run?
Bill Grant: Canton is a suburb in the rapidly growing North Metro Atlanta region. When I moved Grant Design Collaborative here in 1976, the population was 7,500, and today it is around 35,000 and growing. I have described the city in the past as “Mayberry meets Twin Peaks!” It has a small-town character but is warm and welcoming. Like most southern towns, our downtown district became abandoned when the interstate came through the region, but our historic buildings were left intact. I purchased one of those buildings for my studio in 1996 but noticed there were no restaurants or shops downtown. I worked with the mayor at that time to start the Main Street program which helped to revitalize downtown Canton. We now have great restaurants, shops, and beautiful parks—it was basically a redesign project. In 1997, I purchased a home a few blocks away in the historic residential district that was zoned for single-family residential only. After meeting with the current mayor to confirm the zoning was permanent, I completely renovated the 100-year-old home in 2004.
A couple of years later, a local doctor acquired a home two blocks away on Main Street and decided he wanted to relocate his office thereby applying for commercial zoning. This began a yearlong zoning battle, one we were told was futile and “a done deal” due to a zoning map error. I organized our neighborhood, and we fought City Hall, eventually winning the litigation a year later. This made me realize I needed to be more cognizant of the actions our City Council were taking, and how much they impacted my daily life. During the zoning conflict, I was stunned by the lack of respect or responsiveness our elected officials had for their constituents.
As the same Council members continued to be reelected without opposition, I decided to run against an incumbent hometown councilman in 2011— I lost but got 42% of the vote in a three-way race. I didn’t give up and ran again in 2014, winning with 67% of the vote and after that ran for re-election in 2018 and won with 72% of the vote. I stepped down from my council seat in August of 2019 to run for mayor and I won by a landslide with 75% of the vote. For me, serving as mayor is an extension of my design career, and an opportunity to learn even more about the transformational powers of design. I have always advocated the importance of design on the local level, and I lead the effort to create a new strategic master plan for downtown Canton.
It has been very successful, with tangible results— I chaired efforts to create a new brand identity campaign for the City of Canton which our citizen’s love, and I have worked to preserve local historic assets through public and private partnerships finding adaptive reuses for our former schools, cotton mill facilities, and other historic buildings. As mayor, my current efforts are designing a new citywide master plan or road map that will strategically inform our growth and future development. Good design and design strategy are at the core of all of my leadership efforts to help create what we are calling the “Coolest Small Town in America.”
IIDA: Why should designers be involved in local government?
Bill Grant: Because designers need a seat at the table. Local decisions have far more impact on your daily quality of life than anything else. In addition, your participation and advocacy for great design can produce tangible, measurable results in your community. I became extremely frustrated with national politics many years ago, feeling like my contributions did not make any difference. However, on the local level, they are extremely important not only for improving the visual aesthetics of space and place but more so because local ordinances and codes impact every decision from building standards and historic preservation to signage and landscaping.
And let’s not forget zoning, one of the reasons I got involved on the local level. Good zoning practices are basically great design strategies. Never has it been more critical for designers to serve their local communities as the importance of proper placemaking impacts everything: quality of life, sustainability, economic development, transportation, diversity and so much more. Designers and design thinkers can help lead the way in increasing the value and potential of their communities by engaging with their local governments, or better yet, running and getting elected to office!
Registration for the 2020 Virtual Advocacy Symposium will be opening soon, follow us on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram for the official announcement, and sign up to get involved in advocacy work in your region.
On June 30, advocacy work done in partnership with IIDA and ASID on behalf of interior designers, saw great success in the state of Florida as Governor Ron DeSantis signed into law the Deregulation of Professions & Occupations Bill. This achievement is made possible through the advocacy work from IIDA and ASID, as well as the support and hard work of the Florida design community and colleague organizations such as the Council for Interior Design Qualification (CIDQ).
The deregulation bill ensures the integrity of the interior design profession and public safety through the formation of a voluntary state interior design registry. Interior designers in Florida will benefit from the law maintaining the title “Registered Interior Designer” for qualified designers, the interior design positions on the Board of Architecture & Interior Design, the interior design construction document stamp for plan review, and that “Registered Interior Designers” will fall within the statutory definition of “registered design professional.”
Read more about the bill in our FAQ above, and sign up to get involved in advocacy work in your region.
IIDA Headquarters is happy to announce that our annual Advocacy Symposium will be going virtual this year! Originally scheduled to be held in Atlanta this September, our sessions will be live via Zoom September 8-10. Programming will include:
- A specific student-focused session where anyone can learn about the basics of advocacy, the NCIDQ examination, and why it’s important to engage early in your career with legislators about the profession.
- Two sessions focused on designers in public office. Bill Grant, chief creative officer of Grant Design Collaborative and mayor of Canton, Georgia, will keynote the symposium and IIDA Executive Vice President and CEO Cheryl S. Durst, Hon. FIIDA, will moderate a discussion with Julie Sayers and Bonnie Limbird, two IIDA members who ran for local office in Kansas and were elected last year.
- Day three will wrap things up with two sessions. The first will feature IIDA and ASID Advocacy department staff along with state lobbyists to discuss the successes and challenges encountered this year and how things in the statehouses have changed due to COVID-19. The second will include a panel of IIDA members discussing their state advocacy efforts for the year.
Click here to register for the symposium.
We’re very excited to be able to offer relevant and interesting programming once again for all those interested in advocating for the interior design profession!
In the most recent Coffee with Cheryl, a webinar presented by KI and IIDA as part of the Community as Strategy program series, a panel of design professionals pondered community building in the time of COVID and what it means to meaningfully engage with community during times of societal unrest.
Last year’s Community as Strategy program series took IIDA and KI to six U.S. cities where designers and clients discussed the importance of supporting communities through design and described their unique respective community needs. This year’s series looks drastically different—through the use of virtual technology—but the primary thesis remains: maintaining community is vital, and in challenging times, how will design help?
This iteration of Coffee with Cheryl was moderated by IIDA Executive Vice President and CEO Cheryl S. Durst, Hon. FIIDA, and Deborah Breuning, vice president of A+D marketing at KI, and brought together 16 design professionals to consider our most pressing questions for the future: In a work-from-home world, how can design help maintain community? What will be important designers to communicate within the built environment? How do we continue to engage in community given all we know about the world around us?
Panelists were invited to share their thoughts on ways design can support, reinforce, and engage community, even through times of adversity. This notion of community, given that we are living through the pandemics of both coronavirus and systemic racism, is more important than ever. According to Diana Farmer-Gonzales, IIDA, Assoc. AIA, managing director and principal of Gensler’s Miami office, “We have to be intentional with community and with how we build it.”
- Cheryl S. Durst, Hon. FIIDA, executive vice president and CEO, IIDA
- Deborah Breuning, vice president of A+D marketing, KI
- Abby Scott, IIDA, senior interior designer and architectural studio leader, HDR
- Alexandra Bonner, IIDA, project interior designer, FCArchitects
- Amy Guhl, interior designer, Neumann Monson Architects
- Betsy Vohs, CEO and partner, Studio BV
- Diana Farmer-Gonzales, IIDA, Assoc. AIA, managing director and principal, Gensler Miami
- Erika Moody, IIDA, principal, Helix Architecture + Design
- Fiona Grandowski, principal, Collins Cooper Carusi Architects
- Gabrielle Bullock, IIDA, FAIA, NOMAC, director of global diversity, principal, Perkins and Will
- Hillary L’Ecuyer, IIDA, interior design, Hollis + Miller Architects
- Jane Hallinan, IIDA, interior designer, Perkins Eastman
- Jon Otis, IIDA, principal and creative director, Object Agency (O|A)
- Melissa Hanley, IIDA, co-founder, principal, and CEO, Studio Blitz
- Ronnie Belizaire, IIDA, corporate real estate manager, Americas, Daimler North America
- Sarah Kuchar, owner and creative director, Kuchar Studio
- Sascha Wagner, FIIDA, AIA, principal and CEO, Huntsman Architectural Group
- Natalie Engels, IIDA, design principal, Gensler
- Viveca Bissonnette FIIDA, principal and vice president, Hollander Design Group
Stay up-to-date on all IIDA webinar and virtual events at www.iida.org.
The following is an excerpt from IIDA’s annual Industry Roundtable report, Industry Roundtable 23: The Future of Place, Experience, and Worklife. Read the full report here.
There is no mathematical formula for creating products and spaces that are engaging and compelling—that end-users want to spend time with and in. That said, Holger Hampf of BMW Designworks relies on a set of “power tools” to create designs that have “stickiness”—an attribute that’s getting harder to achieve in our consumerist age of disposability and endless trade-ins and upgrades. “We’re in a dangerous moment where we are able to build excitement for—but not attachment to—objects,” he says with some urgency. “We need to find ways of retaining excitement and building attachment to our designs over time.”
Layering emotive, tonal qualities atop the physical, “object” qualities can enhance the sense of discovery and surprise. It’s an approach that correlates to the workplace, for which we design space around specific behaviors and to foster new types of behaviors. It’s the reverse of starting from an aesthetic style or visual cues. Notions like shape and style come only after first considering the behavior we wish to support, as well as defining the attributes we expect and want the design to deliver.
Another intriguing, if concerning, aspect of our cultural moment is a lowered standard regarding what we consume. “Everything we experience these days is compressed and pixelated”—meaning the music and images that stream through our smartphones and Internet cables. “We have started to accept the low res, which to me, as a designer, is a disaster.” It’s also a design challenge to be solved. “How can we extrapolate and create experiences that don’t feel compressed?” Hampf proposes. There’s the opportunity to create more relevant, authentic, “hi-res” experiences for our clients.
Design is Ultimately Human
“Automation/AI will change every industry, product, and service, including our profession,” says Diana Farmer-Gonzalez, IIDA, Assoc. AIA. Indeed, it already has. Consider the advent of smart test fits. Verda Alexander, IIDA, had a darker take, cautioning that “AI and genetic modification will pose new problems for jobs—and increasing inequality.”
But where we once used to fear the robots, we now want to partner with them. It’s not about man versus machine, but man and machine. Perhaps in the future, there will be VR interfaces and “prosthetics that fundamentally blur the boundary of human and machine—cyborgs,” Susana Covarrubias, IIDA, predicts. “Interfaces that highlight human interactions are what’s most important.”
But for now, we need to work together better. AI is here to stay and will only become more useful and prevalent. Technology is now often viewed as a positive enabler. This is a shift from the usual party line which supports that technology undermines human connection. Technology can reduce loneliness, for example, a cultural phenomenon that concerns many industry leaders. Julia Feldmeier, journalist and brand anthropologist notes, “Technology gives us a sense of rootedness in a culture defined by the failure of institutions, a culture in which people no longer trust religion or corporations or government.”
Read IIDA’s full Industry Roundtable report, The Future of Place, Experience, and Worklife.
In the spring of 2020, in response to a rapidly changing world, IIDA developed a weekly series of conversations focused on the impact of sudden change on the design community, and in turn, design’s role in impacting our collective futures.
The Collective D(esign) webinar series saw the curating of dialogues centering on topics ranging from healthcare, hospitality, and workplace design to education, product design, sustainability, and more. As part of IIDA’s 2020 NeoConnect programming, IIDA presented Collective D(esign): Women Lead Design to center the voices of women on the importance of ensuring diversity and equity in the future of design. With an eye on leadership and how women specifically lead, the panel addressed the importance of being able to see yourself reflected in your leaders and managers.
The discussion was hosted by IIDA CEO and Executive Vice President Cheryl S. Durst, Hon. FIIDA, and featured panelists Robin Klehr Avia, FIIDA, regional managing principal at Gensler from the IIDA New York Chapter; Gabrielle Bullock, FAIA, IIDA, principal and director of global diversity at Perkins and Will from the IIDA Southern California Chapter; Sarah Kuchar, IIDA, creative director of Sarah Kuchar Studio from the IIDA Illinois Chapter; and Angie Lee, AIA, IIDA, partner and design director of interiors at FXCollaborative from IIDA’s New York Chapter.
Although the movement for gender-based equality in the workplace is decades-old, the recent “Me Too” movement brought to the forefront the dangers that a homogeneous workplace culture can produce, particularly when leadership roles lack diversity in gender. As society faces current challenges—an ongoing global health pandemic, and a reckoning for an urgent need for racial justice—it’s imperative to act from an intersectional lens and strive to promote leadership and equity across demographics including race, sexual orientation, age, and socio-economic backgrounds as well as career experience.
“I believe that this is an opportunity for us to dismantle the systematic racism that exists, and address and reset our profession to truly, with eyes wide open, embrace, celebrate, and apply unique perspectives through an inclusive and just lens,” says Gabrielle Bullock. She notes that although this movement and awareness may be new to some, it has been the sustained reality for others. By encouraging change in our industry, we can better support leadership from different demographics, and more successfully design with an informed vision for a more diverse and inclusive use of interiors.
“We cannot deny the power of representation—seeing someone who looks like you, seeing them in a critical position of leadership is so important.”— Cheryl Durst
One of the most effective ways to elicit real change is through recognizing and honoring the differences that exist. Race, ethnicity, gender identity, orientation, and socioeconomic background all contribute significantly to the ways individuals relate to the world around them. To navigate a world, and especially a workplace environment and culture, that doesn’t take these differences into account can be difficult and create roadblocks to focusing on the work.
“Being brought up in a male-dominated profession, culture, and society, the advice that I was given and that I applied to myself would not work out most of the time.” Angie Lee explains, “I had to try everything until I found what worked for me. And it was a little challenging because it took a little longer to find my voice, find my footing.” She notes that although she didn’t always have a lot of women to lean on, she did have male figures that believed in her and pushed her to develop skills and get out of her comfort zone, recognizing that “it was always a model of leadership that didn’t fit me.”
“Give opportunity, and give it young. You might think that you’re [giving opportunity] because it’s a woman more often than you should, but I guarantee you’re probably just not doing it enough.”— Sarah Kuchar
This process of conforming to a workforce not built for you nor led by those like you creates an added burden for young professionals. Instead of spending time developing and innovating the industry, they can spend years just learning how to navigate these settings. The experience of learning from a leader that you see yourself in and one who knows how to move through the world from a similar background is invaluable and important to remember when you move into a leadership role.
When Robin Klehr Avia was a young designer interviewing at architectural firms, she noted that she only had one interview in which she was interviewed by a woman. “Margo Walsh affirmed for me that it was possible for a woman to be recognized and rewarded. There was somebody in my image across the table and she was in charge and the boss and that had an incredible effect on me.”
Avia differentiates this experience from traditional mentorship, recognizing that although Graham was indeed a mentor, she was more importantly a sponsor. While you learn a lot about the industry and your profession through mentorship, you still need someone to put you in the room. “it’s about a sponsor opening doors for us—it’s about someone putting us in a place where we can succeed. I think that that is really what we need to be for other women. We need to be their sponsors.”
“I see it as a responsibility and honor to be able to mentor, sponsor, share, you know to anybody who needs it and wants it.”— Gabrielle Bullock
Mentorship is an invaluable part of shaping yourself as a professional. But without a sponsor, you don’t always have access to the opportunities that grow your career. “I was given many opportunities to fail,” explains Lee. She notes that as she looks back she can now see that many of the men she considered mentors were actually sponsors that gave her opportunities to grow. “I didn’t meet my mentors until I joined organizations like IIDA.”
Bullock notes that she recognizes the importance in her visibility and success. “I am a role model to some. An example of what you could be, how far you could go. As a black woman in this industry, I think of it as an honor to provide this for others.”
“I’ve been at this for 44 years. I think the best part is that I can look back and see the structure that others are building upon the foundation.”— Robin Klehr Avia
For some designers, it’s not enough to work within the current systems and processes. Sarah Kucher started her own business after working in larger firms and finds that being a woman-owned business leader and designer has given her the opportunity to provide the guidance and help that she had received in her career. She notes that “there is a strong movement of supporting women-owned businesses,” and credits her visibility with forming an alliance within the Chicago creative community. “I’ve connected with several female entrepreneurs in the city and creative fields we meet quarterly and we help each other.”
Leading as a woman is inherently different, and Kucher recognizes that “Leadership is about organizing people and getting people in a big group to have and feel purpose.” She reflects that being a successful leader isn’t about being the most technically skilled but rather effectively motivating and creating a collaborative space.
“How we came up through the ranks, what we want to change going forward, and how to help us dream big enough. That’s what I lost along the way trying on these models of leadership that never jogged well.”— Angie Lee
Bullock recognizes that “there is a difference between management and leadership,” and “navigating that line in figuring out when to be one or the other has been very interesting.”
Leadership can look many different ways, but the most rewarding aspect of leading can be observing the changes that you have actively made, and those that your visibility creates. Being that beacon for younger designers can provide the freedom to carve out their space in the industry and courage to take more risks.
“I can see women that I’ve sponsored making the world a better place; I talk to a lot of young people I work with about placing value on significance over success,” Bullock reflects. “I think it’s important in that significance isn’t like a one-off—it’s not about what you did last week or last month but it’s really about what you do over the course of many years it’s your life’s work.”
Watch the full conversation that further explores leadership and diversity in design, examining race and gender, while looking forward to the future, finding optimism during a tenuous time.