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!
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