[Podcast] Personal Growth, Mentorship and Strategy with Philip VanDusen

[Podcast] Personal Growth, Mentorship and Strategy with Philip VanDusen

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Trying to build a bullet-proof business? Tune in with Philip VanDusen to learn to use the power of strategy, design and marketing to build a strong standing business. We discuss personal growth, mentorship and more.

Philip VanDusen is the founder of Verhaal Brand Design, a YouTube Star and has over 20 years experience in branding & design including roles like ECD at Landor, Head of Design for Global Snacks at PepsiCo, P&G Old Navy.

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Transcript (Auto Generated)

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Hello, and welcome to JUST Branding, the only podcast dedicated to helping designers and entrepreneurs grow brands.

Hello and welcome to JUST Branding. Today we have Philip VanDusen, who is the founder of an agency in New York by the name of Verhaal Brand Design. He’s a YouTube star.

He’s got over 20 years experience in branding and design. He’s worked at places like Landor as the ECD or executive creative director. He’s been the head of design at Global Snacks at PepsiCo, worked on brands such as Old Navy and many more, which I won’t name John, but he is a legend.

He also runs a podcast by the name of Brand Design Masters. Definitely check that out. He’s got a coaching group.

He’s got a Facebook group with tons and tons of value in it, and Philip’s values really align with me. He loves educating and as soon as I came across him, I wanted to get him on the podcast because he has strategic thinking in his work. He’s got that experience and now he’s helping other designers level up as well.

So welcome to the show, Philip.

Thanks, Jacob. Thanks, Matt. Glad to be here.

Thank you.

We’re excited to have you on.

Yes, Matt Davies is here in case you do. But today we’re going to talk about selling strategy, how to use it, how to get clients to appreciate it, how to sell it in, as well as the differences between working for smaller size businesses and as well as larger size businesses. So Philip has been working for Fortune 50 to 100 companies.

So he can bring that experience to the table and then we’ll talk about small business as well. So let’s talk about definitions first before we get into it. What does branding mean to you and strategy as well?

Branding to me is absolutely holistic. I mean, there’s a lot of arm wrestling going on in the professional community about what branding is or isn’t. Some people say your brand is what people talk about you after you leave the room.

I think that branding is more about an ecosystem. It’s how you show up physically across all of the brand touchpoints that you exist in digitally or physically. But then it’s also how you show up in people’s minds, memories, their emotional component, the upper levels of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, I think.

And really when it comes down to brand essence, that’s where it really resides. It resides up there in the highest levels of that pyramid where you’re really talking about a deep emotional connection that defies anything that’s intellectual, I think.

Philip, for the sake of some of our listeners who perhaps haven’t explored Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, do you want to just kind of give a quick overview of that? Because I use it as a tool all the time as a way of explaining the needs of customers, but it’s probably worth giving an overview of that, if that’s okay.

Sure. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a construct, essentially, that’s shaped like a pyramid. And at the bottom of the pyramid are your physical survival needs.

And as you move up that pyramid, they get more esoteric and more emotional. In the design industry, they’ve developed a strategy tool called the brand pyramid, which is really patterned almost directly after Maslow’s pyramid, where you start off with the physical attributes of a brand, and it moves up to the brand essence or the more emotional attributes or the deeper emotional resonances of a brand. And so that’s why I was talking about it, because essentially a lot of brand tools are kind of structured around that kind of core construct of Maslow’s hierarchy.


Thank you very much for just outlining that.

So in terms of strategy and bridging the gap between, I guess, designer strategy and how you define branding, how do you communicate that to the client? You’ve talked about the hierarchy of needs, but how do you, I guess, sew in strategy?

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Really, when it comes down to it, design is communication. So it’s visual communication or verbal communication combination of the two, which is encouraging a customer or viewer or whoever comes across it to do something. And when you talk to designers, designers or creative professionals have a tendency to get very, very caught up in the visual aspects of what it is they’re doing.

So the imagery, the colors, the logos, the motion design, whatever it is that a creative professional does. And when you’re presenting to a client or when a client thinks of work that they want done for themselves, they may think very much along those lines as well. I need a logo.

I need a video. I need a YouTube banner. And it’s very easy for the conversation to get moved towards and center around the visual thing that you’re developing or the copy on it.

And when you limit the conversation or the interaction to something of that level, what you’re doing is you’re essentially setting up an arm wrestling match between you and the client. Because it comes down to a very subjective decision around whether the client likes that icon, that font, that color, that layout, or whether you do. And the client is always paying the bills.

So the person who’s going to win that argument, that very subjective judgment of the design, is the client. The importance of strategy is to elevate it beyond this level of a beauty contest. And essentially, you want to make the creation of design and design communication be one that’s completely objective rather than subjective.

It takes it out of the realm of what the client likes and turns it into what is going to perform in the marketplace. And performing in the marketplace operates on a whole lot of different levels from what is the category or the industry that that design or that company is operating in. What do those customers within that industry expect of a company in that industry or a product or service in that industry?

What do they like? What are they gravitating towards? The other aspect of that is competition.

So no company or industry operates in a vacuum. The competition is constantly moving and adjusting and competing and changing and morphing and evolving. And you as a company going to market and bringing design to market, you have to adjust to that as well.

And so where strategy comes to play is understanding the customer, what they expect, understanding industry, understanding the moving environment of the competition. And all of those things play into the objective decisions that you have to make around design. So say you’re in a particular industry, you’re in, you know, you have a equestrian farm, right?

And you sell horseback riding. Well, you can be a western horseback riding equestrian farm, or you can be an eastern, you know, kind of a, an English kind of mode of, I’m searching for the word. I know that there’s a word that describes it.

But a dressage kind of approach to horseback riding. And those two different customer targets, the dressage, you know, fox hunting, horse jumping kind of customer is expecting something very different than the cowboy wannabe who wants to go to Montana. And so even though you’re in a particular industry, the competitive set that you are working in or against or trying to show up to or the customer you’re trying to appeal to, what they are expecting of you in design is affected by their point of view of what they want.

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And all of those things affect directly what you do in design, how you communicate, what your colors are, what your fonts are, all that sort of stuff. And it should not come down to the opinion of the company owner as to whether they like blue or not. It should be whether the customer wants blue, whether the end user is expecting blue.

It should come down to whether the competition, everybody in the competitive set is using blue. Do you want to stand out from the competition or do you want to fit in with the competition? Those are a lot of the things that go into design strategy and move design out of a subjective creation process to an objective creation process.

That’s brilliant. So how do you actually do that? You’ve defined the value of it, but how do you actually do that as a, let’s say, we’re a designer and a client comes to us for a particular product or service or whatever it is, how do you shift the conversation to actually do that?

It really comes down to asking the question that what do you want the design to achieve? And you can say, do you want to like the logo or do you want the logo to perform in the marketplace for your business? And because those two things may not be the same.

You may create a logo that operates perfectly in the competitive set and in the business and attracts the customer you want and gets them to do what you want them to do, but the client may not like it. And that’s a conversation that you have to have right up front because changing the judgment criteria of a design project and centering around what the design has to do, the action it has to manifest or create, is once the client aligns to that point of view, it’s a lot easier to advocate for the work that you’re doing and the process that you’re going through.

You said the key word there. I was going to ask your process. You’ve worked with the big companies, but what is the differences between the process you may use for something like a Fortune 50 company versus a small business?

Actually, there’s no process difference to tell you the truth. I really think in strategic branding, it’s not a question of how you’re doing it. It’s just a question of the scale of the company that you’re working for.

You may be employing a much smaller team and doing a much smaller competitive audit or whatever those phases of work that you’re doing, but the basics of branding are the same no matter whether you’re branding the corner doughnut shop or whether you’re branding a new product for P&G or General Motors. The processes and the stages of that are the same. Where you’re learning about what the product or service is, who the customer avatar is, what the competitive environment is, where this company or product or service is going to be operating within that competitive environment, what their goals are, and then what you’re going to go to market with and then how you’re going to do it.

All of those sorts of things apply just as equally to a corner doughnut shop as they do for GE launching a new jet engine.

You mentioned, I love the analogy and everything you’ve said is very much what me and Jacob sort of encourage on the JUST Branding Podcast. This advocacy of customer needs over the individual winds of the business owners. It’s about the customer and attracting the right customer strategically.

And these are the big questions. One of the questions I’ve got is, so what if a company agrees with that? Yeah, we get it.

We’re going to go down this track that you’ve mentioned. We’re going to try and produce a style and present ourselves and show up in the way that will attract the right customer. What if they agree to that, but they don’t quite know how to go around that?

Specifically, how do you kind of sense check or how do you advise designers to sense check their work so that we can be pretty sure that the work that we’re producing is going to attract the right kind of customer for the client?

There’s a couple of different ways of doing it. One requires user involvement and one doesn’t. One is a little more subjective than objective.

The best way to do it really is to engage in user research, and you can do that on a number of different levels, everything from posting a design in a Facebook group around a particular industry or has that particular customer avatar there, populating there and ask their opinion of it. You can take $100 in Facebook ads and drive people to a Google form and voting for or against a particular design to get objective feedback from users. And that’s where, when you’re talking about the corner doughnut shop or GE, that’s when scale and budget plays a huge part in it, that you can test a design for GE in focus groups around the world, in physical focus groups and in mocked up packaging and in online digital ways using huge numbers of people voting.

And you can get a very, very clear sense of whether a design is going to succeed or fail in an industry. But designers at the individual freelancer level, there’s still opportunities to get feedback. You can get feedback from your own creative professional community, people who work in a huge range of industries and are always adjusting their opinions and adjusting how they are used to evaluating work through different lenses.

And so that’s what we do as designers when we read a creative brief, we’re designing work through a particular lens and we have to put those lenses on to judge things. So you can get feedback from your own professional design community, you can get feedback from the community of the avatar, you can get feedback from the competitive set in a way that’s kind of shielded so there’s not as much visibility to the intellectual property that may be in progress. But really when it comes down to it, the only way to make it not a he said, she said when you’re in the creative review is to have some sort of consumer feedback.

And I’ll give you a really interesting example. When I was working with a client, which was one of the biggest pet food manufacturers in the United States, we were developing a kitty litter for them. And they wanted to, a kitty litter packaging.

And we were going into our very first creative review with them. And we knew that it was probably going to be a fight because some of the brand managers had a tendency to be the I like blue kind of people. And even though we were presenting deep levels of brand strategy, they sometimes would bring in, oh, you know, I showed this to my wife and she thinks blah, blah, blah, right?

Every designer’s nightmare. So one of the things that we did when we had that creative and development was we went out to stores, to pet food stores, and we went to the Litter Isle and we did in-isle interviews just using a cell phone and showed this design work to people and just got their impressions of it just like mom and pop, right? And I got to tell you when we presented this work and put those videos in the deck, the only thing the CMO could talk about when that presentation was over were what those people had said about the work in the aisle of the store.

The voice of the consumer carried so much more weight than almost any kind of brand pyramid that you could have put in the deck. And so it really is that is where the rubber hits the road. That’s where designs are, you know, they succeed or they fail.

They succeed at the point of sale, at the point where the customer comes in contact with it. And if you can get some sort of feedback, some sort of input, some sort of indication of the success of the work, if it’s communicating the way you want it to before you lock the design down, that’s the most ideal scenario.

I think that’s absolutely fantastic. The thing for me is that perhaps designers don’t build that into their processes as much as they should from a strategic level. And we started the podcast and we were talking about how do you build value?

How do you almost sell the value of strategic thinking? And I think this is a great example, isn’t it, of being able to say to people, look, for us, it’s not just about our individual wins, not even us as designers. It’s about what the customer thinks.

So first we have to identify the customer, but then we have to go out and we’re going to try and keep the customer involved in our decision making, so we’re really informed so that it actually, this design actually solves the problem that you’ve come to us with in the first place. And I think that now we’re talking value. Now somebody’s thinking, hang on, these guys are not just here to draw fancy pictures.

They’re here to help solve a business problem. And I’ve got one other sort of thing to throw down there really. And one of the things I’ve been finding, I do individual consultancy with clients direct as a sort of solo consultant.

And one of the things I’ve found is to kind of ask clients early on, what problem do we, does our brand solve? Now to ask that really early on is helpful because what that really picks apart is, what need do we think we’re fulfilling for the customer? So once you’ve asked the question, what problem do we solve?

And also you’ve helped or you’ve worked with the client to kind of describe, as you put it, the avatar of your ideal client. What that then allows you to do is, if you can go out, find those people and describe the problem that the brand is supposed to be fulfilling and ask them, where do they go to fulfill that problem right now, right? So what that sometimes does is, and the reason I mention that is because that sometimes opens up a whole new competitor set that you never even realized existed before you take on the project.

And that then can lead to some really interesting conversations if you build that into your work early from a strategic perspective. What do you think about that, Philip, about kind of starting off really early with trying to engage with customers once you’ve identified them and trying to sort of layer the thinking really early and before it even perhaps you even hit the design stage. What are your thoughts on that?

I completely agree. And I think that a lot of times, clients have a very ingrained and sometimes erroneous perceptions around what their consumers think or don’t think. And trying to gain some knowledge of your own from a cleaner slate at the beginning is always super helpful because it helps you come to the table with number one, an understanding of the market.

And a lot of times designers are at the disadvantage and understanding a particular category that you’re new to, right? And also it gives you those in-isle verbatims around what people said about a particular design or what they said about a particular motivation or a problem that they have, and that will feed you in your process down the road. And again, it gives you tools to add to your war chest whenever it comes time to arguing for your work down the road.

So I totally, totally agree with you, Matt. And I think that one of the things about strategy with clients, and you don’t experience as much with larger companies because larger companies are, they have huge numbers of people, they really understand their category, they know very well who their competition is. When you’re working with small to medium sized businesses, a lot of times I go into discovery calls and I say to the client, I say, okay, who are your top three competitors?

Who are your top three to five competitors? And a lot of times they can name one, if. And that always really blows me away because they’re not really understanding that they’re not an independent entity.

They are operating against a whole slew of other people, sometimes in categories that they don’t even realize. And that every decision they make is positioning themselves against that competitive set. And unless they understand who and what that competitive set is and what they are doing and how they’re positioning themselves, they can’t make a choice around what they should do in the market to be the most competitive and to be ultimately the most successful.

And that, for me, when it comes to designers working with clients, is one of the biggest, easiest ways in to selling strategy. As soon as you can expose something that the client doesn’t know and teach them how important it is to success, it gives you this huge door to walk through to sell in more work. And that’s the one area where I’ve found the most deficit in clients in terms of their understanding of their businesses is what their competition is doing and how they’re doing it.

And granted, even if they know who their competitors are, what their competition is, a lot of times they don’t understand the competition to the depth that you can show them. And that could be, you know, what’s their social media presence? How much engagement are they getting?

Where are they advertising? What are they doing in their advertising? What’s their website like?

What are the visuals like? What do the visuals communicate? What are the stylistic tools that they’re using?

How are they creating a customer journey? What is the ultimate goal of that particular company’s customer journey? Do they even have one?

And all those sorts of things, clients never go to the depth that we do as branding professionals in investigating. And the more you can illustrate that to them, the more highly they value it. And more than anything else, they get like super curious because they really want to know.

They really are curious. And as soon as you can point out to them that this company that’s eating their lunch every day is doing this one thing that they’re not doing and you could teach them or show them or give them that ability, it’s like getting a blank check.

So they’re doing the selling for them. Yeah. So you mentioned that they don’t always know about the competitors.

I also find that they don’t have clear set goals either. So helping define those goals. Do you have a process to help them define that?

Yeah. I mean, I think that’s the second question that you ask, which is what is it that you want this design to achieve? Because a lot of the times that will expose the fact that what they’re asking for may not even necessarily be what it is that they need.

They may be asking for a new website design when actually their website design isn’t bad. It’s just not, they’re not getting people to fill out the contact form and what they really want are more people filling out the contact form and they think, oh, well, our website doesn’t look good, so that must be it. It could be the copy.

It could be the size of the button. It could be how they are driving people through a question and answer, you know, customer journey to get them to do the thing that you want them to do. So unless you really dig in and find out the motivation for what the problem it is that they want solved, then that’s our job to help them architect the solution.

And clients aren’t very good at architecting those solutions, I’ve found. And sometimes it exposes a huge opportunity for more work or a larger project. Sometimes it does the opposite.

And you kind of, you can get in the very good graces of clients if you actually solve a problem for them in a much less robust way than they thought they were going to have to pay for. And they will come back to you over and over again if you can deliver that kind of value and that kind of business partnership in a way that is, you know, in many cases, very surprising to them.

Yeah, I love how you say the business side of it. Because if you can talk about the actual goals of the business, if they want to make more sales or get more traffic or achieve x percent growth or whatever it may be, if you can help outline that for them, at least you have somewhere to go to. So thanks for outlining that.

So let’s pivot the conversation a little bit. You’ve got a coaching group and you have a podcast and an amazing YouTube channel, which has hundreds or thousands of videos on their helping designers level up. So what made you get into education versus this client or agency side of work?

I’ve actually always been an educator. I started off my career as a fine artist. I have my master’s in painting, of all things, and I actually started off as a teacher in fine art schools and then started my own t-shirt company, found my way into the apparel industry, and then realized very quickly that being a creative director was a lot like being a school teacher, except you made a lot more money and you weren’t out of work every nine months.

And I realized that I loved mentoring and helping designers grow, and I had an aptitude for business that a lot of creative professionals don’t. And so that’s one of the things that has always driven my career forward, is the fact that I love teaching and I love mentoring. And even in my entire 20-year professional career in managing large teams and big corporate and big agencies, I was always, for the most part, growing and mentoring and schooling designers along the entire way, to do their best work, to advance in their careers, to become better communicators, better branders.

And so when I went out on my own later in life, I started my own consultancy, but very quickly as I got into content marketing, I realized that I just had a passion for teaching that came surging back in a very different way because I was putting my value out there in a different way through podcasting and YouTube, et cetera, and now mastermind groups, et cetera. So my teaching, I think, has always been there. It just didn’t appear like it on the outside.

Well, thank you for putting all that value out there. I’ve also had that bug of educating, which I’m looking back in hindsight, I’ve always had that bug of teaching, and that’s how other people learn. You learn yourself by putting yourself out there and teaching others.

So what advice would you give to designers or other people that may want to grow?

Get a mentor. I think that I was very, very fortunate. I have a couple mentees, so people that I directly mentor in a very intimate kind of way.

And then I also have, obviously, members of my paid mastermind group, so I mentor in a little more of a group fashion, but still intimate. I was very, very fortunate in my career to have two or three exceptional mentors in my professional life. One was a managing director of an agency that I worked at.

A couple were in the fashion industry and who were my managers. And those are the people that a great mentor will challenge you and give you opportunities just before you’re ready for them and help you succeed in that. So you progress and grow and learn faster.

They challenge you.

Could you just define what a mentor is for our listeners?

In a professional setting, when I was in the agency in corporate life, my mentors were usually people I reported directly to or were one or two levels above me. And they would help me progress in my career. So learn more, be exposed to more things, be involved in areas of the business that I may not normally be involved in, expose me to higher level meetings and higher level interactions than I normally would, which would accelerate and add fuel to my growth.

And so mentorship in that kind of capacity isn’t as formal. It’s more someone who’s taken you under their wing and help you advance in your career in a concerted way. On the outside, mentoring or professional coaching, however you want to frame it, mentoring is kind of professional coaching but without the money involved.

So if you’re hiring a professional coach and paying them a fee, that’s mentorship essentially to an extent. I mentor people without a fee, so people who have approached me and given me a lot of value and then asked for some value in return, and I’ve seen their potential and their growth and their energy and their brains, and I’ve wanted to help them advance in their careers. And so it’s where I meet with them every week, every couple of weeks, and they bring problems or issues they have to the table to me to get my feedback and my comments and my ideas.

And I share and leverage my network to help them. I share and leverage all of the knowledge I’ve had through my career to help them to see things differently, to grow, to take chances, to expand their knowledge and skill set. And so it’s altruistic, but I’ve been helped so much in my career by others, either as managers or unpaid mentors, that I paid that forward.

I think it’s really interesting. So, you know, Philip, like you mentioned, you’ve got these various groups and stuff. How do you begin with somebody?

So say somebody came to you and said, look, I think I need mentoring. I want to grow my business, whatever. How do you start with somebody?

Like, is it an internal thing that you work on or is it like the skills? Like, how do you how do you kind of attack that from a coaching, mentoring perspective?

Do you mean how do I accept a new mentee or how do I approach a relationship that’s just starting?

Yeah, maybe how do you approach a relationship that is just starting? Say you see something in this individual, you think, I think I can help you. You know, how do you begin that?

How does what does that kind of look like? Does that look like weekly calls? And, you know, I’m just kind of interested in how you how you kind of package that.

And, you know, you know, if somebody, let’s say one of our listeners, for example, thought, hey, Philip seems like a great guy. I’m going to contact him. Like, how would how would that kind of work?

OK, that flip back to the first part of the question. The first part of the question is, is that I get asked to be people’s mentor, like a few times a week, and I have all the mentees I can support, and I’m not actively able to support any of them.

Sorry, folks.

So please don’t call me and ask to not be their mentor. If you do want to join one of my Mastermind communities, you can definitely do that. And that gives you very close, intimate, direct access to me on a slightly less one-on-one level.

But what that generally looks like is someone, if someone is approaching me to be their mentor, they already have a bunch of problems, challenges, ambitions that they think that I can help them with. So a lot of the time, it’s just me saying, what can I help you with? I don’t really set out an agenda.

I will bend and help in any way that I can. It’s really more directed by the mentee in a lot of ways. It’s not like I set out this action growth plan, or I’m some sort of career counselor.

I mean, to a certain extent, I do act like a career counselor, but it’s not like I’m setting up this program in any way.

I also run two groups and I find this the same thing. And to talk about the process of onboarding or how to actually get people to open up, it is at least screening them in the first place. So before they join the group, I do get them to get a video.

I know you have a questionnaire type of format to ensure that they come in willing to learn, willing to open up and willing to grow. And that mindset is important to, I guess, get access to you and to help them level up. Is that willingness to do so?

I do one-on-one Zooms with every person who’s a candidate for my masterminds before I let them in. So I curate my groups very tightly because mastermind groups or the dynamic of mastermind groups are incredibly important. And you may have someone who’s accomplished and has a great desire and ambition, but if they’re not a fit for the group or they aren’t the right personality fit for a couple of the people you see might be in the group, then I’ll just hold them till later.

So that is really important, is trying to curate those groups in a smart way. I think that something that you said kind of made me think of something, which is that running a mastermind, a lot of times it’s not really about teaching as much as asking the right questions. And it’s just like therapy, right?

Therapists don’t really tell you how to get your life together. Therapists know how to ask the questions that help you understand how to get your life together. And masterminds are very much the same way.

A lot of times people, I find that a lot of creative professionals are either isolated or lonely, don’t feel confident about the decisions they’re making. So I can guess themselves a lot. They’re stuck in analysis paralysis.

Or they just need someone to ask them a whole bunch of questions so they can get some clarity around what direction they really want to go in their heart of hearts. And it may be in there somewhere, but a lot of times there’s just like too much noise and you have to help them kind of sort through that.

I love that you said clarity. So that’s one of our core values in our group is we try to give them clarity and by asking the right questions and exactly as you said and not telling always being an advice monster as they call it, just blurt out advice everywhere. It’s really trying to get them to listen to themselves.

I just want to go back a little bit, and perhaps people don’t always have the funds or the access to people to get a paid mentor. How do people get a mentor that is not paid, or how do they approach that situation?

I’ve got a great video on that, if anyone wants to go on my YouTube channel about how to get a mentor. But one of my mentees kind of did it perfectly. And the one, and I’ll just explain how she did it.

She used to comment a lot on my YouTube videos, and she would ask very smart questions, and she would give me really great answers or responses. She would comment on my articles on LinkedIn. She would retweet my tweets, and she interacted and championed my content, and engaged with me on a deeper than a surface level.

And through doing that, number one, I started to recognize her name, and I also started to recognize her thinking and how well she can communicate, and that she earnestly wanted to engage, and that she also had a passion for branding and design that I came to see and respect. And so she was on my radar, I’ll put it that way. And then a month or so later, she connected with me on LinkedIn, and I saw her name and I was like, yeah, okay, I know who you are.

And she said, when she introduced herself and asked for the connection, she said, I follow you on YouTube. We’ve commented back and forth to each other. And I was like, yeah, okay, I know who you are.

And so we connected on LinkedIn. She kept doing what she was doing for a month or so. And then she pinged me on LinkedIn and she said, I know this is a lot to ask, but if there’s any way I could get 10 minutes of your time on a Zoom call, I’d just love to ask you a question.

I have an idea that I wanted to run by you. And I thought, sure, 10 minute Zoom call, no problem. So we got on a Zoom and I met her.

I was very impressed by her. Turns out she had a YouTube channel. I went out and checked out her channel.

This would be actually before I took the Zoom call. And when she got on, she said, I’ve been saving up to buy coaching from you.

And I’ve worked as a virtual assistant for a number of years. And I was wondering, this is my idea. My idea is, could I barter coaching for virtual assistant work from you?

And it was the perfect way to go about it. Number one, she was going to be giving me value and she was going to be taking value from me. Yes, but she was going to be giving me real value.

She had already given me a whole lot of value. And she was doing it in a very genuine way. She wasn’t just popping out of the woodwork.

And this is what happens all the time. And I’m sure Jacob and Matt, you get this too, right? You get an email and someone who says, I watch your YouTube videos.

And I was wondering if you could, you know, I want to improve a graphic designer. Will you be my mentor and, you know, help me do this and my portfolio and blah, blah, blah, blah. And you’re like, I don’t even know you, you know?

I’m going to invest like an hour or two of my time for, you know, which are hundreds of dollars worth of value a week to someone that I don’t even know who’s just like jumping out of the woodwork and saying, you owe me this. And that is the not way to go about asking someone to be your mentor. You really have to, just like any kind of community, you have to give, give, give, give, give before you ask.

And that’s exactly what she did. And that’s the way, that’s the way to go about it.

That’s brilliant. I love that. So can we talk a little bit about your Facebook group as well?

Because you have designers in there and other entrepreneurs. What are some of the common threads that you come, like the problems that designers have? Let’s talk about two different ones because there’s early stage and then there’s more professional later on in the career.

So what’s like the early stage and then later in the career?

One of the biggest problems designers I think across the globe have is the commoditization of design and how design has gotten cheaper, cheaper, cheaper. And the fact that AI and intelligent design has come out and automated logo development websites and things like that, Fiverr, 99designs, the whole encroachment of crowdsourcing, have really driven down and dumbed down in a lot of regards design. And designers across the world are feeling that pinch and they’re not able, particularly in the developed world, they’re not able to charge what they used to charge for design.

And so all of them are struggling with this and not really sure about how to protect themselves or to become successful or make a living in their career.

And so the banner that I carry into the field is to help designers increase their skill sets through strategy, through understanding of business, through learning how to be better partners with their clients on a higher level in a more holistic way. Because that’s what 99designs can’t give. That’s what a logo design website can’t give, is a level of business partnership.

And so junior designers are, they want to learn how to design a better logo, right? But they also generally have one of two problems. They can’t manage their time at all, which is amazingly one of the biggest problems designers have.

And the other is that they want to get more clients or their first client. And so those are usually the problems that more junior people have. They need to charge more, they need to get more clients, and they have to figure out how to run a business and manage their own time.

People who are more advanced in their careers, they generally still have the can’t manage my time problem. They want to get more clients and they want to get higher paying clients. A lot of times the same problems is just again a matter of scale.

One of the things that I’m, and this is something I think bears mentioning, which is in the creative industries, we work and operate in a very, very ageist industry. I was just recently, I did a video on the AIGA’s design census from 2019, just kind of reviewing the findings of that design census. And it is shocking how the population of working designers in the United States anyway, who their age group, once they hit 50, the population of working designers in the industry like falls off a cliff.

It’s like, it’s just nosedives. And for creative professional leaders, managers, creative directors, you start aging out of the industry at 45. And a lot of designers don’t know this is going to happen to them.

And it’s really shocking how prevalent it is and how dramatic it is. And that’s another thing that I really champion and pay attention to with older, more accomplished professionals, is making sure that they are building some job and kind of longevity insurance for themselves through building a personal brand, because they’re going to wake up one day and get furloughed or laid off or made redundant, as they say in the UK, and they’re going to not even know what hit them. And they’re going to be unable to find another role in the industry, and they’re not going to have built anything as a safety net.

And so that is one of the other things that I think is really important. And it goes hand in hand with building a personal brand and content and owning your own destiny that all designers and creative professionals should be paying attention to.

Philip, why do you think that is? I’ve also experienced that across my career. Older guys, some of whom I’ve managed and to I’ve really valued their input, have seemingly then struggled, you know, as I’ve kept in touch with them over the years.

Why do you think that is? Because I think, for me personally, like I think the age situation, you know, there’s a lot more wisdom, there’s a lot more know-how, there’s a lot of technical expertise, a lot of experience there. But you’re right, they do seem to struggle.

And maybe there’s this perception problem that we’ve got about older members of the design community. What are your thoughts on that? Like, why do you think that is?

And I love the way that you’ve said, you know, one suggestion is for the individual to build their own personal sort of brand up so that they can, you know, move on. But why do you think it is? And what do you think the industry could do better to help support the older designers that come through?

I think that there’s a cult of youth in design that, as design became digital over the last 20 years, there’s a perception in clients that younger kids stay up to date better and the older people are kind of stuck and not as willing to change or up on technology. I think that’s one aspect of it. And to a certain extent, there was a generation, probably the generation right before mind, who were not digital natives and did have that struggle.

But I think starting in the late baby boomer time, we grew into the digital age and are actually incredibly savvy. The other aspect of it is that I think is important is that older designers are more expensive. They’ve been in the industry a long time.

They’ve generally advanced into senior designer, creative director, VP of design, executive creative director roles, which are higher salary. And while they do have accumulated knowledge of the industry, depth of experience, ability and understanding of business that kind of far outstrips the younger cohort, their salaries are higher. And as we all know, the creative agency side of the industry anyway, is very feast or famine.

And when you lose a client or a project bombs out or the economy craters a little bit, the first people, are you going to lay off the ECD, who makes $250,000 a year? Are you going to lay off eight designers who make $50,000 a year? Right?

We’re seven, if you do the math, right? And actually, that’s not the math. Five.

I wasn’t checking.

You got to keep the designs coming out. So you’re going to keep the five $50,000 designers and you’re going to lay off the ECD. And then if business gets better, you bring back, you take one of the senior designers who’s in the studio already and you promote him to CD and you give him $20,000 more a year, he’s happy as a clam.

And, you know, ECD is out of work. That’s another, but that happens almost in any industry. It’s like the senior people who make more money over time become more of a liability in volatile economic environments.

And, you know, you can argue for depth of experience and wisdom and all that sort of stuff, but when you run the numbers, and I’m just putting on my, you know, my corporate hat, and the reality of it is unless you’re in the C-suite, truly in the C-suite, the higher price tag designers are, you know, in jeopardy.

Yeah, no, I definitely experienced that in my corporate experience.

I think you’re absolutely right. The challenge, I guess. You see, I don’t know what your thoughts are on this, but I think we have this thing as designers, that we see ourselves as designers, right?

We see ourselves as sitting down in front of our Macs and creating, or coming up with ideas all the time, which is, of course, a real key part of what we do. But the issue, I think, comes about when we almost forget the business side, right? Like you’ve been pointing out, right?

So, if we’re going to get paid big money, we need to solve big problems, right? We need to be of high value and we get paid for perceived value. So, as, you know, from what you’re saying and what I’m sort of deducing from that, as designers grow older, you know, in their experience, you know, they need to keep checking in with that.

Like, how valuable am I at the moment to this agency, to this business, to these clients? And if you think, well, actually, I’m probably paid above my value, you then need to start building that into your way of working, into your thinking, and ask that question, how can I be more valuable? Would you agree with that?

Have you got any thoughts on how, any more kind of thoughts on how that could, how someone could go about that?

Yeah, it’s kind of interesting, that whole evolution, because as you’re younger and a designer, what you’re doing is you’re trying to increase your business acumen and your understanding of management and the more kind of the soft skills of being in a corporate or business environment, negotiating skills, client management skills, project management skills, people management skills, all those things that are not designed, right? Financial acumen, managing budgets, doing HR, hiring, firing, performance reviews, all the stuff that goes on as you advance into more management levels of design. Those are the things as a designer that you’re aching to get exposure to and learn and become better at.

As you are more advanced in your career, a lot of the times, those are the only things you’re doing. You’re not really designing anymore. For the last 15 years of my career, I wasn’t designing at all.

And so when I went out on my own, it was kind of a wake-up call that suddenly I was doing, building my brand completely from scratch on my own, and I had not been hands-on designing for a long period of time. So one of the things that you can do as a more senior-level designer, if you have gotten so hands-off, is to make sure that you’re maintaining your value on the design level, too, whether you’re concepting or whether you’re doing trend or whether you’re doing, you know, competitive analysis, which takes a level of creativity that a account manager couldn’t do. So I think it’s kind of making sure that you’re combining those two aspects of the job and not becoming too bureaucratic in your role.

Yeah, it’s so interesting that the journey sounds so familiar that we go to design school, we love the creative side of it, and then we don’t learn anything about business, and you get out in the world and you have no business knowledge and then just totally flip. So it’s, yeah, it’s so relatable for me and I’m sure a lot of listeners as well.

And that’s a travesty, I think. I’d love to get your opinion on this, you guys, in terms of, you know, I went to art school a long time ago and I’ve stayed very much in touch with people who’ve been getting out of design schools. And I get comments all the time on YouTube videos, people say things like, I just learned in eight minutes more than I learned in my last year of university or, you know, the last $20,000 in tuition that I paid.

And so I think that university design schools are doing, I think, a better job of addressing that problem than they had historically, where they were completely out of touch of what was happening in the real world or preparing designers for the full range of tools that they need to survive out there. How do you get, what do you guys think about that? Do you think that design schools are doing a better job in terms of covering, you know, preparing people with some sort of business acumen or understanding or strategic understanding?

It’s hard to say because there’s so much, so many different schools out there. And it’s really, I think it wouldn’t be fair to say yes or no in this situation because there’s just so much breadth of different types of schooling. I know there’s a lot more online education happening now and that people can learn design skills without even going to university.

And things are actually more up to date because just the bureaucracy of universities, it’s a much slower system. So especially when it comes to digital, it’s like you could learn a course and it gets passed and all that. And then like the next language is out or whatever it may be.

So I think it is up to the user to invest in themselves, to the user, the person, the individual to invest in themselves, whether that in design skills or business skills or soft skills, it’s definitely up to the individual in all circumstances, in my opinion.

I’d 100% agree with that. Continual learning is the thing that we need to teach the young people. You don’t come out of university or design school and be educated and therefore never have to learn anything else for the next 40 years of your life.

That’s not how it works, never. So you need to, we need to encourage people to read books, to sort of explore things themselves, to experiment, to innovate. And do we do that?

I’m not sure we do. I mean, in my own experience, maybe I ran a studio for nearly 10 years. I’ve been a creative leader for over 15 years, where I’ve recruited and got young people in, as well as older people, right?

And all in between. And for me, the young people, at least around here in the UK, like this is just my personal experience, I always used to feel, particularly the ones just coming in maybe at grad level, like they didn’t even, in my view, have some of the basic tool knowledge that we needed. Like just Photoshop, Illustrator, some of the things that we, yeah, they can play around with it.

But one of the things I always used to do, right, and I’ll just let people into a little secret, right, when I used to recruit designers, I used to ask them to sit at a Mac, right? And then I’d open up, say, get them to open Illustrator. And then I taught them through some exercises and I’d see where they were at, right?

Just so I could, not necessarily so that they’d failed the, it wasn’t about failing, it was just how could they deal with this and actually get a sense of where they’re at. So I’d always ask them to do things that, which are quite hard, like draw a star, you know, or draw a triangle with equilateral, that was it, draw a triangle with equal sides. That’s always a fun one, right?

Because people then get a square tool and they’re trying to, you know, subtract it or whatever. But the, and it never works. And actually the trick on that one, if anyone ever asks you listeners, is it’s the star tool, you hit the star tool, you click on, you say three sides and it scales perfectly.

Anyway, move on. But the point was not to catch them out. It was just to see how they dealt with that.

And if they could deal with that, like, oh, wow, that’s fantastic. I’ve actually learned something in this interview. I didn’t know that.

And they had an element of humility about them. Then I’d think, well, I can work with this person. Like they can come into my studio, if they can cope with that on that micro level, like when we’re talking about strategic things or something else, they’ll be able to cope with that.

It just gives you an insight. And I do think the education system sometimes sort of instills a confidence which we need to be careful about as designers. We need to have that element of humility that when we are young, we need to learn.

There’s a lot out there to learn. And for me, it’s about being a sponge to soak that up. So I’ve probably bleated on about that.

You’ve got me on a little hobby horse, but are they doing a better job now? It’s tricky. It’s tricky to know, like Jacob says, there’s so much going on.

I definitely think we could always do better with education. And yeah, and I think we need to get people into real life experiences. At least that’s my philosophy, like throw people a little bit in the deep end, get people freelancing, you know, for free or, you know, whatever it might be just to get them experience.

And that, for me, counts more than any sort of degree or piece of paper. What do you think about what we’ve said, Philip? Any thoughts to add?

Well, I think all three of us are in the right business, which is the education business. I think, really, when I totally agree with you that you have to be a lifelong learner. And that’s why I’ve been able to be successful my whole life.

It’s because I’ve never given up learning and I have a deep passion for it. And I love other people who have a passion for it. And that’s something that I think all of us on this podcast instill in our audiences, which is the need to continually learn and to challenge them, to try new resources, to try new methods, to try new strategies, to try new approaches.

Because that, to a certain extent, is what makes being a creative professional really interesting. If you just stay designing, then you’re just going to be using the same fonts and the same icons and the same colors and the same Pantone fan and the whole thing. I mean, I think that giving yourself new challenges is one of the best things about being a creative professional.

And also, kind of surrounding myself with people who are trying to grow and better themselves gives me an incredible amount of energy. Like when I do, it’s funny, when I was, I did one of my mastermind groups last week, and one of my mastermind members asked me if we were going to continue the group, because it’s a set period of time, asked me if we’re going to continue the group after. And she sent me an email.

So are you going to continue this group after or do you even want to? And I was like, oh my God, I totally want to. Like when I’m in that mastermind group, I come out of those things like on a high, like a runner’s high.

Like I am so pumped and so excited. And when people make connections and use each other for projects and, you know, share knowledge with each other when they’re on the hot seat and stuff, it is like crack to me. Like I can’t get enough of it.

And she’s like, are you know, are you thinking about doing another one? Is one too much? I’m like, if I could do nothing but masterminds like all day long, that’s what I would do.

Like I don’t have to design anymore. I don’t have to do videos. If I could just do masterminds and like be a catalyst in an incubator where people are growing and expanding and learning and exploding with ideas, that to me is like the best environment.

It’s like being in a never ending brainstorming session.

I agree with you. After the sessions myself, I always am on a high as well. And just here in the wins each week from each member, just like they’ve doubled their prices, they’ve landed their next project or read a new book or updated their site or whatever it is.

Like hearing these wins is incredibly motivating. So if you can get access to a mastermind group, I do recommend that. I wish I did earlier in my career.

It would have sped things up a lot. There’s a lot of regrets you have in high, well not regrets, but things that you wish you would have done earlier in your career. But I think, yeah, it’s incredibly powerful.

So thanks for sharing. Did you have any, we’re getting around time. So did you have any further questions, Matt?

Well, no, I just wanted to thank Philip for taking up his precious time to come on and to share his knowledge and wisdom and thoughts and energy with us. It’s been super inspirational, you know, getting to meet you and to have you on the show. So thanks so much for all your videos that you do on YouTube and for sharing some of those thoughts with us today.

Just one final quick question. Do you know which, what video is your most popular video on YouTube? Do you know?

Oh yeah, I mean, it’s without question. I think it was a video of mine that went viral. My trend videos.

I usually do a trend video every year for graphic design trend. And one of them in 2019, I think, got picked up by Design Taxi and blew up. And it’s got like a million and a half views or something like that.

Now, I love doing, I grew up in the fashion industry and used to travel the world for trends. And that’s where I learned trend hunting was in the fashion industry, going to Paris and Milan and Tokyo and shopping and putting together trend themes and stuff like that. So putting together trend concepts is very easy for me because I’ve always done it.

And it’s super fun to do. It’s time consuming to do those videos to put out, to recognize the trend, put together a picture of it, describe it in a way that makes sense. But those are my favorite videos to do and they’re by far my most popular videos.

And they are the pathway that a lot of people end up finding me.

Awesome. So keep an eye out for the 2021. I’m sure it will be coming up soon.

2021 is out. 2021 is next. It came out in January.

Oh, well, we’re looking for 2021. There we go.


If folks want to get in touch with you or kind of have a look at some of these things, how do they get access to you?

Sure. The best way to get in touch with me or to look at what I’m doing is to go to my website, which is philipvandusen.com. And I have a free but private Facebook group that’s called Brand Design Masters.

And you just go to Facebook slash groups, Brand Design Masters, and you answer a couple of questions. You’ll get approved. You can get in.

It’s an amazing, incredibly quick growing community. I know you guys Facebook group is like gigantic. Mine just started about a month ago, but I’ve got 800 members so far.

I’m really excited. And it’s super engaged and people are having a great time. And I hang out in there a lot, do lives, announce whatever it is that I’m up to in there.

So if you want to engage me, go there. And then also my podcast, Brand Design Masters, which is on YouTube and Stitcher and everywhere else.

Thank you so much. You’ve heard it from him. Thank you for tuning in.

We really appreciate you tuning in every two weeks. Thank you so much.

Thanks, Matt. Thanks, Jacob.

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