My first job after getting my BFA in Design was a bike mechanic. My wife, Michele, and I had just moved to State College for her job as a photographer with the Centre Daily Times. I was good at design but wasn’t sure how to start a career in it (my program was focused on the art and not on the business side of it). So I went back to what I knew: bikes. I’d been riding and repairing bikes since I was a kid—even competed in mountain biking. I’ve also always been a fixer, a doer—I can’t stay still. Bikes gave me a new challenge every day. No two bikes were the same. I never lost interest.
What I’ve realized recently is that I picked up a lot of problem solving skills. My time as a mechanic made me a good designer and has helped me run a good agency.
Here are a few lessons I learned along the way:
1) What Worked Yesterday Might Not Work Today
With bikes, you can’t let what worked for one bike determine what will work for another. Each one is different. Add in changes to models and designs and you really have to keep up.
In marketing and design, best practices change. Fifteen years ago, my clients didn’t necessarily need websites. Now, I’d be the worst agency on the block if I didn’t keep my clients up to date with the most effective digital solutions for their industries. I want to be able to say to my clients that, “This is the best solution you can get.” We’re going to be objective about tactics and techniques; we’re not going to stick with something just because we know it—or because its what we’ve always done.
2) Processes Solve Problems
Bikes are pretty simple machines. But each bike that needs repair is unique—they differ in who made it, where it was ridden, who rode it, etc. And I had to approach whatever problem was specific to that bike. Two bikes can have the same problem and still require different solutions. Two bikes might have two different problems and still require surprisingly similar solutions.
The secret is to work backwards through a predetermined set of steps. The only way to diagnose problems and repair effectively is to have a process.
It works the same with branding. There are basic parts to every brand, no matter how unique or specific. And there’s a set process to diagnose and create a plan. It’s still a different experience every time, but when everything works well together, we can consistently deliver great work.
3) Design is a People Job
In marketing, it really helps to be able to read people, and see where they are coming from. My ability there stems from working with bikes.
Over time as a mechanic, I saw the same customers come in with their bikes. If two people bought the same bike and each brought it back six months later, I wouldn’t be repairing two identical bikes anymore. Bikes show how they are used. For example, how a rider uses the gears tells me something about their values. I can tell by the groove marks on the gears if this person uses the big gears to go uphill; they are someone who wants to get the hard part over quickly and push through. Maybe they always leave it on the big gear; they are someone who just likes to push. Someone else may use the smaller gears; they are willing to take more time in exchange for exerting less energy.
Brands and clients show the same kinds of impact. Business and brands reflect how they are used, their patterns and personalities. When we can read the needs of our clients, we can get solutions that will address their specific problems.
4) Be Adaptable
Bikes aren’t the same machines they were even ten years ago. Now, there’s model for every use case and shape for every person.
Not surprisingly, design and marketing have changed even faster.
In college, some of my design professors didn’t use computers in their work. A misspelling could be hard to find and difficult to fix. Now, we can find and change a typo in a moment. Six years ago, some businesses were blocking their employees from Facebook. Recently, we brought on a social media expert to our team. She’s on Facebook for our business a lot. It’s a different game. We’re constantly adapting, but we know that change helps us stay on our toes.
5) Your Skills Help You Niche
Being a hands-on learner and fixer has defined my work. For my agency, a hands-on, problem-solving mentality has made us ideal for B2B tech clients. They need to solve very specific problems, most often explaining abstract and technical concepts in a really engaging, understandable way. Our processes and our always-adapting approach works really well for these folks. And I like that the work always changes; I can’t get too comfortable. There are new things to learn everyday.