Below the waterline, above the crowd: Peopledesign helps companies change for 20 years

For 20 years, the husband-wife team behind the Grand Rapids strategic design consultancy Peopledesign has not only navigated immense change within their own industry; they’ve made it their mission to help other businesses do the same.
Nothing tests a business like change, and few know it so well as Kevin Budelmann and Yang Kim. For 20 years, the husband-wife team behind the Grand Rapids strategic design consultancy Peopledesign has not only navigated immense change within their own industry; they’ve made it their mission to help other businesses do the same.

It’s a daunting challenge, and one that’s led Peopledesign to stretch the boundaries of an industry already synonymous with creativity.

While Peopledesign’s work is often high-profile (in addition to creating designs for some of the world’s most recognizable brands, the agency is behind one of the most visible symbols of West Michigan culture, having designed the ArtPrize logo in 2009), as the name implies, it’s more than just aesthetic.

“A lot of organizations see branding as a cosmetic exercise, kind of like putting a new coat of paint on something,” says Budelmann. “We actually see the whole exercise as a more transformative opportunity.”

As the name implies, Peopledesign focuses on what Budelmann calls “user-centeredness and collaborative design,” placing brands’ customer experience at the forefront.

Kevin Budelmann“The best experiences are invisible,” says Kim, who co-authored the design book Brand Identity Essentials with her husband and former Peopledesign writer Curt Wozniak in 2010. The book compares the often elusive concept of brand to an iceberg:

“People think about brand as the tip of the iceberg,” says Budelmann, “but real transformation happens well below the waterline.”

For Peopledesign’s clients, that means turning inward, as the firm’s team of 10 designers, researchers, strategists, and copywriters help them consider everything from value propositions to visual design, team dynamics to technology, and everything in between.

Beyond specific project deliverables, clients come away with new ways to innovate.

“Creativity is one of those subjects that is not well understood, but becomes essential as any company tries to innovate,” says Budelmann. “We’ve been advocates of this idea they call ‘design thinking’ … it’s perhaps overused and not well understood, but we think there are ways that you can kind of develop a process that is somewhat repeatable.”

It’s not for the faint of heart.

“Design thinking is important for the bigger picture,” Kim says. “It’s really hard for people to do something different, and in order for that to happen, you have to get out of your own way. We seek clients who are willing to take that journey.”

Still, Budelmann says, “often, people who are entrenched in older ways of working are looking for permission to do something different.”

And plenty have signed up.

In addition to working with some of the heaviest hitters in West Michigan business like Haworth, Steelcase, and Amway, Peopledesign boasts a wide range of clients from across the country. The firm specializes in the ‘built environments’ industry — furniture manufacturers, to be sure, but also textiles, lighting, and fixture companies — and has done work in higher education, health care, and manufacturing, to name a few.

In addition to the ArtPrize logo, West Michigan audiences may be familiar with the firm’s “Laker Effect” campaign for Grand Valley State University, or the logos it designed for the Grand Rapids Art Museum and the Urban Institute for Contemporary Art.

Yang KimEach engagement is unique, but fundamentally, every Peopledesign client is grappling with the same problem and opportunity: change.

“The world is changing in fairly dramatic ways,” says Budelmann. “Through technology and globalization, it’s really changed the landscape for a lot of companies. It can be a great opportunity, but it can also be quite scary.” He asks rhetorically:

“Did Meijer expect Amazon to be in the grocery business? Did the auto industry expect to be disrupted by PayPal co-founder Elon Musk?”

Peopledesign is not immune.

“The graphic design world is a great example of how technology can be disruptive in an industry,” he says. “Originally, the kind of career we set out on was all about darkrooms and mechanical things, and it changed almost overnight with desktop publishing and other technology.”

The revolution was already in motion when Kim and Budelmann came to Grand Rapids in 1991 and 1992, respectively. The two had just graduated from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, and took contract design jobs with Herman Miller. When they decided to launch their own design firm in 1997, the Zeeland-based furniture manufacturer would become an early client.

“We were young and had everything to gain and nothing to lose, essentially,” says Budelmann, who notes the years spent at Herman Miller would influence their future approach to working with large organizations.

“One of the things that was really beneficial to us was starting our careers in a corporate environment, so we have a lot of empathy for people that are in that position.”

In 2003, Budelmann and Kim bought out a third partner, and, in Budelmann’s words, “it became incumbent on us to figure out what a firm of the future was going to be about.” In 2007—the year the iPhone changed everything—the company put itself under the microscope and ultimately rebranded as Peopledesign. The new identity underscored the firm’s holistic approach to design.

“What we do today,” says Budelmann, “is really help organizations better understand the opportunities to connect with their customers.”

“We realized very quickly that collaboration became this huge part of what we were trying to do,” he says. “We are increasingly in this space of business transformation, which can be a scary idea and sounds a little lofty, but I think it’s true.”

Yet for the founders of Peopledesign, collaboration isn’t just limited to client work. Both speak frequently on design and strategy (Budelmann will actually be speaking at the AIGA Design Conference this month). Budelmann teaches a course at Northwestern.

Closer to home, in 2009, the two were instrumental in founding the West Michigan chapter of the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA). Budelmann served as the organization’s first president. In 2014 Kim was one of two West Michigan designers honored with the local chapter’s first-ever Fellow award, what current AIGA West Michigan President Elyse Flynn describes as “sort of like AIGA’s lifetime achievement award.”

Flynn says Peopledesign was “integral” to helping connect the West Michigan design community.

“Creating this community really brought a number of agencies together in a way that they hadn’t been before,” says Flynn. “Peopledesign was definitely on the ground floor of that.”

“20 years ago we were barely out of school and just happy to be doing anything,” says Kim. “We both had opportunities to move to cities and have a more urban lifestyle. But we stuck around and proved that we could sustain ourselves. I’m not sure that we knew we’d be around this long, but we both enjoy working on Peopledesign and continuing to create a space where great work can happen.”

Dan Treul is a freelance writer and content marketer passionate about entrepreneurship, technology, and social justice. He lives in Grand Rapids with his partner and three dogs, Charlie, Chaplin, and Finn.

Photos by Adam Bird of Bird + Bird Studio
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