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Innovation & Job News

Well Design Studio has big plans for the future, but they won't forget where they came from



Tucked away in a small office inside the Ledyard Building in the heart of downtown Grand Rapids is the home of Well Design Studio.

Recently, Rapid Growth had a chance to sit down and chat with the Well Design team to talk about the origin story of this design and communication studio that focuses on working with nonprofits and small local businesses.

RG: How did Well Design Studio start?

WD: Well started January 2015. The founding team was just Josh Leffingwell and Amar Dzomba, and in October 2015 we brought Tyler Doornbos in as a partner. He was owner of North Sea Studio, and he brought his clients to our company. That is maybe when Well started in its current form as a full service creative agency.

RG: What drives the studio? What is Well Design’s mission?

WD: We are all pretty entrepreneurial, so we really try to bring that mindset to the orgs and businesses we work with. When we work with an organization or company we like to get to know the organization as if we are the executive director or CEO. We learn about the funders, the donors, the constituents, and stakeholders. We really take the time to understand what produces for the client — what their constituency needs are, what they respond to, how they think. We can sometimes come off a bit imperious, I think — we kind of assume an opinionated role, where we are constantly asking the client, “if it’s not producing a benefit for you, why are you doing it?”

From that we begin to craft a plan, develop messaging and identify productive channel, and create beautiful design. It is that in-depth process that I think makes our company unique. We aren't looking at a campaign just for the campaign, we’re understanding it from the various perspectives and taking that approach to creating everything we do.

RG: There can be rough waters out here for smaller design studios. How have you had to adapt?

WD: Well started out as an agency that focused exclusively on nonprofits. The goal was to help nonprofits and the community through better design and communications.

We knew that nonprofits were struggling by usually only having pro bono designers work on their work. We knew that pro bono often means work that is temporary... it doesn't understand the needs of the organization or more importantly; it doesn't understand the organization's constituents. We wanted to help them create design and messaging that understood the people they serve. That level of market research is very rarely done at the non-profit level, and it's not because of money... it's often because they don't know that they need it.

We learned that if we can better speak to the audience of the client, they can do better outreach to their constituents and further serve the community.

However, over time we realized that nonprofits are not the only ones who support the community... seed, small and medium-sized growing businesses are important for any region. So we started working with for-profit businesses that are looking to grow and bring jobs to their community. We quickly learned they are similar to nonprofits in budget and their need to understand their audience.

RG: What kind of work does the studio do?

WD: We do back-to-front communications. We do design, messaging, marketing, web development, user experience and user interface design, human-centered design… our studio wants to do it all — in large part because of that entrepreneurial mindset. Plus, we have a small but crazy good team of designers, developers, and copywriters who are really talented with a really diverse set of skills. Those diverse skill sets make our team really collaborative and allows each person to have a hand on nearly every project.

RG: What is the culture like around the office?

WD: In our work, our culture is to push our clients. We get excited when a non-profit is willing to move past what people expect of them. Nonprofits are safe by design. They don't want to offend anyone because that person may be a donor some day — and non-profits often get flack for taking risks or challenging the safe day-to-day operational model that people expect. We understand that, but we also know that every nonprofit (and for profit for that matter) is fighting for air time, for funders or customers, for volunteers or talent, so they need to stand out. You can't have a traditional annual report, you can't use traditional fundraising asks — you can't just expect what is failing before to work just because you have someone polish it with better hierarchy and type. You have to challenge yourself to look beyond what you've done, or what your peers are doing.

We get excited about helping all of our clients push past what other comparable organizations are doing. Whether that is through design or messaging, we help them to stand out and most importantly, produce the outcomes they’re looking for.

Around the office, it's kind of a mix between laid back and intense. There’s a really collegial culture… everyone in the office is a friend, obviously due to our intensive team building program of arcade basketball and video games (okay, really just FIFA). None of us have worked for another studio so we don't know what it's like elsewhere, I guess. We’ve always been people that wanted to do our own thing. We all really like it, or at least we think the employees do, because everyone sticks around.

RG: The design field in Grand Rapids is really lacking diversity and inclusion. Thoughts?

WD: If firms are going to be able to compete in the long-term they will need to have diverse teams, because all of our communities are more diverse. Agencies need to value people of color. If you're hiring a copywriter and that person is Latinx and speaks Spanish, they not only bring more value from a work perspective, but they also bring a new perspective to the agency — they deserve to be paid according to the huge value they bring into the firm.

We work with a number of black-owned businesses, and nonprofits that serve people of color. Every design or tech company likely does. We understand that we have a responsibility to work with a team that understands those communities. For instance, when we do messaging for the Latinx community, we know that we need copywriters who not only speak Spanish, but understand the specific vernacular used by the people we are speaking to. Most firms speak about “translation” — we talk about Spanish-language copywriting.

RG: What do the next five years hold for the studio?

WD: We want to grow a lot in the coming years. We are looking at doubling this year, and again next year. Once we break through the current growth ceiling, we have aims to be counted among the top boutique design firms in the area.
On the side, the agency also runs a few projects like Beer O'Clock GR (the best damn happy hour site in the world) and Featherlight (hands-off websites that help professional academics build their personal brand affordably).

We plan on these projects experiencing considerable growth in the next 12 to 18 months. We are serious about building a culture and company that values entrepreneurial thinking and produces projects that expand what we do beyond just a fee-for-service agency. Plus, getting out of our collective comfort zones makes us better at producing results for our clients at Well, since we learn an enormous amount by doing on our side projects.

RG: What is right around the corner?

WD: We are always excited about working with some of our long-term clients like the West Michigan Environmental Action Council, Kids Food Basket, HQ, and Challenge Scholars (Grand Rapids Community Foundation and Grand Rapids Public Schools).

But we also are doing all the design for AIGA West Michigan’s Design Week (March 25 to April 1) and we'll be doing all the design for this year's Friends of Grand Rapids Parks' Green Gala.

We have a big campaign rolling out for Friends of Grand Rapids Parks shortly that we can't talk about yet, but we are crazy excited about that. FGRP told us to create a fun fundraising campaign for them and let us run with it; that is the kind of work we love.

This amazing city of ours continues to produce hard working and talented professionals like the team at Well Design. Let’s hope this becomes the new norm, instead of the exception.

Ken Miguel-Cipriano is Rapid Growth’s innovation and jobs editor. To reach Ken, you can email ken.miguel.cipriano@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter and Instagram.
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