Leveling the Playing Field: a conversation with Lynda Decker

Lynda Decker understands the creative person. She knows that creative people are able to see connections that others do not. Lynda also understands her clients, allowing for their insight, while guiding them through the design process, while setting realistic expectations. Her concept of Responsive Branding prepares clients to be pro-actively preparing for market shifts rather than making reactive, knee-jerk decisions.As president and creative director of Decker Design, Lynda is a leader in brand strategy, not just because of her wealth of experience, but due to her understanding of the changing media landscape. Decker Design educates clients on the importance of being agile and ready with new cross-platform solutions while still connecting the brand to core values and culture. She helps clients navigate the landscape of the current hyper-media environment and is keenly aware that the traditional approach to branding no longer applies.

As president and creative director of Decker Design, Lynda is a leader in brand strategy, not just because of her wealth of experience, but due to her understanding of the changing media landscape. Decker Design educates clients on the importance of being agile and ready with new cross-platform solutions while still connecting the brand to core values and culture. She helps clients navigate the landscape of the current hyper-media environment and is keenly aware that the traditional approach to branding no longer applies.

Lynda Decker shares her ideas with friend of Bend Design, Amanda Stuermer, on leadership, women in design, and being responsive plus proactive in the ever-changing arena of branding.

Amanda Stuermer is the founder of World Muse, a social change organization that provides year-round programs and events to cultivate the potential of women and girls as catalysts for change. She serves on the Executive Board of the Women’s Foundation of Oregon, the Advisory Board of Caldera Arts, is a faculty member of Off the Mat Into the World, and a member of the Nobel Women’s Initiative. Amanda is also a wife, mom, runner, writer, yogi, and life-long traveler.

AS: We are excited to have you presenting at Bend Design this year.

LD: I’m really looking forward to Bend Design. I’ve been to some really big conferences, like AIGA, and the thing is, when AIGA was a small conference, it was much more fun. You got to really interact with people, and it was very relaxed.

AS: I think you’ll find that we are fairly relaxed here in Bend. It’s sort of our brand, to use design speak! And speaking of design, how did you get started? Did you always know what you wanted to be when you grew up?

LD: It’s sort of a yes and no. I grew up in a small town on Long Island called East Rockaway. Our school had this program called Rock Rivalry. It was a competition between all the classes. There was something for everybody – a sports night, stuff for theater people, etc. If you were interested in art, there was the design of the refreshment stand or the mural project. I was the chairwoman of the mural project sophomore through senior year. I was always doing all the “arts” things, but I had no idea what graphic design was. I thought I was probably going to be a History major. My parents were afraid that I was going to be a starving artist on the streets of New York with my tin cup. When I got to college, they took all the Art majors into one room on the first day of classes. They told everyone who wanted to study fine art to follow one professor and everyone who wanted to study graphic design to follow the other. I was sitting next to this girl, so I asked what she was going to do.  She said, “Eh, I think graphic design might be more fun.” That was the start of my career.

AS: That’s when peer pressure works in your favor! Who were some of your early mentors?

LD: The school I went to had a very Modernist bent, which felt cold and rigid at the time. But people were always bringing in publications like the Pushpin Graphic. I was really taken with Herb Lubalin’s work. I really loved his typography. There was a summer in the 1970s when Herb Lubalin had been the guest editor of Print magazine, and the entire issue was about this eclectic typography. I tell you, I wore out the pages of that magazine, I memorized it. My goal was to work at The Herb Lubalin Studio. By the time I got hired as an intern, Herb was extremely ill with a brain tumor. He was only in the studio a few days a week and my job was to bring him coffee. I always loved to look and see what was on his sketchpad. He would just be doodling on a sheet of legal paper, but everything was brilliant. A few of Herb’s partners at the time were Tony DiSpigna and Alan Peckolick. They were both very supportive of me. At one time, I thought I wanted to do Spencerian lettering. I did a couple of pieces and they almost killed me. This was a time when you did everything with paper and ink. Tony was coaching me and correcting me. I have steady hands skills from that experience. Tony taught me to create a hairline rule with a crow quill pen, no less, on a piece of toilet paper. I can still do it. Those were the days when you could really mess things up. It’s much easier today.

AS: Do you think we’ve lost something as technology has made design work easier?

LD: I don’t think so. I don’t want to be one of those people who bemoans technology. I used to go home sometimes at night and find pieces of type or an actual word stuck to my sweater and think “oh my God, I hope that wasn’t something important.” I don’t miss that. I don’t miss the drudgery. I have a love/hate with the speed at which we can work now. Everyone expects immediate results. We can execute so quickly, but the ideation process still takes time. We’ve lost the time to think things through.

AS: Does this affect your ability to be responsive? Your book is called “Responsive Design.” Tell me what that means to you.

LD: The way I view responsive is the way a brand reacts to media, and to its audiences, and the changes that are going on with these audiences. I’m seeing more of this discussion now in the design press about thinking of branding systems in very flexible ways because we have to move across all forms of media. My book is about how the positioning and story behind a brand are much more important than a rigid set of guidelines. Really great branding has to do with the way that you are messaging. For example, I think GE does one of the best jobs of conveying how they are innovators and that they are a tech company that manufactures products. Over and over again, they do it so well. They know what their brand is, they know who they are speaking to, and they communicate brilliantly.

AS: Thinking about brands that communicate well, what is your personal brand?

LD: I have a hard time considering myself as a brand. I probably am one without wanting to think about it. I am a bit of an introvert. I think it’s easier for other people to carefully craft and execute their personal brand out on social media. I think of myself as a little bit nerdy. I am a forever student. I love taking classes. I have two Masters degrees because I love going to school. The most recent one was from SVA. I did a Design Criticism Program designed by Steve Heller and Alice Twemlow. I started exploring writing in terms of how that would impact my design practice.

AS: So how does writing fit into your design practice?

LD: I think writing helps you to boil away the fat. When you start to create a design and think about how you are going to speak and write about that design, you start to edit out anything that isn’t substantive. The writing forces a different level of inquiry as you practice self-criticism.

AS: Women’s Leadership has become a part of your work as well. Can you tell me about the Women Lead Initiative for AIGA?

LD: Women Lead was founded 3 years ago. Sue Matthews was stepping into the role of President of the AIGA board and the decision was made to create an initiative to encourage more women to take on positions of leadership in the design world. We started to look at data that the 3% Conference was publishing. According to their statistics, 60% of design graduates were women, but only 11% of design executives were women. AIGA is working with Google to do its own research. Last year, we completed the AIGA-Google Design Census. We looked at the need for more women in leadership positions, but we also looked at the income disparity. Women make 20% less than men in the design field. That’s white women. When you look at women of color it can be in the 50% range. As women move up the ranks, the income disparity actually gets worse. A woman can make 70% less than a male counterpart in the most senior roles. Our mission is to change all of this.

AS: I read about your Gender Equity Toolkit. I’d love to hear more about that.

LD: We hired designer and sociologist Leyla Acaroglu of Disrupt Design to help us create a series of exercises that are designed to expose biases and generate empathy. Leyla told us a lot about how unconscious biases form. We are narrative based creatures, so we look to tell stories because that is how we categorize people and that is how our memory works. We look to create categories to help us remember things, but at the same time, these categories create certain biases in us.

In a perfect world, you have a mixed group of people and they go through the exercises in the toolkit. Usually, they are surprised by the other person’s response, by the associations that they make. Once we see how someone else’s biases might have formed, we can have some empathy. In essence, it is game-ifying a very serious issue.

AS: What is your goal for Women Lead?

LD: Our goal is to double the number of women in leadership positions in design in the next 2 years. The goal has to be economic. Respect comes from being paid what you are worth. We have to get more women into leadership positions and get them paid equal to men.

AS: What advice would you give to a woman starting in the design field?

LD: Design is a tough career choice at the moment. If you love design, and it is the path you are seeking, the best advice I can give is in two parts. 1) Read high-quality writing, not necessarily about design. Read about the world. Be as open-minded and educated as you can possibly be. The more you are able to talk about your work in effective ways that people in the business community can understand, the more you will be seen as a leader. 2) Seek out people who can mentor you in different ways, and not just women, seek out male mentors as well. Everyone has a specific kind of talent to share with you. Learn everything you can from a variety of people. The more knowledge you have, the better equipped you’ll be when a leadership position opens up in front of you.

AS: Thank you. That sounds like good advice for any path.