Digital Design Leadership: Karen Dendy Smith

by Richard Banfield

Karen Dendy Smith has some serious insights into what it takes to run a digital agency in a market that is constantly evolving. Knowing that business is more than just the numbers, the Boston based Co-Founder of KOR Group talks design, collaboration, and what she looks for in a team.

Hear from the other digital design leaders we interviewed

Transcript

Richard Banfield: Introduce yourself, who you are, what you do and that kind of stuff and then we’ll . . .

Karen Dendy Smith: Okay. Well, I’m Karen Dendy Smith. I’m one of the founding partners of KOR Group, a brand strategy design firm in Boston, and we’ve been in business for 20 years. We just celebrated our 20th Anniversary.

Richard Banfield: Congratulations.

Karen Dendy Smith: Thank you. And I’m one of I would say, I’ve moved from designer to Creative Director of Brand Strategist Project Manager and researcher for the company.

Richard Banfield: Tell us a little bit about that training, because clearly the person you are today is not the same person you were twenty years ago

Karen Dendy Smith: No. The journey started with going to design school and then going onto to grad school in Basel and having a very strong design work ethic; I really wanted to understand the function of design at its core.

Richard Banfield: A design snob?

Karen Dendy Smith: A design snob? Yes, many of my friends would call me that; and then moving into creating a business where really image and design and communication were at the core of what you do and building a team. My partners and I really wanted to build a team that was about collaboration, and move design from more of a hierarchal system into a collaborative fit.

Richard Banfield: And as a person did you need to change your personality to evolve into those different roles as leadership responsibilities grew?

Karen Dendy Smith: Well yes, because when you’re the designer on a job you have this very one track mind and you’re about the creation of the message. When you become the creative director and partner and you’re growing a team you need to be able to learn how to manage collaboration and other ideas and find the value in other people’s ideas and try to work together. At the same time my goal was to make sure there was a certain quality to the work as opposed to a style. So bringing across a philosophy of visual communication was really important.

Richard Banfield: So as you were making this transition from being just the designer to running the company, where did you go to learn those skills? Did you do it purely by accident and trial and error, or did you have mentors or advisors along the way? Was it formal, was it informal?

Karen Dendy Smith: I would say it was an informal process and there were many mentors and still are mentors all along the way, and in other types of paths that have nothing to do with design but have a lot to do with human dynamics and sociology,

Richard Banfield: So are you trying to say business it isn’t all numbers?

Karen Dendy Smith: Excuse me?

Richard Banfield: You’re trying to say that business isn’t all numbers?

Karen Dendy Smith: Business is . . . no, numbers are the outcome of a passion and success. We believe, and I still believe that success is because of the passion you put into the business and the numbers will come. Yes, you need a business mind and a strategy behind how to pay your bills every month, of course, but it’s about a collaboration and a quality, and if there’s quality and work ethic then there will be the numbers; because people gravitate toward that.

Richard Banfield: Right. So your team has grown from just a couple of partners to up to 20 and now back down to 12. You’ve had a lot of experience building teams; what do you look for when you’re putting a team together?

Karen Dendy Smith: The company started with three women partners, all equal, and along the way we have grown to about 15 or 16 people at our max. Right now we’re at 12. And what do we look for?

Richard Banfield: What do you look for in a team when you’re hiring somebody and you’re looking for qualities? What’s a priority for you when you’re getting somebody new on the team?

Karen Dendy Smith: We’re looking for flexibility and openness in someone’s thinking. We’re also looking for the true tenets of what is good design, so there has to be a marriage between being able to be strategic and very creative in your thinking, and not afraid to share ideas and be part of a group, because we tell people this is a culture of collaboration and if you’re a person who likes to work in your own path this might not be the environment for

Richard Banfield: Right.

Karen Dendy Smith: There is a lot of transparency in what we do. But the other part of what we do is we really look for people who have a very strong foundation in the pure philosophy of design. So if you don’t know what figure ground is, if you don’t understand the hierarchies of typography and color theory you’re not going to cut it at KOR Group.

Richard Banfield: So as the culture has evolved at KOR is a deliberate curating of that culture, or does it happen by accident?

Karen Dendy Smith: I really think it’s both. There is definitely a . . . you know, we started the company; I wouldn’t call it a manifesto, but there was definitely a philosophical approach to what we wanted in a company. There is what we call that KOR spark. Are you a KOR groupie? And that means what I’ve been saying, which is about being able to be very creative and work hard, play hard mentality, and sharing of ideas, and not afraid to throw something out the window and start over. But at the same time, yes, we still . . . when we first started the company, when we were only about six or seven people we actually asked everyone would they rather have a Christmas bonus or would you rather go to Puerto Rico for five days and celebrate the year. And everyone passed on the bonus and we all went to Puerto Rico. So there is that kind of a team mentality and a camaraderie that we’ve brought to the company for the last 20 years.

Richard Banfield: So as the leader of this group, this groupies . . .

Karen Dendy Smith: One of three leaders, not ‘the’ leader.

Richard Banfield: One of three leaders of the groupies at KOR. What’s the biggest challenge going forward? So you’ve been around for 20 years, and have obviously learned a lot, but maybe there’s something else that is still challenging for you?

Karen Dendy Smith: You know, every three or four years we realize the market is changing. What you have to offer and what you have to say changes. The technology is changing before you can wake up the next morning, and so it’s a constant now where do we go with our core knowledge of design; and how do we keep abreast of technology and the changes to the business, and what is needed? How do you communicate through designs? So yes, every three or four years we’re constantly rethinking about who is the next great person to bring into the company that maybe knows something that we don’t–who mostly knows something that we don’t, so that the team grows and we continue to learn from each

Richard Banfield: It keeps you on your toes.

Karen Dendy Smith: Absolutely.

Richard Banfield: One last question.

Karen Dendy Smith: Sure.

Richard Banfield: What would you like to be remembered for when you look back on the work that you do?

Karen Dendy Smith: I actually would like to be remembered for creating a supportive and creative community, actually more even than, although I do care if KOR is known for the quality of our work obviously; but even more important than the quality of the work is the quality of and respect for individuals and people that we work with. And I would rather go down in history as KOR Group was a company that really cared about people and respected

Richard Banfield: That’s beautiful.

Karen Dendy Smith: Yeah.

Richard Banfield: I want to thank you for your time, I really appreciate it.

Karen Dendy Smith: Thank you. It was very nice to chat with you.

About Richard Banfield

Richard is a the CEO and co-founder of Fresh Tilled Soil. After completing a degree in Biology, Richard was attracted to the...