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Uniting Design and Strategy: Edgars Zvirgzdins
Earlier this year, award-winning Latvian designer Edgars Zvirgzdins became the winner of the first Berlin School Open Scholarship for our Executive MBA in Creative Leadership. Since its launch in 2011, his studio, Associates, Partners et Sons, has become one of the leading design studios in Latvia. Besides studio work, Edgars has taught at universities in Latvia and Sweden and helped to establish Forum of Latvian Design. We spoke to Edgars about the importance of treating design as essestial and not an addition to strategy, and his vision for creating great design teams that challenge one-another.
Your portfolio is remarkably varied. Tell us about your design career so far, and the projects you’ve lead…
After graduating from a Graphic Design course at University of Brighton, I was invited to work on an exhibition back in Latvia. I had an opportunity to skip the usual internship-apprenticeship model, and I think it paid off as we won the Grand Prix at Latvian Architecture Awards for the exhibition. From here, I started my own studio – Associates, Partners et Sons.
Since then, we have been working in a medium agnostic way – working on anything from user interfaces and monthly magazines, to designing and curating a festival, even designing a watch along the way. We love working on projects where we can be involved more as co-creators, rather than just executors; creating full brand identities which perhaps need a UI or different perspective on product design. Besides being a designer, I’ve also been teaching locally and abroad, and I’m involved in several state and non-governmental design organisations.
Beyond aesthetics, how can businesses in Latvia harness and benefit from the function and value of great design?
First step – to harness great design you have to see it as an investment, not an expense. Many people here don’t see the return on investment in design, and we therefore experience a lot of requests for quotes which end up disappearing into thin air. Once businesses are past the first step, I would love to see them employing designers to produce holistic user and consumer experiences, not just aesthetic patching-up for products that actually need complete rethinking.
Rethinking starts from strategy and branding, and extends to user interfaces, shopping experiences, the packaging they receive, and customer service they get if they run into trouble. These are capital-intensive investments, but this is where a co-founder with a design background can help. I would like to point out to two companies already employing great design in Latvia; Madara cosmetics and Valmiermuiža brewery. Madara has a co-founder with a background in design, and Valmiermuiža was founded by an ex-advertising-executive. Design is an integral component of their businesses and their customer experience.
What were the upsides and downsides of working as a freelancer in the early years of your career?
While I was at school there were few downsides to freelancing. Money earned was mostly spent on skateboards and having fun. But when I set up my studio, I set out not to be called a freelancer. At that time, the term 'freelancer' had not yet been widely adopted in Latvia and had a connotations of having an irresponsible attitude to work – laziness, not answering calls, lack of ambition, etc. I am glad that today it is so accepted that no-one talks about freelancing. Now it's all about digital nomads, and soon it will be something else…
In general, I think we trade in cash-flow and working in a team for the freedom of choice and exploration (process, techniques and your own will). Sometimes it is great, and sometimes it is very lonely. I am grateful that I have a team to work with.
Since launching Associates, Partners et Sons, you have spoken about the importance of building a team to support your business. What are your priorities when choosing a team?
When we look for a new team member, we look if they can add to our core skillset and bring the studio to the next level. We see team members as pieces in a team puzzle. If they don’t fit, we are in trouble. But puzzles consist of different pieces and there is place for all kinds of pieces. It is expected that there should be creative tension which challenges and pushes each other to achieve the next level. If you are choosing a team to join, just flip this other way around and ask if this team will push me to be a better designer and person?
How do you hope your Berlin School journey will help to shape your business and your future?
I am looking forward to challenging my own preconceptions regarding running a business and processes involved. Hopefully I can bring back some good insights for our clients to implement and find a way for our studio to establish ourselves on the global market.