A design for success

“Rock stars need not apply.”

Bally Design Inc. doesn’t exactly post that advisory for aspiring job applicants, but in a sense, the caution sums up part of its philosophy of hiring design professionals.

“There is a mindset in the design field — it’s kind of a rock star attitude,” says Frank Garrity, Bally Design’s president. He adds, however that “we don’t work that way.”

On the other hand, Bally Design, which does work for companies like medical products producer Medrad Inc., as well as for giants like Daewoo, IBM and Mine Safety Appliances, needs to attract the kind of high-performance creative individuals who can satisfy the demands of a diverse roster of big-name clients.

While Bally Design doesn’t turn its team loose to run wild with a project, Garrity and his partner, Alex Bally, have long understood the necessity of giving creative individuals adequate room to run to ensure first-class results. To accomplish that task, Bally needs to identify, hire and keep top-flight designers who can produce the best creative work while bringing the projects in on time and within budget. Garrity and Bally think they now have a strategy in place to accomplish all.

Designing for growth

Bally Design plans to add two people a year to its staff for the next five years — not astronomical growth but a significant increase over its current 17-employee roster.

In the early 1990s, the job market for design pros was soft. With a booming economy, however, the picture has changed dramatically, and designers with experience have nearly unlimited choice of where to live and work. For many, Pittsburgh isn’t high on their list of places to settle down. The young creative types whom Bally Design needs, especially the ones with three to five years of experience, tend to be attracted to markets outside Pittsburgh, where a designer can make his or her mark in the profession and get the kind of notoriety that can boost careers and draw notice in the industry.

Garrity points out that Carnegie Mellon graduates, for instance, tend to have high expectations and set their sights on prestige markets, like New York.

So, by necessity, creativity at Bally Design hasn’t been limited simply to the studio. Garrity and Bally have taken a resourceful approach as well to structuring the work environment so that the company can attract and retain talented professionals to keep the creative wheels humming.

To some extent, the human resource process came kind of naturally to the firm. “We’re in a creative field to begin with, so we’re always looking for new ways to do things,” says Garrity.

For starters, Bally Design decided to appoint four directors, “not to oversee individuals,” Garrity says, “but to run the company.” The structure remains fluid while giving employees the opportunity to take the lead on projects, offering opportunity for ownership in the firm and a say in how the business progresses, and providing the most competitive compensation package possible.

Garrity says the structure has evolved over a five- or six-year period, much of it coming out of programs offered by the Association of Professional Design Firms, a group that emphasizes the business side of running a design studio.

And developing a strategy to attract and keep talent has had another positive effect. Developing individuals with leadership skills has enabled the owners to put together a smooth succession plan that will transfer ownership from Bally to Garrity and four of the firm’s directors. Ultimately, says Garrity, now 52, the directors will take over the firm, and there is discussion under way about offering some ownership or equity in the company for all employees.

Removing the bottleneck

Garrity says that, as recently as two years ago, it wasn’t unusual for him to take the lead on a project and function as the project manager with most of the clients. That’s changed markedly, to a point where virtually anyone in the firm can take the lead on a project.

“I’m not working in the business, I’m working on the business,” says Garrity. “It’s a combination of me letting go and letting them take over.”

The result, he adds, has been positive. Since he’s not the point man on every project, he says, “I’m not the bottleneck anymore.”

Everyone is a boss

Dino Mariano, a senior industrial designer and director of operations, started with the firm in 1993 after working there as a summer intern. He says the variety of the projects he is able to work on, combined with the high level of participation in projects that each employee can have, make working at Bally Design an attractive choice.

“I’ve always felt that the environment has been such that it always makes people feel that they have a say,” Mariano says.

And everyone has a lot to say. Any one of the design team members can take responsibility for leading a project and work with the client to keep the project going smoothly. The project manager works up an agenda for each weekly meeting and a list of action items. All team members see the spending plan and know how close the project is to its budget.

A number of factors go into the equation to determine who is going to head a given project, including availability, who might have worked with a particular client in the past, and what expertise is needed to complete the work.

A chance to create

Traci Jackson says she was ready to move to San Francisco when Garrity contacted her about joining Bally Design.

“I was leaving Pittsburgh,” says Jackson. But she changed her mind when Garrity described the opportunity he had in mind for her. “It was the job that I thought would take me 10 years to get,” says Jackson.

As director of business development, Jackson says she’s glad she stayed. Jackson now is involved in planning the company’s infrastructure and determining best practices.

“We’re all a part of something that’s being created,” she says. “We are all here determining what this company will be.”

It pays to pay well

While personal satisfaction and fulfillment loom large for design professionals, Bally and Garrity both say they realized that compensation levels remain a critical factor for design professionals’ choice of employers. To make sure that money wasn’t an obstacle, they redesigned their salary matrix. Instead of tying it to local standards, they adjusted the salary ranges so that they would be comparable to what designers could earn in the highest-paying markets nationally.

Garrity says the company doesn’t post openings for new employees, but it does leave the door open for anyone who might be interested in coming to work at Bally Design. Job hunters can make contact through their Web site, referrals or through articles in the industry or lay press.

Says Garrity: “We always say we’re looking.” How to Reach:Bally Design at www.ballydesign.com or at (412) 621-9009.

Ray Marano ([email protected]) is associate editor of SBN Magazine.