Kevin Budelmann, President of Peopledesign
By Sai Allena
March 18, 2023
Kevin Budelmann (MDM 2013) is the co-founder and president of Peopledesign, a strategic design firm that focuses on helping transform businesses through business, brand, and service design. With over 30 years of experience, he has worked with a wide variety of businesses, education, healthcare, manufacturing, finance, and consumer products, ranging from startups to Fortune 500 companies. He is an adjunct professor at Northwestern University and regularly speaks about strategy and design. From 2020 to 2021, Kevin also served as the president of IxDA, a global group of over 100,000 design professionals from six continents.
In this interview, Kevin talks with ID student Sai Allena (MDes + MBA 2024) about his journey to ID, design leadership at Peopledesign, and his advice for designers.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Could you tell me a bit about your education and career?
I started my journey quite awhile back, when the design world looked very different, by pursuing my undergraduate degree in graphic design from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. Carnegie Mellon was a very technically focused school, and even in those days, ideas around human-centered design and user experience were being kicked around quite a lot. As an undergraduate, I had to take an early kind of computer class, which at the time was pretty unusual for someone in the arts. In those days, we were involved with projects where we’re envisioning user interfaces.
After my undergraduate degree, I got a job at Herman Miller and worked there for a few years before starting Peopledesign with a few other partners and have been doing that ever since. Probably half our clients have been in that kind of commercial design space, but then the other half have been all over the map, tech and higher education, healthcare and so on.
I got the opportunity to judge various design competitions and connect with various designers and publishers. I eventually co-authored a book called Brand Identity Essentials. Later on, I got involved with IxDA (Interaction Design Association), a global network of design practitioners, where I was a board member.
How’d you end up at ID?
About 10 years ago, I had the opportunity to go through the MDM (Master of Design Methods) program with ID. This was partly due to the fact that I met Larry Keeley. Through him, I became aware of Doblin and ID.
Back then, I had set my sights on going back to school. I did an executive program at Harvard, similar to an MBA program. While I learned a lot from the program, I couldn’t imagine doing that for two years!
However, a unique opportunity presented itself. ID was experimenting with its relatively new MDM program. There was a period of time where ID sent professors up here to Grand Rapids, Michigan, every other weekend for a few years. This was great for me because I had little kids at the time. I was at a point in my career where I didn’t really need a grade or degree, but was really interested in the content.
What lessons do you keep from your time at ID?
I’ve always been a designer that asks a lot of questions. But I think I had a desire to have more structure in the way I would approach the strategic aspects of a project. That’s part of what intrigued me about what was happening in the emerging design thinking space and people who were writing books about it and what ID was doing. I became aware of Doblin through that channel, and had personally become a fan of such design methodologies from afar. So when I had the opportunity to learn about such methods and strategy frameworks directly from ID, I took it.
All the things students at ID are exposed to currently informs our work on a daily basis: problem framing, user research techniques. I believe, because of the way I had my ID experience, alongside running my business, I had the opportunity to apply the concepts and apply them to client projects in real time and see their effects firsthand. So I continue to mine that material for things we do, even today.
What do you feel is your design superpower?
I like systems thinking. I like thinking through complex problems. I like the relationship between business and the arts and user-centered methods, the idea that we’re trying to appeal to people.
We actually changed our company’s name to Peopledesign 10 years ago to remind ourselves and our clients to continue to remain focused on the end user, the customer. It’s a message that to this day resonates because it’s amazing how many companies out there have an institutional bias that sort of makes them not think about their customer at all, which is kind of strange. But it happens all the time.
I believe that my time teaching, writing, and speaking has helped tremendously, as it allows me to take the role of translator, allowing me to make our design concepts more accessible. It has allowed me to learn from others, and keep evolving.
How do you use these superpowers to contribute to your team?
As I mentioned earlier, I was on the board of IxDA for a while, which consisted of heavy duty UX designers, interaction designers, researchers, and other practitioners from similar fields. But many of those people were deeply embedded in large, often software companies such as Google, Amazon, and Facebook. The IxDA group was very interesting because it was a very global network, and it was nice to connect with people in lots of places.
These days however, I have a pretty small team, which has led to a very different team dynamic. Most of our work is just finding projects and managing clients. So we have really leaned into our own methods, which are interpreted from the things I’ve learned from ID and elsewhere.
Where do you see yourself in the near future?
Currently, our company is in the process of a 10-year transition where we’d like the next generation of partners in the company to take the reins. This means that I’m trying to lean into processes and methodologies even more heavily, such that the company may still operate without me in the middle of everything.
Aside from that, I might look at leaning more into teaching. I would also like to write another book. More than anything, like a lot of people, my objective is to control my time by doing what I love.
How do you think design is evolving?
When I was young, design was more niche. Many people considered it as a field of art. When I was pursuing my undergraduate degree, I remember my mother telling me at one point that she imagined me being something like “a starving artist in Paris.” She, like many people, had a lack of exposure to the world of professional design.
Today, with the influence of technology, various spaces have emerged, and the world has changed dramatically with more people than ever focusing on user research, behavioral psychology, app and website development, and so on. Design can now be seen as an incredibly forceful part of a business, especially in the technology sector.
Nearly all major business schools have incorporated some of the philosophies and methods of design thinking into their curriculum. Design has now achieved a certain level of ubiquity, which generates certain challenges. People from wildly varying backgrounds are starting to emerge, and we’re struggling to segment the various kinds of designers.
Yet at the same time, I meet clients everyday who are completely unfamiliar with design. So although the design world has grown, it’s not evenly distributed across all markets. Even using the word ‘design’ sometimes isn’t all that helpful. That’s because design as a profession has, for better or worse, grown to envelope a lot of stuff.
Design can mean design strategy, it can mean user research, it can mean all these things. ID has been part of the reason why that discussion has broadened so much.
How do ID graduates compare to those from other schools? What distinguishes us?
Design schools have their own characteristics. Carnegie Mellon, for example, is very technology-oriented, with a lot of engineers, and there’s a focus on human-centered design influencing technology. The Stanford d.school is a sidecar of the business school, and thus they’re going to have a heavy duty focus on business.
I see ID being much more focused on research, methods, and models. There is much greater emphasis on the strategic aspects of design.
What advice would you give the students of ID who wish to lead in the future?
I think it depends on where you want to lead. There are design strategy innovation teams that are being built across nearly all industries today. There are innovation teams in big Fortune 500 companies, as well as small start-ups. If you wish to be a leader in a larger company, that’s one kind of skill set, primarily centered around interpersonal dynamics. On the other hand, in smaller start-ups, you’ll have to wear many hats and be scrappier and more resourceful. So it’s really helpful to try and develop skills based on where you’re trying to go.
I believe that one of the big futures of design is going to be in the behavioral sciences. I feel that somehow every problem in some way comes down to understanding people better.