Episode 235: Amping Up Success with a Design Consultant—with Michelle Fox
Deb Zahn: HI want to welcome you to this week's episode of the craft of consulting podcast. So, in this podcast, we're going to touch upon a lot of things that are relevant to consulting businesses.
I brought on Michelle Fox, who's a creative social entrepreneur and a design consultant. She's going to talk about some of the work that she does with clients and how she choreographs it to ensure that they have a fantastic client experience. And that they get something at the end that makes a real difference in the work that they're trying to do.
And she also offers just fantastic advice to anybody who's new to consulting and the things that are the most important to pay attention to and do so that you build the business that you ultimately want to have. So, let's get started.
I want to welcome Michelle Fox to the show. Michelle, welcome to the show.
Michelle Fox: Thanks so much for having me, Deb. It's an honor to be here.
Deb Zahn: I am so thrilled that you're here. I've been wanting to do this podcast for a while, so I'm very excited we could make it happen. Let's start off. Tell my listeners what you do.
Michelle Fox: Sure. So, I am the creative director and owner of The Bridge Studio. I work with nonprofits and governments almost all of which are addressing climate change. I provide communications and design services to their projects and programs.
Deb Zahn: Fabulous. So, I know one of the things that I love about what you do is that you call yourself a creative social entrepreneur instead of shoving yourself into any sort of preexisting boxes. So, why is it you do that? And why did you pick that term?
Michelle Fox: Yeah, so I went through a bit of an identity crisis a couple years ago because I was really struggling with what it is I do as a small business owner. As a designer who's working in social innovation and addressing complex problems and not doing the type of design that I think people traditionally think of. I worked with this woman, Sarah Beth Burke, who really champions the idea of hybrid professionals, the idea that people come together with a diversity of skill sets that is truly unique to them.
And we took a bunch of the things that I was delivering on and bringing to my clients and landed with this title creative social entrepreneur. So, in my work, what I do is one, I live a creative life of service. 100 percent of my projects are purpose driven. And because I am an entrepreneur, I'm finding ways to create business that disrupts some of the systems that I think are harmful or holding us in patterns that ultimately.
I would like to see myself break out of, and hopefully others as well. I don't think I won't get into the specifics of it, but yeah, it's a way of challenging the status quo through business and with the flexibility of being able to make my own hours. I'm able to really engage deeply in my community.
I'm able to serve on nonprofit boards. I'm able to participate in advocacy for legislation that will change the system. I don't know. I don't know how specific we should get here.
Deb Zahn: No, I know what the legislation is. So, feel free to say it if you want to because it was powerful.
Michelle Fox: For sure. So, this year, one of the things that I was really honored to participate in is the power act.
And so here in Colorado, we passed a bill that would protect workers from discrimination and sexual harassment. And it really does take citizens to be willing to go down to the Capitol and lobby and testify and work with our policymakers to show that there is citizen support, that there are lived experiences.
That help move the needle also working with ballot initiatives to try and get fracking out of our communities, serving on nonprofit boards for the Boulder Chamber or the Boulder potters Guild. And then working with grassroots organizations that are leading campaigns who really need effective design and communications, who may not be able to hire a professional firm.
Like, these are all things that I've been able to do as an entrepreneur with the flexibility that comes with being able to make my own hours and not only enrich my own life. But really get to work and see real change happening outside of the theory or like the big systems level policy change or the things that can feel really esoteric and intangible.
I think one of the greatest benefits of being able to do the work that I have been able to do over the past few years.
Deb Zahn: I love that. And I love that you've shown that you can be a consultant, be a business and still be able to serve the mission in multiple ways. I only do mission work myself and, so I understand the power of that.
And it reminds me of, you had shared with me your entrepreneurial origin story, and it kind of ties to how it is you've decided to show up as an entrepreneur. Can you share that with folks? It's so powerful.
Michelle Fox: Thanks. Yeah, I would love to. OK. So, the Bridge Studio is 15 years old. I started it in 2009 and II still feel like I'm pretty young, but I was, I was 24 at the time.
The idea of running my own business or being a business owner was seeded very early in life. And the story is for a few years, I was a latchkey kid. My parents would wake up very early in the morning, leave for work before I was even out of bed, and then come home late in, in the evening and wake up and do the next thing over and over again.
Not really a great quality of life for, I think, anyone. And then one day, my mom comes home from work. She sits down at the dinner table. She's very upset. She and two other women of color had been very unceremoniously laid off that day. A bit of colorful detail on this is my mom was leading diversity in the workplace, that area of practice for this change management consulting firm.
So, just kind of ironic that she would be let go. And that's one of those memories that's like, OK, you're going to remember this moment. That was a changing point in my family. So, a few weeks after that, someone approached my mom, knew what she did, knew what her skill sets were and offered her her first contract.
She started her own business. A few years later, my dad retired from the Navy and went to work with my mom as her vice president. And they grew this consulting firm that employed people all over the world. They, they just retired after 25 years of being business owners. And I got to see the before and after of what's possible.
So, the before of being somebody's number one employee, commuting long distances from your home and community into living at home, working from home, getting to pursue the work that you want. Having the autonomy to make certain life choices, including to take care of family members who in my, in my family's case, my, my grandparents were aging and dying.
And because of this business that my parents had started, we were able, my parents. Their brothers and sisters were able to really care for my grandparents as they aged and passed on and I think you know, it's not about it's not about business. Yes. I'm here as a consultant to deliver a service and help solve problems for my clients.
But my why is so much more than that. For me, it's to be an active member of my community. It's to be an active member and be engaged civically, especially during these times. I think it's critically important. Our world, our realities are changing in Ways that are unimaginable and I'm not I'm talking about like technology and socially there's so much to participate in and to be open and able to participate in a way that feels.
Balanced and good. You know, I think, yeah, it is really important. So, the origin story for me is I got to see my family go through this transition and transformation. I saw the options and I started plotting that course for myself very early on and it took me several years. To get to the point where I was able to be fully self-sustaining through my consulting business.
Yeah, and I think that that's like, I have been in business for 15 years, but this business has been my sole source of income since January,
Deb Zahn: 2016. Wow, that's fabulous. And I love that story because it gave you a vision of a different way of being and a different way of having a livelihood that so many of us didn't have because going and clocking it at a job is what so many people know.
And it's hard to imagine the freedom, the flexibility, the challenge, and all the good things that you can get if you make a different choice. So, thank you for sharing that. When I read it, I was like, oh my gosh, we have to share this. People need to hear this.
Michelle Fox: Yeah. And to underline the fact of what you said of like, we have choices, you know. It doesn't have to be an all or nothing thing.
It doesn't have to be because something bad happened that throws somebody into an entrepreneurial pursuit, or you have to decide everything all at once. It can be a slow progression. It can change and adapt over time. People have choices.
Deb Zahn: Yeah. And there's not one way to do it, which I love. I love, love, love.
So, let's jump back into what you do because I've seen some of the work that you do, and you know how impressed I was by it. So, I also call yourself a design consultant and not a graphic designer. Sort of what's the difference and why does that difference matter?
Michelle Fox: Right. Yeah. So, I feel like I am a graphic designer.
That's how I got started on this path, but as a design consultant, I think. You know, I'm able to work with my clients before it's time to do the work. I'm able to consult and advise them on what the best approach is. And I think ultimately design is all about how we frame approach and solve problems.
There are many different ways that we can design. Things, places, experiences, the world, and as a design consultant with a background in systems thinking and social innovation, there's so much more to what I'm able to offer to my clients than just the very tangible and discreet thing that you might see at the end of our engagement, which I would call the artifact of the design process.
Deb Zahn: I love that. Now, I've seen some of your artifacts that you've done, so dig in a little bit to some of the choices, and you can, you can pick the latest one, the one you did on climate change, which blew my mind, but some of the choices that you had to walk your client through in order for them to get the thing, the artifact at the end that was actually going to help them achieve what they were trying to achieve more than just, Oh, look, it's a pretty thing to look at.
Michelle Fox: Yeah, so recently I was able to deliver on a series of products that went through the brand, the rebranding the design and user research of an app, and then a full organizational website relaunch. And, and in that process, as a trusted design partner to my client, I was able to guide them. in understanding what their immediate needs were, what their schedule was, and then what the best approach is to organize this series of projects.
I was also able to call together, so as a consultant, it's just me. The Bridge Studio is Like my alter ego. However, it's not Michelle Fox consulting. I intentionally branded it the Bridge Studio, but because I have had and still have every intention of collaborating with teams with specialized skill sets.
And so that's what I was able to do is build a fit for purpose team to deliver. On these products, calling people in at the right time, consulting with them to make sure it was clear what we all needed to deliver together, the client, the subcontractors and myself. So, that cohesive experience from the client side, they just have to work with one person.
That's me. everything else that happens in the quote, like back of the house with the subcontracting relationships and everything is one of the best parts of what I get to do as a, as a small business. So, one understanding the scope of work, what is the thing that we have to deliver then working with the client to understand what the strategy and plan are.
So, who are the users? Who's the audience? Who are the people that we're trying to reach? And what is the plan, like, that we, that we need to follow to get there? Working with a client to develop the content and thinking about how that's cohesive across all of their products. and then working to deliver the visual design aspects of that through to launch.
So, making sure that everything is, is checked, goes through QA and is ready to launch and that they are never, that the client is never left alone. And I told, I told them you're going to have to pull my dead fingers off this project because even when my, even when my work is done. Like it's not until I see that thing flying out into the universe that I'm able to like rest easy at night You know, and so I remain committed Through launch and then even after you know, I think it's important just to remain Available as, as things come up.
Deb Zahn: So, a lot of that, particularly if you've got a sort of a crew of subcontractors that you're working with, you've got clients and sometimes sort of multiple top chefs in the kitchen, I would imagine on the client side that takes choreography. So project management with a capital P and a capital M, how, how do you approach that so that the client does have the experience of.
I'm working with, with a person, I have one client interface and that's a nice thing and everything's going smoothly.
Michelle Fox: OK, I'm going to, I'm going to share something. So, through this process, my client said to me, Michelle, your design reviews feel more like art therapy. They do like another.
Meeting and that I feel like that that touches my heart and I think speaks to a lot of the work and planning that goes into how we run a good creative process like I said earlier, it's important to start with a clear scope of work and then get into the strategy and plan that we're going to follow and just communicating with people like these are the milestones that we're looking at that we need to hit to stay it.
On time. This is what the client can expect. So, always communicating, like what's going to happen next before I don't want people to find out that something happened after the fact, but just proactively communicating. And I think a lot of it is just people skills and, and, and really I think I do really try to show up as the best version of myself for my clients.
Deb Zahn: You know what I love about how you said it is you said it so casually, and yet I know tons of consultants who don't do this and they kind of fly by to the seat of their pants and things get missed and things so the being able to do that, particularly when you might have your different fit for purpose, people that are working with you takes a lot of skill in order to do that.
And I've seen far too many times client experience go down the drain because all those things aren't happening. No one can quite remember, wait, who was supposed to do what? When was that going to happen? So, uh, you, you've been at this for 15 years. So, I imagine over time you figured out, yeah, here's, here's the right way to do it.
But for anybody listening. If you can't describe your process that casually, it probably needs attention.
Michelle Fox: Well, and too, I think something that I would love to add to this is with the project management aspect of consulting, I'm always clarifying and confirming with everyone that I work with. So, what goes into the contracts with the client is reflected in with what goes into the contracts with my subcontractors.
That should all be seamless. So, from the top, the client, the executive director, the contracting office, they're signing off on something and if, if I am delivering something via a subcontractor, the subcontractor's really clear on like what. what is supposed to be delivered, what's expected. And then even in conversations at the end of, at the end of a meeting or after we hit a milestone, I'm always clarifying and confirming what I have heard or what I have said so that we're all moving on the same track together.
I think it's so easy. And honestly, this is something that I do for myself. And the byproduct of it is. a project that runs smoothly, I forget I can forget, I can misunderstand, I can totally space out a conversation, but like, my hands are still moving and I'm taking notes so just like, I think it's really important to document conversations, clarify, and confirm, always.
Deb Zahn: Yeah, love that. That, that should be on a t shirt because that's a thing folks need to do all the time. Now, I'd love it. Uh, if you could actually brag a little bit about what this project was because I will tell you when I looked at it. I could tell immediately what someone was supposed to do after they consumed what it is that you put together.
So, share a little bit what this actually was because you have reason to be proud of it.
Michelle Fox: Sure. So, the projects that were delivered were for the U. S. Climate Alliance. It's a coalition of governors who have committed to the Paris Climate Agreement. They were formed out of an absence of leadership from the federal government a few years ago. In 2017, states continue to remain galvanized and lead on climate actions across the country, states and territories, they needed to update their brand they needed a new website.
The program's team, policy analysts, their policy team also has, have access to a very robust library of climate policies happening across. And so making that accessible to the public with policy advisors and analysts really identified as like the primary user group was the second product. So, organizational website relaunch, it went from 30 pages to 200 plus.
We did it in a pretty incredible timeline, four and a half months from design to launch. Yeah, it really is incredible. And I think it really speaks to the level of commitment from everybody on the team, from the client side to the subcontractors. but also I think it, it also speaks to. The need for immediate action.
I think one of the biggest things that we need to encourage, inspire, inform change is access to information. And working in communications and design, I think it's not just about making things look pretty. It's about making things accessible and, and readily available to the people who need that information.
Deb Zahn: And the thing that I was so impressed by it, having been a person who's done policy before, is it was so immediately actionable. It wasn't just, “Oh, and here's a bunch of information. Good luck with that.” It was easy to navigate. If I was looking for a particular policy related to this particular topic, it was easy to get to and the reason that, that I say that is obviously that applies to the work you do, but, but that's how other consultants, regardless of what they do, should be thinking about things is what is the ultimate thing that you're, that is trying to be accomplished, not just whatever the artifact is. I've done reports. So, what, what is the report actually trying to do in the world? And then how do you construct it such that it's going to facilitate that happening? And when I saw yours, I was just giddy because I thought this is something that, that people could use immediately to start to affect change.
Michelle Fox: Right. Yeah. Thank you. Thank you for, for those words and for highlighting that it was definitely one of those like landmark projects was really proud of the team that came together and the work that we were all able to accomplish together. It was definitely a team effort.
Deb Zahn: And we're going to have a link to it in the show notes so people can see sort of what I'm talking about and what's possible.
But this was an organization that was able to hire a design consultant, had the money to be able to do it and they were able to get sort of very amazing results in a, in a short period of time, but not all mission-oriented organizations can do that. So, what are some of the things that they could do?
That would still be meaningful.
Michelle Fox: Number one, I think the most important thing that people can do is be consistent. And how do you do that? When you work with a designer or design consultant and you go through a branding process, you'll talk about mission, vision, values. You'll talk about, you'll produce a logo.
You'll talk about what fonts and colors you use and photo direction and types of graphics that you use on the communication materials that you produce. You can, you can do that for yourself without hiring a design consultant. Do hire a design consultant or work with a graphic designer when you're able to, but if you're just getting started out, be consistent and produce a brand style guide for yourself.
This could be a simple Google doc where you say, “I'm using this color green and this color blue and, and gray.” OK. Go into your color profiles, capture what the RGB color profile is and the hexadecimal (Hex) value and put that into a document. Anytime you produce something, use that exact color profile. Don't use the whole spectrum of greens and blues.
If you do hire a designer and you can't work with them every time, copy what they did for you. That will make sure that your brand looks consistent across all those products. Something else that you can do is keep it simple. So, when I think about like some of these, like most notorious brands, like Apple or Nike or Tiffany's. We all know what those logos look like, what their brand, like the Tiffany's blue or Apple has like their silver and white boxes.
It's simple. It's minimal. If you're not a designer, just keep, keep your products looking really simple and polished. And I think that's a really easy way to make things look polished and high end is a minimal design aesthetic. And then if, if you're feeling dangerous, you can get onto an app like Canva or Creative Market and find yourself a template.
That you like that relates to like the mission, vision, values, the tone, the voice that you're trying to present in the world and customize it to your particular design needs. But I feel like it's a little sacrilegious to be going on the record and promoting like Canva and Creative Market, but they're great.
They are great tools, and you don't have to hire a designer. If you can't afford it and you need to invest in other areas of your business.
Deb Zahn: Yeah. And I love this. I think this is obviously everything we're talking about is relevant to new consulting businesses who have to establish a brand. And if they don't have a lot of money, then yeah, keep it simple and follow the rules that you just said.
But when you can afford it, then have the real deal support you because it will elevate what you do no matter, no matter what. But yeah, I have seen folks, organizations, I've seen consultants.
And if I'm scrolling, let's say on social media, or I'm like, I don't know, it's them instantly. So, I don't know to stop and to care because it looks completely different than it did last time. So, I think it's somebody else. So, I love that. I love, I love that advice. And in this day and age, it’s easy to do that.
If you discipline yourself, my brand guide also has like Words I don't use because. I don't use the word “guru.” It's culturally appropriative. I don't like it. I won't use it. I make sure all my people know if that word pops up somewhere, it gets edited out. It goes away. That's part of my brand guide.
Michelle Fox: In an approach to building the business and the life that you want, I think defining what it is you do is just as important as what you don't do and how those together can really guide. It has guided me toward a very intentional niche. And practice that I feel really grateful.
I feel very grateful that I am in the position that I'm in and it's taken years of being very intentional. So, yeah, good.
Deb Zahn: And I would say also, like I said, bring in a design consultant when you need it or a graphic artist. And I will tell you there was a moment in time where it became really clear that I needed to do that when I was working with.
It was a group, we were designing a program together, it had community members, it had people from organizations, it had people from various sectors. We were trying to visually represent what it is we were designing. And it was sad, Michelle, you would have hated it. I didn't have Canva at the time. So, I got onto PowerPoint, and I just started doing boxes and circles. And they hated it so much. And I said, look, I'm happy to fire myself from doing all graphics. The graphic was really important to them. To get across exactly how important what we were trying to do and the things that were underlying it. I ended up actually bringing in an illustrator who did this amazing illustration. And they said, “OK, we got it. You're fired. She's hired, and you're not doing another graphic.” I still help them with everything else, but I shouldn't have been doing that. I didn't have the skills.
Michelle Fox: Right. And I mean, amazing that you were able to demonstrate the power of visual communications.
How immediately it sold itself when, when you did something and then brought in an illustrator. I think it's a very powerful thing to have. Sometimes something is better than nothing. But when it comes time, if it's a very important moment or issue, to bring in a skilled professional who has the right tool for the right job.
Deb Zahn: That's right. And you can wow your clients. I mean, really. I have brought in other folks to client engagements that I've had, and the clients are just ooh, and ah over things because we took it up a notch.
Michelle Fox: Totally. Yeah. In the years that I've been consulting, I've been able to work with like new nonprofits and startups or consultancies and partner with them on growing their brands.
And they have told me I have been told that the work that we produced together, these fact sheets, these websites, these reports, help them to establish their reputation. Their brand people come back to them for the thing that they now know they can deliver. So, I think that it's sometimes people see communications and design work as.
An extra cost instead of a strategic investment, but when you do produce something that is thoughtfully crafted with a design and communications professional, that's something that I think has a return on investment for years to come beyond the project that it's delivered for.
Deb Zahn: That's right. Yeah. Because you just look more sophisticated, more able, more power.
I mean, I'll use whatever language you want to use, but yeah, anytime I brought in a design professional to do what you're describing, it has always led to more business because it has wowed the client, wowed them because they didn't expect it. And most consultants don't give it to them. Yeah.
So, love, love, love that. So, what advice would you give from a business perspective, other consultants or creatives who are trying to grow and build their business? Because you've been at this for a while. So, you've got a lot of wisdom that you have been able to gain over time. Give, give me a couple gems of, if you, if you do anything, do this.
Michelle Fox: Yeah, one, I would say don't be afraid to start if if somebody is out there who is trying to look at how to start their own consulting practice, go out and find a client and go through the motions of writing up that contract, getting really clear about that scope of work, estimating the time that it's going to take to deliver it.
What is what? How are you? developing your cost estimates. Is it based on an hourly rate? Is it a value based pricing? What, like start small, start small and don't, don't put all your eggs in one basket is something that I would share with people. Don't, don't be afraid to start and don't be afraid to start small.
Deb Zahn: I like the don't put all your eggs in one basket. That's a great one.
Michelle Fox: Yeah, it's something that I have found to be really effective in growing an intentional design practice is defining what it is specifically that I want to do. So, 10, 11, 12 years ago, I really got hot about this idea that I want to look at how visual communications, information graphics can help people from different cultures communicate.
And I just started telling everyone that I knew Like, I meet them on the street, I see them at the grocery store, I'm looking for a client where I can do this thing. Intercultural communications, they want information graphics and visual communications. And I landed an incredible client that changed my life and my career trajectory.
A few years ago, I got really excited about what is the value of fine craft in supporting our sustainability and resilience goals. I want to look at localized fine craft. Culture and how is that promoting sustainability and resilience of communities? I started telling everyone I knew on the street, and I guess what I landed a client.
With a local government and I was able to do pursue a dream project producing short documentaries on artists. Wow who are yeah disrupting the way that we look at the world. It was incredible So, and a piece of advice that I would share with people is Find a thing that you are, that you are truly curious about and start telling people what that is.
Don't be tied as much to what it's going to look like or who you're going to work with, but like the idea that those ideas have really guided me into incredible places, and it has literally taken me. All over the world, doing work that,
Deb Zahn: I love. Whoo hoo! I love that and I love the boldness of telling everybody, accosting people in a grocery store and telling them that this is what you want to do.
It's that kind of boldness is what builds a fabulous business. Wonderful. So, where can folks find you if they want to see some of this magic that we're talking about?
Michelle Fox: Sure. So, my website is www.thebridgestudio.org. And you can also find me on LinkedIn, Michelle F Fox. And yeah, I'd be very excited to hear from any members of your audience, Deb.
Yeah. And thank you again for having me.
Deb Zahn: Oh, this is wonderful. You're not off the hook yet because you know, you got one other question coming, which is, you know what this is. You're ready for it is how do you bring balance to your life, however it is you think about that.
Michelle Fox: So, a big part of my life. is a meditation practice, a meditation and journaling practice.
I heard people talking about the power of meditation everywhere I went. And it wasn't until a few years ago that I really tried to establish a discipline around that. And it has brought so much internal balance to me and my life and my business in ways that are immeasurable. Number one, meditating and also journaling if nothing else than a gratitude practice at the end of the day, but really putting pen to paper as a creative, I think that helps me just open up to the flow of the universe and connect with a power greater than myself.
Deb Zahn: I love that. Well, Michelle, thank you so much for coming on and sharing all this wisdom and insights and fabulousness with us. I really, really appreciate it.
Michelle Fox: Thank you so much, Deb.
Deb Zahn: Thanks so much for listening to this episode of the Craft of Consulting Podcast. I want to ask you to do actually three things. If you enjoyed this episode or you've enjoyed any of my other ones, hit subscribe. I got a lot of other great guests that are coming up in a lot of other great content, and I don't want you to miss anything.
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