In its 40th year, the communication design firm leader looks at the ever-changing landscape of the industry.
THIS ARTICLE WAS PUBLISHED IN THE ‘Q’ – THE REGISTRY’S PRINT PUBLICATION – IN JANUARY 2015[dropcap]P[/dropcap]hilip Murphy is president and CEO of GNU Group, a planning and design firm he joined in 1990 and acquired in 1994. The foundation of GNU’s practice is communications design—identification features that establish presence; sign systems that guide visitors; displays for merchandising products and services; identities to establish new brands; marketing programs that tell great stories and sell projects.
TR: GNU has just celebrated its 40-year anniversary. What is new and what has stayed the same during these four decades?
MURPHY: We have always considered ourselves a professional service resource for real estate clients. That has not changed in 40 years. Our changes have always been in response to the dynamics of the real estate industry and markets.
The technology and materials are different, but it’s interesting in that those aren’t the demands from the clients. They are more outcomes of what is being developed into the buildings. The biggest change came about in the mid-’90s. We had clients that for years had done the traditional delivery systems, where we would act like an architect or interior designer. We would do the drawings, and they would find a sign company, and we would manage those people. Then the clients started coming to us because signage is such a small part of the budget, and was low on the architect’s list: “We are looking for somebody who will basically plan it, design it, draw it, find somebody to build it, manage it. We want one set of eyes responsible for it.”
I think the reality is: Will people keep coming to us? If they do, we need to adapt. We started training our project managers to take on those responsibilities. The design-build side of our business is now about 30 percent of our revenue.
TR: The company was spun off from a planning/landscape architecture firm in the early ’70s. Have you expanded your relationships across the industry since that time? Has that been a difficult process for the evolution of GNU Group?
MURPHY: Not at all. Our introduction to the world of real estate was a product of our early connection to SWA, a leading international landscape architecture, planning and urban design firm. It defined our area of specialization. Our clients have always been developers, owners, operators and managers of real property. The professions that shape their world (architects, planners, landscape architects, engineers and contractors) have always been a part of our client mix.
I look at the business probably differently than most designers do. Most designers think of a project. I think of markets. Wherever the real estate market is going, that’s where we need to be. When I bought the firm and changed the business model in 2000, I focused more on the real estate market, and made sure, as the market was moving, that we were thought leaders.
Healthcare got significant. There was a time when it was 60 percent of our business. I think of us looking ahead, where is the market going and being responsive to those needs. Those needs come from architects and designers.
TR: At its core, GNU Group is a communications company. You enable your clients to visually communicate with their customers and make the experience of passing that information easier. How does this work in today’s ever-connected, digitally savvy society?
MURPHY: Creativity is at the heart of what we do but delivering information in ways that best work for the users is fundamental. We’ve had to dig deep to figure out how to solve some of the communications problems, especially in healthcare. For years we developed sign programs, and it became clear when clients showed up on site or in the building they used our signage. We felt the real key to making that work is giving them that information before they get in the car. We now have the ability to give you a Google map to get to the site, to give you a text to say, “Park in Lot A, enter Building 2, go to Floor 3 and go to Department 202.” You can now print out directions before you leave, and the signs will match up to those directions.
We developed a web-based training program that we license to our clients, and they can push the information out to their stakeholders. That’s the Total Wayfinding System. It’s most meaningful in healthcare, but we are starting to see that in the corporate world, too.
We strive to employ technology that people need to experience, navigate and understand their environments. Electronic, digital, Web-based, apps and many other emerging technological advances are all part of the mix, but ultimately, it’s about the customer experience.
TR: Are you optimistic about the industry as a whole in 2015? Why?
MURPHY: We are subject to the idiosyncrasies of real estate’s cycles. The current cycle is up, way up. Our work for corporations, developers and institutions has never been stronger, and there is nothing on the horizon in 2015 that portends an early end to this cycle. 2014 will be the culmination of a 14-year business plan and a record year for us. In 2015 we will become an employee-owned company, so all GNUs can continue to share in GNU’s successes in the future.
What’s interesting about our particular field, there isn’t anybody who has a significant market share. We are able to jump on airplanes and do things.
TR: What challenges do you anticipate the industry will face in 2015 or in the short term?
MURPHY: Maintaining our course. Cultures are interesting because it is easy to talk about what they are, but harder to keep in place. We, at GNU are real conscious about our culture, which is about transparency. We have very specific processes we’ve developed that one has to buy into. And we have this very open communications policy. We do an employee survey at least once a month. And those are tough things because sometimes you have to deal with things that slap you in the face. It’s really hard to get good people, and when you get them you have to keep them.
Ours is a people business and our success can be credited to our Explicit Culture. We work hard to attract the right people, train them well and provide the team structure and processes that define our solutions. Our culture is based on four simple principles: financial transparency, prescribed workflow processes, honest/open communications and personal accountability.
TR: Are there any innovations that are emerging in your industry that will be transformative over the years to come?
MURPHY: To be honest with you, I don’t know where the industry is going to be in 10 years, but it is not going to be where it is today. Technology is going to drive it. It’s not that you are not going to need signs, but you need to support them. Innovation will always come from opportunities to improve on the experiences of their customers. We see client responsiveness, technology, turnkey project delivery and thought leadership as continued drivers for us in the future.
We actually have our own installation crew. I never thought we would get into that business, but it allowed us to be more responsive to our clients when they asked for the turnkey. Certainly things are going faster. It is unbelievable how fast some clients need things to get them approved by the city.
When I look at our competitors, I think they continue to be challenged in the old-fashioned way in that when the business is good, they have X number of bodies, and when the economy gets bad, they shrink. We work really hard so that when it does get slow, how do we move into different market?
TR: When you walk around the mall or an airport, do you find yourself overly critical? Is it a learning experience or are you frustrated?
MURPHY: More observant than critical. There are some amazing things being done in the environmental branding and wayfinding world, and while we are among the leaders with our Total Wayfinding System, there are always things to learn.
I have gotten a lot of kidding over the years from acquaintances who can’t understand my need to fondle signs. It’s my way of being up close and personal in understanding how things are done. We draw things on pieces of paper, and you’ve got to learn what things are in scale, out in the world. We work with cities and are told, “You can’t have a sign larger than 10 feet tall.” We need to get people to understand scale. The spatial relationship is critical.
We are continually working on language that is more common to people. Healthcare has its own language with “MRIs.” How to you translate that? It’s not uncommon to hear that “Everybody knows it is the Murphy Cancer Center, why call it Building 1?” Because it’s easy to put “Building 1” on a sign.
If you think of the younger people today, they live on their mobile phones. That’s where the information they want has to be. Then you have the individuals who figure it out on their own because they have a good sense of navigation. Then you have a population that is getting older who wants to grab the first person they see and ask, “How do I get to so-and-so?”
At Kaiser Oakland we just finished an electronic directory system. You press a button for what language you speak, and everything on that directory changes to that language. And you press a pad on that directory, and it transfers directions to your phone.
TR: What else should we be asking that we are not asking?
MURPHY: About the importance of what we contribute. Our work is a relatively small financial component of any property, but it has profound influence on branding, function, efficiency, and in many cases, projects can’t get permission to operate until we solve the code and ordinance requirements.
Phil Murphy photo by Laura Kudritzki; Hudson Pacific photo courtesy of GNU Group