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Carson Design Associates Turns 25: A Conversation With Jack Carson + Julie Berry

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The year was 1991. George Herbert Walker Bush was in the third year of his presidency. Michael Jordan and his Chicago Bulls won the first of their six NBA Championships in July. Nirvana released Nevermind—an eventual gold and platinum album.

In that same year, Jack Carson founded Carson Design Associates in Indianapolis.

Over the next quarter century, he and current president Julie Berry have guided the firm through many fat and lean years and strive to deliver the highest quality design work for its clients, including Charles Schwab, Eli Lilly and Company, Rolls-Royce, and Accenture.

We recently sat down with Jack and Julie to recount some memories of the past 25 years and take a glance at what the future holds. See the full conversation below.

Their First Introductions to Interior Design

Interviewer: Jack, let’s start it off. What first intrigued you about the field of interior design? Maybe share a little bit about your life story.

Jack: Well, as I was growing up, I was always surrounded by construction. I worked in my grandfather’s hardware store and I was in building trades in high school. Construction was always near and dear to me. And actually, I was not planning to go to college, but decided to go at the last minute. I went to Ball State and started out in architecture.

During my freshman year, I had several friends that were in interior design, and I didn’t even know there was such a thing. I saw what they were doing and it was more interesting than what I was doing. Then I switched over to interior design after my first year in architecture.

Julie: I didn’t know you weren’t going to go to school.

Jack: Yeah, I wasn’t. It was sort of very last minute because everyone thought that I was just going to, well, inherit the family business.

Interviewer: How much did your experience in architecture translate to interior design?

Jack: Very little because that first year is a lot of the theory. But the things that I already had under my belt—so all of the construction knowledge—made it an easy transition.

Interviewer: Interesting. So what was interior design back when you were in college?

Jack: Well, it was just starting to formulate. Even at Ball State, I don’t think their program was in place too many years before that. I didn’t know that it was a profession and very few other people knew it was a profession. I think that as it got to be more complex, it needed more diversity. It used to be that, because it was simple, an architect could do everything.

Interviewer: Do you mind sharing what year that was?

Jack: I started college in 1977 and graduated in 1981.

Interviewer: And Julie, how about you? What first intrigued you about the field of interior design?

Julie: I always knew I was going to college. That wasn’t a choice, really. I, too, did not know that interior design was a field at that time. I mean I never even walked down the art hall of my high school. I never had an art class.

And so I was on the business path. I went to school as an accounting major at Indiana State University. I did switch that to business administration, but interior design did not enter my life until probably midway through my sophomore year. At that time, I was thinking about establishing a minor. I didn’t really know what interior design was, but somebody on my floor was in that major. I was intrigued by the projects and just started asking questions. I looked, and they had a facility management minor in interior design, and I could see how that could pair up with the business administration degree.

I went ahead and graduated with a business degree and facility management minor. Then went back to school two weeks later to finish off my Interior Design major. So my very first true drawing art class—Art 101—was the last semester of my sixth year of college.

Interviewer: When you went back to get your interior design, did you feel that it was definitely going to be your career path?

Julie: Yes, I knew that that was going to be my career path for sure. My design degree was harder than my business degree—which you would not think would be the case at all—but it was a lot more time intensive. Definitely harder.

What the Industry Looked Like 25 Years Ago

Interviewer: What are some design trends that you recall from when you opened Carson Design Associates?

Jack: Well I would say that back then open plan was just starting to get embraced, and it was a matter of what I would call efficiency.

Julie: It was the Dilbert land.

Jack: Right, exactly. Everyone was going to open plan because they could save space. They could pack more people in less space.

Jack: Yes, especially at Charles Schwab we would do these projects with 600-800 six-by-six stations. It was just a sea of cubicles in one open area. And that was different, but that was the only thing that we knew.

Julie: At that point, still more of the rooms were along the windows. That was still a…

Jack: …what I would call hierarchical and status driven, whereas today’s environments are non-hierarchical with more variety of space. Seldom now do we do a sea of cubicles.

Julie: Back then we still had offices. There just weren’t as many. Now it is not unusual to build out a space without true offices.

Jack: I would say that I don’t know if the design changed technology or technology changed design, but there is more thought put into office environments now than it used to be. Technology sort of allowed for more complex things to be thought about and environments to be more complex. It allowed us to meet those needs and then probably drove those needs.

Interviewer: Regarding those sea of cubicles, I feel like as designers that would be super limiting to your skillsets and all the great ways you could create. Did you see it that way?

Jack: As I tell our people, we always want to strive to make the problem harder than it appears on the outside. So yes, our clients come to us and still say, “I want 12 offices and 40 workstations.” We could stop at that point and give them 12 offices and 40 workstations. But instead, we think how we can push them to make it harder. Not push them because we know the answer. Push them so that they make the problem harder for us. What other things do you want to accomplish with the space that frankly they rarely think of until you bring it up. Then once you bring it up, they’re all in and they’ll answer the questions. But still, it’s trying to make it harder to solve.

Our business, that’s what it is—problem solving. And Julie and I are probably the same in this that easy problems aren’t quite as much fun.

Julie: Very much so.

Jack: So let’s make it harder so that it’s more challenging and then in the end more rewarding.

Julie: I agree, it’s problem solving. But also back then, because efficiency was the main thing, it was a whole different puzzle that you were trying to achieve. We were focused on desk count and how does that fit in with their teaming structure and making sure that it was still flexible. Is it laid out in a way that it can be expanded? It was a big boom period for a lot of corporations out there.

Then today, we still have to think about opportunities for expanding, but companies don’t expand typically at the same pace. So now it’s how can we make this space and the square footage flexible enough to expand within that same space. In a way, it’s a similar challenge, but…

Jack: …very different.

Julie: Different answers, different solutions.

Finding Clients and Finding Solutions

Interviewer: 1991. That was the first year. What made that the right time to start your own firm?

Jack: I remember waking up one morning in May and saying, “Two months from today, I’m going to start my own firm.” And two months pretty much to the day. It was my 10th year out of college, and I guess it was inevitable. It was like, why wait?

Julie: I didn’t realize your grandfather had a hardware store and that entrepreneurship was in your family. You grew up in that environment.

Interviewer: That’s a courageous move. Do you recall that first client that you worked with?

Jack: Yes, I just saw them last night {at our anniversary party.}

Julie: They’re still in the same space at 116th and Meridian…TIC International. And the broker who connected Jack to TIC made the comment last night that Jack was the only designer in town that would come to the meeting with a roll of tracing paper, sketch a plan in the meeting and walk out of their room with a plan. It was revolutionary in his opinion.

Interviewer: Wow. Had you done that before for other clients?

Jack: Yeah, but that was really what drew the business his direction.

Julie: Remember, at that point, the computers weren’t around. The tracing paper was what you had to work with. That was your tool.

Jack: Well most firms, even today, sit down with a client, then go off, work for a long time, and come back with a solution. My thing with the roll of trace paper was that I could do iterative design right in front of them and get instant feedback. You don’t have that time lag.

And that’s what I’m still trying to do 25 years later with different technologies. We’ve switch from a roll of trace to computer, but we’re still it’s trying to get those clients involved, engaged in interior design, and do it quickly. Not because we want it done tomorrow, but so you can go through more iterations.

Julie: The tools have always been there, whether it’s tracing paper and pen or it’s a computer, but the struggle of 25 years is finding people who can be comfortable with failing fast in public with a client.

And if we can solve that in every person that we have, what an explosion of what can happen.

Jack: Exactly.

Julie: But that’s a really hard human instinct to overcome.

Interviewer: Especially in younger employees who are trying to prove themselves.

Jack: Most young designers come up with that initial, easy solution. The easy problem of 12 offices and 40 desks comes along, and they solve that. Then, as soon as the client comes along and says, “Well I want to go off and do this other thing,” they’ve got blinders on. They’re locked in and get too emotionally attached to that initial thing.

Interviewer: Does that just come with experience? Is that a certain breed of employee, if you will?

Julie: It’s personality. I do think there are characteristics that you can’t totally train.

Jack: Also, most people see why you can’t and not why you can. They see something and determine it’s impossible. But it’s not. The only thing that’s impossible is that no one’s done it yet.

Interviewer: Jumping forward in the timeline, you moved to Texas in 2000, Jack. What drove that move and why Texas?

Jack: We started out working with a client, Motorola. The more we did for them, the more they wanted us to do. It just got to a point of where we were going to have to go all in or all out. We decided to go all in.
And so January 1st of 2001, my wife and I moved to Austin. And as soon as we moved, Motorola cancelled all our contracts. So we moved there expecting one thing, but it fell through. But thankfully, all of the other things that we weren’t expecting just came flooding in.

Julie: I remember that. They made the decision to move in October of 2000, but they decided not to tell me because it was the week before I got married. I took two weeks off during that whole process, and I remember coming back to an email: “Hello, Mrs. Berry. I have some news.” And I thought, “That’s what happens when you take that much time off?”

The next time I took that long of a break from work was when I was on maternity leave. And while I was gone then, he decided to open the San Antonio office. Needless to say, I’ve never been gone that long again!

The Refining of Their Relationship Over 20+ Years

Interviewer: How do you complement each other?

Jack: We’re yin and yang. But surprisingly, she’s way more yang than she used to be.

Julie: I am. My analogy I’ve used for years is Jack is A and Z and I’m B through Y. He throws out there, “Well what about…?” And I’m like, “Whoa, wait, let me reel you back in.” I immediately start to think about what it would take to get there or how it would be or well, no, we can’t do that. I’m the devil’s advocate of it all…

Jack: …which makes me try to prove her wrong.

Julie: We will always end up somewhere different than that, but we will end up further than what I ever thought we could be. We will end up somewhere that’s maybe more possible. I think it is a good complement.

Now I am getting better at forcing those thoughts. And I knew it was something that I would have to work on.
Interviewer: What was your reason for changing your mindset?

Julie: I think it was when I bought the firm, part of why I hired Roger Engelau (my business coach) is because I couldn’t be enabled by Jack long term. At some point Jack won’t be there. I have to grow those skills somewhere or I have to find somebody else that can be that offset.

Interviewer: You saw his gift as a positive.

Julie: Yes, sometimes. At times I want him to come back to the real world. I don’t think I will ever have the ability to think as far out as Jack does. That’s just not innate in me to be there. I have definitely pushed myself further, but it’s an evolution. We’re working on it and getting there.

Interviewer: Have you seen the similar evolution, Jack? Have you seen Julie swing a little your way?

Julie: Yeah, how would you describe us?

Jack: Oh yes! The things that I was trying to impress upon Julie 10 years ago, she’s now trying to impress those same things on people today.

Interviewer: You came onboard in 1995. You’ve had a lot of experiences together in those 21 years. Jack, what do you recall about those early days of working with Julie? Why did you bring her on? What was the value you saw and what are some of those early memories?

Jack: Julie has always been very committed and very emotionally involved in the ownership. Even before she was an owner, she treated it as her firm. She was driven, committed, loyal, all of those great things. And all of those things are very hard to find in other people.

Interviewer: And Julie, what do you recall? What made Carson appealing to you in that first interview, and why have you stuck around for so long?

Julie: In all honesty, I took the position at Carson Design simply to step into the commercial world, and I never intended to stay there very long. In fact, my brother-in-law told me not to take the job and said, “That’s not enough money. You need to hold out for more.” But I didn’t care. I just wanted out of the residential design job I had and I needed to step in the direction of where I want to go.

Interviewer: That’s a good story!

Julie: What has kept me here is probably Jack, because we do complement each other. And that’s rare. I think from day one, we’ve been very honest and open with each other, and you don’t always have that opportunity with a boss to build that.

And I’ve enjoyed the brainstorming. The complex solutioning is really what drives me. That’s an opportunity in a lot of different ways.

Interviewer: Knowing that you both approach the business differently because you’re wired differently, how does your relationship not become overly volatile? How does this work?

Jack: Julie started to allude to it earlier, but I think it’s the mutual respect that we have for each other. When I say certain things or she says certain things, we know that, in spite of what’s said, that respect is and always will be there.

Julie: We don’t hold grudges.

Jack: Right, exactly.

Julie: We can have the conversation and be done with it. But at the same time, we know that the conversation needs to be had and we need to say it.

Jack: But we don’t say those things to hurt each other. I’ve never thought that Julie was not on my side, and vice-versa.

Julie: There’s a lot we don’t agree on.

Interviewer: Yeah, but you don’t take it personally. It’s for the betterment of the business versus an attack on each other.

Jack: Correct.

The Next Chapter for Carson Design Associates

Interviewer: What’s next for Carson Design? What are some things that you see coming in the industry over the next few years?

Jack: I think that agile environments will continue to grow. That’s not going to stop. But with that will come more layers of complexity.

Julie: I think that the spaces will continue to be harder to design.

Jack: But I think that we’re well-suited to respond to that and keep our competitive advantage.

Julie: Working with technology in the spaces, it’s complex. And it means bringing in a lot of team players that people aren’t used to engaging with early on. I think that’s a strength of ours—understanding the technical things that many designers don’t understand or care not to understand.

I just see it becoming more intense from a mobility standpoint. The technology is going to continue to drive things for sure, but it’s kind of exciting. I guess from the two of us who thrive on the challenge, that’s exciting because it does become more complex.

Interviewer: How about for you as a company? What’s next for Carson Design, both in Texas and Indiana?

Jack: I talked with the Indy group a little bit about this last night before the anniversary party. Back in the early days—back when Julie had just started—I’d get asked, “Jack, what do you want to be? How big do you want to be?” And I always answered, “Don’t know, and don’t care.” So when you ask what the next 25 years will look like, don’t know…don’t care.

Never in 25 years have I walked into a group meeting and said, “Okay, next year we’re going to have 10% more healthcare, we’re going to grow the business by 5%, and we’re going to do this or that.” It’s always been more organic.

Opportunities will come along, and then we will try to deal with them. But we don’t like to force anything. Nothing has ever been forced.

Interviewer: How do you respond to that, Julie?

Julie: I agree with that. And I’d say that company culture is organic too. I was questioned in an interview, “What’s the culture here?” It stopped me because, after 21 years, I’ve experienced six or seven different cultures here. It’s organic because it’s based on the people that you have here.

Having been through all of those cultures, I’ve learned that I don’t want to be a huge firm. Twenty-five employees seems to be the cap. When we’ve exceeded 25 in the past, the dynamic totally changes in a negative way, for me personally. Some people thrive there. But for what I get out of the business, the people, the relationships, and the type of community that I’d like to have, under 25 is where we need to be. Whether that’s 10, 24, or two, it’s still at a level where we can all still know each other and be personal together.

Jack: Our hiring practice is, too, that we don’t necessarily hire on experience or technical abilities. It’s the person and if they fit in with the group. As they say, “one bad apple can spoil everything”. I think that when you get up into those larger groups, you have a greater chance of a bad apple. The odds are against you.

Julie: I want to see, and I think you would agree with this statement, individual thinkers that take team actions. I want everybody working as a team.

Jack: Team’s the most important. It overrides everything.

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