First and foremost, Primo Orpilla, thank you so much for giving us this wonderful opportunity to learn from you. It is great to share how you have built a bridge between design and business.
Primo Orpilla is the Co-founder and Principal of Studio O+A, the design firm in San Francisco responsible for groundbreaking offices at AOL, Facebook, Yelp, Levi Strauss and so on. Is it possible to follow your passion and to be successful at the same time? Yes, he proves it.
-----For those who are not familiar with you, please let us know more about you. How did you come to be a designer and entrepreneur?
When I was undergraduate at San Jose State University I was initially studying engineering technology, I wanted to be a power plant designer. I had always liked cars and my father was a machinist so I knew a lot about cars engines. My wife Verda was at the same school, only she was in the art department. I really liked the energy and creativity in the art department. I noticed the other disciplines such as product design, graphic design and multimedia design. I also had an interest in architecture, but that was not taught at there. I looked closely into the Interior Design program. I looked closely at what you could do as an interior designer and quickly realized that interior designers could be designing and directing many elements of the interior space and that appealed to me about how much the interior designer could touch and have influence on. The entrepreneur side of me probably came from my parents they had had business outside of their jobs. So I think it was always clear to me that there is a business component to any endeavor and that you needed to have some aspirations with owning a company. You also need to understand that you are creating a brand and that brand identity needed to convey who and what we are. So it became important to be col clear on whom and what we are. I do think that also being in the silicon valley and seeing the spirit of these startups that anything is possible has also fueled O+A.
-----What is the core concept of your design agency?
We have several guiding principles, but I suppose the key one is that every project should tell a story and that it should be the client’s story. Our design development process is all about immersing ourselves in the client’s culture and then figuring out how to make the work environment an expression of that culture. When you walk into Yelp’s office or Uber’s office, we want you to feel the spirit of those companies. And if you’re working there, we want your work to be enhanced by the spaces you’re working in. An effective workplace will inspire their people to do their best work.
-----What was the most difficult thing when you founded a company and how did you overcome it?
Starting a new business is always a challenging. Just getting clients in those early days was a challenge. And of course if your business is commercial design you are, to some extent, at the mercy of real estate cycles, economic cycles, boom and bust—that sort of thing. We have managed to survive and in fact to thrive in all economic climates by listening to our clients, staying nimble and hiring people who are creative and dynamic. I think we have the best design team in the business.
-----I assume you have experienced mistakes and refusals as well. How do you maintain your mental state?
I’m an optimistic by nature and I also enjoy the journey. I feel that you need the ups and downs to make you respect the good times and remember what you have. It also helps put things into context; we are in the heart of the SOMA a part San Francisco where several worlds collide. You have the brightest minds in the tech industry and then stark contrast of those who are not so fortunate people rehabbing. I feel we make a lot of decision and terms of . I’ve been in business long enough—24 years!—to understand that setbacks are just a part of the process. Nothing proceeds simply from A to B to C—there are always diversions. Sometimes the diversions take you to unexpected places. Sometimes they lead to discoveries.
-----If you had had the same amount of knowledge and experience at the beginning, what would you have done differently and why?
I don’t think of it that way. It’s the journey from that little 2-person company—Verda and me—in Fremont, California in the 1990s to the 40-something team we have now in San Francisco that has been so rewarding. And we’re still making that journey. I’m learning something new every day. So it’s not a question of fixed knowledge. It’s a matter of being open to new influences and being excited about what’s ahead. Long way of saying I wouldn’t change a thing.
-----How does your experience as a designer help you manage the company and how does your experience as an entrepreneur help you design?
Being familiar with both disciplines allows you to appreciate all points of view. As a designer I know what it is to be invested creatively in a project. I hope that makes me a more perceptive judge of our employees’ work. As a manager, I’m aware of what it takes to get a project in on time and on budget. I hope that makes me a more focused and effective designer.
-----What is the biggest difference between designer/artists and business people in terms of their way of thinking?
You know what? The differences aren’t that great. The clients we work with—tech clients, entrepreneurs, communications people—are all extremely creative. These folks are changing the way the world works. That requires an “artistic” sensibility. And the artists I know—and I know quite a few—are usually very practical people. You have to be practical to make a career of art. Or even to make a single work of art. Every creation comes down to a series of practical choices and steps.
-----What is the enemy of creativity do you think?
I think the real enemy of creativity and producing good design is complacency and settling. Good design hearts and that rigor and passion to create new and thoughtful approaches can seem overwhelming. But what you will find is that a process when followed will always yield a good result you just need to be willing to not have and preconceived notions of what something might look like you rather need to be willing to excepting of design ideas that came from a good rigorous process.
-----When you hear the word “successful”, who would be the first person come to your mind and why?
Steve Jobs developed such an unbelievable company and brand. The products produced were iconic and revolutionary and really made us desire them.
-----If you can make a call to 20-year-old Primo Orpilla, what kind of advices you would give to her?