CLEVELAND — In a sense, Daniel Martinage has trained his entire career for his latest challenge. He has spent the past 33 years learning and practicing skills related to running nonprofit associations, assessing management best practices and counseling others on how to do those things well.
Now he gets to pull together the threads from all that knowledge and apply it as executive director of the 48-year-old Industrial Designers Society of America, which describes itself as "the world's oldest, largest, member-driven society of industrial design." He assumed his new role on Jan. 4, following a six-month search by Herndon, Va.-based IDSA to fill its top spot.
Since then, Martinage has been on a crash course to familiarize himself with the wants and needs of the vast design sector, and its broad swath of talented, creative and sometimes offbeat practitioners. Plastics News caught up with him on April 13 at the IDSA Central District conference in Cleveland – one of five such student-focused regional conferences the group packs into a three-weekend stretch in the spring.
Martinage's experience includes the following:
• Associate director of the Institute of Management Consultants (3 years).
• Executive director of the Multifamily Council of the National Association of Home Builders (3½ years).
• Principal of market research firm AWP Research (8 years).
• Executive director of the International Coach Federation, a global professional-development group (4 years).
• Principal of Association Coach LLC, which provides coaching and consulting services to more than 90 trade associations and professional societies to maximize organizational performance (nearly 8 years).
IDSA may differ in makeup and personality from some of his previous organizations, but the principles of running a nonprofit effectively are largely the same across the spectrum. IDSA's own leadership finally recognized this — after two abortive attempts at installing professional designers to run their group since fall 2007. The blocking-and-tackling of good governance trumps all other factors in the end.
Martinage, 60, said he saw in the IDSA job an opportunity to apply all that he had learned over the years to "a greater cause." He sees the potential to "engage in a larger conversation with society, if you will," to explore what contributions design can bring to businesses and to everyday life. But still, he recognizes what lies ahead.
"My biggest challenge is going to be to convince [members of] the relevance of having a non-designer in the position of executive director." To be effective, he said he needs to get buy-in from others that association management is a profession. "IDSA already has enough designers. The board of directors should be providing the knowledge and appreciation, background, connections and so forth within the industrial design profession." He feels his role, and that of the board, is to put the policies, procedures and best practices in place to ensure the group has a solid foundation.
For the seven years between stepping down as head of the International Coach Federation and joining IDSA, Martinage served as a volunteer judge for the Washington Post Award in Excellence for Nonprofit Management, a program of the Center for Nonprofit Advancement. He said it was "an incredibly great experience" that allowed him to learn about best practices from all the winners.
In his view, the main priority of a trade group's leader is to minimize risk to the association, and to ensure the sustainability of the organization.
Martinage believes strongly in transparency — which he stresses "is not just a buzzword, it's a requirement for how you run a nonprofit organization," especially given such a group's fiscal obligations related to maintaining its tax structure and status. "When organizations get into trouble, it's when they are not being transparent."
IDSA's own finances are improving and back on solid ground now, he said, after the balance sheet took a hit following major outlays related to hosting a huge international design conference in San Francisco in 2007.
Meanwhile, IDSA currently has about 3,400 members in 29 professional chapters worldwide, and counts corporate designers, consultant designers, students and educators in that mix. Martinage recognizes some of the group's current shortcomings, and has a vision on how to move forward.
His market research background enters the discussion when he talks about IDSA's knowledge, or lack thereof, of its own membership.
"We don't know enough about what our members want, need, expect — not only now, but … in the future. We [also] don't have enough information on how to segment our members." But he cautions that the only thing worse than no research, is poor research. One can't gather this information via an online poll on Survey Monkey. A professional research firm needs to do a statistically valid study to yield appropriate, usable results.
"We need to have a better picture of who we are. We need benchmarks to make sure we're moving in the right direction. And I think the other [critical] thing, is to change the culture from being one that creates but doesn't do." There are many common elements in past IDSA strategic plans, but too often the goals haven't been achieved. "We need some wins," he said.
Additionally, he said, "I'm not big on ownership. I don't think we're going to be successful as an organization by claiming turf." He cited, for example, IDSA's current initiative to get design and art back into schools, ranging from kindergarten through high school. The group held its first "K12 Design Education Symposium" last Nov. 9-10 in Dearborn, Mich. Teachers, college educators and practitioners from across the United States and Canada gathered to discuss creativity, problem solving and innovation within the K-12 classrooms today. The key is to stress collaboration and to get broad buy-in, he noted.
He acknowledges that the group's website at www.idsa.org is "very poor" and must be addressed urgently, since it can create an obstacle that blocks some people from learning about and engaging effectively with the association. And he believes that "IDSA is only going to be as strong as its chapters" – meaning its geographic regions, such as the ones hosting its annual spring district conferences. It's his and the board's job to provide those volunteer leaders with the tools to do their jobs well. (IDSA just launched a new Kentucky Chapter, headed by Rebecca Eakins, industrial design manager at GE Appliances in Louisville, where the design staff has tripled recently to 24.)
Martinage is pointing toward 2015 — the year of the group's 50th anniversary — as a sort of rallying point for the organization. It will celebrate that milestone at its international conference that year in Seattle (after trying but failing to secure suitable dates in New York City).
Any industry and trade association these days finds itself wrestling with the question of if and how to become more global. IDSA is a case in point.
"You cannot not consider international growth," acknowledged Martinage. "The world is just too connected." He noted that some of the group's biggest opportunities for its International Design Excellence Awards, or IDEAs, are coming in from countries such as South Korea, Brazil and from parts of Europe. IDSA already has relatively new chapters in China and in Munich, Germany.
So the international issue certainly merits attention. But he stressed that one has to have a clear strategy, which requires an effort backed by resources. And that has to be weighed against the fact that IDSA still is predominantly a North American association. "So we have to assess how well we are fulfilling our members' needs in America" before making that commitment.
To that end, Martinage spoke to the issue of advocacy. For starters, he said, the United States "absolutely" needs a national design strategy. "Advocacy is right up there, front and center, in our mission statement.… In my definition, advocacy is not only to promote the association to end users and so forth, but it's also to ensure that the profession remains viable.
"Right now, for example, there are regulations being written in the [U.S. Food & Drug Administration] that affect industrial design. We have some indirect involvement in that through our members, but one of the things in my humble opinion that the board should be spending time looking at is how we need to protect our profession from having engineering language governing us, or some other thing that we're not."
And finally, there is the issue of collaboration with other sectors, such as the plastics industry.
"It's a natural," he said. "Plastics is a chief component of product design. There's an obvious comfort between the plastics industry and design. Just like with other industries, we should be extending a hand out there, to see how we can work together."
He already has had a very preliminary discussion with the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc., and he said: "I've known SPI … I think they have a very professional reputation in the association community. They're big, they're influential, and I think the outreach to us, and us to them is all positive."