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An Interview With Pete Williams

Everyone has a story. Whether that story is about how you switched majors in college, the beginnings of working in the business you are in, or how you took off and started your own business; yes – everyone has a story. Pete Williams is ALL about storytelling and collecting those stories to help guide the people in his life.

A graduate of CCAD with a degree in Industrial Design, he actually started as a Graphic Designer. Working with his hands and building things in real life is what drew him to ID. Give credit to the professor, Jim Orr, who mentored and still mentors him today. Pete knew as soon as he had a taste of ID, he wouldn’t be happy as a Graphic Designer.

How did you get your job at NBBJ? Why did you decide to go to NBBJ?

When I was a senior at CCAD, my sister Carol was working in Business Space Design - the department needed people that could draw. And Product Designers know how to draw perspectives. When I got out of school, the job market wasn’t very good, it took me 9 months to get the job because of a recession at the time.

How long were you at NBBJ?

16 years.

Did it ever cross your mind that wait, I’m not doing industrial design? I’m drawing spaces?

No, because there was a lot of crossover.

Chuck O’Conner, the Design Lead at COSI, taught class on display design. He’d throw us a floor plan and say figure out all the things that go into the space and design an experience. I thought oh this is kinda cool, I can design my own exhibit space. So I took that perspective on drawing and it was loved how all the skills I gained came together.

How did you go from helping out the interior designers to wayfinding design?

I was just a creative person, but I was hired to build models and 3D renderings because you had to draw all that stuff by hand and anything else they needed me to do. It seemed like every major hi-rise building in Columbus was being built during that time and I leaned a lot on the industrial design base, which gave me a lot of experience in those spaces. I had to go and measure faces of buildings and get to know the interior of the spaces as well. Knowing how to understand spaces in 3D helped a lot.

The wayfinding stuff came more when I started a studio within NBBJ. As I went through there, I was working in a couple different studios. I landed in the Landscape Architecture Studio in 92’ and started to formulate a whole studio that was focused on signage and wayfinding projects. It seemed like all these new buildings had to be connected to the old buildings. There was a disconnect in finding your way through these buildings when that happened. Also, at the same time, The Americans with Disabilities Act came to fruition and there were a lot of changes that needed to be made in these new buildings so then we had to try and figure out how that was going to be done as well. There was a huge need for wayfinding at the time.

I found SEGD and started realizing there were a bunch of people out there doing this: merging brand graphics and architecture. I started buying books and seeing what people were doing - a lot of it was in New York.

The wayfinding part was super interesting to me - the behavior side. I loved sitting in lobbies and watching how people behaved in order to find somewhere. Did they just look around or go ask somebody?

One time, I followed this guy around Good Sam, tailgating him. The third time walking by the desk was when he finally stopped and asked for help. There was one book in particular on information graphics about how people break down information WITH graphics and the way they digest information. This was intriguing because there was a time in interior design where they wanted signage to blend into the architecture because signage seemed like an obnoxious thing just to tell people where to go.

What made you decide to start your own business?

It was a God moment where it was one of those undeniable things that it was time to go and do my own thing. My team was really well-rounded and it was time to go - I got this internal push. When I had lunch with Mike Hoy, he and his brother owned Innocom in 2002. At the same time, Dennison was looking for someone to take care of all their campus wayfinding, and it just fell into place. Not to mention I had 2 kids in diapers. It was a little unnerving to go from this big steady office to going and doing your own thing - trying to find work. After a while, I did design builds with Columbus Signs trying to find projects to work on. I needed to learn more about how signs went together and they were the experts. They brought me in and showed me how all the different parts went together.

Is that when you met Andy English?

In order to win work you have to look around to more than just one person. So I needed someone else to join forces with in order to look like a bigger company than just myself . He was building his design team within the LA team at Urban Environments so there were other opportunities to expand and learn.

Can you share a defining moment?

One of my turning points was when I did the entry sign to Mount Union College. I thought this tiny little town is never going to tear this down. And months laters I received the student journal handbook and all these students were lined up on the wall I designed and I thought, yeah I want to do this for the rest of my life. It made me realize the permanence of the projects I was doing.

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