Interview: Scott Kirkwood, NPCA

by Danielle Kunitz

Scott Kirkwood began his publishing career in Troy, Michigan, editing coupon books (yes, coupon books) but ever since moving to Washington, DC, in 1994 he’s been writing and editing for nonprofit organizations including the Humane Society of the United States and the Child Welfare League of America. For the last eight years he’s worked at the National Parks Conservation Association, where he oversees the group’s magazine and other publications.  His article about the overhaul of the NPCA in-house design team was featured in the January 2013 issue of HOW Magazine.

Annie Riker, Nicole Yin and Scott Kirkwood.

What were the challenges you faced at NPCA, as leader of their in-house design team?
The organization has grown from 40-50 people to about 150 in the last ten years, so the culture needed to shift from a low-budget “do it yourself” design approach to a more systematic focus, with polished designs that show we’re a legitimate national organization. But as we all know, many people hesitate to pay for things like design and photography, so we needed to show our coworkers that good design is worth it, and that we were there to help them achieve their goals, not to create an additional layer of bureaucracy.

How do you handle the complication of having remote offices? How do you stay connected to their needs/efforts?
Well, there are 50 people in our regional offices, and four of us, so we rely on them to come to us when they have design needs. To make that happen more often, we branded our in-house group “The Design Shop,” and we’ve launched a marketing campaign to win them over and remind them we’re here. We send out monthly desktop calendars with amazing photos and important HR deadlines, we let everyone know what cool projects we’re working on, we even “donate” our design talents for our events committee and other small things. We designed some T-shirts and gave them to everyone who had worked with us over the previous year—you’ve never seen someone so happy to get a $6 T-shirt. Good design is powerful, but it’s also a lot of fun, so our goal is to be the “cool kids” that everyone wants to work with, and it seems to be working.

What surprised you most during the process of trying to improve inter-departmental relations?
I was really surprised how excited the regional offices were to improve their newsletters. They’d always been a pet peeve of mine–poor design, photos of people winning awards and standing behind podiums giving speeches, etc. I knew they could be so much better with a simple re-design and some great park photography, but it wasn’t easy to deliver that message without upsetting some people. But once we cracked the door, we saw that the people who worked on the newsletters clearly wanted to make them better—they just didn’t really know how to do it. We talked to them about the importance of photography, the value of producing an editorial schedule (rather than the old “let’s do it as soon as we can”) and the nature of working with a designer, and they all got on board instantly. Now they’re some of our best allies, because they see the value of design and they really care about it, whether it’s a brochure or a report or a postcard.

What can in-house designers/creatives do to show their worth outside their departments?
We still struggle with that. People can see that our in-house designer, Annie Riker, is brilliant, and they love our annual reports and our magazine, but when Annie’s too busy to take on a project, they’ll often hesitate to work with freelancers that we recommend; budgets are just so tight, and it’s hard to get them to try someone new. But slowly but surely, our coworkers are getting more responses to their publications, which is making a difference. We also have a pretty competitive bunch here at NPCA, so once people see another department produce amazing materials, they start to think “Oooh, we want to do that, too.” We’re at the stage where people feel the value of design, but I’m not so sure they can quantify it, and we have to help them do that, if we’re going to be successful.

What are key skills to have when managing a team of designers?
I think the key is to hire talented people, give them clear instructions, and let them do their job. Good designers ask the right questions, put the customer first, and take constructive criticism really well. I’m a huge design nerd, but I would be hard-pressed to draw a circle in InDesign, or name more than five fonts off the top of my head. But I’m a consumer of design (as we all are), and I know what I like, and I think I do a pretty good job of communicating it. If you can do those things, you’ll do well.

How do you keep your team inspired?
We work with some amazing images and we have a great mission, so it’s a little easier than you’d expect. I don’t believe supervisors can really “motivate” people—we need to hire people who are self-motivated, and then give them some challenges to tackle. I’m also a big fan of encouraging employees to do things that they enjoy, even if it’s not the most important item on their to-do lists. Too many people make their own professional development a low priority, and I think that’s a mistake. If you just focus on what other people want you to do from 9-5, you’re not going to be a very happy person.

What professional achievement are you most proud of?
I’m really proud of my work on National Parks magazine, which, I think, has improved dramatically the last few years. As the editor, I’ve gotten the chance to hike on a glacier in Wrangell-St. Elias (AK), see a sunrise at Dry Tortugas (FL), interview biologists in Saguaro (AZ), and experience some amazing places. At some point it always hits me, “Wow, I’m getting paid to go to a national park and write an article about it.” And I’m doing it for a nonprofit that’s making a difference.

More photos of NPCA can be found here.

Photos by Nicole Crowder.
Danielle Kunitz is an AIGA DC board member.

4 comments on “Interview: Scott Kirkwood, NPCA”

  1. Tommy Williams says...

    H

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    1
    2013.02.25

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  2. Jim Nations says...

    As one of the NPCA staff members who benefits from Scott’s skill and vision, I can independently verify that he and The Design Shop have had an amazingly positive impact on NPCA’s work. I look at the products he and his team turn out and say, “Wow, I work with those people.”

    Jim Nations, VP for the Center for Park Research, NPCA, Washington, D.C.

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    2
    2013.02.27

    Reply

  3. Karen Nozik says...

    Also a colleague at NPCA and also a big fan of Scott’s work and the rest of the Design Shop crew. Season after season they turn out an incredible magazine full of thought-provoking stories and images that continue to capture the complexity and breadth of the National Parks and the people in them. I hold onto my copy of the Magazine for whenever I travel and it always makes the trip go by with maximum enjoyment and reinforces why I love working at NPCA. Karen Nozik, Director of Ally Development, NPCA, Washington, D.C.

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    3
    2013.03.01

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  4. Ron Sundergill says...

    I also work at NPCA, and want to add a comment. Scott mentions the improvement of the newsletters sent out by each of NPCA’s regional offices. As the regional director in the Pacific office I noticed a significant change in the Pacific Region newsletter once we moved to the new design. I also noted that for the first time the people who were getting the newsletter actually sent us highly favorable comments about the look of the newsletter. Once those notes started coming in it was very clear that we had moved our newsletter to a new level of excellence. I credit Scott and his team for that change.

    – Ron Sundergill, Senior Regional Director, San Francisco, CA

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    4
    2013.03.02

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