Mar 01, 2006

Hot Studio: Firm Creates Sizzling Designs

For Maria Giudice, redesigning the phone book was a great project. “It touches everyone—you get this opportunity to impact a lot of people in a real positive way—and you get to think about how people get information,” she said of the project she landed in the late ´80s, before founding Hot Studio, her San Francisco design and branding firm. “It's designing with limitations—newsprint, black ink, red ink.”

Designing things that people want to use, within the limitations set by corporate America, has translated into a $2.5 million business for Giudice. Her Hot Studio designs everything from books to websites, though the latter has been her bread and butter. In 2000, 85 percent of her business was in the burgeoning field of web design. The tanking of the Internet economy proved good for Hot—though in a roundabout fashion.

Giudice had to lay off five people in one go. Hot's staff shrank from 22 to 10. But Hot Studio was not the only shrinking Bay Area company. Former clients let go by their own employers remembered Hot when their new companies wanted a design firm. Charles Schwab & Co. was a major client from the firm's earliest days, and the Schwab diaspora has scattered the Hot seed around town.

Recently, Hot redesigned Gap Inc.'s corporate website, thanks to a referral from a Schwab alum. Now, Hot is redesigning Gap's intranet. The firm has also been hired by Nike. That referral traces back to a former Gap employee. Referrals kept Giudice's company alive during the downturn. But her approach, which predicates design on user research and corporate strategy, has fueled business growth now that the economy is again heating up. “Businesses who hire us have their own goals and needs,” Giudice said. “Our job is to understand the business needs and the customers and the customer needs and to marry those—there's a disconnect between what businesses think customers want versus what they really want.”

Hot Studio still works with Charles Schwab and designed the brokerage firm's new public prospect site, which went live in December 2005. “The whole thrust of the redesign was to think like a prospect and not to think like Schwab,” said Leigh Hood, director of technical product development at Schwab. That meant that Hot Studio interviewed over 25 prospective customers and internal stakeholders and Schwab. It then blended the business and prospect needs in a website whose organization and aesthetics were tailored to woo those prospects. “We really took it to heard that if your site is easy to use, they'll come,” Hood said. “You need a website that represents how easy it is to do business with your company.” That's what Hot Studio aims to do. Last year, revenue grew 30 persent, mostly from new clients, which include Gap Inc., LeapFrog and Nike. But Hot Studio will use the same approach Giudice has used since she designed the Pacific Bell Yellow Pages almost 20 years ago.

“You can only be really innovative in your thinking if you understand who you're designing for,” Giudice said.

Sarah Duxbury is a staff writer for the San Francisco Business Times

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