Building towards loftier goals means having deeper foundations

“Confessions of CEOs” is a series on how business owners are changing the service landscape. Today, we’re chatting with Valerie Thiel, founder of SAGE Architectural Alliance LLC, a Seattle-based architecture firm. She shares her secrets on driving design innovation for the most critical stages of life as a woman leader.

Valerie Thiel, founder of SAGE Architectural Alliance LLC | Photo Credit: SAGE Architectural Alliance LLC

Why SAGE?

At the age of 55, I opened Sage Architectural Alliance, a reasonably daring venture leaving steady employment as a working mother. This was after graduating from MIT, 30 years of working in the architectural industry and having kids in my 40’s. I believe that more women and senior-led projects help create a unique working environment with experienced viewpoints. Creating a diverse team helps remove the limitations set by society. The door opens up for so many different outcomes, and so the richer our projects become from planning and spaces, to connections and support.

What’s your design philosophy?

Celebrate life in all of its stages; each stage brings its challenges and beauty.

As a baby boomer, I feel the last stage of life is paramount. My grandparents had died in pretty abysmal nursing facilities. Because of this, I focused on transforming senior living design so that my mother could enjoy more attractive, more enriching options. Many nursing homes have to struggle with the support of limited Medicaid funds.

Senior-focused entrance design @ Foss Home and Village (Seattle, WA)  | Photo Credit: SAGE Architectural Alliance LLC

However, these facilities need warm, welcoming, and elegant main entries and gathering areas, so that family and friends enjoy visitations; these factors are vital to the well-being of families. Just as Starbucks has capitalized on the corner coffee shop, the presence of a bistro-cafe (even with self-serve coffee), is the first step toward creating community vitality. 

Senior-focused cafe-bistro design @ Cristwood Park (Shoreline, WA )| Photo Credit: SAGE Architectural Alliance LLC

Residents come for the coffee but also enjoy comfortable seating, a variety of lighting levels, and lots of people-watching. They’re incentivized to leave their apartments and enjoy hanging out in the commons to connect with other people, and that is a major driver of residents’ health. Even staff retention improves with more aesthetically, pleasing surroundings.

Senior-focused bedroom design @ Columbia Lutheran Home, Seattle, WA | Photo Credit: Chris Roberts Photography 

Do not let limitations set by others withhold you from accomplishing your own goals and aspirations. Women in their 20’s, 30’s, and 40’s have such different expectations handed upon them compared to when I was their age. Growing up in Bellingham, I had never known any professional woman (let alone what a professional woman in architecture) could accomplish. When I attended the University of Washington, I was the only woman in my engineering classes. For generations, society restricted women by stereotypical gender roles that limited their opportunities and contributions. I experienced this quite a bit within the architectural industry. Working for others, I felt like a backroom technician who had no voice. I needed to express my ideas, and I felt severely repressed working for others. It was as if my male bosses had all the ideas; my role was only to implement them. Starting my firm was the right choice for me.

Who are your biggest advocates?

While most of our clients are non-profits, we focus on finding projects that are mission-driven and will have a positive impact on the community. Some of our favorite architectural projects supported senior citizens. We’ve built numerous senior living residential projects to help both seniors and their families. We’ve also worked with the State of Washington, various community centers and grass-roots community organizations fighting high resident displacement from gentrification. Currently, we’ve started working on homeless and behavioral health projects also.

How do you give back to its community?

Giving back to our community is one of the pillars of SAGE.  We recently sponsored a community event that was aimed at showcasing how fearful high school students were about losing their homes. We prioritize supporting the younger generations in order to help them realize their potential. 

What’s been your greatest life lesson? 

Opportunities may present themselves; while they may not be what you wanted at the time, they may be the most impactful and rewarding.

When I first started the firm, I thought focusing my expertise in senior housing projects alone was the best way to help the community.  Instead, I was able to take elder-care expertise and principles to other vulnerable populations (like to low-income families) which benefited our firm’s architectural outputs and the community even more than my initial efforts with the elderly. Women and minority architectural leaders should be designing more of the affordable housing and shared spaces; the city would achieve more economic balance and diverse self-expression.

When all is said and done, what do you hope for SAGE to achieve?

To inspire and support women and others of diversity to find their voices and pursue their passions.

SAGE Architectural Alliance LLC is a preferred partner on Beaze.

Too Lejit to Quit (Designing with Passion, that is)

“Confessions of CEOs” is a series on how business owners are changing the service landscape. Today, we’re chatting with Joshua Thomas, CEO of Lejit Designs, a graphic design and illustration company in Liberty Lake, WA. He shares his secrets on growing his business and the art community at large.

Joshua Thomas, CEO of Lejit Designs (Graphic Design) | Beaze, a vendor procurement marketplace.
Joshua Thomas, CEO of Lejit Designs | Photo Credit: Mercedes Kissinger Smith

So, why Lejit Designs?

Since I was a kid, I’ve always loved fantasy and comic books, which always had me sketching in a notebook. In college, I studied design and began using programs on my computer and laptop to create animations and graphics. I originally started Lejit Designs as my creative outlet, and fortunately, it has become a great business. I pride myself on reliable communication and passionate design. I think a few things that separate me from other companies are my passion for my craft, my willingness to have honest communication, and my drive to improve my craft consistently.

What’s your design style?

All of my work is full of color. I love their vibrancy in making ideas truly come to life. In Spokane, there is not a lot of vitality. I am the leader of the Spokane Design Meetup Group, and it’s my goal to foster an art community in Spokane, similar to that in Portland. I want to bring the Spokane creatives together to do one community collaboration project together per month to get everyone involved and working together.

Another element I try to include in my work is whimsicality. In my comics, I like to portray serious adult moments with a whimsical element involved, to appeal to the inner child in all of us. There’s no fun in being too serious. Sometimes everyone is so caught up in what they are doing, and I want to bring the human element back to design and the work that I do.

Doggo Branding by Lejit | Photo Credit: Lejit

How do you stay on top of your work?

The key to managing this company is balancing my creative side with my analytical side. Being able to draw on both helps me stay organized and remember to do the little things like register my trade name and do my taxes, the ‘boring stuff’. I am also big on consistency and maximizing my time. Even when I’m battling a creative block, I go exercise.

What’s fuels your design?

The sheer number of amazing artists and creators around me. I learn so much from all of the different projects that I see others working on, and I consistently attempt to take what I learn from others into my own work. The artists/creators that inspire me the most are probably Cory Schmitz, Freddy Carrasco, Bryce Kho, and Anastasiia Vinchencko. Regardless of which muse, at the end of the day, whenever I see their work, it makes me want to create. Each of them is a master of their craft and understanding them helps instill this drive to one day excel in my art as much as they do in theirs. I want to be the best at what I do, and to me, seeing artists like them pushes me to want to improve with every new project.

What is your mantra?

“Design, made human.” I got into graphic design because I enjoy making things with people and helping them achieve their visions through design. The human aspect of every interaction I have is what gets me up every morning. I don’t want my work to be a transaction; I want it to be a collaborative relationship that works well beyond when the project ends.

Who have been your biggest advocates/partners in business?

The biggest influences and advocates were the owners of Maker & Made, Brittany Stodgell and Millicent Schnebly. They pushed me a lot to start my own graphic design business and were a massive influence on me early on. They sat down with me on multiple occasions and gave me wisdom and advice that I still use today. I’ve always been very thankful for their guidance.

What’s been the biggest lesson you’ve learned so far?

Wow, that’s the big one *haha*. There are so many things that I would tell the younger me designer if I could. 

1. Always work with a contract. This one will keep you sane and exponentially increase the number of successful transactions you have. In a perfect world, we’d never have to use contracts, and every client would pay. However, every designer has a couple of stories about the times they got stiffed by a client. Contracts mitigate a lot of financial worries because most clients are less likely to jump ship without paying you if they feel contractually obligated to the project. They keep things professional in an industry where a lot of clients have difficulties seeing design as anything more than a hobby. There are a ton of online sources and other physical books on the subject. One of my personal favorites is Business and Legal Forms for Graphic Designers

2. Don’t be afraid to fail. Design in and of itself is a consistent process of failing and course correcting. The road to being a successful designer is not a road paved by genius; it’s a gory one filled with the dead bodies of all your past failures. There isn’t a single designer that looks at their work from a year ago and says that it’s “perfect”. Failing and trying again is the name of the game.

3. Share EVERYTHING. It’s challenging for people to appreciate your designs if you don’t ever show them your work. Don’t be afraid of not having name recognition or not living up to some of your design heroes. Keep designing with passion and showing others; you’ll eventually find your place. 

4. Never be afraid to price yourself what you’re worth. Saying “no” is a pseudo taboo for young designers looking to get their name out in the world, but in my experience, knowing when to say no might allow you to take on that dream client you’ve always wanted. Plus, it saves you from over-stretching yourself.

How do you give back to the community?

My way of giving back to the community is taking over Spokane Design and trying to create a broader design community in the area. We’re starting up a community outreach design project every month. Giving back to the community is critical. The reality is, few of us encounter the same opportunities. I’d love to give back more. I see Spokane Design as an outlet for other up-and-coming designers to grow, improve, and create because I know first hand what it means to have people in your corner rooting for you.

When all is said and done, what do you hope for Lejit Designs to achieve?

To become a premier design firm that helps other designers get their start. I can’t wait to start paying it forward.

Lejit Designs is a preferred partner on Beaze.