Featured Consultant

Emily Ruth Cohen

October 2019

We caught up with brutally honest Emily Ruth Cohen, a business consultant to creative professionals and design firms. With her years of consulting/butt-kicking experience, Emily gives us her insight on the challenges of the design industry, how creative professionals can navigate future, and chats about her new book on no-bullshit business strategies.

Did you have a plan for graduation and what actually happened?

I graduated with a BFA in Graphic Design with the intention of being a great designer, but I realized very early on in my careerthat that this was never going to happen. I simply didn’t have the passion or talent many others I worked with and admired had. Thus, after seeking out the advice of many others and much self-reflection, I quickly came to realize that I was better suited to do what I truly loved and was good at, which is kicking people’s butts! This naturally allowed me to transition into a project management role within a small, growing design firm and therefore continue working in the industry I loved. This transition also leveraged the equity I had already built up, in terms of my experience and knowledge but also in terms of the many great connections and friends I made along the way. Almost immediately, I began to build up an emerging consulting practice, helping a range of old and new connections with their creative businesses which, quite quickly, turned into a full time consulting practice that has kept me happy and stimulated for over 25 years.

Give us the elevator pitch on what you do.

I call myself a brutally honest consultant and I have been honored to consult and work with many leading design firms across the world. Through these experiences, I have developed, tested, and curated key business insights and strategies that have helped creative firms become more effective, profitable, and fun to work at. I love sharing my expertise through consulting, speaking, my courses on LinkedIn Learning/Lynda.com and Skillshare, my industry activism, and, most recently, in my new business book for creatives, Brutally Honest: No-bullshit business strategies to evolve your creative business (order here!).

Brutally Honest is a highly visual, concise, direct, honest, and entertaining business book full of advice, insights, and best practices for everything from new business development to proposals to staffing and everything in between. It includes real-world, actionable strategies that I’ve cultivated, tested, and developed through my consulting practice as well as real-world case studies from other creative professionals.

Where do you think design is heading in the next five years and how will you adapt?

As our industry has grown, we’ve seen exponential increases in the number of design firms out there and we’ve lost our way. We are all competing in an overly saturated market and, as a result, have evolved (or devolved) into an “every person for themselves” type of market. One very dangerous­ change that is, in my belief, an ongoing challenge with damaging consequences, is that as an industry, we have lost control of our value by allowing our clients and others to undervalue what we do. There are many firms — both large and small, local and national, famous and emerging — that are practicing behaviors that hurt our industry. In the future, we need to do a better job of working together to develop and communicate a core set of best practices that we should all be held accountable to, especially ones that have long-term implications on the growth and health of our industry overall. Now and in the future, I hope to continue helping my clients navigate these long-term changes and speaking at industry conferences on the importance of creatives re-thinking how we work, communicate, and position ourselves and our industry. I also will infuse these best practices as I continue to teach, both in the classroom and through online learning opportunities.

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We need to do a better job of working together to develop and communicate a core set of best practices

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What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

When I was growing up, my father, Melvin Cohen, owned two bookstores on Wall Street in Manhattan. As my father, he taught me to be comfortable in my own skin (no matter what anyone thinks). This has allowed me to be true to myself, confident in who I am, embrace my quirks and has given me the courage to stand up for myself throughout my career. And, as his part-time (and unpaid) employee, he also taught me to never sit down on the job – literally and figuratively. He didn’t have a chair in the store, intentionally, which taught me the importance of working hard, being productive, and paying attention to customers needs (and how to dust endlessly when you have nothing else to do).

Are you involved in any mentoring/teaching/workshops and how does it shape your practice?

I currently teach a Business of Design course at Tyler School of Art & Architecture in Philadelphia and guest lecture at many universities. I also speak across the globe on best business practices and engage with a wide variety of industry professionals from emerging designers to leaders in our field. Lastly, I recently developed my first LinkedIn Learning online course where I had the wonderful opportunity to share my knowledge to a broader audience and influence the profession at a larger scale. All of these opportunities to engage with the next generation of designers and with others across our industry allows me to stay fresh and current. It also allows me to identify trends that I can infuse and react to as part of my consulting practice. I’ve also learned that we shouldn’t blame other generations, but rather be inspired, learn from each other, and even seek opportunities to collaborate.

Talk us through a typical working day for you right now.

I walk my dog to kick start my day and/or take a yoga class, spend the morning responding to emails (ongoing consultations, new business inquiries, books sales), and then walk my dog during lunch. My afternoons are spent on either phone consultations or working on one big project (writing a report up from my full day business planning retreat, for example) and then I walk my dog (yet again) to end the work day.

2020 for you in a sentence.

In 2020, I hope to land a few new design firms outside of US/Canada as clients, speak at more international conferences, develop my next LinkedIn Learning course, envision my next side hustle (a new edition of my book is being considered), and, personally, consolidate and move to Philadelphia. Through these experiences, I hope to expand my reach and gain new insights and experiences.

Website: emilycohen.com

Instagram: @emilyruthcohen

Twitter: @emilyruthcohen

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