Everyone is there to support a sale
Gordon Segal, founder and former CEO of Crate and Barrel, has the belief that each person in the corporation is there to support a sale in the store. Think about that for a second. When he says each person he isn’t just talking about the stockroom and people wearing the iconic black aprons. He’s also thinking about those designers and programmers at the corporate headquarters.

I was a designer at Crate and Barrel before 37signals. In fact, I was there for 7.5 years which is like 14 internet years right? Before Crate I was working the rounds for several years at interactive agencies during the boom times of the late 90’s. I bring this up because I worked really hard to develop skills and experience to escape those minimum wage retail jobs.

A humbling experience
Human Resources said that I had to work for 2 weeks at a retail store when I was first hired as a Graphic Designer. I thought to myself, “Bullshit!” They want to pay me a to work in a retail store? I want to start designing and making all the great things I’ve been dreaming about during the interview process! Note that I wouldn’t get to see my desk at the corporate headquarters for 2 weeks either.

I started my first day as a Graphic Designer at the North and Clybourn retail store in Chicago — complete with khakis and black apron. It was an incredible and humbling experience. I was completely out of my element. My world was MacOS not walking the floor chatting with customers. If you’re ever been in a Crate and Barrel store you’ll know that they’re wonderful to browse yet terrible to find things quickly for a high maintenance customer.

During those 2 weeks in the store I worked in every department: Kitchenwares, Furniture, Basics (everyday stuff), Dinnerware, etc. I saw a customer try to return a set of glasses he actually bought from Target. I saw happy engaged couples zapping merchandise around the store to put on their gift registry. I saw a furniture salesperson make a $20,000 sale in a few minutes. I was seeing how the business was run on the front lines, in the trenches, out of my element.

On being a better Designer
When I was in college I believed that Design can change the world. I still believe that, but I’ve become more of a pragmatist. Let’s face it, most designers out there design something to sell something else.

You can be a better designer by copying someone’s style or reading design theory books. I, however, believe the best way to be a better designer is to be on the front lines, in the trenches. Graphic Design at its basest level is to communicate something visually. The best way to communicate something better is to understand what customers need or what they’re looking for.

When I was at the Crate and Barrel store helping a woman find a set of drinking glasses I had a short conversation with her about what sort of glasses she was interested in. There are so many glasses at the Crate. In this 5 minute conversation I helped her hone in on the right glasses. Making this one $9.99 sale taught me loads more than a graphic design book had ever done. I remembered this later as I designed the UI for the website.

Customer service and support
Recently we’ve really locked in our customer support workflow here at 37signals. It’s really easy for anyone to jump in and start interacting with customers — answering their questions and helping them in times of desperation. All of the designers (Jason and David too!) are starting to interact directly with our customers. I dig that.

I know that the more sales questions I answer the better designer I’ll be. I’m on the front lines and in the trenches.