Studio News
Women Making History: AJ Goehle
Author
SEGD
Date
March 9, 2022
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This article was originally published on SEGD’s blog by Franck Mercurio.

In honor of Women’s History Month, SEGD is sharing stories about “women you need to know” in the field of experiential graphic design. Next up is an interview with AJ Goehle, Principal and CEO of Luci Creative, a Chicago and Boston-based design studio specializing in exhibition design. SEGD contributor Franck Mercurio asks AJ about her career, her leadership style, and the challenges—and rewards—of leading a successful EGD business.


FMM
Hi AJ! Can you tell me about the history of Luci Creative, how you came to start it, and the business model you follow?


AJG
Sure. In 2011, my business partner Michael Shapiro and I saw an opportunity to create a highly sophisticated independent design firm in Chicago that utilized the expertise and resources of a local fabricator, Ravenswood Studio Inc. By bringing in cost estimators and fabrication project managers to work alongside exhibit developers and designers, we were able to bring a level of reality to our ideas and not be “dream crushers” for our clients when it was time to “make it real.”


FMM
So, are your clients expected to use Ravenswood when they sign-on to a project?


AJG
Our clients are not expected to commit to Ravenswood as a fabrication partner, but instead they are a value-added resource throughout the development and design process. We can complete a project turnkey, but we also work with other preferred client fabrication partners. It’s the best of both worlds!


FMM
It must be working for you because your studio has grown a lot since 2011.


AJG
Yes, in 2011 we started with 3 employees, and we currently have 38 and are growing! In 2017, we added our Executive Director of Strategic Partnerships, David Whitemyer, to the team and opened our Boston office to meet the growing needs of our clients on the East Coast.


FMM
And from what I understand, Luci Creative is a women-owned business?


AJG
Yes, as Principal, I own the majority of the company. Three of our six executive team members are women, and 22 of our 36-member staff are women!


FMM
As Principal and CEO, how do you describe your leadership style?


AJG
I care and lead from my heart—so much that my executive coach often reminds me to stop caring so much!

But I believe that to be a great leader, you need to meet your team where they are, and be ready to adapt and constantly check where improvements or support are needed.

I am often referred to as the ultimate cheerleader and champion of the team. I won’t ever do the work for you, but I will show you that you have it in yourself to solve the problem through reality-based leadership practices.


FMM
And what does “reality-based leadership” entail at a design firm like Luci?


AJG
I try to help the team quickly see and graciously accept the reality of the situation. And that means ditching the drama and using that energy to impact reality and solutions. I try to coach the team to raise their level of consciousness so they can approach their issues or challenges from a much different perspective and with solutions rather than problems.


FMM
That sounds like you’re instilling leadership skills in your own staff.  


AJG
Yes, I have quickly realized that for Luci to be successful, we need more leaders besides me. To address that, I have identified leaders throughout the company—not just in management, but the cultural leaders, too.


FMM
So back-tracking just a bit, how did you cultivate your own leadership skills when you first started the firm?


AJG
When we started Luci, I was young. I had the idea, the hunger, the design skills to support clients—and the rigor to figure out how to create a company—but  I didn’t have the experience or business toolkit to know which levers to pull when different challenges arose, or when goals were not yet met.

So, I enrolled in an Executive MBA program at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign where I was surrounded by other business leaders from various industries. I graduated from the program with an amazing toolkit and an incredible network of peers to lean on.


FMM
Speaking of networking, what role has networking played in your career?


AJG
I was fortunate to be surrounded by several amazing mentors and design industry leaders along the way who allowed me to call on them for advice and key learnings. You’d be surprised how much advice your competitors and vendor partners give you. We all know how difficult running a successful design agency is, and we are supportive of one another.


FMM
And I hear that you’re active in the Women’s President Organization. In what ways have they been supportive?


AJG
The Women’s Presidents Organization has been an amazing peer group of women with the same shared experiences and roles, and they’ve been a tremendous support to help me juggle it all.

Being a woman CEO, you wear many hats and have many other life dimensions to you—and there are only so many hours in the day for life. Beyond being a CEO and business owner, I am also a wife and a mother of two boys. I had my second child on March 29, 2020, just as the world shut down with the pandemic!


FMM
Wow! How did you manage having a newborn and navigating the difficulties of running a business during the beginning of the pandemic?


AJG
I was challenged to transition our business to a virtual studio, keep client’s contracts engaged and our employees busy. (Obviously I did not take maternity leave!) We did everything we could to keep the team whole, and believe it or not, we did not have to let anyone go during that difficult time and came out to the pandemic stronger than ever!


FMM
It sounds like you and your team have built a solid and resilient business.


AJG
I learned very early that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. I am so proud of how far we have come, the experiences we have created, but most importantly the team we have built. If it wasn’t for this team of talented individuals coming together every day with their heart, talent, and passion for the work, we would not be here today.


FMM
What about other challenges? What are some of the bigger “day-to-day” challenges of running a successful design studio?

AJG
One of our greatest challenges has been knowing when we need to hire another new team member. I am very protective of adding to our roster and ensuring that we can sustain that addition and growth. The most important thing is putting my team first, whether that means getting more time, getting or approving more scope, or approving a different way to do something.


FMM
So how do you keep staff members motivated to meet these day-to-day challenges and keep the firm successful and growing?


AJG
We are constantly working to ensure our team feels valued by spending the time to understand what motivates different individuals. That includes picking-up on small cues to know what makes them tick. I do everything I can to set them up for success in that opportunity and find projects that will ignite the fire in their belly.


FMM
And your approach has led to some successful projects. Are there any in particular you would like to brag about?


AJG
A big part of completing successful projects is in cultivating good client relationships. First, we frequently get feedback that we truly listen to what our clients are asking for and are able to translate that into our designs. So each project is unique—none look alike—each is custom designed to meet our clients’ goals. And part of that process is that we design with our clients, not simply for them. It’s truly collaborative.


FMM
I’ve heard about the Publishing House Experience in Boston and the Ford House Visitor Center in Grosse Pointe, Michigan. What can you tell me about these two projects?


AJG
The Publishing House Experience is one of our largest projects to date where we transformed areas of the headquarters of the Christian Science Monitor into a cohesive visitor experience. The project includes several unique and compelling interactive galleries within a famous Boston landmark, The Mapparium.

The Ford House Visitor Center includes exhibits which tell the stories of the life and legacy of Edsel and Eleanor Ford. The design team crafted a seamless integration between the exhibitions and the historic building’s interior, and the content is delivered through graphics and media developed to support the authenticity of the time period.


FMM
Can you give us a sneak-peek of Luci projects currently in the works?


AJG
Yes! Here are three I can share.

At the Harley-Davidson Museum (Milwaukee, WI) a newly created Experience Gallery will open in late Spring / early Summer 2022. It will provide visitors with a sensory and emotional journey that awakens their desire for adventure, inspiring them to ask a simple question: “If I could ride today.”  An interactive “Test Ride” of real H-D motorcycles will include the brand new Freedom Machine.

The Moonshot Museum (Pittsburgh, PA) opens Fall 2022 will enable visitors to embark on their own simulated lunar mission, see a real lunar lander being built, and learn how they can be a part of future space exploration.

And the exhibition Mars: The Next Giant Leap will open Carnegie Science Center (Pittsburgh, PA) opens late-Fall 2022. The exhibit taps into the vast possibilities of what life on Mars might offer and allows visitors to use their creativity to come up with new ideas and imagine different futures.