Leslie Phinney • Written November 2015
Leslie Phinney is the Co-Founder, CEO and Creative Director of Phinney Bischoff, an integrated brand strategy and design firm with offices in Seattle, WA and Sun Valley, ID. For over 30 years, Phinney Bischoff has been a leader in effective, creative and solution-driven design.
Leslie is the great-great-grand niece of noted real estate pioneer Guy C. Phinney who in the late 1800’s developed Greenlake and the property where Woodland Park Zoo now stands. Leslie grew up in Seattle with her parents and older brother. Her career began as a design student at the University of Washington. While there, she began a work-study job as a designer at TRA Architects. She continued that job and her education at Cornish Institute of Arts where she earned her BFA and then a full-time position with TRA. Leslie always knew she wanted her own business and in 1982, Phinney Design was born.
Phinney Design (which later became Phinney Bischoff Design House when she and husband Karl Bischoff merged their respective businesses) was founded on three basic beliefs: that the company would be a place where employees and clients alike would flourish, that giving back to the community would be integral to Phinney Bischoff’s culture, and that great design is informed by a solid foundation of research. Her philosophy and passion was—and still is—in helping clients create communication concepts and programs that are appropriate for their organization, fully integrated, and focused on achieving outstanding results. This “smart,” problem-solving approach to design was the foundation for what eventually would become brand strategy as we know it today.
Recognizing the exciting opportunities digital marketing offered clients, Phinney Bischoff was also among the first of the established design firms in the Pacific Northwest to develop a digital design division in 1995. Today, digital design is no longer a separate practice area for the firm, but part of the integrated design solutions offered to clients.
Leslie’s research-based approach has attracted many leading brands for strategic counsel including Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Nelson Mandela Foundation, BECU, Woodland Park Zoo, Seattle Symphony, Premera, and the Allen Institute for Brain Science.
Leslie has received numerous creative awards including: Awards of Excellence from the International Association of Business Communicators, Communication Arts and American Institute of Graphic Arts. She has served on the board of AIGA Seattle and the Seattle Humane Society. Leslie also serves on the advisory board for the design program at Western Washington University.
In Leslie’s spare time she is an active dog trainer (her beloved Woody the Wonder Dog winning dozens of blue ribbons in agility), and now with Scout and Walter her very challenging but adorable puppy. She also is an active volunteer at Food Lifeline and Farestart where she most recently volunteered with the entire Phinney Bischoff team. With time off she and husband Karl can be found cross-country skiing with “the boys”, Walter and Scout, in Sun Valley, Idaho.
It’s difficult to imagine today that there was ever a time when design wasn’t well recognized as a profession. Sure, there were architects, industrial designers, “decorators” (today’s interior designers), but “graphic design” wasn’t a well known career path much less “brand strategy.”
Like many in our field, I grew up loving anything creative. I loved Play-Doh, filled countless coloring books and even developed an illustrated comic book character—Natasha, a girl with spring-loaded tennis shoes! I also always felt connected to nature when I was creating. The process felt very much like reading—that pleasure you experience by being transported elsewhere. It was something I did because I enjoyed it and because it seemed to feed my soul.
I didn’t really know anything about design as a possible degree program until an academic advisor suggested I consider graphic design. She realized that my passion for all things creative, combined with some promising organizational skills, might be a good match with a design program. The realization that there was a profession doing something I loved and that I could actually make a living at, seemed like an amazing gift. I transferred to the University of Washington and then finished my Bachelor of Fine Arts at Cornish College of the Arts.
During my time at the UW and Cornish, I began a work-study job as a designer at TRA Architects (which at the time was a large organization with a substantial graphic design group). Thankfully I was offered a full-time junior graphic design position upon graduation. Little did I know what a formative experience that would be.
Whenever I’ve been asked why I started my own business, I would always answer that it’s something I’ve wanted to do since I was a child. I just knew I wanted to own and run my own company. But the exercise of authoring this biography has forced me to dig deeper into why I’ve had that desire for so long.
Every year we host students from various design programs across the country and what I’m always struck by is how much I identify with “my people.” These young designers are inspiring to me. They desire nothing more than to create something meaningful, in whatever medium they have chosen, while passionately helping make this world a better and more beautiful place.
This passion is reflected in how creatives curate their lives. From the way they dress, to their home and even what and how they eat. Maybe this stems from a desire to coax the best out of every environment they find themselves in.
It’s in that vein that I believe I felt such a strong desire to craft a work environment that would facilitate this view of the world and let it flourish. The directive of Phinney Bischoff was always to serve. Serve our clients, serve our staff, and—at the risk of sounding cheesy—serve our society by crafting strategic design solutions that were beautiful, functional and made a positive difference in the world.
This philosophy extends to fostering a familial environment for employees because in my point of view, if you’re going to spend 2/3 of your life at work, it should feel like your second family or your home away from home.
It may sound like a made-for-TV-movie, but it all began with a break-up. In the early ‘80’s my boyfriend and I split up. We shared a house, so when it sold, I took my share of the proceeds and in 1982, Phinney Design was born—one of Seattle’s first woman-owned design firms. (Can’t you hear the theme music?) Talk about turning lemons into lemonade!
If you are familiar with Pyramid Brewing Company’s headquarters (formerly known as the 1201 Building across from the old Kingdome), then you know where Phinney Design really took root. The historical building housed dozens of creative agencies, photographers, illustrators, designers and talent agencies. One of those offices happened to house the business of successful multi-media producer and photographer Karl Bischoff.
Behind my door of Suite 308, you’d find drafting tables, t-squares, exact-o knives and a phone. Our first clients were architects (thank you TRA!) and later developers, and other professional service firms such as law and accounting firms. We seemed to have a sensibility to our approach that resonated with professionals who sold their expertise rather than a product.
I found myself working with many of the same clients as Karl. After a while, we realized that not only did we work well together, but we really, really liked it. So much so that Karl eventually took out an ad in the Seattle Weekly (a bit like an early form of social media), asking for my hand in marriage. I responded in kind (the typography was exquisite), and we were married in 1987. It wasn’t until 1994 that we decided to merge our businesses, forming Phinney/Bischoff Design House.
It was also at that time where we relocated our business to our current location, aka “The House.” It has in many ways played a key role in who we are, how we behave and how our clients come to know and love us. When Karl and I were looking for the company’s “forever home,” we knew we wanted to own the building. Experience has taught us that when the economy gets tough, it’s nice to be your own landlord. Also, we wanted to extend our own brand into our office environment—reinforcing that collaborative, comfortable and familial environment and philosophy. The House accomplished just that: “Where strategic design lives.” For over 20 years, the house has served as an incubator of creative ideas and our home away from home.
As our reputation and portfolio grew, our areas of expertise expanded. Notable clients that helped propel us as a business included The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Seattle Design Center and Seattle Children’s Hospital, each of which worked with us over the course of many, many years. I have always been proud of our long-standing client relationships. I think it is an extension of that familial environment we foster that make clients feel a part of the creative process and see us as trusted advisors.
For those in the marketing/design/advertising business, you will also remember a time when “branding” wasn’t widely understood as a practice or a deliverable. However Phinney/Bischoff Design House (now Phinney Bischoff) had established an integrated research process that clients were willing to pay for. This foundational work evolved into what we called our BrandBuilder™, a process which is now our Brand Strategy offering. For over 25 years, we have been founding our creative solutions on research, facts and sound strategy that help clients tell their stories, educate, differentiate and yes, sell.
Our brand strategy offering is part of what has propelled this firm’s work into a level I’m supremely proud of. It has earned the trust of clients such as Woodland Park Zoo, Dispatch Media Group, The Bravern, Safeco, Seattle Symphony, BECU and many others. So many great stories, missions, challenges and successes to celebrate in our 30+ years. And many more to come.
As I think back on our history and the future of Phinney Bischoff, some very beloved past team members come to mind: Dean Hart, Devin Liddell, Diana Loback, Stephen Black, Alise Tarica, Laura Moroney, Nathan Oliver—too many to list here. Plus, of course, partners Holly Keenan & Karl Bischoff and our truly dedicated, talented and amazing current long-serving staff. You have all contributed your heart and souls into this passion project of mine and I can’t thank you enough for supporting this firm and the goals we have set out to achieve since day one. Thank you again—from the bottom of my heart.