Following the Vapor Trail of DI Grad: Viveca Bissonnette, FIIDA, CID LEED AP and the Story of How She Built a Dream Career!
When you think of a successful business woman what do you see? Looking at her extensive list of design projects, volunteer experience, awards and publications, "success" might just be the very best word to describe DI grad Viveca Bissonnette. Instead of sitting high on all of her accomplishments you'll find her down to earth and looking forward to her next great design adventure. So how did this unstoppable force come to be?
Born in Toronto to an architect father and an urban planning mother, design is in her blood. While starting off as a chemistry major at McGill University in Montreal, Viveca discovered the field of anthropology and became fascinated with the study of culture. She subsequently graduated with a degree in cultural anthropology and then worked for the airline industry. As interesting as the work was, a relocation to San Diego started to spin the wheels in Viveca's head. "It really forced me to look inwardly to decide what I really wanted to be doing and I just sort of returned to my roots." What ultimately settled the matter for her was how powerful and relevant interior design is to everyday life. "It affects us in every way and that is what attracted me to it."
Deciding to return to school the second time around was completely different for Viveca. Not only did she now have a five year old son but she had a drive and a focus that was much stronger than before. Discovering the accredited and specialized interior design program at Design Institute made Viveca's design decision easy. "My only option was to look at schools in San Diego. After extensive research it became clear that DI was the superior choice. I knew immediately that it was the right place for me." Once she found DI everything just jelled. The creative nature of the program was completely different than the strictly academic education she had previously been exposed to. "To discover my creative side was like a revelation." The quality and passion of the instructors just added fuel to the fire. "The instructors are incredibly dedicated to their profession, as practitioners themselves but also as educators of the next generation of emerging professionals. The teachers are certainly what made the program for me."
When first starting school at DI, Viveca didn't have a clear idea of the direction it would take her but the evolution into a commercial focus was relatively quick. Understanding the value of professional organizations, Viveca took complete advantage by being a student member of both ASID and IIDA, volunteered on the IIDA boards and won several scholarships. After graduating and passing the NCIDQ she jumped at the opportunity when approached to be the IIDA City Center Director for San Diego which evolved into the VP of City Centers on IIDA's Southern California Board. She then moved on to IIDA's International Board and eventually became the 2010-2011 International President! "IIDA is an incredible organization. It has always been very grassroots focused and I've loved every position I have held. As City Center Director I was able to really get to know the community. At the International level, the focus was about big picture ideas and moving the profession forward."
While still in school, Viveca was fortunate to obtain an internship at Carrier Johnson Architects which led to a full time position upon graduation.
"Carrier Johnson was a wonderful firm to work for. I was made an Associate after only a few years which was an incredible milestone for me and a validation of the decision to return back to school." While at Carrier Johnson Viveca was involved in a number of amazing projects but when probed to pick her favorite, her answer was quick. "High Tech High was one of the most meaningful projects for many reasons." It was of the first projects where she was given quite a bit of responsibility, the organizations goals for education were admirable and her son ultimately ended up attending the school! "Out of all the projects, that one stands out because it affects me personally. To have my son attend the school I designed was the crowning moment."
Viveca worked for Carrier Johnson for almost ten years before starting her own firm last year with business partner, Jeff Hollander, but she is quick to acknowledge the people who have helped her get to this point. "The people at Carrier Johnson were incredible mentors and afforded me so many amazing opportunities. They understood what I wanted to do and what my goals were when I left. I couldn't have had a better parting with them." Viveca and Jeff started their new design firm, Hollander Design Group, with an untraditional and interesting strategy. Having lived through multiple recessions Viveca quickly noticed how the present one has been different. "This recession hit all market sectors and forced companies to let people go at every level, Principals included". Gone were the days of security and tenure. This has been one of the major influences on their business model in addition to the ability to work virtually. These two factors lit a bulb in Viveca's head. "There are many designers that have chosen not to go back to larger firms but to remain independent consultants, but not in the traditional way, and not as sole practitioners. They are turning to their extensive networks to team up. What Jeff and I have been able to do is tap in to this body of knowledge." Having only three full time people working for the firm may sound limiting but it is actually the opposite. Not only do they have control over which projects they pursue, but because of the vast network they have in the SoCal region, they can find and put together teams of experts based on the needs of each client. "We have surprised ourselves as to how easy it has been putting these teams of experts together and how well received the model has been. Working today is more efficient and the transfer of information is easier than it has ever been. Technology has made so many things are possible now that were not ten years ago. It's been great to work with the right people on every project and to be able to bring our clients the right solution."
Being creative business people, Viveca and Jeff are always looking for something new to do. Most recently that has meant furniture and industrial design. "Our goal is really to grow the business. We are always searching for something new and ways to expand. We wanted to create a model that works in many different ways and can be morphed into what we need depending on what opportunities are presented to us. It really allows us to ebb and flow our project load this week and ten years from now."
But what about that impressive list of positions she held with IIDA? That is definitely not over. "I was elevated to Fellow [the highest and most prestigious honor IIDA bestows] this year which was very exciting. To be a part of that group of top designers in our industry that have done so much to move the profession forward… I can't even say how much that means to me." Although Viveca's term as International President ended in July she was asked to continue on as Vice President for another two year term. "I will be a volunteer the rest of my life. I am very happy that I am able to continue working on these projects and am honored to be asked to stay." But as much as her recent focus at IIDA has been international, it is the close San Diego design community that Viveca really loves. We are all competitive but at the end of the day we are all colleagues and that is very rare for a design community. It's one of the reasons I love practicing here."
How does Viveca find all that drive and passion for her career? "My drive comes from personal satisfaction, a love of design and a love of doing well for my clients which is the ultimate goal. I think most people are not keenly aware of how much their environments effect how they feel, live and work. We have to be able to explain our value and that is what IIDA is trying to do. Helping the public understand what professional interior designers do has always been a goal of mine. I used say ‘I want a job that I never want to retire from.' And now, that's exactly what I have."
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