Spotlight on INDD Alum Don Keller
Auburn Industrial Design alumnus Don Keller and his exhibit design and construction company, Blue Sky Exhibits, have had a very good. Year. Blue Sky Exhibits was recently recognized with the 2017 Small Business of the Year Award by the Cobb Chamber of Commerce in Marietta, Georgia after being a Top 25 Award-winner seven times. They have also branched out into film, developing their biggest production to-date: the “Player Expo,” an entire trade show set for Twentieth Century Fox’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul.
Keller discovered an interest in trade show exhibit design during his last year in Auburn’s Industrial Design program. While he was initially an exhibit designer after he graduated in 1987, a corporate account management assignment moved Keller into the sales arena, where he discovered his true passion. He and Tim Kelley co-founded Blue Sky Exhibits in 2003 in Marietta, Georgia. Today, Keller is Blue Sky Exhibit’s Owner and Chief Executive Officer. While providing general management responsibilities, Keller also oversees sales estimating, accounting and finances. His company now has 29 full-time employees, 92 clients across the country and a reputation for strong working relationships with its customers and resource partners.
Keller graciously agreed to tell CADC more about his Auburn experience and about Blue Sky Exhibits.
CADC: How has your Auburn industrial design education influenced your career?
DBK: I have always appreciated how we as humans interface with our environment and machines. With my Industrial Design degree, I have been able to build a career that has defined my professional life. The knowledge I gained in design, construction, finance, and leadership has brought me to where I am now. I am both honored and very grateful to Auburn University for the skills and experiences it has given me.
CADC: What is your favorite memory of the industrial design program?
DBK: Smith Hall. I remember the many nights I had to spend there working into the early morning hours, pouring my soul into projects, getting them ready for presentation. It was a tough program and really prepared me for the many challenges our industry holds.
CADC: Do you remember a specific project that challenged you the most?
DBK: I had an assignment to design a working coffee maker that would fit into a small apartment. This project was one of the first in my college classes, and it showed me how design ideas could impact our world. My professor, Dr. Schaer, pressed all of us to think in an innovative manner and not be confined by what already exists. As a result, I created a coffee maker that mounted onto the wall and folded out for use. Innovative thinking has propelled me to help my customers find solutions to their trade show exhibit needs.
CADC: How do you design an exhibit experience?
DBK: Like many other projects, the process begins with the client’s objectives for the environment and their budget. I like to spend due diligence uncovering needs and wants for the end result. The account executive and designer work with the client to put together a design that meets those conditions. After the design is presented and approved, it goes to the shop where it is built. In most cases, it is constructed at the warehouse just as it would be on the trade show floor, but without the merchandise in it. We dismantle and place it in custom-designed crates to ship to the trade show venue. The project manager oversees the installation of exhibit, and the customer does a final walk-through to make sure everything is ready for the opening of the trade show.
CADC: How do you build strong working relationships with your clients?
DBK: One of the best ways to build a strong relationship is to deliver a product that exceeds client expectations. You do this by asking well-developed questions and listening with undivided attention. Act on what you hear, and you will create problem-solving solutions that create long-lasting relationships.
I have been honored to work with several customers for more than 20 years, such as Fruit of the Loom, Cryolife, SanMar, and Russell Corporation—all of which I consider cherished partnerships.
CADC: What advice would you give to today’s industrial design graduates?
DBK: Design is key many businesses today, but that is only the first step. Designing something that is creative, that will sell, and that is within budget is an art. Listen to what the customer wants and provide a solution that is not only creative, but that also meets their professional expectations. Sometimes that means that you design based on someone else’s desires and needs, not your own. This can be difficult for young designers, where they connect to a design in a very personal way. Too many times I have seen designers try to justify a design and be personally offended when the client wants revisions. Don’t fall into that trap. Consider the revision process a learning opportunity to refine your skills.
CADC: What project or accomplishment do you consider to be the most significant in your career?
DBK: The most significant accomplishment in my career has nothing to do with my job, but everything to do with my life. It is being married to my college sweetheart, Ann, for 28 years. We were students at Auburn and married right after graduating. She has been the encouragement and support that I have needed to grow my career to where it is today. That makes my life with her, my 27 year-old daughter and my 23 year-old son worth all the hard work.