How to Design Your Way into Customers' Hearts

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The following is the fourth in the series "Live Your Brand" in which branding expert Melanie Spring takes us along on her three-week road trip across the country to meet innovative entrepreneurs whose experiences offer lessons learned to businesses big and small.

Landscape architect, Ernest “Ernie” Wong, is the son of Chinese immigrant and well-known Chicago building architect, Y.C. Wong. With a father of such prominence in a city known for its architecture, Ernie was uninspired to figure out a career direction as a child. His youth, affectionately called his thug years, was spent rebelling against everything his family stood for until Ernie’s life took a simple, yet drastic turn.

Ernie was asked to join the Student Conservation Association, which places children in National Parks to rebuild trails and bridges. "As I stood on top of a mountain overlooking one of the National Parks, I realized the world was bigger than me," Ernie recalls. "I knew then that I wanted to create parks people remembered.”

Not long after this inspired moment, Site Design Group, Inc. was created. For more than 20 years, the landscape architecture firm has been transforming empty spaces across Chicago into beautiful parks.

Site Design Group lives by two core values -- taking care of others and living in harmony. These principles drive how they work with each other and how they work with clients. These core values have helped the firm build a strong and established reputation in Chicago.

From the open office plan and big windows to the stocked kitchen, Site Design Group’s 6,000 square foot office is set up to keep its employees connected. They create big projects with just a few people and because they have a family environment, employees stay to see projects through to completion. Ernie rewards employees for their potential. For example, he recently promoted a 26-year-old in the company to Principal for his work ethic and promise.

The firm's projects include parks in urban and suburban areas. One of Ernie’s favorite spaces was created in place of a landfill. His team removed the landfill and created quiet areas that provided refuge from the loud urban neighborhood. Taking the human element an extra step, they recycled sidewalk pieces to make the steps to the pond, made the whole park sustainable by creating a fountain that feeds the wetlands below in the warmer months and built walkways made of grated metal so the park never had to be cleaned.

One of the most thoughtful aspects of Site Design Group is their ability to create parks that look beautiful in all seasons. All of their portfolio pictures are done in black and white because they design for light and reflection, not color.

And Ernie is most interested in how to improve the user experience. “People interact with the space differently than you imagined while designing,” he says. “You realize what you could have added or changed by watching them use the space and take that into your next project.”

Learning from each project and experience helps shape the company and Ernie's approach moving forward. “Although there is never a perfect project, it’s how we keep learning and growing," he says. "When I stop learning, I’ll quit being an architect.”

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