Daniel Scovill of Arcsine: “5 Things You Should do if You Want to Become a Thought Leader in Your Industry”
Early on I had a boss, in his late 50s at the time, who came back from a construction site meeting. He was spitting angry, but not at anyone in particular; perhaps just at this profession. After some expletives, he said, “No matter how long I’m in this profession I keep learning new things that I need to watch out for!” That has never left me, and I share it with my team often. We will always be surprised by new things that must be learned.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Daniel Scovill. Capturing the comprehensive creative energy — architecture, design, decor — of hospitality-focused projects, Owner and Co-Founder Daniel Scovill coined “method architecture” to define the process at his Oakland, CA, firm, Arcsine. Having grown the company to the point where yesterday’s dream projects are today’s bread-and-butter, Scovill hinges his designs on deep-dive, empathetic connections with his clients. Every project begins with a concept phase to bring visions, aspirations, and dreams to light. “If you can create the concept to be something living, you can understand what it wants to be,” he explains. Hence why he nearly always carries a sketchbook. “A sketch is hyper-aware — it allows one to capture the full memory: sight, setting, taste, and sound.” Equating Arcsine’s work to “spatial strategic consultancy,” Scovill believes in architecture as bigger than building — rather, designing solutions and the lasting impression. Seeing trends in restaurants, hotels, and retail spaces come and go, his eye for permanence drills to the root of his clients and their guests’ experience of the space. To achieve that, he creates an open, safe working environment that enables more minds to collaborate and engages late-stage artisans earlier on to weave their creativity into the initial concept. Born and raised in Mt. Shasta, CA, Scovill knew he wanted to be an architect since the fourth grade, thanks to key hands-on exposure throughout his youth and travels that showed him international perspectives. Armed with a penchant for learning passed on by his educator parents, Scovill attended the architecture Summer Career Program at California Polytechnic State University while in high school that equipped him to later study there, including courses in Florence, Italy. Upon earning his B.Arch in 1999, he joined Gensler in San Francisco to work on adaptive re-use spaces and automobile dealerships, notably helping Volkswagen roll-out its German design for the American market. Wisdom gained from Gensler’s leadership would go on to influence the firm of his own founding. He gained experience in restaurant design when he joined AXIS Architecture + Design in 2002, as well as on-the-ground learnings that sparked his interest in every aspect of the building process. In 2003, he broke out on his own — rooted in the desire to have a hand in all facets of the profession — to launch Arcsine, initially taking on smaller projects including bakeries, food courts, eateries, and small retail concepts, all the while honing the precision of hospitality design. Expanding Arcsine’s footprint through careful development, Scovill brought on his former Gensler cohort, Adam Winig, in 2006 and has since expanded to include two dozen employees. Scovill also devotes space at Arcsine’s offices to support his community, first housing a local podcast and now fostering young talents through education and internships. At the end of a project, he loves to see Arcsine’s fingerprints commingle with that of artisans, from major elements down to murals on the wall and glassware on a table. “We’ve found a way to let every creative stakeholder freestyle collaboratively and make it their own while coming back to the structure we’ve intuited from our client’s aspirations,” he says. An Oakland resident for nearly two decades, Scovill currently resides in the East Bay neighborhood of Glenview. He praises his wife, Isavane, for her continued support from the inception of Arcsine through present day, sharing credit with her for its success. In his free time, he enjoys traveling with her and their children, Tenzin and Zarah. Close to home, Scovill is involved with his kids’ soccer teams — refereeing every chance he has — and shares his favorite hobbies: skiing, camping, collecting vinyl, seeing live music, and discovering new bands with the whole family.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
When I first started at a summer internship, I did not know CAD. Back in the days when my university would openly share a perspective, “we don’t teach you CAD, your first employer will.” Fortunately, they did. Unfortunately, I should have asked more questions along the way. In trying to make lines connect in this early version of AutoCAD, I had no idea there was a thing called Object Snaps (OSnaps) which automatically terminates the end of one line to another. Instead, I did what anyone trying to be precise would do … I zoomed in as far as I possibly could to manually make the lines connect. It took a very, very long time. And of course, there is no end to the zooming, just getting closer and closer and the lines never touched. So right now, I would like to publicly apologize to the rest of the team at CSA in Santa Barbara for drawings which surely were a pain to work in later. Lessons to take away: there is always an easier way; always ask for help; and though it worked out in the end, don’t believe everything you’re told in school!
How would you define a ‘Thought Leader?” How is a thought leader different than a typical leader? How is a thought leader different than an influencer?
A thought leader is someone that inspires others to think — they don’t need to be right, nor lead a group of people, but rather, drive the conversation and make waves in the industry. A thought leader equips people on how to think and how to question, but they don’t have to necessarily be responsible for its impact. In this way, they can reside in the metaphysical space of progressing thought without constraint.
A leader is responsible for a people, for creating a collaborative space, for driving towards the betterment of the group. If a leader can create a root concept of collaboration, then, naturally, the team will approach their work in a more comfortable way. We work to develop a similar culture at Arcsine — everyone is allowed an equal share of the conversation regardless of their previous perspective coming into the process.
The concept of an influencer in this day in age has shifted from tastemakers of the past. Now anyone can be an “influencer.” An influencer may have sway over a group of people, but they are not intrinsically responsible for said people. That is not to say that those who influence do not have a sense of responsibility, but the role inherently offers removal from the influenced.
Can you talk to our readers a bit about the benefits of becoming a thought leader? Why do you think it is worthwhile to invest resources and energy into this?
I don’t know if one can set out to be a thought leader. And more to the point, I don’t think that a thought leader is a level that can be achieved, as in a game. Instead of investing resources and energy to become a thought leader outright, invest that energy into a rigorous pursuit of excellence that is not results & accolade driven. Without eyes on the results, you can focus on the process. Looking at the process, improving it, re-designing it … iterate, iterate, improve and that use of energy will surely pay off with mastery of craft. Mastery of craft and a sentiment that even mastery can be improved, I aim for that.
Can you share a few examples of how thought leadership can help a business grow or create lucrative opportunities?
At Arcsine, our design process is a cornerstone of our “Method Design” ideology. That process was developed through introspective thought leadership and helps quantify our efforts, move through obstacles when we get stuck, and connect with clients that are new to a design process. The level with which we connect with our architecture and interior design teams and clients required a large shift in the industry thought process. It was this thoughtful shift that liberated our teams in the way they engage with one another and with our client, producing lucrative, cogent results.
Perhaps we dive deeper into what a “standard” business practice may be and how method provides a “thought leader approach,” then go into what the business / creative opportunities are with said practice
Can you share 5 strategies that a person should implement to become known as a thought leader in their industry. Please tell us a story or example (ideally from your own experience) for each.
When I worked at Gensler, I had a disagreement with some supervisors about the color of a car dealership. I thought I went too far in my dissent, but, much to my surprise, that supervisor eventually agreed and complimented my steadfastness. No matter how long you are in the industry, keep an open mind to those around you — you never know who you will learn from next.
2. Seeing the full arc / shifting point of view
Early on I had a boss, in his late 50s at the time, who came back from a construction site meeting. He was spitting angry, but not at anyone in particular; perhaps just at this profession. After some expletives, he said, “No matter how long I’m in this profession I keep learning new things that I need to watch out for!” That has never left me, and I share it with my team often. We will always be surprised by new things that must be learned. I suppose a true “Thought Leader” in our profession accepts and welcomes that fact, receiving it like an Aikido master.
Being a thought leader succeeding in any industry is a marathon, not a sprint. Build slowly and thoughtfully. During the economic downturn we were able to maintain our process because we understood the pace needed at the time. Afterwards we grew in a measured manner and have been growing ever since.
4. Always find a mentor, preferably from another discipline
Watch how other people solve problems within their space. I enjoy looking to athletic coaches — the way they work with their players and how they come away from a loss, rebound quickly, and get back into the next game is a practice I try to employ
I didn’t go to business school, so starting Arcsine came with a huge learning curve. We haven’t always had the best way to do things, but we have been nimble and have managed to move through obstacles quickly. Realizing that we can always be better has kept us moving forward and growing. It’s been 16 years and we still have decades of learning to take in. I always question the design world and those there within.
In your opinion, who is an example of someone who has that has done a fantastic job as a thought leader? Which specific things have impressed you about that person? What lessons can we learn from this person’s approach.
Dominique Crenn, or, Roman Mars, W. Kamau Bell, Daft Punk (I love how they channel collaboration and release albums at a pace to allow for excellence), TOOL (steadfast to their craft and unbending to the whims of industry and a notion of what can or cannot be done), Peter Zumthor to name a few. The common thread is that they all seem to be building on a continuum of work, knowing that there is still a path to blaze
I have seen some discussion that the term “thought leader” is trite, overused, and should be avoided. What is your take on this?
I do feel that it is a phrase that gets thrown a bit too often. Good ideas can come from anywhere and often it is the ability of the experienced to notice the best thought when it comes from an unlikely source and to then do something about it with the wisdom that they have. And conversely, to know when the development of an idea is still unripe and needs more time. A true thought leader has a confidence of seeing both the completed idea that expresses something of beauty and that which is still a work in progress and how to direct it to completion.
This reminds me of something my mother would say in regard to her classroom of first graders. “They all paint like Kadinsky … you just need to know when to take away the brush and paper, else it will become a puddle of brown.” His Color Study — Squares with Concentric Rings (1913) demonstrates that point. Those kids, without knowing it, are connecting with what Kadinsky must have felt when he explored that art. But in his mastery of craft and exploration, he recognized it and put the brush down. To then later pick it back up and build upon what he learned.
What advice would you give to other leaders to thrive and avoid burnout?
Candidly, I’m fighting that battle right now. So, I sketch, I write, I listen to music, and I read. I travel and I observe people. I speak to people that I don’t know. And I savor time with my family, often doing all these things together. Basically, I look for the architecture in things that aren’t buildings. And I look for the design threads. Maybe in the future that will feed into our work at Arcsine … maybe it won’t. Either way, it feeds me.
If you could inspire a “movement of good,” what would it be and why?
There are so many worthwhile movements of good. I don’t need to invent a new one. The old Hard Rock Café pins seemed to sum it up: SAVE THE PLANET was above their logo and LOVE ALL — SERVE ALL was below. Seeing the best in everyone and everything is not a movement per se, but it is the best secret I know to living fully and not getting bogged down with negativity. IF everyone were to focus on that and act accordingly, I would wager that our world would be a better place. And at the same time, our world is in an eco-crisis … and seeing the good in everyone needs to be paired with some aggressive action to reverse the pain we have inflicted upon our planet. In this arena, I’m no expert and I’m trying to catch up to make a difference.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson” quote? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Well, I think that the most important one that I heard during the past several years is a passage from Phillip Larkin. Picking up at the end of the poem, he cautions: “…we should be careful of each other, we should be kind, while there is still time.” This line had sat with me and clearly has weight. But it wasn’t until our friends lost their teenage son to suicide that it really struck its relevance and now haunts and inspires me simultaneously to value the time we have and the connections I make and cultivate with others.
If you could dine with any other living thought leader, who would it be and why?
How about an intimate dinner conversation with a small, eclectic group? Dominique Crenn sharing her perspective on food and environment, Bryant Terry putting food justice on the platter of discussion, Roman Mars stitching design & storytelling into it all, Maynard James Keenan bringing the wine and sharing about the creative process of progressive metal, and everyone chiming in on humanity’s next stage of evolution.
Thank you so much for all of these great insights!
Daniel Scovill of Arcsine: “5 Things You Should do if You Want to Become a Thought Leader in Your… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.