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In Character: Profile of Ziba Design's founder Sohrab Vossoughi

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Tuesday, May 01, 2007
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Sohrab Vossoughi, president and founder, Ziba Design in Portland

A leader by design

At Ziba Design, Sohrab Vossoughi wants everyone to feel the love.

By Christina Williams

Sohrab Vossoughi is getting a bit antsy.

You can see it in the way the founder and president of Ziba Design fiddles with his moss-green hardback notebook. He’s wincing and hunching forward to talk into the speakerphone, holding up his finger to shush others in the room.

The guy on the other end of the line isn’t getting it.

It’s early on in Ziba’s relationship with this CEO, who is sitting in Moscow listening to a presentation by the designers he’s hired to overhaul his product. Vossoughi is there as a favor to the CEO, who’s had poor experiences with design firms in the past.

The Moscow CEO wants his product to convey three attributes: rugged, high-tech and precise. Now, via the Web, the Ziba team defines those qualities, showing him pictures of watches, cars and computer hard drives — none of which his company makes. “I just want to see what the design is,” says Moscow, frustration evident even on the phone from so far away.

But Ziba’s process is about more than design. It’s about what the client wants a product to say and what the consumer wants to hear. It’s about creating something that will evoke emotion — even love.

Vossoughi soothes the nerves in Moscow, explaining the process. The team sets up the next meeting, promising to have some design sketches to show. “He’s an engineer,” Vossoughi says later with an indulgent smile, “he’s very pragmatic. He just wants to see stuff.”  

Vossoughi would know. He first came to Portland in 1980 to work at Hewlett-Packard, surrounded by engineers. Four years later he started Ziba, which means beauty in Farsi.

At Ziba, design is more than form and function. Vossoughi talks instead about DNA (as in “What’s the DNA of the company?”) and culture and authenticity.

“These days it’s all about consumer loyalty,” he says. “Satisfaction is no longer the issue.” Nope. The issue now is love. He ticks off a handful of what he calls love brands: Harley Davidson, Apple, Virgin, Target. “Apple has only a 3% market share. Market share is no longer the point.”

Ziba’s design work has tried to gin up love for both products and places — for clients including Procter & Gamble, Umpqua Bank, Sirius Satellite Radio, myriad technology companies and Portland’s South Waterfront development. The firm regularly reels in awards for its work, and its leaders, especially the founder, are relied on as industry experts.

“They’re terrific designers but it’s their ability to capture what your customer is about and then connect with them that’s really fascinating,” says Homer Williams, the Portland real-estate developer credited with the overhaul of the Pearl District and with leading the charge in the South Waterfront.

It was a different kind of gig for Ziba, which is better known for its high-tech work, but Vossoughi and his team told the story of an emerging neighborhood through marketing materials and the design of a sales office that doubles as a community center. “Real estate is a traditional business,” Williams says. “We wanted to try something different. They had this ability to find out what resonates with people.”

Vossoughi, who was born in Tehran and emigrated to California as a teenager, is a compact man of 50 who favors black and gray — colors that match his hair (which is silvering at the temples and in bits of the goatee) and offset his dark brown eyes. He has an amiable personality that tends to camouflage an evangelical intensity.

He steams through a spiel about consumer power and innovation as what differentiates brands and how companies must know their customers intimately and appeal to their emotions and create experiences for them that they’ll come back for.

“I ask clients: ‘Do you know your customer? Do you have a picture of them in your wallet?’” You can imagine the response he gets. But he’s mostly serious.

Vossoughi has a lust for ideas, something that Steve McCallion discovered when they first met. McCallion, an architect, had shown up for a job interview at Ziba but when the person he was supposed to meet with wasn’t there, Vossoughi took him to lunch. They talked for three hours about form and culture and philosophy. “At no one point did I even know that he was the founder and president of the company,” McCallion says. “That tells you something about Sohrab.” 

He hired McCallion, who says that three-hour lunchtime chat has turned into a 14-year conversation. He’s now the firm’s executive creative director and was instrumental in Ziba’s South Waterfront work. “In a lot of design environments, it’s all about ego and fighting for your idea,” McCallion says. “At Ziba it’s about the idea. It can be anybody’s idea. It’s all about recognizing and developing the idea.”

Vossoughi spends his day in pursuit of those ideas. He moves easily through the sea of employees — Ziba has just over 100 — popping his head into war rooms to check in on client projects, stopping by a designer’s desk to comment on the model for what will one day be a desktop printer, conferring on the fly about how to configure a cluster of cubicles that will make room for a handful of new employees in the pipeline.

Ziba is bursting. Desks are packed cheek to jowl; workspaces are spilling out across the street into an annex. But there is relief in sight.

Vossoughi is overseeing the building of what will be Ziba’s new home in its Pearl District neighborhood. It will have retail space on the first floor — Vossoughi envisions installing design-related merchants that would mesh well with the company’s sensibilities — and an auditorium for company gatherings and community functions.

Holst Architecture of Portland recently brought in floor plans and renderings of the modern three-story building. The architects and the designers faced off. Vossoughi, confessing to poor eyesight, walked over to the wall to examine the plans. As he talked, he circled his finger on what he considered to be problem areas — clever architectural details without a purpose. “Function and beauty go together.” Repeated like a mantra.

He wants a signature building and he wants it to stand out, but he wants it to do more than that. He wants it to inspire. He wants it to be loved.


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