I forget the first time I heard about Bill Drenttel, but I remember it was in tones of awe. He was "the business guy" at the hottest design firm in town, Drenttel Doyle Partners. We all knew that Stephen Doyle was a great designer, but it was this mysterious Drenttel guy who was the secret weapon: devising strategies, seducing clients, knowing exactly what to say in a meeting to get approval for beautiful design work. Who wouldn't be jealous? Who among us didn't long to have a business guy of our very own? But there was only one Bill Drenttel.
I learned, when I got to know him, how much Bill hated being thought of as "the business guy." And for good reason. The more time I spent with him, the more I saw that his reputation was as varied as it was widespread. Some people knew him as a sophisticated and obsessive book collector. Others, as a leading-edge technology theorist. Or as a passionate poetry enthusiast. An education reform expert. A health care design innovator. A social design activist. This was Bill's genius: he was impossible to pin down. And he was like that until the very end.
After he died, I heard from many people who remembered things Bill had said. To my surprise, many people remembered — could even quote passages from — a single lecture he had given over 20 years ago, in his days as a business guy. I remembered it too, and I mentioned it to his wife, Jessica Helfand. "Oh, I think I have that somewhere," she said, and a few days later a simple four-page leaflet came in the mail.
It commemorated that much-remembered talk, one he had given on October 4, 1991, on the opening night of the AIGA National Design Conference in Chicago. It was part of a program organized by Chris Pullman called "Thirty Lectures in Thirty Minutes." Bill was one of the 30 speakers that night, and true to his reputation, gave a talk called "Everything I know about business in one minute." These are the ten things he said.Focusing on making a partnership work is more profitable than focusing on making money.Love your employees more than you love your clients. The best new business is your current business.Price projects by asking yourself what the client's lawyer would charge.It's better to be hired for your work than for your price. When it comes to getting paid, the first of the month is better than the thirtieth. Making money off mechanicals, printing and computers turns your business into a commodity. The books in your library are more important than the numbers on your balance sheet. In order to love your work, take vacations.Power, in business, comes from sharing money and valuing love.
Reading these over two decades later, I'm struck by the fact that the word "business" appears three times, but the word "love" appears four. It turned out that Bill wasn't
all those different people: the business guy, the poet, the theorist, the visionary. Bill had discovered the ultimate secret: how to be all those people at once
. His talk wasn't about business, it was about life. His favorite kind of secret was one that he could share with the rest of us. That is what he did that night so long ago, and that is what he did every day of his life. The life of William Drenttel will be celebrated by his family and friends in a memorial service this Saturday, March 1, at the School of Visual Arts in New York City.