LA Design Festival: A peek into Gnomon School and Luma Pictures

Published:  September 9, 2016

Kristin McCourtie shares her thoughts and experience at the Los Angeles Design Festival.

A relatively new edition of the City Design Festival model, Los Angeles Design Festival curates a program that tries to bring together the diversity of the creative class of LA. No mean feat.

If you want something in this town you got to to really want it. It is hard to get shit done and there are a lot of people trying to do it too. Those who flourish go hard! But the stakes are high and the opportunities immense. Los Angeles is known for making it big first in oil and then in movies but in fact it has been an industrial powerhouse since the 50’s and design has been integral to its evolution and adaptability.

Architects and designers such as Frank Lloyd Wright, Frank Gehry and the Eames brothers, secured Los Angeles as a leader in modernist architecture. The city became known for its design in massive civil infrastructure with experiments such as concreting the Los Angeles River, now recognised as a failure and in the throws of being reversed because of its negative impact on the water aquifer and subsequently water supply and pollution of the Bay. Other solutions to major environmental issues such as air pollution with smog free days have long been high on the agenda of city design projects.

Haily Zaki and her team at Los Angeles Design Week are committed to making sure that the world knows that LA is indeed a global power-house for design. Ranging from parties, to talks, markets and open showrooms, architectural tours and workshops, the program is curated in districts across this sprawling city.   I saw only a little of what the program had to offer but each was inspiring.

A talk at the Herman Miller Show room in Culver City introduced me to Maria Giudice and her co-authored book the The Rise of the DEO, Leadership by Design.

“Vision without execution is hallucination,” quoting Thomas Edison this pragmatic women is fired with passion and enthusiasm. There is no time for negativity here.  “Stop whining about how business doesn’t understand us as designers, learn their language” she demands.

Maria applies her own mantra to the struggles of being a woman at executive level. She explains how if design is difference then she was in a good position. She simply decided to embrace her difference and leverage the uniqueness that gave her. She talks lots about her children.

There is no separation between the private and the public for Maria and it hasn’t hindered her rise in an era where there is a lot of interest in design driven leadership and its possibilities for changing corporate culture to be more responsive, adaptable and hold customer engagement. “Most full time workers will be at work for more 90,000 hours of their life and thus leadership is the biggest people-side issue in organisations,” she writes.

“DEOs attract and coalesce stakeholders who share their vision, goals and values. They build corporate cultures that mature and retain talented employees. They lead teams who learn from one another and collaborate easily and effectively. With these traits, they create resilient organisations that value expertise but make room for failure – organisations able to iterate and evolve with the changes taking place all around them.” 

A visit to Luma Pictures in Santa Monica with Alex Cancado, who participated in our Melbourne Gnomon Live Australia event and to the Luma panel discussion at the Gnomon School of VFX in Hollywood allowed me to better understand Luma’s rising success, with credits on some of Hollywood’s most recent blockbusters.


With bases in both LA and Melbourne, they are an innovative studio that has a culture much akin to that described by Maria. Their founder Payam Shohadai believes that company culture is key and the company invests in it.  It is more efficient and cost effective to have a team who carry through to ongoing projects than to have a revolving staff is his theory. They have designed pipelines that allow them to maximise time zones and so can have teams working 17 hours a day six days a week without individuals having to do massive overtime. Their VP and Visual Effects Supervisor, Vince Cirelli, too a modern leader, arguably a DEO, introduces his young aspiring audience at the Gnomon School talk to the idea that effective leadership is not the king on the top the mountain but rather the mountain is inversed and the leader is servant to the people. Be a generalist, before you specialise if you want to rise to supervision roles so you are in a position to make quick decisions and will know what your individual team members struggle with and then you can support them to excel, he explained. His passion was motivating.

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Gnomon School itself where the talk was hosted is also an immersive and experiential learning environment committed to community development in its industry sector. We have had a taste of this through the Gnomon Live Australia program we presented in Melbourne in March. It is designed to simulate working studios, with tutors who are practicing artists coming in from major film and games studios throughout the city and beyond.


The classrooms are interspersed with reading rooms, lounges and outdoor courtyards housed in an old television lot in Hollywood. The environment is designed to be supportive of the long hours required for success in this industry. Weekly free events bring students, not only from Gnomon, freelancers and established artists together to share and support the evolution of their rapidly changing industry. As a result they have a 94% placement rate and a 85% completion rate.

It is fairly unheard of.

Kristin McCourtie is managing director of Design Foundation. Watch this space for more from her experience in LA.

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