Denny Royal is overseeing MentorMate's global-design team in the new role of vice president of design at the custom software firm with headquarters in Minneapolis and offices in Bulgaria and Sweden.

Royal is helping to lead MentorMate's continuing push to broaden its distributed design and user-experience (UX) services to meet growing demand and pursue larger projects and clients.

"MentorMate saw an opportunity to expand in that space and grow their capability, which is why I'm here, helping them play further upstream and compete with bigger players," Royal said.

Royal, who has 25 years of experience as a creative executive, had been a principal at Azul Seven in Minneapolis.

For the past year he was vice president of design at engagedIN, a Silicon Valley firm that operates remotely. That prepared Royal for MentorMate's offshore model, with design and UX teams in the United States and Bulgaria, where most of the company's 550 employees work.

"It involves a lot of travel," said Royal, who this month was to make his first trip to Bulgaria since joining MentorMate in September.

"It will involve travel for the team members as well. The thinking is when there is deep work that has to be done someone's going from one side of the pond to the other."

The model, Royal said, enables MentorMate to hire stronger talent while offering clients better value.

Royal's credentials include a master's of science degree in biomimicry, an approach to innovation that looks to nature for sustainable design and other solutions.

He's considering how to apply biomimicry to MentorMate's design and UX work and to structuring and managing the design team as it grows.

Q: What are your goals for 2020?

A: Get the team and the vision established so they know where we're headed and understand where I'm coming from.

We're working on playing up and positioning differently in the pitches and engagements that we're in. There's also a rush to get me in front of our larger existing clients to see where they could use design help.

Q: What is design's role now at MentorMate?

A: I see design as in service to the entire organization. If we make everybody else's lives better and easier, then we're doing our jobs. I see every design team as a design project as well. It will iterate as we scale. Being comfortable with that ambiguous space and being able to continue to change according to what the market forces are dictating is important.

Q: How does that help clients?

A: The engagements definitely become more strategic. I'm interested in working with companies who understand the strategic value of design and see that as a competitive edge.

If you're doing the design thinking work and you're close to your users and your customers that is a strategic advantage. It's been proven over and over that the companies that focus on that have better returns.

Q: Were you looking for an opportunity that involved working remotely?

A: It was a coincidence. But I am kind of a nerd with studying what I think the future of work is. The tools are finally there for us to do this kind of work anywhere. Last year I worked remotely from Crested Butte [Colo.] for a few weeks during ski season. Having that ability to do everything that I need to do but from anywhere is pretty awesome.

Todd Nelson is a freelance writer in Lake Elmo. His e-mail is