Founded in 2004 with $14 and a dream, Imagine is an integrated marketing, branding and design firm that combines Northern Virginia’s flair for innovation with Chicago’s warm personality and West Coast creativity. We’re an industry-leading group of problem solvers that believe that marketing can’t truly be effective unless it’s integrated, and handled by dedicated experts in each field.
In a lot of professions, you can almost predict the level of enthusiasm that is taken towards one’s job. For instance, if you pull up to your local drive-thru window, and ask the individual with the headset if they felt born to have that job, you may get some colorful language. You may get an airborne milkshake. You probably won’t get an enthusiastic affirmation. The work is for pure necessity; not a lot of passion, if any at all. It pays the bills and they save their quest for fulfillment for their free time.
Something I have found fascinating about graphic design is that it carries a breed that is rarely found in any other industry. Please keep an eye out for these people, particularly if you’re looking to hire one. They are the designer that, in high school, had doodles on almost every flat surface they owned. They made decent grades in art class, but loved it far too much to care about the grade. Nowadays, they will annoy you to tears about the fonts they see in public, and will debate with seemingly unnecessary fervor on whether Paul Rand or Saul Bass made a greater contribution to the trade. Their favorite color is a number. They are the designers you want to have developing your image, because they will put everything they have into it. They will forego sleep, solid food and social interaction to ensure you are glad you chose them. The strangest part of it all is that it’s not work ethic; it’s passion for the art.
If you work with a designer like the one I have mentioned, you are strongly advised to keep them. They may not be incredibly business-savvy. They may run late to meetings. They may use designer-speak far too often, but I’m sure that they can’t help it sometimes. It just happens.
You get the point. If you have a relationship with one of those far-out, artsy-fartsy, backstock-of-midnight-oil gluttons for punishment, hold on to them. I highly recommend it.
Okay, so you’re in the market for a graphic designer to help out with your business. And by the look of things, you obviously have an internet connection with a myriad of options and related costs, making it tempting to go with the quick and cheap. But wait; there are a couple things you need to know before you venture into the nebulous design industry. There are a few misconceptions to clear up first.
“I can have my brother-in-law’s plumber’s niece’s baby daddy do my logo. He’ll do it for $50.” At first, this is a very tempting offer. But let’s put it into perspective. If you want to get your car painted, do you A: go to a professional shop where the people there do it every day, or B: clear out Wal-Mart’s inventory of spray paint and make a weekend of it? Exactly.
“There are websites that sell logos for $79. A logo can’t be worth much more than that.” Any logo you get from the internet will do very little to represent the individuality of your company. It will, however, look a lot like everyone else’s logo, so, if you’re a lawyer, expect to have scales in your logo. If you’re a carpenter, expect a hammer. A perfect example of an ambiguous (and, in this case, inappropriate) logo can be found here. If the time isn’t taken to learn about who you are, there will be no you in the logo. And I tend to place that at the bottom of things I would like to have happen to me, right with being hit by a bus or set on fire.
“I could just do it myself. A professional logo isn’t important in my line of work.” This is a popular one. If professionalism isn’t a requirement in your business, then I agree – you don’t need to look professional. Considering that those industries are very limited; if your company only manufactures after-market passenger-side door handles for 1980 Monte Carlos, a logo won’t necessarily offer measureable growth. Chances are, however, that you have competition and they are looking for an advantage over your business. You should probably do the same.
The number one reason for avoiding a graphic designer to create your logo is always cost. True, it is an investment, but let’s put it into perspective. Think of the attraction that potential clients will have to that image, and the advantage you will have on your competition and their less-than-appealing image. That’s where it hits your bottom line. A professional job will make a difference that you can notice, as every successful business you can think of knows. A poorly designed logo will make a difference too, but that’s not the type of direction we want to go, is it?
On my way to the office this morning, I noticed that the amount of fuel in my tank would probably leave me stranded short of my destination, which warranted my immediate attention and a nearby fuel pump. While waiting in line to pay at the station, I glanced at the magazines resting by the register. Expectedly overwhelmed by the number of Michael Jacksons staring back at me, I was relieved that every news outlet has been broadcasting this event non-stop . Had I just recovered from a month-long coma, this would be news.
My eyes quickly rested on this week’s copy of Newsweek, which boldly proclaims that “The Recession Is Over!”. My immediate reaction, “It’s about time”, was accidentally spoken out loud. This won me some strange looks from the cashier and customers in front of me.
This thought stuck with me for the rest of my commute. After thousands of businesses tasted bankruptcy this year, and thousands more shut their doors, I can only pray that there were lessons pulled from this experience. I picked up a few.
1. Always compete. This is the most important, yet least profound, point of the bunch. Circuit City and Linens N’ Things crumbled because they became option #2 in their consumers’ eyes and did little to set themselves ahead. Even before things got tough, those and many other companies grew complacent and lost their edge. Now they’re gone, far far away, right there with Elvis and the Dodo.
2. If your business doesn’t immediately address a need, create that need. A great example of this is Apple, who just recorded their best non-holiday quarter in company history. Now, let’s think about that for a minute. Apple doesn’t sell a single computer for less than $1800. However, by creating the illusion of necessary convenience in their latest iPhone apps, the recession did little to slow them down.
3. As with turtles, if you stay in your shell for too long, you will die. When you’re starting to have a hard time with getting and retaining business, your first course of action should not be to eliminate your communication with your clients. When you close that communication, rest assured that your clients will do the same. Your marketing and client outreach has to keep going, especially when the competition is in hiding and advertising costs are low. It comes down to overcoming fear and pressing forward.
By no means do I want this to come across like I’m an expert at running a business. I admit, I was tempted to surf the classifieds for a while because, frankly, I didn’t know if my efforts would pay off or whether or not ImagineDesign would make it through. Fortunately, according to Newsweek, it did. Business is now picking up as I hope it is with everyone. My greatest hope now is that we remember the mistakes that led to the past year so we don’t have to go through that again.
To anyone just coming across this blog, Part One was written a couple months back, over here.
So, fast forward to about 1997. I had originally decided to spend the year after high school getting my head straight and ready for college. Instead, I woke up one morning in an apartment with a pregnant wife, a 1980 Chevette and more questions about my direction in life than I did at graduation. No time for me to worry about them, though. I had an 80-hour work week as a pizza delivery driver. It’s funny how the real world can punch you in the face…
I had taken every opportunity to polish my design skills up to this point, taking any gig – paying or not – to grow as a designer. In Chesapeake, Virginia and its blue-collar workforce, there was no way I was going to make it as a graphic designer in my situation. So, when you have to work 12 hours a day to keep food on the table, and no time to be picky about where the money comes from, passions tend to take a back burner. I turned to designing out of pure enjoyment, developing mock logos and posters on my downtime. For the next couple years, and what seemed to be the foreseeable future, I had to worry about making a buck with a 20 year-old subcompact and learning how to be a father.
Eventually, after learning how to re-build a car multiple times over, the Chevette finally tapped out. Now without remotely reliable transportation, the only logical path that I could see with still limited resources was management. Sometimes, I think back to those long summer days of delivering pizzas in a car with no air-conditioning, no power steering, no power brakes and an exhaust leak, and I wonder how I made it out alive.
I would end up managing pizza joints at a higher pay and slightly less hours, which enabled me to get serious about my design passion again. I would stick with this glamorous profession for the next four years, through a divorce, as much college as I could possible attend, and a million other stories that I will kindly spare you from until I publish them, until I had reached my boiling point in 2004. I was within spitting distance of thirty and still had no idea where I was going. I only knew that my passions were fatherhood, music and design, and I’m not pretty enough to launch a music career. On a phone call with my brother while closing down a Domino’s one night, he gave me a piece of simple, yet poignant advice that I will never forget: “If you want to make something out of your design work, go where the clients are”.
I saved up my pennies and, on June 1, 2004, I packed up my belongings into a U-Haul and set out for Washington, DC. I had a room at my brother’s apartment and that was it. I had no job, no money and knew hardly anyone, let alone potential clients. I ended up taking a surreal job at BWI airport as a staffing coordinator for 10 new restaurants, which was a pretty intense job, but hey, I’m the master of long hours, right? After about a month of 24-26 hour shifts, I quit. I got in my ’94 Explorer and went home. On that trip home, I decided that, if I was going to “make something out of my design work”, I was going to have to get serious, which meant taking some risks…
A week or so ago, I wrote a bit about Bing and its lousy attempt to de-throne Google. A few people didn’t agree that Microsoft had brought a Super Soaker to a gunfight. Okay, not quite a few. There was one and he worked for Microsoft. Nonetheless, there were a number of passionate defenses for Google; strong opinions about something that should weigh as heavily on someone’s mind as which socks to wear.
1. Know your limitations, and know that your consumer controls those limitations. Google doesn’t offer anti-virus. Not necessarily because it would do a lousy job, or that it wouldn’t be profitable, but because they understand that their limitations are set by their consumer’s expectations. They know what they’re good at and they realize that not every risk is a good idea. The first time you present a service to the public and it sucks, you may get a mulligan. The next time, your market will be less forgiving.
2. Avoid “kitchen-sinking”. This is a phrase that I came up with about 19 seconds ago and I’m sure has been used before. Don’t fluff up your offering with unnecessary bells and whistles to justify a cost increase. I have bought MS Office more times than I care to remember and I still don’t know what Clip Organizer is good for. I only know I had to pay for it.
3. Don’t raise your prices any more than you need to. It sounds rudimentary, but think about how many companies raise their prices simply to expand their profit margin. That’s just greedy. Always make sure that the value of your offering is readily apparent. I use Google Analytics to measure traffic to my website, which provides a wealth of detailed information that helps me grow my business. Oh, and it’s free.
4. Bad news for control freaks: you may have less control than you think. I don’t care who you are, a Fortune 100 CEO or a consultant working in your pajamas. Never forget that your business depends on, and is therefore extinct without, your partners and customers. They will determine how successful your business is. They will determine the value of your brand and whether or not you have a job next month. Heavy customer interaction and free services have contributed to Google’s image of a transparent, forward-thinking team of people that are passionate about what they do, instead of an organization bent on world domination, even if it is their mission…
My drive to work today found me taking a bit of introspective inventory. Odd, since I usually have a hard time focusing on the road in front of me that early. Having worked every shift imaginable in the course funding my freelance career, none were more challenging than waking up at 7AM. This self-evaluation began when a radio announcer restated this old adage. Maybe it’s Confucius (or maybe I’m full of it) that says, “do what you love, and you’ll never have to work a day of your life”. I may have heard it before, but this morning it had a particular resonance.
I have always looked at my entrepreneurship as a bit of an anomaly; I was the last person that I would expect to start a business, let alone be successful at it. So, why do I love my job the way I do? Attention to the rest of the day gave me my answer.
8:30 AM: I’m in the office. My eyes are tired as I try to read my emails via telepathy so that I can keep my eyes closed. My mass of emails are downloading at a snail’s pace. Realizing that telepathy isn’t going to work, I notice an email from a client about a rush job that must be done by lunchtime. Unsure of whether I will have to shoot Red Bull into my arm to even dream of having it done in time, I take the job. The files make their way over and the client is now at ease, which I just love to see happen for people.
10:12 AM: I get a phone call from a woman in DC that found our site online. She says that she wants a simple website and has a very limited budget. “Well, you called the right place”, I announce with false bravado. A quick chuckle and she goes into what she wants.
Please note: a duplicate of Time.com, to mere mortal designers like myself, is seldom considered “simple”. Particularly when the limited budget is a couple hundred dollars. I suggest that she start smaller, perhaps with a micro-site to build interest, and then go for the bells and whistles when budget permits. The job may need to be done off-peak to recoup some hours, but it will keep her dreams moving forward, which I just love to see happen for people.
11:43 AM: I’m wrapping up the rush job when the phone rings. It’s a printer that I use pretty often. He asks if I could do a mail merge to a postcard in InDesign CS3. I will translate: he’s using an older version of the software and just can’t get it to work. Realizing that, not only will I be giving up my shot at a quiet lunch today, but this will also not help my bottom line…
12:24 PM: I finish up the mail merge for the printer and he’s off and running, happy as a lark, which I just love to see happen for people.
3:13 PM: Though knee-deep in a brochure project that needs to be out by the end of the day, my designer gets a call from her fiance. He’s on the side of the highway, out of gas, as clouds roll in. I hear the call and rush my designer out, while taking on her project. I may be getting out a little later than I thought, but it made someone else’s burden a bit easier to bear, which I just love to see happen for people.
7:12 PM: I’m locking the office up. Walking through the alley to the parking lot, I pause. I realize why I love what I do: because I can help make things just a little better for a lot of people. Sure, I love design and the ability to create, but if it was just that, I would shoot for a job at a huge firm. I would soak up an obscene salary and produce only work that would get me awards. No, I love my job because of those around me – the clients, the partners, the team – that has their problems solved, which I just love to see happen for people.
Over the weekend, I saw a request for an interview for an upcoming book. Not being one who turns down an opportunity to run my mouth, I jumped at the opportunity. The interview, conducted by Daintry Springer of Black Sharp & Company, was a lot of fun and some great questions were asked. To that end, I decided to post it. Enjoy!
1. Did you quit your job or get fired and then start ImagineDesign?
It depends on who you ask. Although my wife insists that my quitting was unprovoked, it was really the result of an ultimatum. Admittedly, I was slacking off from my day job as the number of clients and subsequent workload grew, so part of me saw it coming. One morning, I made it into the office about 30 minutes late, only to find my supervisor at my desk waiting for me. She told me, under no uncertain terms, that if I chose to continue this venture of mine, I would have to consider that day my last.
I distinctly remember walking down H Street in NW DC that afternoon, with my possessions in hand and a smile on my face, wondering what the hell I had just done.
2. Why did you choose to start ImagineDesign?
I spent my life, up to that point, hoping that an opportunity would come my way. I kept my eyes open and my commitments few, in hopes that my destiny would come and sweep me away. After running out of patience, and reflecting on what a stupid idea that was, I decided to go and make my own opportunity. I started out with no money, no credit, no business experience, no partners, no clue how I was going to build this idea in my head. I think I had $14 in the bank on the day I left my full-time job. Seriously, it was not a bright idea. Whenever I’m asked what it takes to start a business, the first thing out of my mouth is “a patient spouse”.
3. What do you most need in terms of business support?
I run a graphic design firm. With that said, it should be painfully obvious that, being the creative type, I know nothing about how to manage finances. I had to do it myself for the first few years and screwed it up, no matter how precise or organized I tried to be. The first person I hired was an office administrator. She takes care of my schedule, books, legal obligations, etc. It was probably the biggest single leap this company made so far.
4. What motivates you every day to work for yourself?
I’m not sure. Stubbornness? An insatiable curiosity to see exactly how far I can go? Or an all-too-clear reality of what my options really are? It could be all of those things, but I know one thing for sure: whatever pushed me to work 70 hours a week for the past five years isn’t slowing down!
5. What is the best tip you could share with people starting their own businesses?
In addition to the aforementioned spousal requirement, I urge those starting out to prepare for entrepreneurship with the same sober importance as adopting a child. When you’re in it, you’re in it. Allow yourself no excuses, no exceptions, no vacations and no alternatives.
6. Did you write a business plan?
I read somewhere, as I’m sure we all do, that the first thing you should do when starting a business is to write a business plan. I took that advice very seriously, and started on my masterpiece: a 34-page document that clearly outlines that I had no idea what I was talking about. I still have it and read it on occasion when I feel like I’m taking myself too seriously.
Honestly, I see the need for one, but running a business by the seat of my pants was far more exciting than doing things the right way, so I went without one until I was convinced to develop a barebones plan two years ago.
7. Who are your business mentors?
Really, there are too many to mention, and they’re not just business associates. My wife has an uncanny business sense, my daughter has a way of seeing through complex, trapezoidal issues with her unique perspective – or naiveté – whichever you choose to call it. I think that every relative, friend, client and colleague I’ve had has left an indelible mark on my career, and I hope that, one day, I’ll be able to pay it forward.
8. Where do you work from?
ImagineDesign started out as a desk in a second bedroom. From there I added a table and a bookcase and kept it that way for a few years. When business got to be too much for me to handle and I needed to hire a design staff, I shared office space with a friend of mine for a year. Two months ago, I signed a lease for a much bigger space in an office building and plan to stay here. I have a lot more furniture than a desk, table and bookcase now, and will not move unless I absolutely have to.
Or unless I need a bigger space. Then I may be tempted.
As much as I don’t like to harp on the poor global economy, and as much as I would like to think that it doesn’t apply to me, I can’t be oblivious to it. And as bleak as we’re led to believe that our situation is, I can’t be completely negative about it, either. Even in the most difficult of times, there is always a way to make yourself stand out- you just need to find it. A lot of the most talented and experienced professionals are now finding themselves without employment. There are now roughly five applicants per full-time position in most fields. Sounds tragic, so I wonder, what these applicants are doing to set themselves apart?
When I moved to Washington, DC, I was a freelance graphic designer with little to separate me from all the other Craigslist postings. My design skills weren’t enough to set me apart. I had no clients, no money, and no idea of how I was going to get either before I had to resort to eating my pillows to stay alive. I had plenty of lemons, but no recipe for lemonade.
Then one afternoon, I was driving to the local Chamber of Commerce to try and drum up the least bit of interest and it hit me. I can’t just be in the business of selling design. I have to be in the business of selling me. It sounds simple enough, but I wasn’t really doing it. I had to figure out what traits of mine that people could identify with since it’s a lot easier to relate to a person than a portfolio. My conversation in the Chamber of Commerce that day wasn’t centered around the graphic designer. It introduced Patrick, the guy that loves to get involved in the community; the guy with a ton of funny stories, a business with decent work, a penchant for collecting Hanukkah paraphernalia, and a guy that had seemingly infinite free time. I ended up doing a lot more work with that organization than if I had bored them to sleep that day with a bunch of design talk.
I carried that to all of my other appointments over the next five years, and aside from being far more effective, it was a lot more fun as the brand of ImagineDesign and my personality became one and the same. I learned a number of ways to use personal branding to build a business, and that it’s not just for celebrities and politicians.
I can also happily report that my pillows weren’t devoured in the process.
Recently, I had a lunch with a lifelong graphic designer that was about twice my age. Somehow, as it always seems to, my background became the subject of conversation.
I tend to breeze through my design experience in fifty words or less, but in this instance, I gave it a bit more time. Maybe it’s because I had a bit more time to fill, considering the wealth of experience across the table. Maybe it was the coffee. At any rate, what I said to him seemed to make a serious impact. As a result, I decided to sit down and type it out in the event that someone else may enjoy it.
About two hundred years ago, back in July of 1986, I was in Ohio for my family reunion. Every time I go to our family reunion, which has been twice, we would stay with my uncle, Bill Jones, and his wife Sandy. The Joneses were an incredible anomaly, in that they could perpetuate a great mood – no matter the circumstances – even with a house full of guests (when I say ‘full’, I mean 15-20 guests).
To give some background, I had a propensity for trouble as a child. As a result, I spent a lot of time in my bedroom, coloring in my coloring books. But as long as I had my coloring books, I almost felt like I wasn’t punished.
Unfortunately, the ratio of punishment to coloring books was not working in my favor, and I had a lot more time to spend in my room. That’s when I grabbed a pencil and notebook and starting to make my own. My family noticed that there was some talent in what I was sketching, which brings my story back to Ohio and the reunion.
My brother and I , then 10 and 9, respectively, were running through the house, jumping on furniture, when I kicked over their umbrella stand and sent a loud ‘”CRASH” throughout the house. As loud as we were, we were no match for the large tin can slapping the brick foyer. In its wake, I saw the first and only time that Bill showed a lack of patience. Not mad, just impatient.
“So, you can draw, huh?”, he asked with curiosity and, perhaps, an effort to move past the incident. I nodded and he crouched down to my level.
“You know, I’d like for you to draw me a logo”.
“Sure,” I answered, “what’s that?”
Bill led me to the kitchen where I sat at the dining room table. He stood by the kitchen counter and, once he had my full attention, he continued by pulling a box of Fruity Pebbles out of the cabinet. Pointing to the Post trademark, he asked, “Ya see this?”
I nodded and he explained. “This is a logo, along with the Nabisco on those crackers, and the Dawn on the dish soap. A logo is just a pretty form of a word that makes you think good of a company”. It seemed simple enough, so with little more explanation, I was ready to go.
My art supplies consisted of a spiral bound notebook and four colored pencils, black, red, brown and green. The black pencil broke immediately.
I spent about two hours just coming up with ways to make “Jones Realty” catchy and fun. After six or seven ideas, I settled on one logo, tore my page out and walked out to the backyard, where the adults had migrated in the early evening. I got Bill’s attention and we walked back inside the house; he to check out my work, and me to present what has adorned his letterhead for over twenty years.
So that’s how it started. From that point on, I would spend countless weekends and evenings through my early teens, drawing ideas for the entrepreneurs in the family: my uncle that ran the family Feed & Seed store would want signs, his music promoter brother would want posters, VHS sleeves, business cards, as would assorted relatives and their friends.
Today, I had the rare opportunity to witness one of the most unethical practices one could commit in the graphic design field.
Two weeks ago, we moved offices to bigger space. Upon moving, I noticed the sign on the office next door read “Website Services” among a myriad services, including surveillance cameras and other random things. I thought nothing of it, besides, there are far more websites to be worked on than what my firm can handle.
Last week, one of my designers was invited into their office and engaged in the expected “small talk”. The subject of logo design came up and the owner mentioned that they, too, provide logo design. Their methodology was, at the least, amazing.
Step 1: Do an industry search on Google Images. Find a suitable logo that symbolizes your client.
Step 2: Download and import it into your preferred design software.
Step 3: re-color the logo and remove the name.
Step 4: Replace the name in similar type, save, and deliver to the client.
I tested this process with our logo and it only took about 4 minutes to complete. See below.
This means that they could, in theory, generate $1,485 an hour for their masterful thievery. Should you ever decide to get a logo designed or, really any visual representation of your company, please remember that you get what you pay for.