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.
Creative folks are an interesting breed, and I know when we show up at meetings without a tie (or pants), it can raise some questions. I also know that asking about these things can seem as appropriate as handing out tequila shots at a funeral. So, I’ve created a little cheat sheet for when you’re left wondering why your designer insists on boring you with unintelligible font names. Go ahead and print it out, and keep a copy in your pocket. You’re welcome.
1. Ties are for weddings and court dates. Creative people need to be comfortable to be effective. It’s not an excuse – just because we work in an office doesn’t mean we adopted the dress code. Just know that the majority of us bathe regularly.
2. We have our own language. Finding two designers in the wild is a wonderful experience, as you’re able to witness these native communication techniques, complete with wildly gesticulating body language and words like “kerned” and “knocked out”. You’re always invited to ask for translations; it’ll make you a better marketer.
3. Money doesn’t get us out of bed in the morning. That doesn’t mean that we’ll work for free – we know what we’re worth. It does mean, however, that our passion is in the process, not its street value. The chance to create is what matters most; the money just allows us to live our dream.
4. We are our own worst critic. If left to our own devices, projects would go on forever, much like it does with anything that you put your soul into. Although we’re conditioned to detach ourselves from our work in times of client review and critique, we are never able to silence the perfectionists in our heads. We truly are our own worst critic and our own worst client.
5. If we’re not creating, we’re dying. The creative process is addictive, particularly when the result is lucrative enough to sustain us, so it often pours over into a ton of creative ventures outside of work. I myself play 6 instruments and am trying to learn homebrewing. Making something out of nothing is a high, and without it, we quickly lose ambition and purpose.
I know it’s a short list, so please hit me with your comments!
Anyone that has read this blog for long knows that I’m not a morning person; I’m typically worthless until about 10 AM. So, with that as our backdrop, let me take you on my drive to work this morning.I stop at a convenience store on the way to the office. As I turn into the parking lot, I take notice of this large, white panel van in the space next to mine. Something is strange about the logo plastered on its side, but I can’t place it right away. Maybe it’s the coconut-covered, zombie-chef Snuggle Bear they used as a mascot? No, that’s not it. It’s not a bad design job, so what could it be?
I let the question bounce around in my cavernous mind while I saunter to the coffee island. Then, during my blank stare into the non-dairy creamers, it hits me. That logo, roughly 30 square feet of vinyl plastered on the side of that truck, represents a company named “Bimbo”. Now I’m not sure where you’re reading this from, but in my neck of the woods, a “bimbo” is a word commonly used to describe a terribly vaccuous woman. Personally, I think that stupidity is blind to gender. It took me a long time to realize what I had read, which made me feel like a bit of, well, you guessed it.
I head out, with coffee in hand, and take another look at the side of the truck. The driver takes notice and we briefly make eye contact. Nervous, I point at the side and the truck and giggle “heh, Bimbo.” Feeling a lot like Beavis & Butthead, I quietly get into my car and take off.
Back at the office, I look the company up and see that it’s a pretty big deal. Bimbo Bakeries, USA is the largest baker is the US and parent company of Boboli, Entenmann’s, Thomas’ English Muffins and a number of other successful brands. This leaves me to wonder how a name like that has slipped under the radar of our collective consciousness, or am I really that immature at 8:30 AM?
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 the Fourth of July, I took my daughter to a park to meet with some friends, which was conveniently located in the center of nowhere. It took two hours, half of a tank of gas, and three stops to ask for directions to find this place that was 25 miles from my house. When we finally got there, my daughter met up with her friends and I chose to walk around the park. I ended up sitting on top of a wooden fence, watching young kids run into each other with lit sparklers. There was something about watching those kids running around in circles, with recklessness on the brink of serious injury, which took me back to a simpler time. As the grown-up fireworks began, I saw a number of large explosions on the ground resulting from rockets not able to take off. The recklessness doesn’t seem to go away; we just get bigger toys.
The following Monday morning was typically hectic, and I had to start my day at 100 miles an hour. I had a half-dozen clients to call, projects to organize, and two proposals to write. In writing my second proposal, I noticed that I left the client’s business card in my car. I rush out to get it and, halfway back to the building, I froze.
Maybe the Fourth of July brought it on, but I had this flashback of a time long gone; when there were no missed calls, no real world pressures or anywhere I had to be. It felt absolutely liberating, if only for a moment. After the proposal was sent out, I scheduled myself a lunch. It was the first lunch I had taken for myself in a long time; one without sitting at my desk or meeting with a client. Instead, I sat under a tree in a field across the street and had my lunch. For that hour, I didn’t think about my next meeting, my next oil change, my next anything. I lay back on the grass and, staring at the sky through the leaves, was transported to a time when doing so was the only appointment I had on my calendar. I took some time to live in that moment and came back to the office more energized than I had been for a long time.
Lately, I guess, we’re all under a bit of pressure, and rightfully so - trying to stay afloat in our careers, our finances, our families. These are all things that are important to us and are often hard to maintain. However, it feels pretty good to just stop and put it all aside, if only for a few minutes. You seem to come back to it with a better perspective and sense of control, seeing that maybe things are not as tough as you thought. It’s been said that you should never have lunch alone, meaning that lunch is a great opportunity to meet new people. Maybe, on occasion, it’s good not to. Sometimes, we need to get re-acquainted with ourselves.
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…
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.