10 YEARS DESIGNING – Paul’s Story
My parents always say that ‘10 years is nothing, it’ll fly’. When I started the business in 2001 I thought that in 10 years I’d be a millionaire and have a massive studio office with 10 people working for me. It seemed like a lifetime. But here I am celebrating 10 years in business this week (March 2011). I can’t believe it. I was naive and young (22) and full of hope and fearlessness in 2001. I said that I would give it a year and see how it goes. 10 Years later my family and friends throw me a surprise party in the office with champagne, balloons and a cake. So I thought I’d write a short piece about the past decade of my business life, and here it is.
I always loved art and drawing, in particular mechanical drawing. I really wanted to be an architect. While in college, I worked for the summer in Stockbyte for Jerry Kennelly. I loved it and continued there for another 2 years. He later sold the company for 135 million and split 5 million between his staff who had been with him from the start, damn why didn’t I stay! I learned an incredible amount there, more than I would have gotten in 5 years of college. I worked in every department, from scanning, colour management, pre-press production, film printing, chromalin proof making, image types, photography shoots, to producing the final products of royalty free images in all sizes, resolutions and formats for CD sales and web sales. I loved it there. I worked 12 hour days but it was worth it. Jerry kindly let me work on design projects like catalogues, internal brochures and advertising. I knew I wanted this to be my career but realised I needed to learn the ins and outs of the printing game. So I moved to a local printing company as senior graphic designer. I learned the printing trade inside out, from making plates, checking film, paper stocks, finishes to knowing about spot colour inks and CMYK processes. I also gained brilliant experience in dealing with customers and how to manage projects from start to finish.
I noticed that a lot of the larger businesses were bringing in artwork already designed and ready to print that they had gotten from graphic design houses. They were always the kind of projects that I would have loved to do, but didn’t get the opportunity to in the printers. Clients were seeing the value in getting expert design before going to a printer. This made me realise that’s what I wanted, to build a name for myself as a trusted graphic designer working directly with clients.
I went about trying to get 5 or 6 jobs to work on outside of my day job, and save the money until I had enough to open an office. There was no funding available unless I was buying machinery. But I didn’t need any so I had to find the money myself. So after about 6 months, I had enough money to buy an iMac (remember the capsule ones that looked like a portable TV in the bright colours, I had a green one), and a HP A3 colour printer. I found an empty office on the outskirts of town that had really low rent and put down the deposit and first few months rent. Obviously I painted it and got a couple of desks, but nothing major. And it all began from there.
With great support from friends and family, and while I was young and fearless, it was still a big step. It started as a partnership with a friend of mine who was also a singer in a band and had a second income. We were named Midpoint Design Consultancy. It felt easier at the time to share the risk with someone. They later could not dedicate enough time so I formed the company ‘Midpoint Design Ltd.’ And they became a part time employee. We called it Midpoint because we would be at the centre of each project, managing everything between the client and the printers. At the start we were too brazen whipper snappers who were lucky to get some nice contracts to work on. One of our first was the brand identity (logo we called it at the time) for the National Aquatic Centre in Abbottstown. This was a very big deal at the time give the whole ‘Bertie Bowl’ scenario, but we took no notice. We just thought it would get us some good publicity, which it did. A lot of people knew our name and work started to flow in nicely. We worked on Blossom Hill Catwalks (an event that toured Ireland twice a year that got good publicity), The Rose of Tralee festival in 2002 (all promotion advertising and web work), a number of Hotel Groups, PR and Marketing companies, property developers and auctioneers and were chosen above quite a few other national agencies to re-brand Radio Kerry.
We were also getting clients from Dublin, Galway and Limerick and saw that it didn’t really matter where we were based, as long as the work was good people were happy to work with us. With this in mind we opened an office in Ennis, Co. Clare in 2006 to attract a larger client base. The economy was booming, money was no object for anyone so we took the chance. This is where my brother Steven (the really artistic one) joined the company. He ran the Ennis office for about a year and I travelled between Tralee and there every second day. The business that we had expected to get there didn’t transpire as we had hoped, and it became apparent that I was spreading myself too thin. So we decided to accumulate the two offices and in 2008, we moved into a big swanky glass studio, the one I always dreamt about. Steven moved to Tralee and we were able to offer a better service as a team than two separate entities. We had 3 other people working for us and were expanding well. Work was plentiful and banks were generous. We developed into an Advertising agency, which included creative, media buying and management, as well as day to day design work. Soon after, the country and the world changed!
We found that we couldn’t compete with the city agencies’ buying power and found it very tough to win that kind of business. On top of that, suppliers began to panic, as did most businesses, and were demanding money quicker. The banks were also getting tighter on credit and were about as helpful as a chocolate tea pot. We had no alternative but to let three members of the team go, and had to struggle for quite some time afterwards to pay off all our suppliers at the same time as winning new business and getting through the workload, just the two of us. Personally, I felt a sense of failure. I kept thinking I could have done more, or I did something wrong, and I also felt very responsible for the people I had let go. It was Steven who, with a lot of brotherly arguments and lively debates, made me realise that it was the world that was falling apart, not me. He really helped me to focus on what we were good at. For years, I had tried to impress everyone and be like the big flashy agencies I always dreamt of having. He made me more confident in myself and my abilities with advice like “you are a brilliant designer, trust in that” and “don’t try to please anyone only yourself, be happy in your own skin and do what you know is best for yourself”. He also taught me that “you don’t have to be different, just good”.
We battled through the hard times, cutting back on everything we could and had to move from the office as the rent was too high. But coming out the other end of it now, it has, in a strange way, made us realise what we are good at and what is important. Brand Identity and the whole are of Branding is now our passion and clear business focus. We have our way of going about it and it works for us, and our clients. We are not trying to be anything we are not, just to do our very best every day. The graphic design industry has changed massively since I started up in 2001. Then, there were only a few graphic design businesses in the area. Recently, however, there have been many of them. A lot of them have come along and are no longer here, and I believe the fact that we still are here is testament to our work and our relationships with our clients.
Graphic design is also being widely offered in various types of businesses as a ‘free service’, which in my opinion is stripping away the value. People only see it as a way of making things look pretty. What we really do is solve problems. We help clients in selling themselves and making their businesses work, and this is a responsibility we take very seriously. Anyone with photoshop can call themselves a graphic designer and, while some of them might be very good, a lot are not and it is damaging the clients business and the design industry.
I don’t proclaim to be an expert or anything, far from it, but I do feel that we have something good to offer. I’ve picked up an award or two over the years, and of course the Cadbury/Apprentice Dairy Milk wrapper design competition was a great boost for confidence. Seeing them on shelves wherever I travelled gave me a great kick. I was also privileged to be brought by a client to Orlando in January 2010 to oversee the branding and social media aspects of their Guinness World Record attempt at the PGA show, which they achieved. I was proud to be part of it.
It is the positive things like these that make me keep doing what I am doing. When something goes well, it is incredibly satisfying knowing that you did it yourself, not for someone else. The pressures and down times are also worse than if you were working for someone else, but the positives outweigh them ten fold. We are currently working on some really exciting branding projects and love what we are doing. Keep an eye out for these which we will post about when they are completed. My 20 year celebratory piece will be written from my private villa in Villamoura overlooking the sunset, where I will work from for 3 months of the year. It can happen.