Joe Duffy: It’s All About the Work

The year was 1984 when Duffy Design launched, as founder Joe Duffy joined forces with ad agency Fallon, McElligott & Rice, now known as Fallon Worldwide. “They were the hottest creative boutique advertising [agency] in the world,” Duffy says. The partnership represented something more than simply a joining of creative minds. It pioneered the collaboration of branding and design with advertising. “This was really revolutionary at the time,” Duffy says, who began his career as an illustrator and later worked in advertising. At the time of this launch, he wanted to get back to his illustration and graphic design roots.

Joe Duffy 2014Thirty years later, “Duffy” is a name almost every designer knows whether it be the Minneapolis-based firm or its founder, Joe Duffy, who was recognized as an AIGA medalist in 2004. That same year, he launched Duffy Design under its current namesake as Duffy & Partners—an independent creative company that partners with clients and agencies in all disciplines.

As Duffy & Partners celebrates 30 years in the design business, we caught up with founder Joe Duffy to glean some of his tips for success for building a mega-hit firm—and career, for that matter.

“Good clients continually go to people who do good work.” 

— Joe Duffy

1. It’s all about the work. In looking back on creating a name for himself and his business throughout the years, this theme sits at the backbone of everything Duffy does—whether he’s looking to hire fresh talent or simply setting forth a guiding philosophy for Duffy & Partners. “It is all about the work and the work gives you [the base] to attract other clients who want great work. To attract the best designers who want to build their design careers,” he says. “There’s nothing else that really matters.” He credits this mantra to Tom McElligott, one of Duffy’s founding partners from Fallon, McElligott & Rice. “Don’t be distracted by anything, the work is what counts … it’s everything,” Duffy recalls McElligott preaching. “When I first had this discussion with him about becoming partners, that was so evident,” Duffy says.

30 Years of Duffy

In celebration of its 30th year, Duffy & Partners launched a brand new website showcasing its work and history of design.


2. Don’t Settle. As you chase the work to both pay the bills and create a name for yourself, keep this in mind. “Don’t do anything that’s beneath you,” Duffy says. If you are looking for a litmus test to determine this threshold, read on. “Don’t do anything that’s not work you can hang on the wall and be proud of,” he says. At the end of the day, your work is what represents you and your firm. It’s what people will remember and will be the building block for your reputation. When the work is not as good as you know it could be, the culprit can likely be traced back to giving in to the need of the money. So how do you do this and keep the lights on? “Stay small,” he advises, explaining that the larger the headcount and overhead, the more pressure you’ll have to “give into the money” to survive.

3. Keep a Sharp Eye Out for Good Clients. In reviewing Duffy & Partners visual timeline created to honor its 30-year milestone, it’s clear that they’ve perfected the craft of partnering with good clients. You’ll find everything from packaging for small-batch ice cream purveyors to work for Coca-Cola, Jim Beam, Qatar National Library, Fisher-Price and community initiatives in the firm’s backyard, such as Nice Ride Minnesota, a bike co-op program. To land a good client, you must know how to spot one. What you are looking for is “a client who truly understands good design and wants to utilize it to gain marketplace success. That’s not the majority of design clients out there. There are many who simply see design as a necessary evil and they just want to get it done,” Duffy says. “The thing that has maintained our success over the years is that the good clients continually go to people who do good work.”

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4. Maintain a Kickass Website. This all goes back to No.1 listed above; It’s all about the work and a killer website is a potential client’s porthole to evaluating just that. Duffy notes that when a client hears about the firm, whether it be via word of mouth or another means, the first thing they do is go to “They look at the work, and they make their choice. It’s so great. That’s the way it should be,” he says. This is especially true for maintaining visibility with a broad range of clients, whether they are located in the Middle East, New York City or the next city over. In 1984 and many years afterward, there lingered misperceptions that the best design had to come from firms based in big cities. Duffy notes that being located in the heart of the Midwest has never hindered his business, thankfully, due to his former partner Fallon, McElligott & Rice already having a large client base. “It’s not where you are — particularly today — that’s no longer the case,” he says, noting that the use of a well-constructed and maintained website to showcase a plethora of stellar work, whether you are attracting clients or a potential employer, has helped the cause of designers working in a myriad of locations.

5. Surround yourself with the best. Immersing yourself in a well of talent will only serve to feed you creatively in the long-run, whether you are building a creative team or trying to find the right fit as you job-search. “You cannot build a great creative culture unless that culture creates great work,” Duffy says. “Design is a collaboration.”

6. Maintain perspective. As Duffy reflects on his design career and the legacy he has built at Duffy & Partners the past 30 years, he’s humble to the craft itself that has driven it all. “The reason I’m still doing this at 65 years old, is because I love it. I get up in the morning and I look forward to doing work that I’m proud of. It’s the art side that I really admire … You don’t retire from being a designer as long as you continue to do work that stimulates and makes you happy.” he says. “It’s also how you measure success.” As a father, his children Joseph Duffy, design director, and Bridget Duffy, general manager, have also found a home at the firm. “It’s a dream come true, it really is,” he says.

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