Margo Chase on Growing Her Iconic Business

Margo Chase made a name creating iconic typography for some of the globe’s biggest music stars (hello, Madonna, Prince and Cher). That was 30 years ago, and Chase’s influence and creative integrity are still thriving. In between, she’s landed nearly every major honor in the design field and been recognized by HOW, I.D., Graphis and others.

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Very deliberately growing her business since 1986 from a solo practice, Chase now steers a bi-coastal design studio with 30-some employees. At HOW Design Live in Chicago, Chase will present Fired Up: Fueling Growth with Good Design, in which she’ll talk about finding the delicate balance between a financially successful firm and a creatively successful one. We recently asked her to look back at projects that put her on the map and to share what’s led to her success.

Looking back at the start of your career, did you envision leading a business with 30-some employees? To paraphrase the Talking Heads, “Well, how did you get here?”
It wasn’t really a plan. When I started, it was all about the work. I’m in LA, so the entertainment and music business was the place to be very self-expressive as a designer.

I looked for a job when I got out of school and I expected to get hired in with a studio, but that didn’t happen, so I started freelancing. That work started to grow, so I started hiring people to help me with the design, and then I hired a bookkeeper and then there came a point when I knew I needed to hire more help. My business partner, Chris [Lowery] has been instrumental.

Once we got to be 5 or 6, I sort of woke up and realized: This is a business. This is fun and inspiring. When you’re working alone, you get up super early and you have a great idea and you start to work and suddenly it’s 2 p.m. and you’re still in your pajamas … that’s a luxury but it’s also sort of lonely. I found that there was this whole energy of having more people and more ideas flowing around.

People told me, “You better be careful because you’ll grow your business to the point where you don’t get to design anymore.” I’ve been deliberate about not letting that happen. My range of involvement varies a lot — there are times when I’m designing the whole project, and times when I contribute parts of the work, a logo or elements of typography, and times when I’m involved in just the creative direction. I get to pick and choose the projects where it makes sense for me to get deeply involved. I’d prefer wearing two hats — being the boss and doing the design — than not getting to design at all.

Can you recall a watershed project — one that helped establish your reputation and put you on the map? How did you land that work? Did you realize at the time that it had the potential to transform your business?
We’ve had a couple. Back when it was just me in the music business, getting to work with Madonna raised my profile not only in the music business but outside as well.

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After doing that for about a decade, I started to see the writing on the wall and I realized that I wanted to do work where design would sell the product — that’s not true in the entertainment business, where the movie star or the musician sells the product. I knew that consumer products and packaging was where design could make a difference. The first client we got was a brand called Kama Sutra. They were in a fringe market — sensual body products — but they were willing to take a risk on me because at the time I didn’t have packaging experience outside of music packaging. Our work helped changed their business dramatically — it took them from super niche to mass-market. I realized that we could then take that story and sell our capabilities in CPG.

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Califia Farms has been another watershed client — we’ve worked with them for about five years. Starting from scratch, we created their logo and packaging for their almond milk and cold brew coffee and other products, and it’s been very disruptive in the category.

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I love design and I love that we can see the results of our work make a difference every day.

You manage to create really beautiful work for both mass-market brands like Nestle and P&G and for small brands like Atwater Village Farm. What does it take to produce quality design in the face of brand standards and corporate cultures and all those other roadblocks to great work?
I think that the fact that we advocate for design is part of the reason. We fight for the work, and a lot of that work the gets into the mass market still has high design quality. It’s a battle … forever. We’re always challenging, “Have you thought of this?” “Are you sure this is what you want?” I think it’s that level of dedication to quality first that separates us — we spend a lot of time talking about that around here.

If we’re not going to do the work we feel good about, why are we in it?

It’s about balancing a financially successfully company with a creatively successful one — and that’s  what I’ll be talking about at HOW. There are projects we take where we don’t get to win those creative battles, but they fund other work that we love. But the real successes are where it’s a mass-market product and we still love the work.

Chase will share more of her philosophy about balancing creative work and business success in her HOW Design Live session, Fired Up: Fueling Growth with Good Design, presented by The Dieline. Browse the HOW Design Live speaker lineup to see other industry icons whose work you’ve long admired who will be taking the stage in Chicago.

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