Brooke Behnken Mulholland was a busy freelance designer in 2008 when the recession hit. By the end of the year, she saw that some of her clients were cutting back, and she started to worry about how she was going to make ends meet for her family, which includes twins. At the same time, she also had just wrapped up a couple of design projects with difficult clients who micro-managed nearly every aspect of the design.
“I felt like it was killing my soul,” she remembers.
So, she decided to change gears and turned to a subject that had long been near and dear to her heart. “I had grown up with lots of pets—dogs, cats, hamsters, rabbits—and always had a great affinity for them,” Mulholland says. “It amazes me how much personality these creatures have without ever saying a word. They manage to communicate so much with a look or silly behavior. I wanted to capture that and what makes them so special.”
When Graphic Design Inspiration Comes Cute + Cuddly
With that, she used her design skills to start a new business where she was truly the boss: FuzzyMug, a home goods and stationery line featuring custom pet portraits. Her first creation for it was a set of note cards featuring her best friend’s dog, Loki.
Within a couple of months, more and more people were contacting her for work, which was spread mostly through word-of-mouth (the same way she prefers to get graphic design work, too). By the spring of 2009, she had set up an Etsy shop, where she has sold to customers as far around the world as Japan and Belgium. She also has wholesale and consignment clients and sells her wares at local craft shows.
As FuzzyMug sales have increased, Mulholland has found that so has her creativity and renewed joy for design.
“I think that the reason designing for FuzzyMug is so exciting and freeing is because I am the client. I design for myself first—what I would like to see in my own kitchen or the holiday cards that I would want to send out,” she says. “Sometimes, as a designer, you have to make compromises when working on a logo or brochure to please the client. I understand that is part of the job and that what the client wants, the client gets, but sometimes the requests from clients can lead you in a direction that strays from great design. It can be frustrating.”
FuzzyMug Is “Great, Inspired Work”
In contrast, FuzzyMug has allowed her to get back to the essence of what drew her to design in the first place: creating great, inspired work. Whether it’s taking advantage of the value of a gorgeous font or the beauty of white space, she no longer has to fight clients to make sure these tenets are appreciated.
“I always strive to put out high-quality, well-made products with great attention paid to detail. All of that comes from my design background and the people who influenced and taught me throughout the years.”
That has resulted in plenty of customers over the past five years that she has been growing FuzzyMug. “In the beginning I was a little surprised that I might be able to make a real business out of this little idea. It seemed so simple, but it filled a void in the animal portrait arena for well-designed portraits that were affordable and not stuffy or creepy.
There are so many animal items out there that are cartoony or childish; I wanted to elevate my animal images so that they are something you want to wear or hang in your home. I really believe that well-made items will be cherished. Nothing leaves my shop that isn’t up to my standards, and my standards are pretty high.”
And, consequently, she is happier than ever.
“I have never had a bad day designing for FuzzyMug. My clients are always thrilled with what they get, I get to be as creative as I want and it feeds my soul instead of crushing it. The work I do with FuzzyMug is pure pleasure!”
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