Sidelines: Hero Design Studio

We can’t contain our admiration for the husband-and-wife duo that makes up Hero Design Studio in Buffalo, NY. (Make that, trio: Their dog, Derby, joins them in the office.) And that office is constantly humming. Designers and partners Beth Manos Brickey and Mark Brickey subdivide their time among several enterprises: a healthy client business creating concert and event posters for bands like Spoon and local organizations like the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library; a screen-printing shop; two online outlets for their greeting cards and fine-art prints; and a bricks-and-mortar store selling not only their own goods but also products from Kidrobot and other designers. Catch our profile of Beth and Mark in HOW’s November issue. In this extended Q&A, they talk about working together and using their personal work as a portfolio.

First, a bit of background on HERO Design: when did you open, where are you located, what kind of work do you do, who are some of your clients?

Mark: Hero officially became Hero in 2003 after I had worked about 5 years as a freelance designer, mostly doing design for the independent music scene. At that point I had enough work to warrant a business name and I even had a few friends helping out here and there as I needed them. In 2005, after 2 years of dating and talking about working together, Beth left her job as an art director at a small local ad agency and joined me.
Beth: We are located in Buffalo, New York. Most of the work we do is hand crafted design, illustration and silkscreen related goods for the music and entertainment industry. We have worked with all types of clients from small local indie record stores, to bands as well known as Spoon and The Decemberists, to large advertising agencies.
Whats it like to work with your significant other?
Mark: It’s awesome, because owning a business is being in a relationship, just as is being married is (obviously). If those two relationships aren’t on the same page, its almost as if you are cheating on the other. It is so great to have our lives totally streamlined and headed in one direction together. Being able to talk about what you do, to be stressed by what you have going on and to share all of this with your spouse, who not only gets it, but is experiencing it all with you, is pretty cool. So many people ask us ‘how can you work with your spouse?’, and we always reply “how can you not?”
Beth: To me, this is the only way to work and it has been the only time in my working life that I have truly been happy. I love that if I am feeling insecure about a design I am working on or on the other hand, very proud, I get to share this all with my husband, every day. I love that my support system is always one step away, working towards the same end goal that I am. It is so amazing being in a relationship where we are both extremely passionate about our work and no one is getting that look in their eye like ‘do we really have to talk about this AGAIN?’.
The other huge selling point, for both of us on the “working together” thing, is that our dog, Derby, gets to come to work with us everyday, too. I love that our little family gets to be together all day, every day. Now, if we could just figure out how to get our cats Indie and Jpeg here, we would really be set.
Describe your typical client project …
Beth: Since the concert and event posters are probably the most common client project we have going on at all times, we’ll describe that. Most times the bands we work with are either hiring us to create a poster to visually commemorate a single show on a tour or the full tour. 9 times out of 10 we are given full creative control to interpret that moment in time, in our vision. Most times we work on a single design, show a rough proof to the client and then move forward from there. There have even been times where a band has literally said “do what you do” and they see it for the first time, the night of the show.
Mark: Because we have been given this type of freedom on most projects, it has allowed us the ability to do work for clients outside of the music and entertainment industry under similar guidelines. We have been hired to do work for organizations such as the Buffalo and Erie Country Public Library, where they have seen our body of work and trust our vision enough to give us that same creative control and we truly believe this is when we are capable of our best work.
Do I have this right? You run a graphic design/illustration studio, you produce your own posters/prints/cards, you have an Etsy store and you have a retail boutique … How do you manage it all?
Beth: Correct, however we also have an online store attached to our website which is where we sell the largest amount of our products online, we actually have less than half of our inventory on Etsy. Etsy is where we try to keep all of our one-of-a-kind items such as test prints, the handmade wooden toys, etc.
Mark: Additionally, another huge part of what we do is travel all over the country throughout the year to craft festivals such as the Renegade Craft Fair and to Flatstock Rock Poster Conventions at various music festivals. We manage it by making time every single Monday morning to sit down and make a detailed schedule for that week. We try to stick with it and stay on task, since a lot of times we are booked through the following the month and have a trip or two wedged in there, as well.
What prompted you to launch the boutique? When did you open? Besides your own prints and greeting cards, what do you sell?
Mark: we decided to open the boutique because prior to this space, we had a small studio on Main St in the theater district in Downtown Buffalo, with no gallery or really public access at all. The door locked automatically and after about 6 months or so of doing the concert posters, almost daily someone would pound on our windows and want to come in to buy our most recent poster. Even though it was cooling selling posters the same way they sell crack on The Wire, we figured maybe we should take our legitimate business to next level.
Beth: we moved into this space in September of 2006 and we had the grand opening for our store that November. Besides our posters, art prints and greeting cards we sell items like hand bound one-of-a-kind sketch books, pillows featuring our artwork, adult tees, baby tees, bibs, tote bags, wooden toys and so much more. We are also Kidrobot’s largest retailer in the state outside of NYC.
How did you learn about running a retail store? Do you have employees, or is it just the two of you?
Mark: the way we have learned most everything else, trial and error. We have built this business based on our personalities and instincts and not what we have read in books or learned in school. One of our biggest influences, is what Apple has done in the last decade with their retails stores. They were the smaller, outsider computer company holding a smaller share of the computer market than their major competition. But by opening up their retail spaces and inviting people in to experience their brand as a whole, they’ve been able to grow themselves into an industry leader. We saw this as a model to follow on a much smaller and local level. When we first started silkscreening, few people knew who we were in Buffalo, besides the folks stealing our posters from record store windows and telephone poles. We realized that if we wanted to grow our name locally, we needed to be in people’s faces. We needed to let them see our process, experience our work in person and to be able to step into the Hero brand. Everyday new people walk into our store and learn about Hero.
Beth:  We look at our store as an ever changing thing, we are always tailoring it to what our customers want. Though at the beginning we had grand visions of a store that just sold the work we were making, we just weren’t there yet, people wanted more. In addition to our posters we were carrying other design related items such as collectible toys, books, fonts, etc. As time has gone on and more people have found us, our dream has actually been able to grow and we now sell more of our own products than anything else in our store.
At this point in time the only employee we have is Brett, who works the store on Saturdays and when we are out of town, he also helps out with photography projects. Otherwise it is just the two of us.
Do the design business and the boutique share space?
Beth: Yes, we have one space that houses the store, our design studio and our printmaking studio. It is just under 700 sq/ft and we use every last inch of it. The front third of the space is the store, the middle is four work stations and the back is our print set up. Every step of the process takes place here.
What percent of your business revenue comes from your client work, your own products and the boutique?
Mark: That is a tough question since the boutique and our own products is an intertwined number. I would say an approximate breakdown would be that 60% comes from design services for clients, the other 40% would be split between the retail outlets (our own boutique, online, selling at events, wholesale, etc).
How do you promote your all your different business activities to customers/clients? Do the Etsy shop and boutique help generate new clients for your graphic design studio?
Beth: We feel that we have a great relationship with the people that have found us, who want to follow what we do and have invested time in doing so. Our “strategy” (or lack there of) with promotion is much like our store’s concept, it is driven by our personalities. When we update our blog, Facebook or Twitter, we aren’t demanding people spend money with us, beating them over the head with a constant advertisement, we just live our lives and share our experiences. Whether it be about a new project we just completed, the process of a poster we are working on or our favorite TV show or restaurant.  We are putting ourselves out there for whoever is interested in what we are up to.
Mark: Probably less than 10% of our retail customers will ever transform into design clients, however the other 90% of folks that believe in our designs enough to wear our shirts and hang our posters, are the people helping us convince that smaller percentage that we are worthy of being hired. There is a whole level of Hero promotion that is happening beyond our control, it’s truly organic. Parents have bought our artwork to hang in their newborns’ nurseries and some of those babies are even wearing our shirts. I’d like to think that one of those babies is going to one day hire us.
How does your personal work creatively inspire or influence your client work, and vice versa?
Beth: Silkscreening our own designs has been one of the biggest influence in our own work. Having to simplify your thoughts in a way that can communicate in 5 colors or less was a challenge at first. Before then, the sky was the limit (seemingly), your concepts could just continue to evolve. With silkscreening we have learned to scale back and really think about what we want the end result to be and ultimately how we will be able to produce that finished product with our limited resources. I have also found that our test prints, which are prints that contain layers and layers from many different jobs, have also inspired my designs and color combos, in ways that I could never have imagined. In theory, these prints are throw-aways, they are unplanned designs that literally come about by throwing a poster on the press while you are trying to get your registration right or to keep the ink moving. Sometimes design elements or even just two colors, that were never meant to be be viewed together in the same project, come together in a beautiful accidental way that an entirely new idea is born and influences the next design you work on.
Mark: Our personal work has had a huge influence in the type of client work that we commissioned to do. Before we had over 200 pieces of original un art directed work to show clients I have no doubt that most jobs we got were because we seemed affordable and responsible enough to get the jobs done. However our career has taken a major turn for the better now people can see what our work looks like when people just let us dream. Now we get hired to “do our thing” or to make it look like “Hero” did it. To anyone that’s unhappy with their current client work I say first learn how to design for yourself and then you can teach clients how you’ll design for them.
Whats the design scene like in Buffalo?
Mark: Not as impressive as Niagara Falls is but not as bad as the 2010 Buffalo Bills.
Beth: Buffalo is a really cool city with a lot of great culture crammed into it. In some ways it is a very small city and the amount of people living here and working as successful designers, pales in comparison to many other cities. However, the people that you do meet here that are working artists of any kind, are more passionate than most people you will ever meet.
Because of the economy in this city, young designers have always left to go work in NYC or another big city to find the “big money”, but in the last few years we’ve seen more and more young designers staying, to try to make a name for themselves in a smaller market and to grow the local scene further. It’s been really rad watching it evolve and seeing all the different work that has come out of it.  It’s been cool having a store front because it had awarded us the opportunity to meet so many of the talented artists in this city and even collaborate on projects with some of them.
Any advice for another designer who wants to create their own product line, regardless of what kind of product it is?
Beth: Go for it, trust your instincts and don’t be afraid to work away from the computer and get your hands dirty. We each have lists of potential personal projects that are always growing, things we want to experiment with and try out. After spending as much time as I do and my desk and computer, writing emails and working on design jobs for clients, some of my favorite things to do is get dirty while screen printing or go home and sew pillows with designs on them. Sometimes getting dirty and getting your hands involved really pays off and sometimes it doesn’t. But until you try, you have no clue what you are capable of. It is so liberating to see your work on something other than a brochure or on a website, it will give you a new love for your strengths and it will make you want to work on your weaknesses. The other thing that always makes me feel good about creating our own products, is when someone walks into our store, our booth at a festival or logs into our web store and spends money to buy something we made. To this day, it blows my mind, and somehow it is far more gratifying than being hired by a client and being paid to create their vision. Most of what we make are things we just love and want to play around with for that creative release and the fact that on top of that, people buy it because they like it too, is extra rewarding.
Mark: Make what’s natural to you and your skill set, not what you think people will want to buy. This is your turn to be in charge… don’t fuck it up! The first couple of projects will be intimidating and overwhelming and probably not that good because it takes a while to learn what YOU want, after all you have spent a majority of your education and career making things look pretty for other people. However, if you keep designing for you and make your voice, the loudest one in your head you’ll end up in a better spot both creatively and professionally.
Whats next for the two of you?
Beth: I am heading into the back to reclaim some screens and print films for the next poster.
Mark: I’m just going to keep enjoying the success of being a self made hundredaire!
Inspired to try your hand at making and selling your own goods? We recommend Crafty Superstar, written by former HOW intern and indie crafter Grace Dobush; it’s full of ideas on how to create and profit from your own projects.




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