So Happy Together: Creativity & Collaboration at Spindletop Design

In this article from the latest issue of HOW Magazine, learn how Texas creative studio Spindletop brings community, culture and collaboration to its design work.

The first oil field on the U.S. Gulf Coast was discovered in 1901. After two long, cash-strapped years of drilling, Captain Anthony F. Lucas struck oil atop the Spindletop salt dome in Texas, creating a geyser that blew 100 feet into the air at a rate of 100,000 barrels per day. Lucas’ discovery turned doubters into believers and the Gulf Coast into a major oil region.

Almost a century later, when John Earles and Jennifer Blanco surveyed the Texas creative landscape with an eye toward starting a branding and multidisciplinary design company, Lucas’ perseverance—and the unrealized potential to cause paradigm shifts for industry and culture—resonated with them. Thus, they adopted the Spindletop moniker for their new Houston-based studio.

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Spindletop’s Josh Higgins, Laura Thornock, John Earles, Jennifer Blanco and Corbin Spring

“The Spindletop story is a great parallel for the creative process,” Earles says. “Anthony Lucas, who was the driving force for exploration in the area, was doubted and poured everything he had into a venture that many thought would be fruitless. Ultimately, the impacts were far larger than anyone could have imagined. I think we’ve taken the lessons of the Spindletop/Lucas story to heart.

“Jennifer likes to state the goal of Spindletop Design is to create a ‘Boomtown’ of ideas and cultural value, and I would agree,” he continues. “It’s the idea that we need to be true to our course and realize that even the smallest, simplest idea or project can have large, sweeping impacts. Everything is an opportunity.”

Drill down, and one thing you’ll find at the core of all of Spindletop Design’s endeavors is a spirit of collaboration. Just as Lucas relied on a group of backers to help fulfill his destiny, so too have Blanco and Earles often relied on teaming up with others to maximize their projects’ potential—whether it’s working with clients, with partners, with team members or with the community.

CLIENT COLLABORATION

In keeping with its Texas roots and that collaborative spirit, Spindletop is perhaps best known for the intricately styled and cohesive identities the firm has helped establish for many restaurants and spaces in Houston. “We live and work in Houston, and we have a vested interest in making it an even more vibrant place to be,” Blanco says. “We seek out and work with clients that want to do the same.”

Take the firm’s approach to its four-year relationship with Amaya Roasting Co. and Catalina Coffee, for example. “To think of design for a local coffee shop as ‘just a brand’ is missing the larger context,” Blanco says. “With engaging design, that coffee shop can serve as an ad hoc community center or an anchor to reinvigorating the neighborhood. It’s an opportunity to help build the place you aspire your city to become.”

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Work for Amaya Roasting Co. and Catalina Coffee

Spindletop is also recognized for its print and design advocacy around the city through collaborations with AIGA Houston, The Contemporary Arts Museum Houston and independent bookshop Brazos Bookstore. Each September, Brazos invites Spindletop to invent something new to draw awareness to Banned Books Week.

“It is a unique situation in that we are allowed by the store manager to come in and do nearly anything desired inside and/or outside the store,” Earles says. “We always set up a Workhorse Printmakers (our partnering company) press onsite with an item visitors partake in producing with us during the event. It’s been an excellent opportunity to experiment with printing, interaction, branding and promotion for an important cause around literacy and freedom.”

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Posters for Banned Books Week

Brazos general manager Jeremy Ellis says the bookstore’s partnership with Spindletop, which also has included rebranding the store and redesigning the website, has been a huge success. “It was amazing luck to find designers with such passion and commitment to books and design. We were lucky that they were game to try something new and make something so special,” Ellis says. “Each year since, they’ve returned and brought new designs, variations on the theme. And each year they’ve made something special and unexpected that our customers love.”

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Website design for Brazos Bookstore

TEAM SPIRIT

Everything may be bigger in Texas, but the Spindletop team is lean: two designers, a designer/developer and two founders. As such, there’s minimal hierarchy, and Earles and Blanco place a strong value on teamwork and open communication. “In our creative process, we regularly step into and out of various roles, and projects are handed off many times through team members to explore ideas,” Earles says. “We encourage everyone’s participation and ideas, no matter how ‘out there’ they may be, and let the best solutions rise to the top.”

The work environment is also structured to encourage conversation and interaction as much as possible. A renovated mechanic’s shop in an historic inner-city neighborhood, the studio is a wide-open workspace. “It’s a continual work-in-progress, as we frequently rearrange to better suit our always-evolving process,” Blanco says.

Camaraderie is another essential ingredient for a team that both props up and pushes one another. Although the firm takes its work, client relationships and outward presentation very seriously, internally they revel in the absurd. “Our interoffice banter is a stream of puns, nonlinear discussion and general goofiness that, if you were to listen in, would be completely at odds from what might be expected,” Blanco says. “It’s also been an important part of our culture, as it’s created a space where everyone feels comfortable sharing and has become a source of some of our best ideas.”

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Work for Fat Cat Creamery in Houston

NEIGHBORLY APPROACH

One thing that sets Spindletop apart from most design studios is that it partners and shares common areas with the neighboring print shop, Workhorse Printmakers. “This means we have access to a full production print shop with letterpress printing, foil-stamping, die-cutting and a range of other specialty production techniques available,” Earles says. “It’s a resource that gives us the ability to create internally driven print production pieces without budget limitations, which is not something available to most designers.”

Since printing is part of the firm’s lifeblood, the The Printing Museum, whose mission is to promote, preserve and share the knowledge of printed communication and art in Houston, is a natural client fit for Spindletop. “Advocacy for design as industry, creative pursuit and agent of social change is incredibly important to us,” Blanco says. “Smart, effective design solutions not only add value to the organizations that utilize them, but have the ability to define and reshape the culture around them.”

Further Reading: Over at PRINTmag.com, Steven Heller chats with Keelin Burrows, curator of The Printing Museum in Houston, and looks closer at the museum’s offerings.

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Identity design for The Printing Museum 

SOUL FEEDING

Since founding the firm in 1999, Blanco and Earles have been interested in experimenting with concepts for publications or publishing platforms for content they generate. But like the cobbler and his shoeless children, they’ve pushed those goals to the side for some time. This year, they’ve set out to tackle them.

One project they plan to launch is a zine or mini publication about the outdoors, which will have both a print and web component, utilizing the firm’s multidisciplinary strengths. “We relish working collaboratively with other people and are excited about some of the opportunities that it could present,” Blanco says.

Earles and Blanco say they’re not quite sure what the future will hold for Spindletop long term. In many ways, they’ve always fl own by the seat of their pants. “We do certainly hope to be publishing more of our own content,” Earles says. “And, of course, we hope to continue to work with forward-thinking clients and institutions that are interested in new ways to engage the public and tell their story.”

See more work from Spindletop Design at www.spindletopdesign.com, and read about more exciting happenings in the design world in HOW’s Summer 2016 issue. 


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