Hero Design On Making It
Mark Brickey and Beth Manos Brickey started their design careers like many youthful print enthusiasts: making free concert fliers from friends. Since then, however, they've launched a design studio, opened a retail shop to bring people into their brand (think: the Apple store experience at a much smaller scale), and become so busy with design work that they're closing the doors on their store in early April to devote all their time to what they love: making good designs. Here, Mark shares his tale of dropping out of school, having his a-ha moment at SXSW, launching the design studio with Beth, and never looking back.
Your design career began in Kentucky, where you were attending school but from which you never graduated. Why did you decided to drop out and go it on your own?
I was going to a community college and had a horrible instructor who gave us these horrible assignments. You'd make up a company and make, say, a menu for said restaurant. That's not real design. In the real world, what I would do for Burger King is different from what I'd do for Pizza Hut. You don't get to pick your company and ideal situation like that. Part of the problem with education is that it's so make-believe. I made all my assignments around real-world businesses, because it felt like that is what I needed to be doing. Once I started taking my student portfolio around I was like, I have a good vibe, I could take this around to a few businesses and land one as a paying gig. I'd done a spec t-shirt and logo for a record store and got a meeting with the owner. We sat down, I showed my work, and I said, I'd like to do these. I had priced them out, and he was like, yeah. His next question was if I knew anything about websites. I said, yeah—and then quickly learned about them. I went from parking cars at a country club and going to a horrible school to making $35 an hour. I think I graduated.
How did you go from there to owning your own design studio?
In 2004, I was in Austin at SXSW with the Coalition of Independent Music Stores, which I was doing a lot of work with. I was roaming through the halls and by accident stumbled onto Flatstock and was like, holy shit! Beth and I were still young and enamored by the design world. We knew all these people who made posters cause we'd see them in magazine, and they were all there exhibiting and had work on display. On the flight home I pulled out my notebook that I keep in my bag but never use and jotted down a million ideas because I'd seen our future right in front of me. It was very real and something we needed to do.
Where did the name Hero come from?
I'm motivated by heroes. I'm not an institutional kind of guy. It'd be nice to have something hanging on the wall to say I graduated from somewhere, but all of my heroes are dropouts. They took life by the seat of their pants and made it happen. It seemed like a really good name. They've been a motivation, all these wacky people who had more vision than common sense and made something happen.
How did owning a shop become part of the process of becoming a self-sustaining design studio?
We had a very small office at the time and no room for printing equipment so a friend was gracious enough to let us use his basement. We were so proud of our posters and wanted to promote them so we took the windows of our miniature office space, maybe 250 square feet, and covered them with our own work. Then people started banging on the glass. It scared the shit out of us. They were saying, Hey, I want to buy that Wilco poster. We were selling concert posters like drug dealers: bang on the window, bring $20, and bang, the poster's yours. We were making money with no effort and wondered what would happen if we got bigger.
Which guided you to your space in Allentown in 2006.
A store seemed like the next evolution of what we should be doing. I've always been very influenced by Steve Jobs, even before his latest run of his with the iPhone and iPad. He's the complete maniac you should aspire to be. When we were thinking about opening the retail space, Apple was ringing in our ears. It was this small, outsider computer company when it started doing the boutique stores. The company knew that inviting people into the brand, letting people experience it, would work out. There were people who thought it wouldn't but when you go to any mall or hip, urban shopping district, those stores are always packed. On a very micro level, that process of bringing people into a space to get to know us has worked well.
You've been printing your own posters since 2005 and are planning on acquiring the equipment to start printing your own shirts as well. What's the benefit of doing it all yourself?
Printing your own work makes you a way better designer. When you print on your own, there are a couple frustrating nights in the basement where it's all your fault because you didn't track the coors properly in Illustrator and Photoshop. Those are really hard lessons to learn but then fast forward five years later and you're putting things together that are friendly to the print world. You don't make 50 layers then try to get it down to three colors; you're thinking about printing while you're designing.
You're shuttering the shop at the beginning of April to put all your focus into your design work. Thankfully you'll still have your online stores at heroandsound.com and you'll be on the road more now too, eh?
Touring has helped us build a fan base. We have an awareness in markets now. We're not Death Cab and selling out arenas but we have a following. Going to the festivals and shows is a really amazing way to connect with your customers and let them connect with the brand. There are a lot of people selling stuff on the Internet. Our efforts to be sociable and meet people are one of the reasons people pick us to work with.
What advice would you give to young designers trying to make it themselves?
The best businesses are personality driven. The most successful people are those who did it their own way and built off their personalities. We joke that we're hundredaires on paper but are emotional millionaires. Don't worry too much about business plans, don't get too hung up on names. Just focus on making what you make and the rest will catch up with you.