The response to the talk was mind blowing. We received so many kind tweets, e-mails, and even a sweet blog post on With Design in Mind. We've been meeting with folks here in the studio since then - having great chats about business in design and working in community. It's opened a dialogue that we are so excited to be a part of. I (Sara), have never thought of myself as a businesswoman or a writer, but I've so enjoyed learning, writing and talking about these topics. I'm planning to continue to share our ideas and journey here on the blog. (The first thing will be to share how I'll learn the time management to be able to do that! Updates to come.)
Here's the text of the talk - for those of you who prefer reading to listening or watching my quirky self.
Analog Passion & Craft in an Economic Downturn: How I Became a Small Business Owner (and Why it Was a Good Idea)
I'm Sara McNally. My husband Brad and I are the founders of Constellation & Co., a small studio in Pioneer Square. We offer full service graphic design and letterpress printing for a variety of client projects, including: wedding invitations, branding and print collateral for small businesses, and a line of letterpress greeting cards and paper gifts that is available in stores in Seattle and nationwide. We use a mixture of modern and historical technologies to produce work that is sometimes sweet, sometimes sarcastic, but always inspired by handmade processes, vintage ephemera, and collaboration.
While in design school, I got to the section of Megg's History of Graphic Design about printing in the industrial revolution and found my calling. In my mind, they'd reached the pinnacle of craft, and I wasn't interested in moving forward. That dream of the 1890's thing totally hits home for me. Since then, I've become passionate about collecting, restoring, and preserving artifacts from the history of design and printing, and putting them back into use. I love that our cast iron printing presses have lasted for over one hundred years in a world that is constantly changing and reinventing itself. There is something so satisfying about this tangible method of printing and design - it's something we desire more and more in our digital world. I'm honored to be preserving and continuing a historic craft, and making a living doing it.
We founded Constellation & Co. on the idea that community is important in life and in business, and that business and life should work well together. It starts with us - we're a married couple, and we collaborate closely on each client project, even if it's just talking out ideas over dinner. We also work closely with our clients, getting to know them beyond their preferences about paper and pantone colors, so we can offer them a design that feels authentic. Our clients bring us into their lives at important moments like planning a wedding or launching a business, and we take our involvement in those times seriously. We have two employees that are dear friends. And (this is my favorite story) we even had an intern that went on to become a wedding invitation client. She then launched her own business, we did her branding and business cards, and now we're her client - she does all of our studio and product photography. She's responsible for the pretty pictures you're looking at today. Outside of our company, we work with a large network of creative people and small businesses whose skills and products enable us to tackle bigger projects and offer more exciting work to our customers. The big picture for us is, we can't do this alone.
Now that you know us a little better, I want to share with you how we got here. And I promise to be honest. I would really love for the design community to believe that i'm crazy rich and glamorous. But I believe that our genuine selves are a lot more interesting than the things we put on Pinterest. Although, I still love Pinterest. My career has been a series of reality checks, and this is an effort to present them honestly to you. And it might as well be a timeline, because, as you know, graphic designers love timelines.
In 2008 Brad and I visited Seattle with friends on our winter break from school. We fell in love with the city and spent the next couple years daydreaming about moving here. I even had a poster of the skyline in my dorm room.
While dating, Brad and I had a daydream about someday (after our crazy successful careers), starting a company together that focused on the handmade. We knew it was something we wanted to do… but in a really long time, after we'd filled a swimming pool with cash.
I loved my time in college and went to a great school. I learned a lot about type, workflow, taking critique - but I was naive and self-entitled. I fell into the "designers will save the world" mentality that's too common in school. I had big plans for myself after graduation. I was going to graduate with an impressive job, move somewhere exciting, and buy a VW bug. (Sidebar: I still don't own a bug.)
Spring break of our senior year, we spent a week interviewing at several Seattle companies, including Hornall Anderson, Methodologie, etc. etc. In every interview, we heard about layoffs, closed intern programs, and the economy. Absolutely no one was hiring junior designers. As graduation approached, our professors made grim predictions, family friends suggested we start practicing "welcome to Walmart," and "can I take your order?" All in all, there was a lot of sad head shaking.
We graduated, and although we didn't have jobs or a solid plan, Seattle was were we wanted to be. So we got in the car with our limited belongings and we drove here. And when we made it to Seattle, we took a lot of trips to IKEA.
And then we started applying for jobs. And we got married! (Because there is no one in the world I would rather walk through this crazy life with.) And we applied for more jobs. And the abstract concept of debt became a concrete concept. And the recession we'd been ignoring became the recession that was defining our adult life.
Along the way, we did a lot of jobs. We worked as much as we could, wherever we could. Some of the jobs were great - we both spent time working freelance for some fantastic people. But a lot of the jobs were terrible - I spent a week as a receptionist, I worked retail, and I spent several months with an ad agency, taking photoshop files the "ad guy" did and reproducing them in illustrator for print. And I did that 12-14 hours a day. Often with no food breaks.
Right around this time, I had a realization. Hating my job isn't working for me. I was absolutely miserable. We paid way too much for school for me to already hate my career. Around this time, Brad started a contract at Microsoft, which was awesome, because my realization was great for my personal satisfaction, but terrible for paying the bills. But once I realized that I was okay being broke doing something I love, I knew that I had nothing to lose. I quit my terrible job, took an intro to letterpress class at the School of Visual Concepts, and sent a lot of "please let me work for you for free" e-mails to the letterpress community in Seattle. Thankfully, my e-mail bombs worked, and I spent a year apprenticing with Rebecca Mullins, the owner of Myrtle Alley Press in West Seattle. I got really hands on, spent a lot of time doing "pay your dues" type projects around the shop, and eventually got to learn the finer points of letterpress printing. And I absolutely loved it.
Towards the end of my year apprenticeship, Brad and I started taking clients, producing products of our own, and launched our website. Around this time, I read a lot of articles on the appropriate way to start a business. I realized quickly that the articles were not written for me. I was 23, broke, and didn't know the first thing about starting a business. I was a very unlikely candidate for being an "entrepreneur." I sat at my computer for days trying to write a business plan. It was really daunting. Maybe you've been there and given up. (I really wanted to.) But here's the good news: at this phase, your business plan is more like writing on toilet paper than carving a stone tablet. You have to get started before you'll know what you want to do, what you're good at, and what you can get people to pay you to do. Our website launched with copy that said something like, "Dear client, if you give us money, we'll do whatever you ask." As we took on more client work and got to know our business better, it became clear what our specialties were, and which kinds of jobs we'd never take again. If you don't get started, you can't even learn from your mistakes. You have to get started.
So we got started. We moved into a tiny corner of the 619 Western arts building, and bought our first full size press.
Before I continue, let me show you a photo of our first printing press. It was a glorious mess. The press was in pieces, covered in rust, and had been dropped off a truck. But I took one look at this press, and I said: I'LL TAKE IT.