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For nearly 39 years, Artist’s Graphic Designer’s Market has provided artists and designers like you with the best business tips and advice. In addition to over 1,700 individually-verified market contacts, the 2013 edition is packed with helpful business features and inspiring interviews. You can read a complete 2013 AGDM interview with design duo behind These Are Things below. You’ll also find more inspirational interviews and articles on ArtistsMarketOnline.com.
Ohio-based design duo Jen Adrion and Omar Noory have created a design business with worldwide reach from their website These Are Things. They make colorful designs full of personality, modern lines, and sharp geometric shapes that feel more comfortable and familiar than stark. Starting with a single world map, they have built up four collections of cartographic prints. Some of their more recent designs merely hint at the shape of a city by placing stylized landmarks in a circle that represents the layout of the city.
Starting out on the Web
Adrion and Noory met while studying at the Columbus College of Art and Design, but both had started their own websites long before. They both liked computers as children, and Noory says that playing games on the computer led him to experiment with venerable graphics painting program Paint and then on into Adobe Photoshop and beyond.
Adrion remembers having fun making her own website in middle school. “It was a terrible little website, just posting ‘what I did today’ and things like that,” she remembers. They would later realize that the experience they gained in these early days was invaluable for starting their business. “I realized that art school was a possibility and that I could do these things for a living,” says Adrion. “We ended up meeting each other at art school. We were both in the graphic design program and that’s really where, I think, we both seriously started doing design work.”
Haters gonna hate
In 2008 Noory posted an image that he created of a man contentedly strolling along with the phrase “Haters gonna hate” in a thought bubble above his head. He then made it into an animation. It went viral and became a hugely popular meme. This is a concrete demonstration of the power of the Internet for distributing designs. When running These Are Things became their full-time job, they based the business in the online world.
A traditional work surface
While their marketplace is the Internet, Noory and Adrion’s work surfaces are traditional and local. The centerpieces of their design studio are custom hardwood desks they commissioned to be made in Ohio Amish country. Their desks are still a little cluttered from a recent move, but their design is simple and functional. On Noory’s desk is a protein bar, evidence of a recently developed interest in power lifting, and on Adrion’s there is a passport.
It doesn’t take a lot of detective work to discover that Adrion and Noory have a passion for travel. In addition to the passport sitting out on Adrion’s desk, most of their designs for These Are Things are maps or otherwise travel related. But travel is more than a theme for their work: “Any big decision that we’ve ever made has been made while we were on a trip,” Adrion explains. “Our decision to go full time with These Are Things was made in New York.” Noory goes on to describe how they first talked about combining fine art and design and still being profitable while traveling, this time on a road trip to Chicago. They were dissatisfied with the work they were producing for their first jobs out of design school. Adrion remembers the conversation: “I was freelancing and Omar was working at an agency, and we were just driving back on this road trip and said, ‘This could be cooler. We could be making better things.’ I don’t know what it is about travel, but we find a lot of clarity on those trips. We hope to travel more.”
Making things that we want
Tired of the tedium of making “ugly business cards” for clients, Adrion and Noory decided to design for themselves. Adrion explains how they came up with their first design project: “Our rule from the beginning was that we just make things that we want. The way we got started was by making our first world map because, for a whole year, I really wanted a giant map in my apartment so that we could put pins on it and track where we’d been. I don’t know why it took so long to realize that we could just make our own that’s exactly like what we see in our heads. So that’s really the beginning of anything that we do that’s self-directed. It is just something that we want and that we would like to hang up in our home.”
Noory describes the early decisions that paid off: “There were two things we did that were really good for us. We stuck with our old jobs at first. We overlapped, which meant we worked 8 to 5, then we came home and worked on These Are Things. That let us have some money coming in so there was less stress. And it showed that we were really passionate about it. Because we were working on These Are Things in our off hours, we knew we would do fine when we went full time. Having the security of our freelance and agency jobs allowed us to take a few more risks than we could have if we had just quit our jobs right off the bat.”
They worked 18 hours days for the first 6 months to get their business started. “Omar was working the more traditional job at an agency while I was freelancing and teaching at an art school. I would work during the day, then teach in the afternoon, and then he would come home and from work and meet at one of our apartments and roll maps or design until 4am,” says Adrion. “It was so exciting because we could see it starting to take flight, and the potential of it becoming something bigger was something that kept us going during that time.”
Adrion offers some advice to others just starting out in design: “Make things you like. Have side projects and don’t feel trapped by the other things going on in your life. If you are passionate about something and you make good work, chances are you will be able to sell it to somebody. The Internet is a big place. That is another thing that we have found. Our reach compared to other giant shops is very small, but we found a really great community of people who enjoy our work and we are able to make a living from it.”
Working on the Web
Adrion says that there is a reason that they are still able to enjoy the Web work that they have to do for These Are Things. They have made it a rule to never work on websites for other people. She explains, “‘We’ve stuck to it very well and it’s made our lives much better. We will do Web work all day and all night for our own projects, but we will never do it for hire. It keeps it fun for us. After working on print stuff so much, it is actually kind of refreshing to jump into the interactive world for a bit and play with all the new technologies and make something that is cool and fun.”
“There is no excuse not to have a good website these days” says Noory. “We were just working on a new site, and the ability to make a website now without knowing HTML is easier than ever.” Adrion could not believe the wealth of resources available to people starting out on the Web today: “We have a new product that we are testing out, and we thought we’re going to make a very quick shop for it, we’re going to spend a night on it, and the tools that are out there now are just so incredible how easy it is for people who don’t really have the knowledge.”
Adrion and Noory’s familiarity with Web design has been important to their success. Noory explains, “Without the Internet, without our ability to work in the Web and make websites, we would never have gotten started. It’s where we do all of our promotion, where we do all of our sales, so it’s number one, absolutely the most important thing.”
A local presence
Despite having a Web-based business and getting their work out to the marketplace almost entirely online, Adrion and Noory have started doing events in their local area as well. In cooperation with a local printmaking studio that produces some of their prints, they let people come in and create prints based on one of their designs, a map of the state of Ohio. “We are lucky to have some really awesome friends here in Columbus. People loved it. It was great. For people who didn’t go to four years of art school and spend hours and hours in the print lab it’s kind of a magical thing to walk in and apply ink to a plate and crank this thing and out comes a print that they made. So that was fun. We hope to do that more; we got a really good response to that,” says Adrion.
Working as a team
Adrion and Noory have found that they work more efficiently together than they could on their own, but they had no idea that this would be the case from the start. Adrion explains, “It’s really interesting, because we each have our own individual styles and individual strengths. It sounds awful when we tell this to people, but neither of us really like working with other people. So it was funny that when we started working together on these projects that it actually came very naturally and we found that our skill sets were very complementary. I tend to be the nitpicky, detail-oriented one, aligning everything to the fraction of a pixel level, whereas Omar has this great ability to look at the bigger pictures and take things a step further than I would. Our collaboration is really great.”
Noory explains how working with Adrion helps him work better: “Jen is really good at the two things that I am really bad at: starting a project and finishing a project. In the middle, I’m fine, I like that kind of work, but I really have a hard time thinking of an idea, and I have a hard time saying ‘This is done.’ So we help each other through these creative roadblocks. We make things that would not be possible with just one of us working on the project.”
They both agree that finally saying that something is finished is one of the hardest things in design. But sometimes an element from an unfinished work unexpectedly provides the missing piece for later projects. “On our dropbox for These Are Things there are probably about one hundred unfinished projects for every one finished one,” says Adrion. “It’s weird, sometimes while we’re trying to finish one project I will remember something that I designed a year ago for something that never got made, and that will be the thing that completes the piece. We actually have one on the computer screen right now that we can’t quite finish yet, but we don’t know exactly what to do with it. Sometimes the project does just need to sit for a little while until you realize that it is done. Now, with client work, the sitting for a while is not really an option,” Adrion laughs. “But, for the self-directed stuff, it really takes time, and I think having two of us helps because when I get completely stuck and am in a corner and can’t figure out what to do, Omar can walk over and say, well, you know, it needs a third color. It’s usually something simple, like ‘Ah, okay, this is how we can complete this thing.’ But I’m such a perfectionist that I have trouble calling anything done.”
Noory says that at some point you need to just declare a project finished. “That’s always the hardest thing when you are sending off something to the client or to press, to say, ‘Okay, this is done.’ We can sit for hours and try to make it 1 percent better, or we can just have it done.” Working as a team can makes this easier for Adrion. “It’s nice again to have two people because if I were on my own I would just go back and forth forever without being quite ready to call it finished. We give each other deadlines and that definitely helps with getting things done.”
Don’t try to do everything yourself
Noory explains that another strategy that helped them succeed was deciding not to try to do everything themselves. “If you are not really good at something, or something takes too much time, source it out. We have other people print our work and ship our work so we can just sit down and design. It costs money but the money we save from having our time back has been worth it a hundred percent.”
Adrion remembers how important their first decision to outsource was to the eventual success of their company: “That was the one decision that allowed this to even happen. We both studied some printmaking in college, so we were pricing out building a silkscreen lab in my basement. We were going to print maps ourselves. We had it all priced out, we knew what we were going to buy, and we looked at each other and said ‘We’re not going to do this.’ We would end up with a map that wouldn’t even look very good because we’re not professional printmakers. So we pooled together 500 dollars to get 50 maps printed. That was the smallest quantity they would let us order, so the cost per piece was really high, but that was what we started this business on.”
Although it was scary to spend so much for their first run of prints, in retrospect they agree that it was a great investment. “It was probably the best money that we have ever spent. But it was a lot at that time, and we thought, ‘What if we don’t sell these things, we’re going to have one map in his house, one map in my house,’” says Adrion.
“We were figuring we could just give them away if we had to,” says Noory. “We really wanted these maps, and they looked good,” Adrion explains. Noory adds, “We thought maybe someone else might like them.”
Luke McLaughlin is an American writer based in Oxford, England. In addition to writing about art and music, he is currently working on a series of musically expressive smartphone apps.