How A Focus On Great Design Keeps This Design Agency Crushing It After 10 Years Of Business

by Tim Jahn on June 25, 2010

In this interview, I’m chatting with Gregg and Tonya Tomlinson of fathead design, a Chicago based full service advertising and design agency.  We discuss why design is important and what exactly makes up good design.

Gregg and Tonya started fathead design over a decade ago, and have long lasting relationships with many of their original clients.  They pride themselves on awesome design (that’s why they kept the word design in the company name) and in keeping those relationships with their clients.

Transcript

Gregg Tomlinson:
To me, what makes really good design is reflecting the personality and the goal of your client.  Because at the end of the day, we’re just the vessel that they’re using to get their message across.

Tonya Tomlinson:

Listening is huge.

Gregg Tomlinson:
If you don’t listen to your client, and you don’t convey the message that they want conveyed, then as a designer, you’re not doing your job.

Tonya Tomlinson:
And that means not just designing, that means websites or anything you’re doing.  Even tweeting.  You have to listen.  That is a design, as it were.  You’re conveying exactly what they want, that’s their message, their means – that’s how they make money.  If you’re doing that incorrectly or not representing them, then that’s on you.  We think listening is the best way.

Gregg Tomlinson:
We’re a boutique advertising agency.  We do a lot of print and web design.  We do media planning for clients.  We do a lot of direct email for clients and pretty much take care of any type of advertising that our clients need.

Fathead is what happens when you get into an argument with your significant other about what you’re going to call your company.  We always tell people that if we waited a couple more minutes to name it, we probably wouldn’t be able to advertise it.

Tonya Tomlinson:
We wouldn’t be in the phone book.  We did both work for agencies and we both kind of grew weary of it.  We got tired, started doing freelance, one thing led to another, and here we are.

Gregg Tomlinson:

I got transferred to Chicago while I was working for Leo Burnett in 1995.  While I was working at Leo Burnett, the story of every single agency, I started doing a little bit of freelance work on the side.  I started getting more and more freelance work, to the point where I had to bring Tonya in because she was working for a smaller agency.  We started working on projects together which is something we’d been doing since college.

By 1999, we had enough steady work on the freelance side that we could both leave our jobs.  So she left her steady job in March of 1999.

Tonya Tomlinson:
Two days after we found out we were pregnant, so that’s always fun.

Gregg Tomlinson:
That was a good incentive to make sure you succeed at something!  And then I left Burnett in August of 1999.

The thing that has always driven me about this type of work is keeping the creative in focus.  Which is why we say it on our website and in our bio, and we say it every time we’re meeting with a new client, because we mean it, we feel like it’s gospel:  our name is fathead design and the reason we never took design out of our name is because first and foremost, we’re a design studio.

And we feel like that ethos comes across when you’re talking about website design, print design, designing an entire media campaign, whether it’s social media, radio, television, anything.  You have to approach it from a design standpoint.  What is the client looking to do?  What is their ultimate goal?  And then you handcraft whatever it is you need to to get that accomplished specifically for that client.

Tonya Tomlinson:
We’ve always had a relationship with our clients and over the years, we’ve always maintained doing whatever they want to do and growing with them.  There’s always that relationship there, where we don’t just provide one service and that’s it.  We want to encompass everything they need.  And that’s why we prefer staying small and helping them out and working with them so much.

Gregg Tomlinson:
Worst thing we could possibly do for a client is for them to come to us and say “we’ve got this widget that we want to sell” and we take a picture of that widget and put a reflected drop shadow on a white background in front of them and say “this is the way Apple does it and they make money, so you’re going to make money on it too.”

That’s absolutely the wrong way to approach a design concept.  The way to approach a design concept is actually take the time to speak to your customer and to learn about what they want.  What their needs are.  Their customers.  Who’s buying their product?  Why are they buying their product?  How are they using that product?  What kind of research did they do to get that product to where it is today?  And how do we get that message across to their potential client?

Keep your mind open.  Listen to your clients.  Don’t go into any project with a preconceived set of notions.  And don’t ever try to outguess your client without getting their opinion or their viewpoint first.

I see it all the time, when creatives or agencies or even freelancers will work with someone, and you can tell just by looking at their work that they already had this idea going into the project and didn’t really listen to the client.

Tonya Tomlinson:
And don’t put your eggs in one basket, because things can turn on a dime…and they will.

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