xxMatiz - June 1999
Why Modern Dog?
The evolution of Modern Dog
The two of us, Mike Strassburger and Robynne Raye, started Modern Dog in the mid-80s right out of college. In the beginning, we had very little real-life design experience and our only real goal was to pay the rent. We didn't have a particular philosophy about our approach. We just felt thankful to complete a job and get it printed.
Right from the start, if a job came along that we didn't think we would enjoy, we turned it down - even when we really needed money. We always said to ourselves, "What if a really fun job comes in and we're stuck doing this?" That screening process was a key factor in our development as a company. And it helped us with our portfolio since we didn't end up filling it with projects that we hadn't enjoyed doing. (We really believe that good, fun jobs beget good, fun jobs.) Over time, our style just developed naturally.
When we started our business, large design companies were the rule and it was much tougher for us to find good projects. Because of our lack of experience, we weren't able to do clean, slick work - and that's what everyone seemed to want. Then in the late 80s and early 90s, people began to define themselves in new, distinctively different ways. The effects of MTV on popular culture was already apparent. Larger agencies turned to small design firms and freelancers to add that increasingly important "youth marketing" to their portfolio (even though we think that term is a joke). This gave many smaller studios like Modern Dog a really good boost. Most of our stuff looked kind of "home grown" and the corporate types really seemed to think they could sell it to their clients. Many people also mistook us for part of the Seattle "grunge" scene, even though we always considered ourselves outside of that world. But we took advantage of it and never looked back.
Around 1991, Modern Dog started to take off and we were able to bring in another designer, Vittorio Costarella. He's been here ever since and we consider him a completely integral part of our company and success. Over the years, we've had other designers come and go - at the most, we've had a total of five designers in our studio (including ourselves). But we found that we prefer to keep things small and intimate; it's easier and more comfortable for us. Right now, Modern Dog is composed of Mike, Robynne, Vito, and our incredibly organized office whiz/design consultant Jem Hilbourn.
What kind of work do you seek and/or like to do?
This is a very important question to us, since part of our philosophy is to do only work that we enjoy. We do our best work when we believe in the project at hand. When a job comes in that we don't feel right about - whether it's because of style or philosophy - we try to help the client find a better fit with another designer or design firm that we respect. We like work that we find fun and challenging; doing a variety of projects keeps us feeling fresh. We love doing posters, for instance, but if that's all we did we would get very bored. So it's fun to work on a poster, then do some packaging, then a snowboard, then a complex corporate ID. In general, our favorite work falls into the recreation and entertainment industries.
What is your method for getting clients?
Our primary method for attracting clients has been through getting our work published in design books and magazines. In the beginning we tried to get published in everything, but over the years we've learned that certain magazines have a higher ratio of new job contacts.
We've never had a mass mailing list because we really don't care about working for everybody. We prefer a direct marketing approach: we pick a company that we'd like to collaborate with, and then we hound them with cool, personalized, one-of-a-kind promo pieces. We don't let up until they give us a job. (Although we are very sensitive about not being obnoxious.)
Which are its advantages and disadvantages?
One big advantage of attracting new clients through having our work published is that when someone calls us for a job after seeing our work, they are already familiar with what we do. If a potential client reads an article on Modern Dog, and gets an idea about how we work, that's even better. Media exposure really increases the probability that a prospective job or client relationship will be a nice fit, stylistically as well as philosophically. It's almost as if we get to hand-pick our clients.
The biggest disadvantage: you risk overexposure if you get over-published. There's a very fine line between really getting your name out there, and having people get sick of seeing your stuff.
What is the importance of chance events for getting projects?
We really believe that if you don't take risks and put your work out there, you'll go nowhere. Robynne met the manager of K2 Snowboards at a party in 1989, knew almost nothing about the sport and guess what? She called the next day and got an interview because they thought we were someone else. Nine years later, we're still working together.
Which of your clients is more important and which is more interesting?
All of our clients are equally important and interesting. Obviously, clients such as K2 that keep us busy year-round are financially important, but we don't work with them for that reason. We really like them as people and believe in their product. Besides, our companies grew up working together, so they are like family to us. We don't believe in doing work "just for the money."
The importance of humor and vernacular languages in your work.
Our work does incorporate a lot of humor and vernacular. Our design directly reflects us as individuals - it's who we are as people. It comes naturally to us because it's really part of our respective natures. That's why, as our staff has evolved over the years, you can see our style evolving with it. Each of us is influenced and inspired by the other designers in the studio.
We never want to do work that feels forced or unnatural. We stick to the things we can relate to, on some level.
How do you mediate between pro-bono and commercial work?
Early on, all of our clients were from the non-profit sector. We met some incredible people who gave us opportunities to experiment and develop as designers. As time went by, more corporate companies became attracted to our way of solving problems. In turn, they paid us better, and for the first time we were able to have basic things like health insurance. Without the non-profits, we wouldn't have developed the Modern Dog signature, and without the corporate clients we could not have afforded to stay in business. As business owners, we believe it's important to contribute to causes we believe in. We still donate a lot of our work in that direction.
Do you know some Latin designers?
Yes, but mostly poster designers - Rodriguez Lagunes, Gustavo Amezaga Heiras, Ramon Navarro, Gabriela Rodriguez, Jose Rueda, Felipe Taborda, Victor Luis Garcia, Xavier Bermudez and of course Posado.
Your point of view about the use of technology on design today and the impact
on your design proposals.
We appreciate the value of the computer as a design tool and because of it, certainly many things are now possible that weren't even conceivable a few years ago. Our background, however, is traditional. We feel that the combination of these two skills, technical and traditional, creates potential that is synergistically much greater. We often use traditional methods (i.e. drawing, painting, collage, hand-rendered type, mechanicals, etc.) in combination with the computer. We've done work that goes from 100% traditional to 100% computer and everything in between. And whenever we bring in a new designer, we look for raw talent over technical expertise.
The downside of the computer is that we are responsible for a lot more pre-press work, which can cause deadline delays and financial hardship if we prepare our files incorrectly. And because computer comps can be so tight, clients may have difficulty realizing that they are looking at comps and not final artwork.
The inspiration for typography in your work.
Everything around us - hot rod magazines, old cookbooks, Mike's artwork from 1st grade, highway signs, outsider art, and so on. We are avid "dumpster divers" and have been collecting other people's garbage for years. Our inspiration is literally anything that moves, excites or entertains us.
Have you developed some typography?
We have two fonts available through [T-26]: Arrowmatic and Imperfect. We have also developed about a dozen other fonts which are not marketed because the labor required to perfect them is too intense. (We kind of got burned out on building fonts.) Aside from complete fonts, we do a lot of custom typography for our projects. For headings and title treatments we do as much custom work as we do with pre-existing fonts.
What is the next challenge for Modern Dog?
We'd love to do film title animation.