10 (More) Questions for Design Army

Signature Theatre Season Posters. Signature Theatre is known for it’s shocking performances, bold language, semi-erotic costumes, bloody climaxes, and winning TONY® Awards.

[Editor's note: In April, Jake and Pum Lefebure, founding partners of Design Army in Washington, D.C., were our featured Master Class presenters (please click here to download their talk). There were so many questions from audience members at the end of their presentation that we weren't able to get to them all. However, they were gracious enough to answer a few more and we present them here—along with some samples of their work—for you.]

Sharon
Q: Where did you get your capital during your start up years and how did you create cash flow?
A: When we left our jobs (Pum and AD and Jake a CD) we had already stashed away some money to use as the start-up—and as you saw from our humble beginnings we were not buying posh furniture or high-tech servers. Everything was borrowed or bought from yard sales and patched together with duct tape. Once we knew we wanted to have our own building we went to the bank; but we also had records of growth/income to back up our requests for credit/cash. You have to keep good books!

Liya
How do you develop a design budget for your clients?
Good Question and it varies from project to project. We tend to categorize our clients (corporate to non-prof) and assign a base hour rate to them – then it’s a matter of how large the project is to determine cost. And if we have an extensive up-chain of management to filter creative through we tend to add a little more for the “pain factor.”

Linda
In your earliest years, how did you find and land your invitation projects? Did you offer your work pro bono or at reduced rates?
Our first projects came from past client relationships who in turn would refer us to new clients. The invite projects really came from our early work with the Washington Ballet. We were designing invites for their really high-end galas, and the audiences attending were fans of the ballet with great creative tastes. When we started out we did not do pro-bono or reduced rates (but our rates were not high as it was just Pum and Jake and almost no overhead) so we were able to keep our costs low and creative high. After sometime we knew we would need to charge more, but would deal with that when it came time. We would rather do great creative than worry about the cash.

Tony
During the creative brief stage of a project, I find it challenging to get access to the decision makers who will give the final approval. This creates inaccurate project goals and major revisions later on. How do you get around the “middle man” on any given project?
It sucks, but sometimes none of us can’t get past the middle man— that is when we will 1) charge more; 2) send a written questionnaire to see if we can get the CEO to respond to it; or 3) get as much information about the decision maker we can – where they shop/vacation, car they drive, and other personal questions so we at least get a sense of their likes/dislikes. Sometimes it works, other times is does not – that’s why we have AA costs!

HRC Annual Report 2009: End The Lies. The Human Rights Campaign was in full force for 2009 with many high-profile projects and endorsements. The theme "Ending the Lies" was a way to raise awareness with a very direct approach; using the words of those speaking out, for, and against the HRC.

Simon
How do you gauge what to charge new clients for your work?
There are many things we look at, but most often – 1) do we like them and their business; 2) how many people are going to be in the kitchen with us; 3) do we see a long term relationship or just a one-off project; 4) 4) will they refer us more business. If we get mostly YES’s then they get a good deal. Lots of NO’s then we run away fast or charge 3 to 4 times as much!

Kellie
How did you get involved with the chronicle books projects?
They called us. Saw our work in a design annual and gave us a ring.

This is NPR for Chronicle Books. This beautifully designed volume chronicles NPR’s storied history, featuring dozens of behind-the-scenes photos, custom info-graphics, essays and original reporting by a who’s who of NPR staff and correspondents, transcripts of memorable interviews, and an audio CD of the most memorable programming throughout the decades.

Karla Colletto Anniversary Catalog. In 2009, the fashion designer marked 25 years in the business, so it was a perfect time to make a big splash. Despite having half the budget normally at our disposal, we proposed a design that was twice as many pages as previous years. The solution was to save money on the expensive models by opting to work with less expensive (and less temperamental) talent – mannequins.

David
Do you have a copywriter on staff?
No. We generate a lot of our own “creative copy” and then once we have an approved concept we will track down a writer that fits the project. Some of our writers are full-time employees at ad agencies and some are solo freelancers—but only a few of them are in the DC Area.

Robert
Did you pursue Neenah Papers or did they contact you?
It was a bit of both. We enter their quarterly paper competitions all the time so they knew who were; and then one day we got an RFP from them.

NEENAH: The Power of Print. Want Richer Results? Start with Neenah Paper. The paper market is bland. Ho-hum. Vanilla. We owe it to our clients to help them stand out, and it’s time to face the facts and get creative.

Jennifer
How many staff members do you typically have work on a project/client
Pum is involved in every project from the creative direction/development—she really sets the tone—and then most projects we will have 2 designers assigned to it. For fun projects like theatre posters or the high-profile projects we will let the entire staff have a stab at it.

Jeffrey
In the beginning [of the Design Cast], you said that you chose not to work with other creative studios like some freelancers do. Is there a stigma to that and what do you see as potential problems that can arise from that?
Mainly it was because we had to build a portfolio of work that was DESIGN ARMY work; not for the other studios down the road. We didn’t even have website for 2 years because we refused to put our older work (from previous job) as Design Army work. If you do choose to do freelance work for other studios just be clear on the contracts so that you will have rights to share/show that creative as part of your OWN company (with proper crediting of course).

Washingtonian Bride & Groom. Launched in 2009 when other magazines were going out of business, Bride & Groom is still going strong today. Each issue focuses on the best of DC; from planners and photographers to gown shops and bakeries, and of course an over the top photo editorials to feature the latest wedding fashions.

LAM: Landscape Architecture Magazine. The identity update and visual about-face subtly transforms the way the magazine—and the industry—looks and feels. Conjuring basic elements of landscape architecture, a versatile grid structure maintains order while classic and modern fonts enhance legibility and likability.

Video References

*All images courtesy of Design Army

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