HOUSTON'S CREATIVE WORKFORCE: GRAPHIC DESIGN
Brittany Johnson, Advancement Assistant
How often do you think about design? Jennifer Blanco and John Earles, co-founders of Houston-based Spindletop Design are willing to bet your answer is not very frequently. “People don’t realize just how much of an impact design has on their everyday lives. Basically, you don’t purchase things because it’s a quality product, you purchase because it’s pretty,” said Earles. This is where designers come in, “we give our clients the visual tools to help their businesses succeed.”
A lot of work goes into creating that beautiful end product, however. Graphic designers do an impressive amount of research before sitting down to create visuals. They need to have an idea of how their client operates, who their client’s competitors are and what those competitors are doing, they study their client’s target audience and who their client is additionally trying to approach. “It’s not just decoration,” said Blanco, “we’re involved in understanding our clients businesses to the degree that we could almost be running that business ourselves. It’s really bizarre."
After a stint in New York City, Blanco and Earles returned home to Houston and developed an interest in buying and preserving antique letterpress equipment. They began working as freelancers, using the machines to create stationery and wedding invitations for clients around the city. This small business, Workhorse, soon led them to create their second business, Spindletop Design, which focuses specifically on branding and design.
For the past seven years, the duo have been re-learning the ins-and-outs of their city through the various businesses that call Houston home; working with large, well-establish companies and taking on smaller, independent clients like Fat Cat Creamery.
Several years ago, Spindletop reached out to Fat Cat, offering to handle packaging and the graphics for their ice cream cart, “I learned that there was somebody making ice cream in Houston, with local ingredients, we had to meet them and get behind it,” said Blanco. The team was so excited about the potential to work with Fat Cat, they were prepared to exchange design for pints of ice cream. “We had to support it, so it could do well in Houston,” she continued. “Branding was really instrumental [for them], it put a character or a face with a really great product.” Thankfully as both companies have grown, their partnership has done more than simply keep Spindletop stocked in ice cream; in addition to packaging, the agency now handles Fat Cat’s website, and the interior design for their brick and mortar location in the Heights.
“We’re deeply concerned with building culture in Houston,” said Blanco. “Houston needs to expect the best of whatever its doing. If you’re going to brew beer in Houston, it should be the best beer. If you’re going to open a restaurant, it should be able to stand among the best in the country…that’s the goal,” said Earles. As they see it, the key to ensuring that Houston has the best of the best is attracting (or maintaining) talent and the beautification of a city is what draws talent in. “It’s important that our city look like a place that new, progressive, young, innovative people want to be in, or want to stay in, if they were raised or educated here,” he continued. “We want people to think of us on the same scale as New York or LA.
In terms of their industry, this means bringing attention to Houston. “The problem that we’ve got is that when people think ‘I need a really talented designer’ they look to the west or east coasts, they don’t think ‘hey, I’m going to look in Houston,” said Earles; and also, you know, by the same token, people from the east coast don’t look to get designers from Houston.” To combat this, Spindletop tries to keep positive relationships with the other Houston-based members of their industry as well as being active members of AIGA, the professional association for design.
The pair served as board members for Houston’s chapter of the networking association. During their tenure they worked to shine a light on their community, bringing in speakers from Facebook, Pinterest and Kate Spade Saturday as well as hosting several design weeks here in town. “Houston is a big city, there is plenty of work to do and there are some really talented, really sharp people here that are just chomping at the bit to take on any project and solve any one of their challenges from branding assets to reaching new audiences,” said Blanco. “These big institutions should really look at Houston, consider what’s here and support this community.”
After several years serving on the AIGA board, Blanco and Earles stepped down to focus more of their energy on running their two businesses, steering clear of the dreaded seven year itch by pivoting their focus from working almost exclusively with small restaurants and coffee shops, to taking on clients with a large cultural impact. Currently they’re in the initial stages of a rebrand for Art League Houston.
The pair believe it will be a good learning exercise, as Art League Houston has been working in the city for over 50 years. “We like to work with people who are doing good work and are passionate about what they’re doing,” said Blanco. “We want our clients to go out and make a name for themselves, and in turn make a name for the city. We want this city to be known as having the best food, the best culture, the best art, the best of whatever…we have the talent and with the cost of living and the resources and everything else, there’s no excuses.”