Ten Years Burnin’ Down the Road…

“Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”
 -Ferris Bueller

Ten years is a long time to do one thing. Fortunately, design is very seldom “one thing”. It’s all of them and they all involve looking around.

I founded Substance ten years ago this week, hauling my computer up the freight elevator of our old office building. I set aside six months of living expenses and told myself if it didn’t pan out and I burned through it all, I would quit and find myself a real job.

I had no clients, no business plan, no idea where my first check was coming from.

What I did have was a belief that something of value could be made from the thoughtful integration of original ideas, coupled with compelling visuals to tell client stories in a unique and memorable manner. Martin Amis has a wonderful book of essays entitled “The War Against Cliché.” That sums up our design philosophy as much as anything else. Resist the obvious. Create something no one else has created in a way that is unique to the client, and tell their story in a way only they can own.

That was the origin of the name Substance.

I came up with the name in 2005 while sunning myself on the steps of the Mîro museum in Barcelona. I was sipping an espresso watching the city slowly awaken. I was bored with my job, tired of working for other people, but inspired from the previous weeks of taking in the wealth of Picassos and Goyas on display in the walls of their many galleries.

After giving it much less thought than I should have, I came back to the states, quit my job, and struck out on my own.

The name was aspirational at the outset. Part of the job of any business owner is to keep the lights on, and this occasionally resulted in taking on work that was driven more by financial need than creative philosophy.

After a few years however, things changed. We focused on rebranding not-for-profit organizations for whom we felt passionate. Then a funny thing happened. Not only did we start doing our best work, the scope of that work changed dramatically. We were no longer doing isolated pieces, like a one-off website or brochure. We were developing comprehensive brand identities, systems that truly defined what these clients stood for through words and imagery.

More important, we were having a blast doing it.

The most exciting part of being a designer is learning about an entirely new organization or industry, and becoming so well versed in it, you can tell the client’s story better than they can. It never gets old. My pulse still quickens each time I meet a client for the first time and ask how we can help them.

The illustrator Ralph Steadman, who worked with Hunter S. Thompson for decades once received a call toward the end of Thompson’s life. The good doctor implored the artist to embark on yet another one of their drug fueled journeys. They had done a lifetime of this, manic trips that Thompson would chronicle and Steadman would illustrate. The stuff of legend, that often flouted the law and all rules of self preservation. Thompson was his usual unhinged self, demanding they set out right away.

Steadman was somewhat resigned and asked, almost to himself, “How long are we going to keep doing this?”

“I suppose until one of us dies,” Thompson said after giving the matter some thought.

“Okay, I’m game.” Steadman said as he packed his bag, ready to undertake the next adventure.