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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.


New AIDS Foundation of Chicago Site Launches


We just launched the new website we designed for AIDS Foundation of Chicago.

The launch coincides with World AIDS Day, Dec. 1, a day which is an opportunity to commemorate people who have died from HIV/AIDS, and show support for the continuing fight against this disease. A big thanks to AFC for being such a great client and for all the work they do in the fight against HIV/AIDS.


Alexian Brothers Housing Health Alliance

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AIDS Foundation of Chicago

Public signage was site specific so that content of the headline message aligned with the media buy. For instance, the sports themed ads ran around Wrigley Field, Soldier Field and the White Sox stadiums. The “Now Playing” themes ran in the theatre district of the Chicago Loop.



















Thanks to AHA

We're still getting caught up on blog posts and updating the portfolio after an incredibly busy and productive summer. Client work always takes priority over shameless self promotion and social media, but we're trying to do better at balancing the two.

I would like to give a special shout out to everyone at the American Hospital Association. We started refining their visual identity in July and are continuing to evolve the visual identity for a number of their programs and publications. They are a really wonderful group of people, everyone in their organization is a joy to work with.

I was particularly pleased with the publication design below for the publication entitled “The Sky Is Falling”. I generally avoid the literal interpretation, but when you have a chance to visually reference Gerhard Richter, it's hard to pass that up.

A walk in the park

It's been a busy summer at Substance, which is made evident by the fact that this blog has been largely silent of late.

There has been a lot of activity, both in our continuing efforts with not-for-profits, as well as our ongoing commitment to the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center.

We (not-so) recently began a branding and repositioning campaign with Parkways Foundation. Parkways invests in Chicago parks to benefit communities. Their impact can be seen in the renovation of Moore Park, the countless Movies in the Park, and their Send A Kid to Camp program.

Substance designed their annual report, developed high level messaging and repositioning, and are in the process of extending this to all marketing collateral, including events programming. This will be capped off by the launching of their new web site to take place in the fall.

We're looking forward to continuing this partnership through 2012. Stay tuned for more updates and samples to come.

When the Saint Comes Marching In

The call from the prospective client came late last night.

This was not unusual. What was different this time was the slight Irish lilt in his voice. Also, the call appeared to be long distance. Europe, to be more specific.

Ireland, to be exact.

A halting voice began, “Ah yes, I'm looking for someone to develop a rebranding effort for a not-for-profit.”

I responded in my most professional tone, “Well, that's certainly right up our alley. May I ask what organization and with whom I'm speaking?”

Slight pause. “My name is Sain–, er, I mean, Patrick. I believe we need to rebrand St. Patrick's Day in America.”

Long pause. “I'm listening.”

He continued, “Well, it's just that we've been doing the whole green thing for so long, it's beginning to feel a bit tired. And so many other folks have jumped on that color bandwagon. Everyone from Starbucks, to BP, to Animal Planet has been using green–it seems old St. Pat has gotten lost in the shuffle. And don't get me started on that green beer thing. Haven't these folks ever heard of Guinness?”

“Saint…I mean, Mr…”

“Paddy will do just fine, young man. At my age, one doesn't stand on ceremony.”

I tried not to fumble my words. “Very well, um…Paddy. Did you have any initial thoughts on visual elements that would work with your brand?”

“Well, blue is always quite nice and it seems to be quite popular with a lot of folks. As far as symbols are concerned, the shamrock seems pretty well played out. Azaleas are nice though. Philodendroms too. Maybe you could play with something like that? We can keep the plant idea. The maple leaf certainly seems to work well for Canada. ”

I continued to jot down my notes. “Did you have a specific budget and timeframe in mind?”

“Well, I've long since taken a vow of poverty, so if you could offer a not-for-profit discount rate, that would be brilliant. And the big day is the 17th, so we've little time to tarry.”

I raised my eyebrow. “As much as we pride ourselves in being able to deliver on aggressive schedules, that may be a bit much, given that Thursday is the big day.”

He sighed. “I suppose you're probably right. Well, never too early to get started for next year, eh?”

“Of course. I'll send you an email with some thoughts and we can go from there.”

“Cheers young man.”

And Happy St. Patrick's Day.

Making the Sale

One of the constants you hear from designers and the creative profession in general is how much they dislike the sales aspect of the business.

Like the proverbial cobbler whose children lack shoes, designers are often lacking in their own marketing communication (read: sales) efforts.

For us, the process has been remarkably unscientific, albeit quite straightforward. Seek out the clients with whom you want to work. Send them something you think would get their attention. Follow up with an email or call a week or two later.

It's an idea so crazy it can occasionally work.

Roughly a year and a half ago, we made a concentrated effort to work with Chicago not-for-profit organizations. This was for a number of reasons. First, they tend to be fairly visible, and visibility leads to greater awareness. Second, they present a more unique set of creative challenges than some of our corporate or professional services clients. Finally, there is a warm and fuzzy factor in doing good work for organizations that you feel benefit the community.

This is what we did.

Each year we send out a holiday promotion to our clients, friends, and colleagues. We made a point of adding two dozen not-for-profit clients to the list who we thought would be a good fit for Substance. Then, we designed a holiday promo that we thought was suitably cool.

Two weeks later, we received a call from a very pleasant gentleman from AIDS Foundation of Chicago and an equally pleasant lady from the Illinois Humanities Council. Both are now wonderful clients that have been with us over a year. They are collaborative, forward thinking, and value what we offer.

In short, they are ideal clients. So much so, that our efforts with them caused another not-for-profit to take notice. We recently started a rebranding campaign with the Parkways Foundation. If you've ever wandered through the Chicago Park District and wondered who to thank for the funding and upkeep of the parks, credit Parkways.

We look forward to partnering with them on their 2011 efforts, and beyond.

Springing Into Spring

If you have ever wandered through the Chicago Park District and wondered who to thank for the upkeep and funding of the surroundings, you can credit the Parkways Foundation. From the restoration of Buckingham Fountain to the McKinley Park Soccer Field, Parkways is there to invest in Chicago’s parks that enrich the community.

Substance is pleased to announce we will be partnering with Parkways on their rebranding effort for 2011. Our initial efforts will include market research, annual report design and development, and redesigning their website. We will also be partnering on an awareness ad campaign, as well as event marketing.

Now that's how we like to kick off spring!

Kudos to the Alma Mater

It's not often I'm prone to nostalgia, but a recent ranking by a British site that put Kent State University's Visual Communication program in the top four in the U.S. took me back to thoughts of my alma mater.

When I started college, I barely had an inkling of what graphic design was. Upon first meeting with a career counselor to choose a major, I said “I want to do the kind of art where you can make a bit of money.”

His response was “Then you want to be a graphic designer.”

That sounded fine to me, and he signed me up.

Little did I know what I was getting myself into. The program, one of the most rigorous of its kind, was like boot camp without the drill sergeant shouting in your face. There was a high standard across the board and if you didn't meet or exceed it, you were out. No questions, no crying and cajoling of professors was going to change that. The attitude, one I supported then as well as now, was that design programs have no business sending students ill-equipped to deal with the rigors and pressure of being a professional designer.

I don't recall the numbers but of a starting class of about 50, roughly 9 or 10 of us staggered across the finish line of our senior project. Tough as it was, it was an amazing experience. It didn't merely show you how to put together a great portfolio or how to use typography and imagery, although it did both of those things quite well.

It taught you how to think critically and conceptually, getting rid of the obvious solutions and delving beyond the expected to come up with something that you wouldn't consider on your first, second or fiftieth sketch. It taught you to go beyond your own expectations of your thinking and come up with something both new and good. It also landed me my first job in Chicago, one that set me on a path that continues happily to this day.

Martin Amis once titled a book of essays The War Against Cliché. In a way, that philosophic position is my greatest takeaway from the program, one I still aspire to in my work as principal of Substance.

Congratulations and thanks to John Brett Buchanan and j.Charles Walker, co-coordinators of the program for a job well done.