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Success secrets from Jake Lefebure of Design Army:

  • You’ve really got to be passionate about this business, and you’ve got to make sure it’s what you want to do, because it tends to be very stressful.
  • You’ve got to make up your mind where you want to work, and then tailor your book or your portfolio to that company.
  • It’s a tough business to stand out in. You have to be willing to do it differently and work a lot harder than the other guy.


Jake’s thoughts on building a career in design:

First and foremost make sure this is the career that you want. Anybody can get into the design field. There’s a difference between doing it and being good at it. To be good at it, you’ve got to have passion, which takes a lot of dedication. A good designer is not made from 9:00 to 5:00 hours. You’ve got to be willing to really go above and beyond, your curriculum if you’re a student. Or if you’re a new designer at a studio, it’s not a 9 to 5 thing.


You’ve really got to be willing to do the extra work. Take a lot of self-initiative. Take a lot of self-criticism. There are a million factors that would be part of making a designer an award-winning designer. But, if I had to say 2 things, you’ve really got to be passionate about it, and you’ve got to make sure it’s what you want to do, because it tends to be a very stressful business. There are a lot of moving parts and a lot of attitudes and egos that you have to deal with, depending on what level you’re at in your career.


It really depends. There are different sides: big agencies, small agencies. They both have pros and cons. At a smaller agency you usually get a better pick of projects when you’re a young designer, if you’re at a decent studio. But at the same time it’s more demanding. You’re going to be required to do more things. Whereas at a large agency you can sort of fly under the radar a little bit, not cause many waves and ripples. You can get away with doing more things, whereas in a small studio everything is noticed.

In terms of being a successful designer, it takes self-initiative and action. It takes determination. It’s a tough business to stand out in. You have to be willing to do it differently and do it a lot harder than the other guys.


On the award-winning design produced by Design Army:

Not all of it’s mine. I still design. I still do a lot of work. but probably 80% of our staff does the majority along with proper creative direction of course. At Design Army, there’s my wife and me who own Design Army, and we have about 7 or 8 designers these days. I do a lot of new business development and some creative direction. But Pum is the day-to-day creative director on these guys, looking at their designs, pushing their designs, making sure they’re on schedule with their projects. So she’s really the creative force around here to make sure stuff’s being done.


On his award-winning staff:

Our staff is very talented. We make sure that the people that we hire are of a certain caliber, that they have a skill set that’s beneficial to the studio. They have to able to impress us before they’ll even get an interview, so when we get a resume, it’s really got to be something that says, “hey, I’m a well-rounded designer, and I have a lot to offer you guys.” At the same time we have to be sure they have passion in that cover letter when they write to us. Not ass kissing, but passion. They’ve got to be conveying that they live, breath, eat, and poop design. That’s all they do. On the weekend they go to a bookstore. They don’t go biking. The want to do it. Because that’s the way we work. Pum and I work hard to bring in new projects and the clients that are given the opportunity to really push creativity. And when the clients sign up to work with us, they know they’re going to be getting something very different, something very unique.


On being well-rounded:

You can’t rely on just one solution. When I see a body of work from a potential employee I want to see strong typography skills. Can they do illustration, can they draw. Can they paint? Are they master Photoshop wizards? Can they do print design? Can they do web design? Can they do environmental graphics? Can they do packaging? I want to see what they have to offer. Sometimes I’ll see a book that’s all posters, which is fine. Then I really hone in on the concepts. And that’s what we look at first and foremost is the concepts. If the book and the work in that book is not conceptual, it doesn’t make it very far. I can teach a designer execution. It’s a little more challenging to teach them concept. Concept is a little more innate. You’ve either got it of you don’t.


On getting started:

I graduated in 1996. I went to Penn State. And when I started, I had no idea what graphic design was. I was actually in the advertising program. And then I found out there’s this mass of statistics and other bits and pieces that need to be put into that, and that was not the creativity aspect that I was seeking. So I went to my counselor and asked what’s the fun part, and he said graphic design. It’s similar, but it’s more creativity, not as much business, and not as much management in terms of focus group studies. It’s a scaled back kind of version of it. And I said, “That sounds great.” So I went through the entry level classes, made a portfolio, was accepted into the program, and that was the end of it. It’s what I’ve been doing since.


Work experience prior to starting Design Army.

I used to be the creative director at a large agency in DC. It’s now out of business, but I was creative director there. My wife was an art director. We’ve been working together for about 10 years. About 4 years ago we decided to do our own thing because the company was facing financial difficulties. The principals had left, and basically I was in charge, and so I said if I’m going to be doing it, I’m going to do it for myself. So we both quit and decided to start Design Army.


The start and growth of Design Army

Design Army’s first client came from a yard sale flyer. We were having this yard sale and we made our flyers, and this guy came running in off the street with our flyer saying, “This is awesome. I’m starting up my business.” He goes, “I don’t have a lot of money, but I know a lot of people.” And listening to this guy, we though we’d better take this project on and really go above and beyond.


Pum and I had done freelance stuff prior, which put us mostly before AIGA, and the Art Directors Club, but they weren’t paying gigs. So our real first paying gig was this client. So we took that on and really gave him a full-blown identity that said everything. And I would say 75% or our business in the first year came from referrals from this guy.


On new business development:

Every once in a while there will be a client or a project. We get RFPs (Requests for Proposals) all the time, so it’s not like we get up and cold call. Occasionally there will be a client that we really want to work with, but tends be a very large annual report or a promotion for a paper company, but very seldom do I have to call around. Usually they call us and say we’re doing this project, and we’d like you guys to work on it. Sometimes they have money and sometimes they don’t. So we just kind of weigh the creativity. That’s one of the things we’ve always done here. We always put creativity before cash. We want to make sure that it’s something we enjoy working on, something that we really want to bring into the studio and have the designer go wild on it. The creativity is by far the main force behind Design Army. It’s got to be something we want to do.


We don’t do trade conventions work hardly at all any more. Maybe we’ll take on one or 2 each year, but we usually try to find one that’s a little unique, a little different that will open doors for us into other areas where we want to work.

On putting creativity ahead of cash:

If a client comes to us, and it’s a start-up, and says they’re starting a shoe store or something, and they don’t have any money. So I’ll look at the situation, and determine whether the press they’ll get on opening will work to our advantage, and whether it looks like we could do something really interesting. Then based on their product, their idea, their concept and so forth, we might say we’ll do that at a reduced rate. So what happens is, they do the store. We help them out. They get launched, and people come in the store and say, “Oh, this is great stuff! Who did your graphics?” They tell them, and that’s how we get our business.


The key to Design Army’s success:There’s no key per se, other than we’re passionate about what we do, and we really focus on doing creative, conceptual work. We try not to work that’s just a look or a style. There’s more meaning to our work. We try to not put so many levels that you can’t figure out what the hell the idea is. A person can just look at and say ”Oh yeah, I get it.”


Jake’s thoughts on pride of accomplishment:

The fact that we have our brand new office is remarkable to me for a firm that’s only 4 years old, to be where we’re at, moving into our own space. It took 2 years to plan and build this thing, but in terms of the projects and the clients, we have a very high retention rate on our client base. Once they get a taste of it, they get addicted. Probably some of our favorite clients would be like the Signature Theater. Because they let us do some really fun stuff. Really highly creative stuff for their theater, for their show posters, and stuff like that.


The other projects that I personally like are the Ringling Brothers Circus program books and the Disney on Ice program books that we do. Pum tends to skew more to the fashion industries, so we have the fashion-based clients. She really likes to work on those sorts of things. It’s a mixed bag. We never know what we’re really doing from week-to-week. Somebody new is always calling and it really depends. One of the industries we’re really tried to stay out of is healthcare. It just gets to be too difficult, too many managers involved and the creative usually isn’t at the level that it should be. We’ve just turned a lot of that kind of stuff away. Even though the pay is really good, it’s not the kind of stuff we want to do daily.


Design Army’s policy on entering award competitions:

We have a standing rule here at the office. We enter design competitions quite frequently. Our standing offer to the designers, is we’ll enter anything as long as it’s good. And they really bust their ass and make even a small brochure, that seems to be a sort of a down-and dirty job, so that it does get recognized and does stand out, and we’ll enter it in the shows. And if it wins, great.


We’ve done work that we’d consider low budget, or easy out sort of brochure work that has won awards from CA and Print, and everybody. We get these random little weird things every once in a while, and this piece should not be this good, but it is.


Would you do anything differently?

No I don’t’ think so. I’ve been doing this for 10 years and in my prior job I learned a lot. I learned a lot about the business a lot of managerial work that I had to learn. So today I take that knowledge and apply it in new ways as business is always changing. I know what works, what doesn’t work. I know the importance of keeping clients happy.chronicle_republican.jpg

Jake’s thoughts on telling a client they’re wrong:

I know the importance of telling a client when they’re wrong. They can be wrong, and they need to be told. You just can’t ass-kiss them all the way. You’re just going to turn out a shoddy piece of work that doesn’t turn out more work for you. So we’re very up front and very blunt with our clients. There’s no candy coating. They’ll say something like, “We’ll take a little bit of this one, and this one.” And we’ll say, “No. They’re different concepts.” We ask them which one they prefer, and we can refine that one possibly, but we really discourage them from mixing and matching.


Advice to students

You need to do your homework. You need to know where you want to work. Big agency? Small agency? What kind of role do you want to play? Do you want to be really creative? Do you want to be more business oriented? Do you want to do print? Do you want to do web? You’ve got to make up your mind where you want to work, and then tailor your book, your portfolio to that company when you’re interviewing. And you’ve got to be yourself. Ninety percent of that interview is you. It’s not your book. It’s not your work. It’s you. You may think it’s your samples, but they’ve seen that. It’s you. They need to find out what you’re like, your personality, what you think of other designers, your sense of humor, are you boring? Whatever.


At that interview, you need to come across as a genuine person. It’s okay to be nervous, but you’ve got to shake that stuff. You’ve got to be comfortable with who you are and the work that’s in your book, you’ll get hired on the spot. If you do that, you’ll get hired right on the spot.adcmw_wwww_conf.jpg

On why Design Army is successful:

There’s’ no smoke and mirrors. There’s no hocus pocus stiff going on around here. We are creative. We enjoy what we do. We also have to enjoy the client that we’re working we. If we get a client that’s difficult or not the right fit, we tell the client. It’s nothing personal, but as a business relationship it doesn’t make sense. You keep making changes. You can’t make up your mind. You’re slow in giving us stuff. You want it the next day. If I’m doing it for the creativity, and I’m not getting that, or I’m doing it for the money, and I’m not getting that, then I really don’t need you. And they appreciate that. Some of them get offended but they understand it. Some of them are still good friends. It’s not that we don’t like them as people or we don’t thing that their organization is for good causes, but I’ve got to run a business and I’ve got to keep designers happy.


Jake’s thoughts on the drive to be successful:

There’s so much work out there, and it’s really what you do with it. There are many successful design firms here in the city that probably make three, four times the money we make, but at the same time, nobody knows about them because their work just blends. Washington gets a bad rap for being conservative, and these sorts of firms just help that along. We’re trying to make Washington cooler and hipper, and a little bit more unique, so that when people say, “I need a design firm in Washington,” the answer will come back, “Oh, Design Army is at the top of the list.” We want to stand out. We want to show off. Personally I don’t have a big ego, but Design Army does. Design Army likes to win; be #1. And when we’re not #1, we cry. But then we go back to the drawing board and we figure out a way to be #1.


On new competition:

There’s a lot of talented agencies, and smaller studios popping up in the city that are really, really good. A lot of people would say, “Oh my God, this is competition! What are we going to do?” For me personally, I think it’s great; the more creative work, the more award-winning studios in town, the better, because it’s just going to attract better clientele to Washington for us to work with. And, it’s going to attract better people here.

About Jake Lefebure:

Jake Lefebure graduated with a B.A. in Graphic Design from Penn State University. Jake oversees creative look and daily management for a wide range of projects. He has a clean, exciting artistic style that complements his keen ability to understand and coordinate the needs and capabilities of clients. Over the years, Jake has developed award-winning expertise in all aspects of the design discipline. His specialties include university publications and recruitment materials, annual reports and poster design.

This article is published by Will Sherwood | The Sherwood Group |Website Design | Graphic Design | Marketing Communications: The Sherwood Group has over 30 years of experience working with all sorts of companies, small and large. Our clients range from entrepreneurs to Fortune 500 firms, in nearly every business sector, from across the street to around the world (and yes, even Europe, China, and South America). Our goal is to create advertising,  graphic design, website design, and marketing communication that still looks fresh and relevant 10-15 years later. Our mission is to stir your imagination and leave your competition shaken and wondering,  Now what do we do?”  We are located in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.

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