Top: from left to right: Pete Alvarado, Stephen Croxson, Laurie Croxson, Robin Parrish
CROXSON Design an award-winning branding and integrated communications firm that is dedicated to the development of their clients’ brands by providing strategic branding solutions, marketing communications, advertising, print and interactive services.
AIGA Houston’s John Luu was able to stop by CROXSON to speak with principals; Stephen and Laurie Croxson about their studio and their process on how they utilize design and strategy to develop brands and integrated communications solutions for their clients.
John Luu / How did you first get into design?
Stephen Croxson / I came to Houston from Louisiana Tech. In college our design class toured studios in Dallas and Houston. We toured the Richards Group, Tracy Locke, some large agencies in Dallas and in Houston, Rives Dyke, which is now Richards/Carlberg, and Baxter+Korge (B+K). So I thought, “ok, if I go to Dallas I’ll work for the Richards Group and if I stay in Houston I’ll work for B+K.” Well, unbeknownst to me when I interviewed, B+K had one open spot and 22 people interviewing for the position. So that’s how it was when I was hired by B+K and that’s how I got into the industry. B+K was very much a B2B (Business to Business) studio and that type of work has always interested me. I naturally gravitated to high-profile projects like annual report design and corporate identity. Working on the highest-visibility pieces gave me the opportunity to work with upper management. So, I’ve always felt very comfortable working with senior executives, so it was an easy transition for me… going from the drawing board to a presentation to the Chairman of the Board.
Laurie Croxson / Even as a child Steve always knew he wanted to design. He wasn’t sure what it was called, but he knew he wanted to work in graphic design in some form.
SC / Louisiana Tech had a lot of architectural rendering and illustration courses, as well as fine art and advertising-based programs. So I had a plan – that was what I wanted to do. Like Laurie said, I never quite knew that it was labeled a Creative Director. I’ve always enjoyed the creative side and the thought process it involves. I’ve been very fortunate in my career, I’ve always been in organizations that respect the “thought” side of the business. Our legacy, our culture, how I hope CROXSON Design is perceived is through the work we do – it’s the thought process, not just aesthetics. Obviously aesthetics are very important, but there must be an underlying theme and continuity of messaging throughout; so I think that’s one of the ways we differentiate from some of our competitors.
You’ve been in business since 1978. Can you tell us how CROXSON Design come to be?
SC / I was working at a design studio, Ben Carter & Associates, where I had an opportunity to develop my own client base, so in a way I was a freelancer working for a freelancer, and Ben had an excellent creative reputation and was looked upon as a creative hired gun. He had been an art director at McCann Erickson, and had worked on large projects like the Exxon name change. Ben was growing his studio, got to a certain size, and we just had a difference of opinion which presented a perfect opportunity to exit and carry some clients I had established at that point. So when I went out on my own, I already had a client base started. My background with Ben provided wonderful insight because I could see what I believed had been done right, and what I felt I could improve on. This was a good foundation for running my own business.
LC / Steve had been on his own for quite some time when he and I met. I had always worked on the agency side: copywriting, media planning, branding strategy, graphic standards, that sort of thing. So when he and I started dating we were bidding head-to-head against each other on project,s and after about a year we decided the best thing would be to merge everything. In the same week I moved in with him and went into business with him, so I felt like I was throwing my career and my home and my heart all off of the same cliff, but it really did work. It’s a good mix because we have a nice right brain/left brain combination. So much of my background was print ad campaigns, and it allowed CROXSON Design to branch out into more areas. 18 years later, we still think it was a great business decision and a great personal decision!
SC / Yeah, that separation of church and state… somewhere the line got crossed but it works very well for us. I think it does have to do with the left brain/right brain side. Our studio attacks things strategically. We attack things from the point of view that a lot of what we do can be viewed as subjective, so we are firm advocates of defining the objectives of a project and developing targets to hit. That idea of a client saying “I don’t know what it is but I’ll know it when I see it” — the answer is: run from that, because you can never hit that target. Setting clear goals that creative must achieve raises the professionalism of our industry because it gets less subjective.
Laurie and I were actually introduced by Terry Vine and Patti Schumann, his wife at the time. We met at a jazz club. It was Terry, Patti and myself and six other ladies.
LC / It wasn’t so much of a blind date – they thought we were perfect for each other, and if they just put us in the same room we would find each other. And we did!
SC / This was a very attractive table, I might add. The jazz singer sent over drinks to the table to congratulate the gentlemen for having these very attractive ladies with them, so we owe it all to Terry and Patti for setting us up.
LC / I had heard of CROXSON Design but had never met Steve; I only knew of his work and his reputation. So going into business with him a year later, that was what I had always wanted to do; to partner with a small design firm to turn it into a boutique ad agency. That’s very much what we are functioning as now. For our large clients, like Exxon Mobil where they have hundreds of marketing people, we perform very targeted tasks as a part of a large team. But for our smaller and mid-size clients we’re their virtual marketing and creative department and handle all of their marketing functions. The scope of services we provide is customized to the needs of the client.
SC / I think it’s interesting when people compare the design work of Houston to Dallas, you have to look at what client base is established in each city. We’re very much a B2B environment, and understanding the industries and how vertical the target audiences can be, with niche trade publications – that’s why Houston developed, I believe, into a strong print-centric market where, say, Dallas is more of a B2C broadcast environment. From a television and radio production point of view, well, they’ve always been stronger than Houston. Houston’s vertical focus on energy, health sciences and similar industries has cultivated some great B2B design firms like Pennebaker and your firm, Axiom, which I consider to be our peer group.
Actually this kind of leads into my next question. There are currently four people at CROXSON. Are there any insights into what designers should expect or know when working at a small firm?
SC / That’s a good question, and the answer is: know everything. In our educational system, just because a student knows a particular design software or skill, it can be seen as the end-all-be-all. But the education process never stops. We’re doing two new product launches right now involving new molecules. It’s heady stuff and with all due respect, there’s no way you can go in and bullshit your way through a meeting on something like that. We meet with engineers and marketing people who truly understand positioning and particularly in chemical processing, when you have a new chemical introduced, it may be three years down the road from a production standpoint. So you touch on a lot of industries, you touch on the marketing strategy of the organization, dollars within the organization that will be put forth not only for the research side, but also the implementation side. Customers may have to build a whole new wing to their plant to implement technology innovations and that can take five years. So I think as we get more deeply involved with our clients’ thought process and strategies, it gives us a better idea of how vision works for corporate America.
LC / The bad news in a small firm is that there is nowhere to hide – if you’re not producing, it’s going to be obvious. It’s also very interactive; it’s very close knit. The positive side, and this is input we get from employees coming from large agencies, there are none of the layers of management that eat away at great creative. You don’t have have something going through this person and then that person. You can speak directly to the client if you want to. We don’t filter our designers from anything, and it’s all about the creative end-product. That is bottom line. We don’t keep time sheets; we’re not going to worry about spending more time because it’s not budgeted; it is simply about the best creative it can possibly be. That’s why we decided to not grow. We don’t want to get bigger because it doesn’t mean you get better. It just means you’re going to worry about bringing in more accounts, where you’re going to get the next big client, the next new project and you forget about doing the very best you can with the projects you have in-house right now. So that’s why we love our size – we don’t want to lose sleep about ever having to lay somebody off or worry about whether we can give out the bonuses people deserve. We want employees to be able to go home at 5 pm, see their families, do the things they love. Getting away from work can be the best way to clear your head and let the big ideas develop. Sometimes when a design firm gets too big, you get caught up in this machine and you lose sight of the design and creative and the fun you were having doing it. We see firms who are all about getting bigger and bigger and I don’t see why. I’m sure there are dollars in there somewhere, but quality of work and quality of life have to play into it, too.
SC / That’s an interesting thought, I think at some point in time, every principal has a mental image of what their comfort level is, and how many people you’re comfortable managing. I kind of refer to it as “rowing a boat.” At one time I had a studio with 10 people and I felt like I was rowing the Titanic. I think there is a misconception in college that just because you’ve made it through your four years and learned the latest software design program – that’s it… you’re employable. In reality, the education process never ends. You move from understanding the basic elements of design and composition to understanding business and how businesses work. We’re currently launching two new product lines, and one of the products contains a newly-developed molecule – that’s pretty heady stuff. Understanding the “cradle to grave” aspect of marketing a new product line; that just isn’t taught in a design class. The marketing strategy of a product launch like this will incorporate many disciplines – from brand development and messaging to understanding that a technological advancement might require three to five years to build a new manufacturing facility before it captures its first dollar. Projects like these allow us the opportunity to interpret our clients’ vision and gives us a much clearer idea of how corporate America works.
LC / Another fun thing for a designer in a smaller environment is that when we get a creative project – whether it’s a website or a logo – everybody works on the initial concepts, everyone gets to dive in and the best rises to the top. Whichever one the client chooses, that person follows it through to production and press checks. It is your baby from start to finish although some people may not want that. We are very detailed-oriented; down to hyphens and line breaks, and if a designer doesn’t want to agonize over how something looks and what the line breaks are and the kerning and the leading; if they want to hand that off to a production person who is less experienced than they are, we’re not the right place for them. You have to care.
SC / I believe in pride of authorship. We’re very proud of the work that we do for our clients; we just won Agency of the Year from BMA, which is interesting because I don’t typically think of us as an agency. But that’s my own perception. To me an ad agency is someone who’s handling and producing consumer campaigns and doing national media buys. Large media dollars define an ad agency to me. Now that’s not the legal definition, but in my mind, that’s what it is. I think as Laurie said earlier, we think of ourselves as boutiqish in nature and we look upon that with great pride because that’s where some of the best creative comes from.
CROXSON specializes in corporate branding. Specifically Business to Business. Can you go into detail about your process?
SC / Our client base includes start-ups to corporate giants. This morning I met with a company to design their very first annual report. We’ve already developed their corporate identity and branding structure, and this annual report will offer us an opportunity to work further to define the culture of their organization. So not only are we able to provide a visual brand for the company, but now we will help craft the message – interpreting how they raise their flag to salute, “this is who we are” in the marketplace. From a designer’s perspective this is a tremendous opportunity, and from my perspective it’s a rush to be able to do that.
We work very hard to understand our clients’ businesses, the industry segments they serve. An oil service company that deals with well intervention will face challenges and restrictions like high pressure and high temperature. When you meet with their engineers they expect you to understand what they’re doing. Through all my years of doing this, I’ve pretty much worked on every part of the drilling rig – from the mast, to the rotary table to the drill bit to downhole intelligent completion. You learn how all of the pieces work together and that’s when you are able to bring value to your client.
LC / Steve worked on a pipeline repair crew when he was in college, so he’s been out there in the field. Hands-on, which our energy clients love, because it means he knows what he is doing, and when he goes on photo shoots the crews respect that he’s done some of the work himself.
SC / The oil industry is like any industry, people want to know that you understand what they’re doing; it’s talking to a guy on a backhoe and being able to talk to the chairman of the board. The beauty of my experience allows me to speak comfortably to everyone, and have the same level of respect for both. You can gain a lot of insight from the guys in the field about how to do something right, and they appreciate the fact that you want to do it right – the first time. That’s what I still truly love about our industry. But at some point in time – and I’ve owned my own company for 30 years – you ask yourself “are you tired of it yet?”
LC / (laughs)
SC / (smiling) Not yet. But I would like a shorter work week.
How long have you been members of AIGA?
SC / I would say about eight years now.
What do you get most out of AIGA?
SC / With Robin Parrish on our staff now, we know what’s going to happen before it happens… and when we’re busy she reminds us of upcoming events. But I particularly like the speaker bureaus, when you bring top talent to the city. It’s a window into the world. You’re bringing talent to our marketplace, that we would not normally see on a regular basis and it becomes an exchange of ideas. You take it all in, and you start formulating your own ideas of what is appropriate. You try to take that information and use it in your day-to-day activities. Hopefully, that not only makes you a better communicator, but a also better designer, a better husband, a better person in general. And I believe design is a tool that can accomplish all of those things.
What do you look for when looking at design portfolios?
SC / The thought process.
LC / The concept.
SC / Concept is everything John; it’s the “big idea” or magic behind something. I think it’s interesting when someone says there’s only one way to do something. I love to prove that person wrong. There are many different ways to attack a problem, and to articulate a message through certain nuances in different ways, and I think that’s what we’re asked to do as professionals. Take information and find the best way, in the voice of the client, to communicate it. When a client comes to me, I don’t think they’re asking for my style. What they’re asking is “What can you do to build MY corporate image and brand in the marketplace?” So if I give them Steve’s look, no matter how beautiful it is, well, I think that’s a disservice to the client.
LC / So particularly with student portfolios, we’re disappointed when an individual has one style and that’s it, that’s everything that you see. Because we don’t present the same style to clients over and over and over again. We have to reflect their brand, not our preferences. When you’re showing your portfolio, tell us a story – we want to hear how you started thinking, who is the target audience, and what was the thought process that brought you to what you are. The background is going to tell us more about you and how you arrive at solutions.
Do you have any additional advice for designers still in school?
SC / Read more. It’s amazing when I talk to students and you ask “Has anyone read a Wall Street Journal this week?”. No hands go up. Now think about that; we’re a business doing business with other businesses. The Wall Street Journal is simply the bible. You have to surround yourself with what you want to be and who you want to talk to. You have to project yourself beyond school into the working world. Wouldn’t it be a pretty good idea to be cognizant of what’s happening in the real world? And I get “I’m a college student, I’m on a budget.” Look, you’ve got Wall Street Journals in the library, or go online. But the idea is, once you stop formal education, once you finish college, education does not stop. It just began for you because you’ll be thrown into an environment where you’re meeting with a Chief Financial Officer and had better have a general idea of his job description and what the CEO does. And none of that is by osmosis, it’s all simply by hard work and study.
LC / It’s not just the job of account services to know these things… it’s really a part design to understand who you’re designing for.
SC / Design is a wonderful discipline that can help open eyes, open minds and even open hearts. Use this wonderful talent we’ve been given and make the world a better place.
To learn more about CROXSON please visit their website at www.croxsondesign.com
If you would like your studio featured on AIGA Houston please contact John Luu firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.