Today I’m joined by James LaCroix. James, tell us about yourself.
I’m originally from the Cleveland, Ohio area. The last 10 years I’ve lived in Nashville. Now I’m working on my first year in Chicago. I’ve been running the LaCroix Design Co. for about 9 years now.
How did you become a designer, and what did your path look like?
I’ve had a really abnormal path to design. Growing up I didn’t know any designers. I didn’t even know this was a profession.
When I was in college I played in bands all the time. At first it was just something to do. Somewhere in the middle of my college experience I was traveling quite a bit with bands. It was something I did every weekend. I started to think that this could be my future. I had a few friends growing up that signed with a record deal and were doing quite well. So when the record label started calling my house, I decided it was time to not go to college anymore.
Within that year span the band broke up. A year later I’m working in a factory in Ohio, and I’m trying to figure out what I want to do with my life.
I used to go to bookstores and grab CMYK, Wallpaper and all these design magazines. At the time I didn’t know that there was a design field, but I would sit and look through them. I decided that whatever was in these magazines—that is what I wanted as a profession.
I think at the time I thought that it might have been advertising — I really never knew what would be the next step. So instead I moved to Nashville to start working in artist management. When you are young and new in the music industry, you are basically at the bottom. There wasn’t a lot of money in it. There wasn’t a lot of prestige. I was sending contracts out, and just doing a lot of menial tasks.
“Growing up I didn’t know any designers. I didn’t even know this was a profession.”
All of the artists we were working with were complaining that all of their merchandise was terrible. My boss at the time decided that he was going to start a merchandising company. Early on I wanted to be involved with it. I begged my boss to let me start the e-commerce section. It was the first design project I ever managed. I hired a team to build the web store. It was my job to design and fulfill it. We launched around in Thanksgiving and we did about $70,000 in sales before New Years.
Since I was previously involved in playing music, they decided that I was going to be the creative guy. Therefore, I was relieved of my webstore duties and was put in charge of product development. I’d meet with artists and discuss what they wanted their product lines to look like, then I would hire designers to make the products and oversee the manufacturing of them. I was probably the worst client ever, because I didn’t understand how the design process worked. I would send them napkin sketches, and tell them something like “I need you to make something like this, only cool.” I probably was giving too much art direction.
A bunch of things weren’t working out for the company. Nobody really knew what we were going to do and a few of us were considering starting something on our own. I didn’t have funds to do anything on my own, but we had an investor come in and promise us $1.5 million to launch something bigger.
The company I was working at handled artist merchandise from production to final sale. We had trucks and teams that would vend on tours. It was a one-stop shop for music merchandise. When we were approached by this investor, we wanted to make it bigger — ticketing, fan clubs. About that time I really started thinking about building a brand, and building fan bases around these brands.
So this new venture got going. The investor stopped funding at about $100,000. The person controlling the funds didn’t really tell any of us. Checks started bouncing. I could tell something was terribly wrong. Things were going downhill, and the founder let me take the clients without a fight.
We had grown up without much money in Ohio. I borrowed $1,000 with my parents credit card to order blank shirts. I wasn’t a designer at this point, but I had to try it because I couldn’t afford a designer. So I made my first round of shirts with the promise that I would pay my parents back in thirty days. From there — just because I didn’t have the budget to pay designers — I became a designer. I started LaCroix Merchandising and LaCroix Design Co. only because I didn’t have time to come up with something creative.
I didn’t eat for a while, got a part-time job, and basically started making shirts for bands. I removed a lot of the overhead by focusing on product design and manufacturing. That is the story of how I jumped into design.
How were you making those shirts? Were you screen printing?
I was third-partying it all out. I used to just go to printers, but I realized that if I worked wholesale deals on blank products and just paid for printing, I could significantly reduce cost. Because of the pricing the band was able to come to me for roughly the same price as going directly to a printer, but I would oversee the design process. It was originally t-shirts, but we got to the point where we were manufacturing jackets and other products overseas.
You never got a college degree? You never graduated?
No, but I did have the opportunity to teach college as an adjunct professor for three years when I was in Nashville.
Having not gone to school for design it was fun to step away from client work, and think about communicating design, and how you think about design if it isn’t for work.
What types of things do you find interesting?
I’m just a curious person.
When I was in college I changed majors all the time, because I could never focus on one thing for long enough. I think what I find interesting about design is that there is so much — just being in design you have to be a curious person.
There are always technologies, and visual things we want to try. But then at the same time I get to learn about everybody’s business. So when we work with a coffee company, I learn more about how coffee gets made, and how it makes its way to the U.S. and about the people that farm coffee, and what their life is like.
One of the best things about design is that you get to be curious about a lot of things, and it is rewarding to be able to do so.
Is there a specific philosophy in design that you stand by?
I believe it is changing.
When I first started I just made a lot of things. I was primarily an illustrator for five years. My only job was to put something out there that was cool.
So my first year of teaching I threw a crazy number of projects at my students, because I got better just by making lots of things — I think that has changed quite a bit.
Now I feel like as much as we can have our designer topics — typography, all these things we can pick apart about a restaurant menu — it ultimately comes down to communicating, and creating experiences for people. Being a small shop we don’t have a ton of time to do research. So we really try to thing about the people that are using the things we create. I try and think about how we can make that experience one they’ll remember. One that will create some sort of emotional connection.
You started working with music artists early on. How did that affect how you thought about business?
Had I not come out of Nashville, and come out of the music industry, I would have never thought about starting a business.
What is crazy about music — especially back when there was more money in the industry — is that anyone can start a business. If you met the right band and decided to manage the band, that was a business. If you decided to start your own band, that was a business. There are pros and cons to that. I worked with a lot of music artists, and we don’t anymore because it is easy to bankrupt that business.
What I learned most from that is there is opportunity. Had I been in Chicago at the time, I probably would have never recognized that. The city was smaller and there was this mindset that things could happen. There was potential. If you did things right it could work out. Maybe that isn’t the best business advice, but at the time the environment fostered taking a chance.
Early on we functioned a lot like the music industry business. We’re quite different now, but then we went to the right parties, and drank at the right places, and we tried to meet the right people, and we acted like we were in the music industry even though it was the business we were designing for.
“The biggest challenge I think is trying to communicate the value of something they can’t see.”
James, You’ve had The LaCroix Design Company for nine years, and you recently moved from Nashville to Chicago. Why the change?
This is probably part of the curious thing. I’m never content doing the same thing for very long. We did the illustration and artist merchandise thing for a while.
There is a lot of reward for the merchandise part. You make money based on products being sold, not hours. I had a design part and commodity part. The problem is high risk. The margins aren’t very high. If someone didn’t pay a $5,000 invoice, you probably only have the potential to make $1,000 off that invoice.
We started to veer away from that. I started focusing less on creating products, and more on creating illustrations. Over the years, as we start building websites and web applications, we’ve started moving toward a web studio. I feel like it is always changing. We had good luck in Nashville. It was a great place to be. The cost of living is low, and it is a wonderful city. We had an amazing group of friends. I was also president of AIGA, and teaching college, but I didn’t know what would happen in 20 years. I didn’t know if there would be something to keep me interested.
About four years ago my wife and I were in New York City. I thought “Wow, what would it like to be a designer in New York?” So we started making a list of possible cities that we thought would be interesting to move to. I thought about New York or San Franscico, and didn’t want to be broke. Every time we had gone to Chicago it felt like where I grew up. It seemed like the right city to be in. I wanted to see what it felt like to be a designer in a bigger market. It also provided some lifestyle choices for us. We don’t own a car. We’re in a tighter integrated community. That is why we moved to Chicago.
I miss Chicago. Unfortunately, in the south, even in Atlanta, you have to have a car.
What kind of challenges do you have running a design company?
We recently addressed a few of our challenges.
I moved to Chicago to be in a bigger market. I work for myself, I didn’t know a lot of people, so I felt small. I had expected it, but I think it had a bigger impact than expected.
When I first started, I basically sold artwork that existed to look good. It was supposed to be stunning, that was the only goal, and there wasn’t much concept early on. Then I would do branding, where there should have been a concept, but I felt like clients only cared if it looked good.
The biggest challenge I think is trying to communicate the value of something they can’t see. Rather than discuss certain technologies, we try to communicate how our solutions or the way we write code is valuable to their business.
Let’s talk a bit about 1 Page Sites, which is your packaged service that give small businesses a website quickly and affordably.
This goes along with communicating value.
We realized a lot of people don’t know how to shop for a website. It’s probably more designers than clients that have done a poor job of communicating how its done. Often people will call and ask for a website — and we’ve started charting the types of things people will say. They’ll tell us they want a five-page website, or they need a website that looks like another companies. There tends to be a lot of back and fourth. There are phone meetings, which leads to ideas, which eventually leads to a proposal. That is great — on bigger projects. Most of the time people just need something quick, and this process scares them.
We’ve also run into clients who ask us to build something that they think they need. So they spend a few thousand dollars more adding a CMS, and they never touch it. If they need to change a few lines of copy they can just email us. If it is quicker to change it than invoice it, we’ll just change it.
We thought there might be an answer for that on a low level. So we created 1 Page Sites, which is a long, one-page website that can be built for $3,000 in three weeks. The sites are responsive, so it works on tablets and mobile devices. It just takes a lot of the key questions, and gray area out of the project. It allows us to dive right in and start thinking about how to get people into your restaurant, subscribe to your service, or whatever it is going to be.
How does 1 Page Sites benefit your company?
There are several reasons we started 1 Page Sites. It give the client a base price level, and a base expectation.
We’ve had conversations where we didn’t talk about price early enough. We talk about the project, and get excited, and get invested in it. Then it turns out the client doesn’t have the money to accomplish it. So for us, 1 Page Sites gives good ball park expectations early on.
What future plans do you have?
We haven’t done any advertising for it yet. We’re eventually planning on buying some Google ads and things like that.
We’ve just put it out there and let the momentum happen. We’ve done a few one page websites. Eventually we’d like to look at other modules that can be added to it. So you could do a 1 Page Site, and a blog.
We’re looking at packaging a few more of our services. I think the key thing is setting expectations early.
If you weren’t a designer what would you be doing?
That is tough, because design is part of the way I think about the world. When I was younger I wanted to be an architect. I was good at math. I was told that I should be an engineer or an accountant. So I took this architecture class in high school, and I was awful. I had terrible handwriting, and decided I just couldn’t do it.
What would you say to an aspiring designer?
I think it is just a matter of doing. Just make as many things as you can. We get so scared to do something that we spend our whole life thinking about it. It’s design. You make some ugly things, and eventually you get better.
What books should every designer read?
I tell everyone to read The Elements of Typographic Style. It is something I read every few years.
Where can people follow you?