The Upside to Being a Designer Outside of New York

Design firms may dominate big cities like New York, Los Angeles, and London. But people with innovative, creative ideas and the skills to execute them come from all over. Who says you have to open your business in a major media market in order to be successful?

Sure, if you’re in New York, Los Angeles, or Chicago, you may be positioned down the street from the world’s biggest companies. A pitch meeting is a subway or taxi ride away. However, if you’re in Cleveland, Omaha, and even Anchorage, you can still get your firm’s portfolio out there and attract business from major players.

Here’s how firms like Nottingham Spirk (Cleveland), Grain&Mortar (Omaha), and Spawn Ideas (Anchorage) make their zip code part of their gig-winning culture.

First, they turn their physical location into an asset.

In Cleveland, Nottingham Spirk co-founder John Nottingham pulls into the parking lot of a converted landmark Christian Science church overlooking the city’s University Circle education, arts, and medical district. His 60,000 square foot, neo-Roman building with an ornate rotunda ceiling contains his company’s entire “innovation center,” from research and development, to engineering and crafting, all the way up to executive offices.

A bird’s-eye view of the Nottingham Spirk office, looking down from the rotunda.

While Nottingham Spirk has been innovating for major brands like Sherwin-Williams, Unilever, Mars, and Cleveland Clinic for over 40 years, it has only been in its current location for about a decade.

The look of the building is one thing, but the space is central to Nottingham Spirk’s success. Everything is in-house. That means consumer researchers, focus group moderators, industrial designers, mechanical engineers, prototype producers, production designers, and those who source materials are all under one roof (something not always possible in cities with sky-high rents where certain departments are pushed off-site). Having focus group rooms upstairs from industrial designers pays off when a morning focus group gives criticism and then designers refine a prototype that wows the afternoon focus group.

“That’s real-time product development,” says Nottingham.

Codie Costello, the new business director at Spawn, talks with prospective clients while looking out a large window onto the Cook Inlet, where she can often spot Beluga whales breaching. “You can see their white humpbacks come out of the water,” Costello says.

While Spawn works on local campaigns, like a successful re-branding effort for all 31 Alaska-owned and operated McDonald’s franchises (highlighting “locally-owned and operated since 1970,” on bags, cups, and trays), the agency also hones in on something every Alaska resident appreciates.

“We’re focused on leveraging our outdoor experience,” Costello says. And it makes sense that a company across the water from Sleeping Lady, a mountain in the Alaska Range, has contracts with gear-maker Mountain Hardwear and Intrawest, a major North American ski resort operator. Spawn looked at Mountain Hardwear’s mitten and glove offerings and realized there were two missing sizes: XS and XL. With those new sizes came growth. For Intrawest, Spawn boosted season sales by helping to refine the “M.A.X. Pass,” which allows skiers to access 39 mountains for five days apiece throughout the season.

Over half of Spawn’s employees are not from Alaska. They know it is a risk to move from a city like Denver or New York. So Costello says Spawn likes to promote risk-taking. If potential clients don’t like a non-conformist pitch, so be it. “But I’m going to take that step,” she says. That might also mean crafting a pitch that shows the client not just a finished product, but the original sketches in an effort to welcome them into the creative process.

Costello admits that deciding to move to Alaska for a job is a big step. She knows, since she did it herself after living in Northern California and New York City. But Spawn offers some key creative recruits a unique opportunity: It will fund a try-out period. Pack a small bag, and get your feet wet in Alaska, while you’re getting your feet wet with the agency. If it’s a good fit both ways, the employee is welcome to take the plunge and hire a moving company. If Anchorage is too remote or it’s not a good fit, no hard feelings.

 “It sounds kind of weird. ‘Why don’t you come try it for three weeks, a month?’ We’ll have you come work on a project with us, see what you think,” Costello says. “So many people have this idea ‘I want to come to Alaska.’ But it’s dark for most of the winter, and some people don’t like that. While it doesn’t always work for every person in every situation, it certainly has worked for us.”

For a young strategy and branding company like Grain&Mortar in Nebraska, it’s impossible to discount the long runway that comes with opening a business in a city like Omaha, which has a cost of living score of 88 on Sperling’s Best Places calculator. (The U.S. average is 100. Santa Monica, Calif., on the other hand, checks in at 294.)

Inside the Grain&Mortar office, which is located in downtown Omaha, Nebraska.

Creative director Eric Downs and his partners used to pitch against each other as freelancers working out of a co-working space, until they realized they would be stronger together. So they established their 5,000 square feet headquarters in the Mastercraft Building, an old furniture factory which still features original pulleys, pipes, bricks, and valves.

Downs knows the firm loses projects to competitors in the big cities. “There’s some merit to having people a little bit closer,” he says. “But on the flip side, there’s no way we could do our jobs and not be on top of each other if we were somewhere else. We know what the rent is in those big cities, and quite honestly, it’s not manageable.”

With a little extra space in Omaha comes a chance to use the space creatively. The firm hosts design society events, which boosts their local profile and serves to scout local talent. It also leases some space to a calligrapher, who has her own client base but is always on hand if Grain&Mortar needs some exquisite lettering.

As a progressive design firm in a city where big companies still go for billboards over social media, Grain&Mortar is the go-to designer for major Omaha events, like the Big Omaha conference. It’s an event that brings together hundreds of entrepreneurs and Grain&Mortar insists on a seat backstage and at off-site dinners and cocktail parties. Downs and his colleagues then get to pick the brains and network with people like Refinery29’s Amy Emmerich, Twitter’s Evan Williams and Google Ventures’ Kevin Rose. The networking has so far helped them land business from Google, Twitch and Hudl. 

“They’ve seen what we’ve done in Omaha and a lot of them have turned into clients themselves or became a referral source for us,” Downs says.

Salaries in these cities are lower than they would be on the coasts. But all three subjects say they ask their employees to enjoy their lives outside of the office – youth soccer games wait for no one, after all.

Downs even encourages his employees to work fewer than 40 hours a week if they have gotten their work done. “I think a lot of companies work more hours than we do,” he says, noting that employees at plenty of businesses have 50-hour work-weeks but a 40-hour salary. “We’re adamant that our teams go home at 40 hours.”

For some clients getting out of a big city bubble is an asset. Cleveland’s “middle of the market” reputation actually helps Nottingham Spirk, believes Nottingham. “They feel like we have a better feel for the customer they’re going after if they’re selling something in a Wal-Mart, Target, or Dick’s Sporting Goods,” says Nottingham. “They think we are closer to that consumer, and I think they are right.”

In the end, Spawn, Grain&Mortar, and Nottingham Spirk know that their home towns provide both advantages and disadvantages. But they’re enjoying their unique position in their market.

“If you’re marketing anything, you want to market yourself in a market that’s not crowded,” Nottingham says. “If Nottingham Spirk were located in a New York, L.A., or Chicago, I don’t think we would have been as successful as we are now.”