Matt Pfahlert spent his early years engrossed by the inner workings of his dad’s ad agency, and being the envy of his classmates. In 2003, with more than twenty years of experience in the business, Pfahlert unveiled his very own, independent Get a Clue Design Studio.
Offering design and illustration, the Get a Clue Design Studio often finds itself working on projects for the music industry and its artists. Over the years, clients have included Live Nation, Wilco, Band of Horses, The Black Keys, Against Me!, Gogol Bordello, and many others. Pfahlert recently took some time to talk about the good ol’ x-acto knife days in his dad’s agency, maintaining a business in today’s economy, dream clients (as well as overly demanding ones), and to put the word out to The Tragically Hip to please collect their posters.
Q: You were introduced to the design world by working with your dad from a young age – how would you say those years shaped the way you work/design today?
A: I think that coming from a time when graphic design was still being done, essentially, by hand – wow, do I sound old – that hands-on process affects how I approach design projects today. Even though there’s no kerning type by hand with an x-acto knife, there’s no applying just the right amount of rubber cement on a mechanical you just hand inked with a rapidiograph pen, there’s no shooting the perfect photostat – all those little things that added to the “craft” of design – all those techniques I remember and, at least in some way, I think all that translates today into how I try to take a bit more time to develop a design. Which is tough because we’re in the quick-natured computer age of design. There’s that perception that all you do for a living is draw all day and hit a few buttons and viola;“Design happens!”
Q: What is the greatest, most valuable lesson you learnt from the time spent working with your dad?
A: That success in business is ultimately less important than success in life with your family. Also, taking pride in the craft that you practice and trying to treat others as you’d like to be treated yourself.
Q: Can you recall a definitive moment when you decided that you were going to pursue design as a full- time career?
A: Not really. Since I grew up around it so much, you could almost say it was somewhat inevitable. The visits to my dad’s ad agency at an early age were definitely impressionable; it always seemed like the coolest place anywhere. I remember once my school did a field trip to several students’ parents’ workplaces, my dad’s agency being one of them. At that time, circa 1984, they were a very successful agency doing work for accounts like Champion spark plug, Owens-Illinois, Sauder Woodworking, and a host of others. The space was, like many ad agencies were, designed to impress and to be a creative environment. Painted exposed duct work, big bold color banners hanging from the tall ceilings, toys around, all that stuff that makes for a great creative work atmosphere. There were drawing tables everywhere, and with the AV dept. having all the huge cameras, etc., the place looked like a mini movie studio. When the tour was over, every kid said, “Your dad has the coolest job!” I couldn’t have agreed more. My art teacher at the time even dropped some hints about seeing if the agency needed any illustrations done from time to time.
A: “Taking the plunge” is a great description. Ironic too, since I have a huge framed print at the studio that a photographer friend took in Hawaii of his daughter jumping into the blue ocean. To me that image represented starting my own company; taking that plunge, jumping in, eyes forward and not looking back. I had worked for a couple of smaller ad agencies in the area and had gotten to that point in my personal and professional life where the thought of doing my own thing just had too much pull. I knew I could be happier doing it myself – more stress, but happier – picking only the clients I wanted to work with and being more of a design studio, rather than selling myself as yet another small ad agency. It’s nice to be indie. I think people appreciate the can-do attitude it takes to make this crazy thing work.
Q: Can you tell us the services that you offer, and if you personally prefer one over another?
A: In a nutshell, design and illustration are the two main areas. Because of the ad agency background though, we handle pretty much whatever clients need. I love drawing, so illustration is always enjoyable for me, but it seems that it’s harder to find projects that require it, which is what’s great about the music industry-related work. Just the creative nature of it opens up many more opportunities to illustrate, or work an illustrative element into the design.
Q: When approaching a new project, what is your process?
A: Typically, I have a cup of coffee, think about the project, realize my coffee cup is nearing empty, then think some more. We’ll meet with the client – whether that’s in person, over the phone, Skype, or just email – and discuss the main goals of the particular project, the scope of it, get some coffee, etc. Then, we bill one third to start the job if we don’t have a history with you.
Q: How involved are clients in the design process? Are they ever too involved?
A: Depends on the client. Since musicians are creative by nature, we’ve worked together in tandem with some bands and artists that might have a vision for a particular project. Collaborating with bands we like is always great. An example would be the work we did for the Honeydogs’ EP, “Sunshine Committee.” Adam Levy (singer/songwriter) had a vision for what he wanted, so we worked through several design styles to get to where it ended up. Other positive collaborations have been with Dave Douglas and the band Stand.
So most of the time it works well, but yeah, of course there are the nightmare ones too, but we have been fortunate that those have been few and far between. One of my favorite quotes regarding graphic design and client relationships: “I don’t mind the headaches, as long as you’re paying for the aspirin.”
Q: Have you ever come across a job that, for whatever reason, was hard to complete?
A: Yeah, sooner or later ya get your stripes, but, like I said, those types have fortunately been seldom seen. We’re super fortunate to work with a client roster that, overall, really sees things how we do andapproaches projects reasonably. Life’s too short to work with the overly demanding, unrealistic, and ignorant folks that are out there.
Q: You’ve designed quite a bit of music posters – if you had to choose a favorite to date, which one would it be?
A: Mainly for sentimental reasons, the Ovens and Tin Hat Man we did for Wilco’s Sky Blue Sky tour in 2007. Before my dad got sick, I was able to show him these posters, which made his day [because] I was now working for the band he had heard me talk about so much. He appreciated what it meant to get that phone call or email where the potential client says, “Yes!”
You’ve actually done a lot of Wilco posters, so how did that collaboration come about? And what do you think of their music?
I’m a huge fan of those guys; They create some great songs and classic sounding albums. Their management basically invited us to submit some work and liked what they saw, and we’ve been working with them for over three years now. You can tell those guys just get it. The whole Solid Sound Festival they just hosted, for example, had live music from a really varied group of bands, comedy, contemporary art – just a super smart approach. We just seemed to approach design in a way they liked – the aesthetic, the themes, the concepts – not that we hit a home run every time, but at this stage we generally know what the guys dig and enjoy.
Q: Who’s a musician/band you would love to design for, and describe the design you envision…
A: Love me some David Byrne. Big fan of The Tragically Hip. We actually were asked through Live Nation to design a Hip series a year ago, but personnel changes on the client’s end killed the project halfway through. That was really disappointing. You guys are based in Canada, right? Help me out! Tell Gord and the guys we have like, four unused Tragically Hip posters!
As far as what design I’d envision for Mr. Byrne; something including a bicycle. He’s a huge cyclist in and around NYC.
Q: How would you define “success” for the Get a Clue Design Studio?
A: At this point, making it through an economy that doesn’t exactly favor creative professionals and artists would feel pretty dang great. Since opening the doors seven years ago we’re still here, so I guess that’s something!
For more info on Get a Clue Design Studio: http://www.getacluedesign.com/