Who are 12 Grain and what do you do?

We are a small group who likes to draw pictures!  We’ve got design skills too that we use to interpret ideas, products, and services for clients.

Oishei from Promotional Productions on Vimeo.

Laura saysWe were asked to participate in this outcome film for the Oishei Foundation.  Matt had the harder-than-it-looks task of hand illustrating with chalk while being filmed and watched by a group of people.  Chalk is already a hard medium but having an audience is a lot of pressure. 

How did you get started?  Where does the name come from?  Any relation to Arnold Bread?

When we got tired of working for a larger website development company, we started 12 Grain as a layover between jobs.  We’re a couple of goofballs— we wanted a silly name so clients would know they were going to have a different experience working with us than working with an agency.  In the grocery store one day we had a discussion about 12 Grain bread being a good compromise between standard white and over-the-top seedy bread.  No other company in Buffalo at the time had a number in its name so it seemed like a good idea.

How did you first come to work with CCNY?

CCNY was referred to us by another long time client, Mike Cardus.  When he told us that Heidi liked unicorns and had monsters painted into thrift store art around the office, I knew we’d be a good fit for each other.

But the true test of a good fit is in the middle of a project.  For the CCNY rebrand, we showed concepts that ranged from run-of-the-mill to really wacky.  When they didn’t chose run-of-the-mill, I knew they were a good catch.

Who are your client base?  Any non-profits?

Yes, a lot of not-for-profits over the years!  That’s really the industry we’re most comfortable working in.  I know more than I should about working within grant requirements and working collaboratively with boards, which many people in our industry don’t prefer to do.  We really love the ‘give back to the community’ mindset.  We both come from families who value volunteer work and were raised to see beyond paycheck.

Laura says: The Lockport Community Market Branding & Poster was fun, simple, and stylized [digital illustration] because we wanted it to be as legible as possible and vibrant to reflect accurately the mood of the market and its offerings.

We also work with the University at Buffalo (Social Work, Education, Arts & Sciences, Engineering) and an array of small local businesses like cafés, furniture makers, breweries, salons, and other artists.

Laura saysChoose Both University at Buffalo Campaign: again, we were give creative license to explore how we wanted to relay the dual degrees program.  This is Matt’s style when he’s not illustrating under client control.  Everything in his sketchbook looks like this style.  Hand-drawn, then digitally converted to print at 6 feet tall.

How do you choose clients?

I think it’s about personality fit first and then whatever set of values you live by, or, what the mission of the work is.  That sounds almost too personal for a work environment but really, I end up spending a lot of time researching and analyzing a business up front so that Matt has a really clear view of their world when he sits down to do the creative.  If we don’t believe in or like their work, we just won’t be able to do our work well— and you can tell.  Bad design happens when there’s a lack of interest or trust.

Laura says: This issue of Buffalo Magazine is hitting Newsstands the last weekend in July.  We needed to create [a conservative digital illustration] that could span a wide audiences taste and fit the magazine’s editorials.

Why do you continue to work with CCNY?

We’ve worked together for five years now.  I think we’ve gotten to the point where I can anticipate what CCNY wants to see for aesthetics and they trust that we’re going to pitch them an idea within their brand, for the correct demographic, and that we can take a lot of data or information and consolidate it down properly.  Not to say there isn’t still back and forth, there should always be collaboration, but projects can move faster because we know each other well.  Also, I just really like the people there.  Heidi is my favorite Instagrammer and David has introduced me to workflow systems that have saved me so much time.

What advice do you have for someone who finds themselves in the wrong kind of design program or not enjoying art school but still wants to pursue a creative career?

Like the real world, sometimes you just have to pay your dues and find the value in what someone is teaching you.  It’s isn’t always going to be something you’re interested in or feel like doing but you do it anyways because that’s the lesson.

No one would tell you I excelled in college or that my designs were unmatched.  But my takeaway was learning how to critique work and how to take critique which is what makes me a good project manager.  I can be subjective without letting my emotions get in the way.  You find the lesson.

If it’s really unbearable, then I suggest doing your homework on faculty at schools you’re considering. For example, Niagara County Community College has some of the highest caliber of working artists I know teaching in their fine arts program.  At Buffalo State, quite often the professors are just out of college themselves or are not working artists.  Form relationships with the professors outside of school as well— many of them run small businesses.  Something I think is lacking in art school is a curriculum focusing on how to sell your work.  Maybe an internship is a better fit than school.  I have been thinking about approaching one of the colleges to teach this course.

Do you find that there is a sea change in the industry that allows people to focus more on portfolios in lieu of proof of education or formal credentials?

Absolutely I do.  We’ve had three interns in the past three years and I couldn’t even tell you where or if they went to school.  What matters is that they can produce a high quality concept, have a refined style, and work well with others.  Other friends in the industry say the same.  That’s what makes our industry unique.  After all, you can teach technique but you can’t teach talent.

Laura saysMatt’s most loved color palette steampunk-style, for a coffee roaster/ café in Lockport.  This mural took a long time and it’s not even done!  We’ll be completing a second half next winter.  We had fun interpreting the Erie Canal Locks in this.

What would you recommend to an organization seeking design/ re-branding guidance or services?

Don’t waste your time writing an RFP!  Once you have a project in mind, find a few designers whose style you like and meet with them in person.  Narrow it down to who you enjoy conversation with the most, get a quote, and then have another conversation with them about cost if it’s an issue.  Most designers are willing to work with you on budget and timing.  Never choose a designer on price alone because if the project doesn’t have the outcome you want, you’ve wasted time anyway.  And the way to get the outcome you want is by having a good relationship with your designer.

What does design mean to you?

Organizing information to make sense in an instant.

A precise, visual explanation.

An image that moves people to action.

An image that makes me feel something.

Being able to render an image as beautiful as something nature could have created.

I have so many, many answers for this!

What projects are you particularly proud of?

I’m always most proud when we have a numbers of projects for one brand and everything looks cohesive.  Like CCNY – the logo, the website, the animation.  There’s no doubt in their customers’ minds whose brand they’re looking at.

And anytime we get to combine traditional methods of fine art with design.  We recently completed a collectible print and event poster for the Chautauqua Institute where Matt hand-drew, collaged, and painted an image of a “flow of ideas” for the Writer’s Center.  We wanted the image to end up looking classic, busy but refined, feeling like the grounds of the Institute and accurately representing a varied demographic of attendees.  This was no easy feat but that’s where Matt and I work well together: we thought, process the heck out of a project.  It also really shows off Matt’s illustration skills.

Laura saysWe had creative license to express our vision of how the Reader’s Series could appeal to a range of ages while still capturing the history and essence of the Institute.  Traditional, simplified realistic style.  Hand-drawn then digitally converted for printing purposes.

What does 12 Grain do well or want to do more of that the business community does not necessarily know about?

Animation.  We always want to do more animation.  Locally, there really isn’t anyone who in-house can write a script, illustrate, storyboard, and animate with quick turnaround for use in a number of settings like a tradeshow, or on a website, or in an email campaign.

There are other animators but they don’t have the range of style and abilities we do.  We develop our own characters, or a style specifically tailored to the individual brand.  We can animate from photography.  We can start from scratch.  Most animators would say they want a script up front to follow.  Or they would have to budget in a copywriter.  We develop a storyline, terminology that the general public would understand, a look for the graphics, and the music accompaniment in-house, which saves the client a ton of time and money in the end.

Animation is typically done for larger clients rather than small business because it’s a very time consuming process but it’s so very effective.  The animation we created for CCNY was born from a PowerPoint, the notes from a sales rep, and three different products.  The challenge was to show what the products did, how they worked together and individually, and to do it all in a minute or less.

Now, potential customers can gain a basic understanding of the their products without having to meet with a sales rep.  We’ve almost eliminated a first step – a cost for CCNY – and customers can call CCNY knowing already that they are ready to obtain the product.

Thanks so much to 12 Grain for speaking with us and many happy returns!

Check out more of 12 Grain’s extensive portfolio here and here.