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Small Business Insights
} From the August 18, 2000 print edition

Designing man

Marc English draws career in graphics

Cindy Royal   Special To The Austin Business Journal

When you look at the Coca-Cola logo, what comes to mind? Youth? Energy? Thirst? When you see the Nike swoosh, do have a sudden urge to "Just Do It"? And does it seem like those golden arches are like a beacon beckoning you to the counter for a burger or fries?

The power of imagery is all around us. Some firms spend millions of dollars to come up with the right combination of color and style that will relay the proper message about their mission.

Marc English, owner and creative force behind Austin's Marc English: Design, says some companies are shortsighted in relying on fads and buzzwords. True corporate identity, he says, gets to the core of a company's existence.

"We give visual form to the corporate heart and soul," English says. "I think that is one of the things that differentiates us, as well as some other studios. We will talk about heart and soul as compared to strategy.

"There are a lot of firms out there using buzzwords like `e-business' and `strategy,' but I think they are missing the heart of it."

Marc English: Design opened in Austin in 1996, but that's not where the story of Marc English begins. Growing up in Boston, English had creative interests in several areas. Design wasn't his first choice.

"There was a choice several years ago for me to go into art or music. I went into music and did that for several years," English says. "I studied at the Berkeley College of Music. I played in rock bands, simultaneously keeping a hand in design."

But the life of a struggling musician eventually lost its appeal, and English went back to school to study design, earning his degree in graphic design from the Massachusetts College of Art in 1986. After graduation, he worked for a variety of design studios, doing work for Fortune 500 clients and nonprofit organizations.

English ultimately landed the position of assistant design director for WCVB-TV, the ABC affiliate in Boston. His experience at the TV studio began to shed light on the value and importance of corporate identity. Under English's guidance, the station developed a consistent look and feel for internal documents that communicated a more professional, organized attitude.

He left the TV station in 1993, but found that he was too senior to be hired by a design studio, so he opened his own shop and began doing corporate identity design work for his own clients.

A desire for change brought him to Austin in 1995.

English worked for a small now-defunct design studio for six months before moving into his own space with fellow artist David Kampa. The studio now is at 2130 Goodrich Ave. in South Austin. It's a creative space, a combination of fine art, cultural artifacts, samples of work and tools of the design trade. The environment is casual and funky, yet professional and focused.

English's work isn't easily categorized nor specifically identifiable. Some pieces have a rustic appearance, while other are more contemporary, projecting an understanding of a client's core values rather than imposing some preconceived imagery. His work is influenced by things around him, whether it be observed in nature or on one of his many trips abroad to Europe, South America or the Far East.

Anne Marie Stein, executive director of the Boston Film Video Foundation, has known English since his days in Boston.

"The thing I like about Marc's style is that I don't think it is easily typecast," Stein says.

"I think he has a very eclectic sensibility, and that's what makes his work interesting. It's not as if it is predictable or the design of the moment."

In four years, the one-man studio has grown into a thriving operation with the addition of two full-time employees and three interns. Although business was slow in the early years, English is more than pleased with recent activity.

"The first couple of years were bad. I was living hand to mouth," English says.

"But 1999 was a killer year, and we will at least double that in 2000. We did the equivalent of 1999 revenue in the first four months of 2000."

English and his team focus on only half a dozen projects at a time to be able to deliver the quality their clients have come to expect. He believes in controlled incremental growth and never has taken out a small business loan to sustain his business.

Most of his business now just "walks in the door," English says, with advertising done primarily through word of mouth by satisfied clients. English's clients include XeTel Corp. and Texas Land and Cattle Co.

He now has the luxury to pick the types of clients with which he wants to work. English is planning work for a kayak company and a drum manufacturer, just two of his passions. He has done numerous projects for the arts community, such as the Boston Film Video Foundation, Salvage Vanguard Theater and the Texas Fine Arts Association, often for free.

Stein at the Boston Film Video Foundation has been the recipient of English's generosity for many projects, including newsletters, posters, catalogs and event planning.

"He always did a great job for us and never missed deadlines," Stein says. "He is a really good designer and a really generous person. I have always enjoyed working with him."

English's business savvy is just as relevant as his creative abilities. He's as comfortable with bottom lines as he is with drawing lines.

"My business perspective comes from two things," English says. "First, I have always worked at a high level with either the president of a firm or the vice president of marketing. I learned to ask positioning questions about their firm and I found that no one was asking good questions.

"The second thing is the desire to be continually growing in every capacity. In order to have a growing business, you have to be a valuable part of business community and be able to contribute in a positive fashion to the community."

English describes his company as "lean and friendly." He's open and supportive with his employees.

"I don't believe in giving 110 percent, because that's mathematically impossible," English says. "I always give 100 percent. Now, 90 percent, that's not acceptable, but 100 percent is all you can ask."

Chris Ollier was English's first intern in Austin. He now works full time as a designer there. He enjoys the sense of openness and discovery that English has created in the working environment.

"The idea in the studio is that you shouldn't be afraid to try things," Ollier says. "You should be able to go out and develop a good, valid idea. If it is wrong, then you go back and redo it."

"I have an enormous amount of freedom," Ollier says. "I have more creative freedom and get to work on client projects more than people who have been out of school for four or five years."

English's immediate priority is in adding more employees for his growing business. He says he believes in hiring people who can think rather than those with specific experience.

"I had a friend in Boston, and I asked him, like I ask everyone, `What is the worst thing you've done in business?'" English says.

"He said it was hiring the wrong people. Hiring is time-consuming and expensive. And then you have to hope they can get the job done."

English's work has brought national attention to the firm. He often lectures throughout the country on his design philosophy.

"He is a phenomenal speaker," says Alexis Adauto, account director at Marc English: Design.

"He really engages the audience and gets their attention. He is so accepting of so many different cultures and things going on around him and it comes across in his work."

She describes his lectures as "an experience." For example, he often accompanies his talks by playing the throbbing drumbeat of Marilyn Manson's "Beautiful People" -- definitely not your standard corporate pitch.

CINDY ROYAL is an Austin-based freelance writer.

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